Thursday, February 23, 2017

Farewell to a friend

(This is a longer version of a column published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 22.)

My friend John Schnellenberg died last week. For more than 13 years, we’d met almost every Friday for lunch.

We were both refugees from Wellington. John and his wife Sonia had moved to Masterton after retiring. My wife and I made the same move several months later.

We hadn’t known the Schnellenbergs in Wellington, although I had worked for the same newspaper company as Sonia, but we connected in Masterton because of a long-standing friendship between John and my sister and brother-in-law.

They had got to know each other through politics. John was by instinct a conservative, which drew him to the National Party. But he was a liberal conservative, as is my brother-in-law, and together they were active in a 1970s National Party faction – co-founded by John – that  did its best to resist the illiberal impulses of the party’s then leader, Robert Muldoon.

I say John had retired by the time we met, but that’s not entirely true. For much of his life he had worked for Shell Oil, but he had also owned a bookshop and an early Apple computer dealership. In retirement, he set up a one-man business consultancy. “I’m in commerce,” he would say when people asked him what he did. It always struck me as a very John thing to say.

I can’t recall how our Friday lunch habit came about. It just sort of happened.

At first we spread our patronage around. The True Blue Café, Food For Thought, Dish, The 10 O’Clock Cookie Company, Taste and The Village Grinder all enjoyed our custom. Each café catered to a subtly different demographic group, so we were exposed to a cross-section of Masterton society.

As a former business owner, I think John felt we owed it to the town to support as many places as possible. But as time went by, we ended up alternating between Café Entice (prosperous farmers, real estate agents, professional types) and Café Strada (a mixed clientele, but with a few tattoos and the occasional workman’s high-vis vest).

In recent years we were joined by another Wellington refugee, the playwright Joe Musaphia. Two Jews and a Gentile.

I was very much the baby in this trio, John and Joe both being in their early 80s. They had known each other in Wellington through the Jewish community. John was descended from the Ashkenazi Jews who settled in Eastern and Central Europe as part of the Jewish diaspora, while Joe was from the Sephardic Jewish line that ended up in Spain and Portugal. Different backgrounds, but united by a rich and proud culture stretching back several millennia.

John was the more religiously observant of the two and would always tut-tut disapprovingly when I sat down with a slice of Cafe Strada’s excellent bacon and egg pie. Lightning would strike me, he would warn. He never tired of his little joke, and I always laughed. It was one of those lines that somehow got funnier the more predictable it became.

John was a gentleman and a charmer. He was a small man whose eyes twinkled behind his glasses – one of the very few people I know of whom that could be truthfully be said – and whose face almost permanently wore a genial, knowing smile. I learned at his funeral that Jews are enjoined to greet others with a pleasant countenance. John obviously took that to heart.

He loved to laugh – his whole body would convulse when I said something he found funny – and he loved to talk. He enjoyed engaging with people to the extent that it could become slightly exasperating.

He couldn’t place his lunch order (invariably something sweet and not terribly nutritious) without making small talk with the woman behind the counter, regardless of how many people were waiting behind him, and our lunches were frequently interrupted by John’s need to converse with whoever happened to be passing our table. Although a relatively recent arrival in town (by Masterton standards, at least), he seemed to know everyone.

He had a Jew’s interest in business and closely monitored the town’s economic prosperity, alternating between despondency and optimism depending on how many businesses were opening or closing down. The amount of traffic on the main street was a recurring issue of vital interest. Behind this, I suspect John was always thinking about what was happening to Masterton property values.

He was never entirely convinced he had made the right move by shifting to a country town, and not just because he was missing out on the boom in Wellington house prices. There was a part of John that remained firmly rooted in European urban culture, even though he had known it only briefly in childhood. He could at times be disdainful of what he perceived as provincial values and attitudes.

He also remained unmistakeably Jewish. His oldest and closest friends were Jewish and he was deeply engaged with the Jewish community. But while his Jewishness was central to his sense of identity, he considered himself first and foremost a New Zealander. 

Nonetheless, he sometimes gave the impression of remaining slightly mystified by New Zealand ways. In this respect he was notably different from our lunch partner Joe, who still spoke with a faint trace of an East London accent but had effortlessly absorbed the New Zealand way of doing things – indeed, made his living writing plays about it.

Having once owned the Mister Pickwick bookshop in Lower Hutt, John made a point of getting to know the proprietors of the Masterton book outlets and would regularly report on how they were doing. He was an avid reader himself, with a vast collection of books, mostly non-fiction.

History and politics fascinated him. He was a great admirer of Winston Churchill and must have read – often several times – everything ever written by or about the British wartime leader.

He acknowledged Churchill’s flaws, but I think what ultimately counted to John was that Churchill, almost alone at first, had stood up to Hitler. John had spent his early years in Germany but escaped to New Zealand with his parents before the Holocaust with the assistance of a British diplomat who knew his father. John’s grandparents were not so fortunate, dying in a concentration camp.

Living as part of a tiny Jewish community in overwhelmingly Anglo-Saxon Wellington can’t have been easy. New Zealand in those days was suspicious of outsiders – more so than ever during the war years, when someone with the name Schnellenberg was likely to be viewed as an enemy alien. The irony that he was Jewish, and therefore had far more to fear from the Nazis than anyone, would have been largely lost on insular New Zealanders.

That was the reason Hans Wolf Schnellenberg – his given name – became simply John, at the suggestion of a sympathetic schoolteacher. Even his death notice referred to him as John W Schnellenberg.

Paradoxically, John was an admirer of German efficiency and technological excellence. For a long time he drove an ageing Mercedes-Benz – replaced not long ago by a newer, sportier model – and would regale me every Friday with accounts of how it was performing. (Or not. It was what you might call a love-hate relationship.)

I’ve been trying to recall what else we talked about. Politics, certainly. Books, films, television and the media too. What I do know is that our conversation rarely flagged.

We didn’t always agree, and sometimes there was a degree of heat in the conversation. For all his geniality, John had firm views that didn’t always coincide with mine. He used to needle me about the failings of the news media, but gave up a few years ago when he realised I’d decided the news media were no longer worth defending. It was no fun for him anymore.

He was an admirer of George W Bush, and I wasn’t (neither was Joe). He predicted that Donald Trump would become president, and irritated Joe and me by reminding us of it.

I think his political views were shaped, at least to some extent, by his perception of where politicians were likely to stand on the issue of Israel and the Middle East, which is hardly surprising.

And now John’s gone. What am I going to do on Fridays? I dunno. Perhaps Joe and I will go on meeting. He’s an entertaining raconteur who has led a full and very interesting life. But our lunches won’t be the same.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

A compressed introduction to New Zealand

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 17.)

We played host to our son’s Californian in-laws for a few days last week. They’re well-travelled, but it was their first time in New Zealand.

We did the predictable things. We took them to the top of Mt Victoria and drove them around the Miramar Peninsula. Oriental Bay reminded them of fashionable Sausalito, on the northern side of San Francisco Bay.

We rode on the cable car and meandered down through the Botanic Gardens before catching a bus back to Lambton Quay.

We had dinner at the Backbencher Pub and explained what the politicians’ effigies on the walls were all about. The next night we enjoyed a drink in the evening sun on Queens Wharf before eating at a restaurant called Apache, which describes itself as a combination of Vietnamese and French but seemed more Pho Bo than boeuf bourguignon.

Our guests saw Wellington at its best. The sun was out – most of the time, anyway – and the city was buzzing.

Everywhere we went, cafes and bars were bulging. The Americans must have wondered when Wellingtonians get any work done.

Once we’d done Wellington, we headed across the Remutaka Pass to the Wairarapa. We drove past Wharekauhau Country Estate, incongruous in its wild, remote location overlooking Cook Strait, and wondered what its wealthy guests actually do when they get there.

We took them to the Lake Ferry pub for lunch and had fish and chips outside in the sunshine. Normally we would have carried on to the rugged little fishing settlement of Ngawi, where bulldozers haul trawlers up on to the steep, stony beach, and on to the lonely Cape Palliser lighthouse, but we sensed our visitors were at risk of scenery fatigue.

They marvelled at the number of sheep in the Wairarapa countryside. I had to tell them there were far fewer now than in the days of incentivised sheep breeding when the Muldoon government paid farmers a subsidy for every woolly head.

Up to this point, New Zealand had been on its best behaviour. I’d warned our guests about the unpredictability of our climate – something Californians have difficulty getting their heads around – but the mild weather seemed determined to make a liar of me.

That all changed on Sunday, when Wellington unleashed a ferocious northwesterly gale. We took our visitors to the Island Bay Festival, where they seemed totally unfazed as hats blew off and unsecured outdoor furniture skidded along the street.

Needless to say, the hardy Island Bay locals took it in their stride. Many were dressed as if for high summer.

Here our guests were introduced to another facet of New Zealand culture – the Two Degrees of Separation thing.

Unbeknown to us, the festival coincided with the official opening of the new Island Bay seawall – the last one having been destroyed by a storm – and the annual blessing of the local fishing fleet.

The master of ceremonies was Paul Elenio, a stalwart of Island Bay’s Italian community, and the blessing of both the wall and the fishing boats was conducted by Cardinal John Dew.

I had long-standing links with them both: Elenio from our years working together at the old Evening Post and Dew from convent school days in Waipukurau.

I explained to the Americans that ours is an intimate society. Anywhere you go in New Zealand, you’re likely to bump into someone you know. It must be the world’s most hazardous country in which to conduct an illicit affair.

We saw the Americans off on Monday morning. They seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed themselves, as well as learning a few things about the country that gave them a son-in-law.

They asked lots of questions: about what brought Europeans to New Zealand, about Maori and their relationship with Pakeha (no simple answers there), about the things we have in common with Australia (not as many as they might think, I said).   

I felt satisfied that we had given them a compressed introduction to our country. They saw its sophisticated, cosmopolitan side but also got a glimpse of an older, rural New Zealand.

We have evolved into a society that feels comfortable and familiar to a visitor from a place like California. But vitally, we’ve also retained some distinctive qualities that mark us as different.  

Yes, we have our problems. But as our American friends head back to a troubled and divided country led by an incoherent egomaniac, I know where I’d rather be. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

A puzzling departure from normal practice

(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, February 8.)

Is there any more intractable issue in international affairs than that of Israel and Palestine? Offhand, I can’t think of any.

It’s tricky for a whole lot of reasons. One is that the competing claims of the two sides, Israel and the Palestinians, both have weight.

The Jews, having suffered centuries in exile, mostly in countries where they experienced relentless discrimination and persecution, have a right to a homeland where they can feel safe and secure. But the Palestinians feel aggrieved because to provide that Jewish homeland, they were displaced from land that they regarded as theirs.

Another complicating factor is that both sides are capable of behaving badly – sometimes very badly.

Palestine shelters terrorist groups that are dedicated to the destruction of Israel (the Middle East’s only democracy, and one where Arabs enjoy rights of citizenship that would never be granted to Jews in Arab states, even assuming any Jew would be crazy enough to want to live in one).

These fanatics think nothing of killing innocent civilians. In their eyes no Jew can be innocent. The very fact of being Jewish is a crime that warrants their extermination.

Groups such as Hamas are indifferent even to the suffering of their own people, cynically exploiting children and other civilians as human shields.

Using schools, hospitals and even mosques as sites from which to launch rockets at Israeli territory is a grotesque win-win strategy from their point of view. They know the Israelis will hesitate to strike back for fear of killing civilians – and if they do retaliate, that’s fine with the terrorists too, since the resulting damage will be televised by gullible Western media as evidence of Israeli savagery. 

When it suits them, the Palestinians make noises about negotiating a settlement. But whenever a deal looks within reach, they pull back or impose new conditions that they know will be intolerable to the Jews. It was said of the late Yasser Arafat, head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

For their part, the Israelis don’t always make it easy to support the Jewish cause.

They have occasionally been guilty of gratuitously brutal reprisals. The 1982 Shatila and Sabra massacres, when Israeli forces turned a blind eye to the slaughter of civilians in Lebanese refugee camps thought to harbour terrorists, remains a terrible stain on the country’s reputation. The man held responsible for the killings, Ariel Sharon, later became Israeli prime minister.

Aggressive territorial expansion by Jewish hardliners is another factor that troubles people who might otherwise support the Israeli cause. The widely held religious conviction that the Jews are God’s Chosen People is no help either. It encourages Jewish zealots to believe they have divine endorsement in whatever they do.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not a likeable man. He gives the impression of being arrogant and belligerent.

But Netanyahu is strong, like Sharon, and the Israelis have a history of supporting leaders who uncompromisingly defend their country’s right to exist. You can hardly blame them, when their tiny country – less than half the size of Canterbury – is surrounded by 22 hostile Arab states, many of which would cheerfully see Israel obliterated.

This is the backdrop against which New Zealand strangely co-sponsored a recent United Nations resolution condemning as illegal Israeli settlements in territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 Six-Day War (a war started, and quickly lost, by the Arabs).

I say “strangely” because the Israel-Palestine question is one on which New Zealand has previously taken a prudently cautious approach.  This is in line with our international reputation as an honest broker that seeks honourable and sustainable solutions to problems rather than taking sides or adopting provocative stances.

Our support for the UN resolution was a dramatic departure from this practice. It came as a bombshell just two days before Christmas. You have to wonder: what’s changed?

The picture is made more opaque by the involvement of our slippery Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully, a man who could make a stroll to the corner dairy for a bottle of milk look suspicious.

McCully claimed New Zealand’s support for the resolution was all about promoting the so-called two-state solution, under which Israel and Palestine would peacefully co-exist. But the unavoidable suspicion is that we were doing a favour for the White House.

Barack Obama had a notoriously testy relationship with Netanyahu and may have wanted to score a last diplomatic blow against him before his term expired. To have moved directly against Israel, however, would have risked a damaging domestic political backlash within the US.

Was New Zealand, then, leaned on to do Obama’s dirty work, with the US playing its part by refusing to exercise its usual veto against the resolution? In the absence of any convincing alternative explanation, it seems plausible.

Even if we accept McCully’s assurance that our intentions were honourable, why should New Zealand so suddenly take an active and provocative stance on such a volatile issue? After all, it’s not as if there’s any shortage of countries willing to pillory and marginalise Israel.

The backing of a respected, neutral democracy like New Zealand gave the resolution a force that it would not otherwise have had. The Jew-haters will have taken great heart from our support and could well use it to justify further acts of terrorism.

Is this what New Zealanders want? I doubt it. It’s a nightmarishly complicated issue and we’re probably better off trying to work constructively from the sidelines. But if we’re forced to take sides, I know which one I’d opt for.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Donald Trump and the decline of objective journalism

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 3.)

One consequence of the Trump presidency is that it has accelerated the decline of detached, objective journalism.

Most people outside America, me included, despise Donald Trump. This has apparently made it permissible for the media to abandon all pretence of neutrality and to treat him as fair game for contempt, disgust and ridicule.

An example was an article on Monday by Paul McGeough, the chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. The SMH is a paper that could once be relied on for balanced reportage, but McGeough’s report on Trump’s decree banning immigration from seven Muslim countries was drenched with emotive rhetoric and hyperbole.

It began with the words: “This is the face of selective, lily-livered hate.” It went on: “Donald Trump holds it in his heart, but he manufactures it too, masking state-sanctioned religious persecution as a national security endeavour – all to stoke the ‘us and them’ hysteria that drove his election campaign”.

McGeough’s article continued in similar vein, telling us that Trump had severed the torch-bearing arm from the Statue of Liberty and plunged America into darkness. (I presume he meant in a metaphorical sense.)

You didn’t need to read far to realise that this wasn’t a classically restrained piece of reportage. But mixing comment with fact, to the point where the two become almost indistinguishable, is already routine in media coverage of the Trump presidency.

When a man is as widely loathed as Trump, journalists feel safe putting the boot in. But these may be the very times when we most need sober, cool-headed journalism that reports the facts without further inflaming already overheated passions. There’s enough hysteria around already without over-excited journalists heaping petrol on the fire.

In any case, much of the rage about Trump overlooks a couple of important points.

The first is that he was fairly elected according to the rules of the US Constitution. We might view those rules as flawed, since Electoral College votes can outweigh the result of the popular ballot, but they were deliberately designed that way to protect smaller states from being disempowered by more populous ones.

Protest banners shrieking "Dump Trump", just because the presidential election delivered a result some people didn't like, are not only spectacularly pointless after the event, but indicate contempt for democracy.

The other point is that nations are entitled to protect their borders against possible external threats – in this case, a very real one. People might dislike the brutal, pig-headed manner in which Trump has gone about this, but the principle is unarguable.

Now, back to that McGeough piece. There has always been a place in good newspapers for robust, provocative editorials and opinion columns, but traditionally they were kept separate from news. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

Editorial bias has so pervasively invaded the news columns of once-esteemed papers like the SMH, its sister paper the Melbourne Age, Britain’s Guardian and even the redoubtable Washington Post, that they can no longer be regarded as reliable papers of record. Much of their reportage is coloured by the journalist’s personal perception of events or by the paper’s editorial stance. 

But the mixing of news and comment isn’t a phenomenon that suddenly materialised with Trump’s emergence. It’s a trend that has been gathering momentum for years.

Its origins lie in journalism schools, where ideologically motivated tutors tell students that objectivity – the professional obligation to remain impartial and tell both sides of the story – is a myth promulgated to protect the wealthy and powerful.

Many of the journalists now working in newsrooms here and overseas have been taught that their mission is not so much to report events as to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – often using exactly those words.

This is activism, not journalism. Journalism can and often does produce outcomes that afflict the comfortable, but that is not its primary purpose, which is to inform people on matters that may be of interest to them.

But there’s another factor, besides the politicisation of journalism training, that has led to the increasingly opinionated tone of news coverage. The internet, by giving people instant access to an almost infinite range of news and opinion outlets worldwide, has imperilled the traditional “broad church” newspaper – the one where you could expect to see a wide range of views expressed.

News and information junkies now gravitate to the websites that most closely reflect their own world view. News outlets on both the Right and the Left have responded by taking on a tribal character, promoting opinions that parallel the views of their followers.

After all, it’s easier to have your prejudices confirmed than to be challenged by unpalatable new ideas. Not so good for democracy, though.