Israel's real friends must criticise it

To defend the new settlement plans along partisan lines is an affront to international justice.

Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was recently quoted in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper as saying that the two countries' bilateral relationship is suffering its "worst crisis since 1975. Thirty-five years ago, Israel deployed troops in the Egyptian Sinai. The move -- of dubious legality -- quite rightly drew pressure from the US.

The recent furore, which Oren hyperbolically described as one "of historic proportions", was triggered by the ill-timed announcement that Israel plans to build 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo district of East Jerusalem. The EU foreign policy chief, Lady Ashton, has condemned the plans in no uncertain terms: "The EU position on settlements is clear. Settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two state-solution impossible."

The start of 2010 has brought a marked escalation of tensions in the region. It was in this heated context that the US vice-president, Joe Biden, announced the welcome resumption of indirect peace talks, to be brokered by the US. But the announcement about settlements (which triggered Palestine's withdrawal from negotiations), coming as it did during Biden's visit, had the character of a direct affront to the Obama administration -- not to mention the long-suffering Palestinians.

According to the Guardian, President Obama has "let it be known that he now demands [that the Israelis] reverse the approval for the construction of Ramat Shlomo, make 'a substantial gesture' towards the Palestinians and declare that the status of Jerusalem is itself up for negotiation".

East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel during the 1967 war. To this day, the international community has refused to recognise the appropriation of the region from Jordan. The Israeli neighbourhoods there (housing almost 200,000 settlers) are in breach of international law, despite the misleading and divisive arguments of commentators such as the Wall Street Journal's Ruth R Wisse.

In a comment piece published today, she wonders: "Why does the White House take issue with the construction of housing for Jewish citizens within the boundaries of their own country?" The answer, Ms Wisse, is that the land in question isn't theirs to build on.

Who's "anti-Semitic"?

Netanyahu's conduct is hard to justify, but his brother-in-law Hagai Ben-Artzi's inflammatory attack against Obama -- launched in an interview with Israel Army Radio -- was beyond belief.

"For 20 years, Obama sat with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who is anti-Semitic, anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish," he said, inferring from this circumstantial detail that the president "dislikes the people of Israel". On Fox News yesterday, Obama responded by reaffirming the "special bond" between Israel and the US: "Friends are going to disagree sometimes."

Obama is unlikely to act decisively against Israel, which remains a vital ally in the Middle East. But true friends of Israel must criticise it when it's wrong.

A few years ago, a study by Steven Zunes of San Francisco University found that the country held the record for ignoring the most UN Security Council resolutions. The creditable UN Watch website complains of "a campaign to demonise and delegitimise Israel in every UN and international forum". But its reasoning is untenable and paranoid: it brands the organisation as the "Ground Zero for today's new anti-Semitism, which is the irrational scapegoating of Israel with the true intended target being Jews".

Judith Butler's 2003 essay "No, It's not anti-Semitic", published in the London Review of Books in response to the former Harvard president Lawrence Summers's alleged conflation of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic arguments, best sums up the case for "a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate".

"If we think that to criticise Israeli violence, or to call for economic pressure to be put on the Israeli state to change its policies, is to be 'effectively anti-Semitic'," she wrote, "we will fail to voice our opposition for fear of being named as part of an anti-Semitic enterprise."

International law remains the best set of rules to judge the moral conduct of nations, as Richard Falk and Howard Friel assert in Israel-Palestine on Record. Its selective use defeats its purpose, and opens doors for abuse.

When any country errs, it should be held to account. This is not a religious or racial issue; it's a legal one.

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Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear