May 032017

Welcome to Kings Cross! This district is in the heart of London and has links to some very famous historical characters. They include Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) who fought her last battle here against the Romans and is rumoured to be buried under Kings Cross Station! She is semi-mythical but two literary characters who are far from mythical are Shakespeare and Dickens.

Charles Dickens lived in a house just down the road in Doughty Street. The house now houses the Dickens Museum that is one of the few attractions in London open on Christmas Day, when it puts on the play of “A Christmas Carol”. Shakespeare put on plays at the Blackfriars Theatre (now destroyed) and “Measure for Measure” was staged for the first time more than 800 years ago at Gray’s Inn just down the road. If you take the 17,45, or 46 bus from opposite our house and alight at the bottom of Gray’s Inn Road, you will see facing you the only row of Elizabethan houses that were spared from the Great Fire of London in 1666. They are part of Staples Inn which can be visited on weekdays and was also frequented by Shakespeare. High Holborn and Gray’s Inn Road were part of the coaching roads to York, and the pub called The Cittie of York, on High Holborn still has a quaint 18th century interior, well worth visiting.

We are also on the edge of Bloomsbury, where the Bloomsbury Set hung out (Virginia Woolf and Lady Ottiline Morrel, the latter having a plaque dedicated to her name in nearby Gower Street).

Another famous local was Benjamin Disraeli, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister. He was born in Theobald’s Road and later lived in a house in Russell Square, both within walking distance.

King’s Cross is served not only by one of the most important underground stations in the capital but also by Eurostar in St. Pancras and no fewer than 13 bus routes. The bus stop opposite our house is served by four bus routes – 17, 45, 46 and 63. Take the 17 bus to the city of London, past St. Paul’s church, ending up at London Bridge, the newest of the rebuilt railway terminals. The 46 bus terminal is at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, the oldest hospital in London, founded by Rahere, jester to King Henry I, in 1123. Another benefactor to the hospital was Dick Whittington, or rather Sir Richard Whittington, he of the cat, who was three times Lord Mayor of London, as the bells he heard from Parliament Fields had predicted. The 214 bus will take you to Parliament Fields, which is part of Hampstead Heath. For more formalised greenery, the bus stop on the opposite side of the road (the same side as the house) has two buses, 30 and 205, that will take you to Regents Park with its wonderful display of flowers, especially in Queen Mary’s Gardens (the tube station is Baker Street).

Jul 252014

Who are Israel’s ethnic minorities? If you stopped ten British people in the street and asked them questions about Israel, they would probably not even be aware that Israel had any ethnic minorities. Most of the British media that is hostile to Israel (the BBC, the Guardian, the Independent, etc.) are so ignorant and prejudiced where Israel is concerned that their journalists are almost certainly unaware that at least every fifth Israeli citizen is not Jewish.

The term ‘ethnic minority’ has been used in Israel to refer to the resident, population of non-Jews living in Israel whose forebears or who themselves were living in the Jewish State when it was founded in 1948. There is also a tiny minority of Arabs who settled in neighbouring countries and who have since been allowed to return to join their families or local male Moslems and Druze who have married women from outside Israel (usually Jordan or Syria) and whose spouses have been allowed to join them.

This definition of ethnic minorities excludes the communities of immigrant non-Jews living in Israel and who are unlikely to return to their countries of origin. These include the African refugees foreign workers both legal and illegal (such as the Filipinos (Roman Catholics) who mainly care for the elderly and infirm) and those immigrants from the former USSR who are not Jewish according to the halakhah but who were eligible to emigrate to Israel under the Law of Return though they do not consider themselves to be Jewish by religion. These Christians, most of them Russian Orthodox, have just as much right to be classed as ‘ethnic minorities’ in Israel, however uncomfortable this may be for certain sections of Israel’s population. They are one of the reasons for the recent increase in Christian worship in Israel. The other reason is the prosperous situation of the Christian Arabs.

Foreign workers

For obvious reasons, no one knows exactly how many foreign workers there are in Israel, but the estimate is as many as 250,000 out of a total Israeli population of 7,308,800. They come from virtually every part of the third world, but mainly from Latin America, Africa and China. They include Vietnamese boat people who were allowed to immigrate from other countries after the Vietnam war and escapees from Darfur and South Sudan, who managed to reach Israel mostly on foot, crossing the Sinai Desert at huge risk to their lives.

As in the West, Israel’s foreign workers perform all of the menial tasks that Israelis shun. Despite their precarious legal status – under the constant threat of deportation from the right-wing and religious political factions – they show surprising loyalty to Israel, mainly due to the fact that they are all too aware of what it means to live under the sort of government they experienced at home. As one Chilean expatriate put it, ‘If Pinochet were in charge here, after a year there would be no ethnic minorities at all left in the country’.


Due to Israel’s antiquated laws of personal status, inherited from the British Mandate which in turn inherited them from the Ottoman Empire, only the religious authorities – Jewish, Muslim or Christian – are allowed to perform marriages and divorces. This means that there is no civil marriage or divorce. Israel has been forced to recognise civil marriage and even, to some extent, civil divorce, contracted in foreign countries, since it is one of the tenets of private international law (though these laws are flouted by the Muslim countries). Currently non-Jews who wish to marry or divorce Jews are still forced to travel abroad despite valiant attempts by the late Shulamit Aloni to perform civil marraiges. Yet they are bound by all of the requirements of the Jewish State, such as serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Since the Jewish religious authorities do not recognise them as Jews, if they die in battle – as several have – they are buried ‘outside the fence’ of Jewish cemeteries or even in Christian cemeteries.


Of the ‘veteran’ non-Jewish population, the Muslims are by far the largest religious minority, numbering some 780,000, 76 per cent of the indigenous minority population. Almost all are Sunni Muslims; there are a few Shi’ite Muslims who worship in the same mosques as the Sunnis. They call themselves Sarahni (from the surname “Sirhan”) and only number in the hundreds. They are too few to have their own mosques and usually pray with the Sunni majority.


The Israeli Muslims consist of the baladi (town Arabs), living in villages or in the mixed (Arab-Jewish) towns in the Galilee and the cities of Haifa and Nazareth. The other group is the Bedouin who constitute 10% of the Muslim Arab population. Most of the Bedouin live in the Negev but a small percentage live in Galilee as do the majority of Muslims. Although the black goat-hair tents of the Bedouin can still be seen all over Galilee, the northern Negev and the West Bank, these nomads are being encouraged to move into houses and live a settled way of life. Many have already done so, especially in Galilee. Arab Muslims are not required to serve in the Israeli army but many, especially the Bedouin, do so as volunteers.


The Circassians are Sunni Muslims who were brought to the Ottoman province of Syria-Palestine by the Turks in the 1870s. They were originally Christian converts to Islam. Most originate from the Caucasus, as their name implies, some are from the former Yugoslavia. They maintain a separate identity from the Israeli Arabs, living in their own villages, though some have moved to the towns. They speak Arabic and Hebrew as well as their own Circassian language and are fiercely loyal to Israel. Like the Jewish population, they perform compulsory military service.


A small population of gypsies lives in Israel, mainly in Jerusalem, who are believed to have arrived during the eighteenth century. They converted to Islam centuries ago and have adopted Muslim names. The Muslim Arabs do not consider them part of the Muslim community, however, so they are a separate group, only marrying among their own people. Amon Saleem, is the founder of the Domari Society of Gypsies in Jerusalem; there are three large families of gypsies and they are another ethnic minority that is doing well, having become wealthy and prosperous in recent years from a starting of abject poverty.


The Druze, a separate community of some 80,000 Arabic-speakers, live in their own villages in northern Israel, close to the Syrian border. They serve in the Israeli army as their secret religion requires them to be loyal to the country in which they live. While many assume them to be Muslims, they are, in fact, a breakaway religion from Islam. They are divided into two groups, devout and non-devout. The devout uphold the religion and ensure that it continues, worshipping in their secret places of worship that have no minarets or distinguishing external features due to persecution of the Druze in Islamic countries in previous centuries. The non-devout dress in western clothes and live to all intents and purposes like their secular Jewish neighbours. Druze villages are open to members of other faiths and have a few Jewish and Muslim inhabitants.


Christian Arabs constitute the second-largest group of Arabs. Forty-two per cent are Melkite Greek Catholic (a branch of the Catholic church that separated from Greek Orthodoxy in 1729), almost all the rest are Greek Orthodox (32 per cent), Roman Catholic (16 per cent) and Maronite. The Greek Orthodox church is headed by the Greek-born Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem.


The Maronites, of whom 8,000 live in Israel, are another Eastern Christian sect of the Catholic Church, centred in the Lebanon. They live mainly in Haifa, Nazareth and in the large mixed Christian-and-Muslim villages of Shefar’am and Jish (Gush Halav). The largest Maronite communities outside Israel are in Lebanon and Syria; the Maronites still speak Aramaic (the Semitic language related to Hebrew, in which the later books of the Bible are written; it is said to have been the spoken language in the time of Jesus) in their church services. Christian Arabs in Israel have suffered from Muslim persecution in recent years; Bethlehem and Beit Jala on the West Bank and Nazareth in Lower Galilee are mixed Christian-Muslim cities. Here the numbers of Christians have dwindled significantly until they are now in a minority there, while in Israel, Christian Arabs have a higher average standard of living and greater educational achievements than their Jewish neighbours.


In addition to the settled Christian population, the various denominations of Christian churches and institutions throughout Israel, centred largely around the Holy Places, have a transient population of visiting clerics (including Gordon Brown’s father) that number in the thousands. Although they are classified ‘temporary residents’, some clerics have lived in Israel since the founding of the state. Some are headed by locally born priests, such as the Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, the Rt. Reverend Bishop Suheil Salman Dawani, born in what is now the West Bank, who is less than friendly to Israel. His diocese also covers the four neighbouring Arab countries.


There is also a small Bahai community in Israel. The Baha’i faith was founded over a hundred years ago by a Persian named Baha’ullah. It is a universalist, liberal religion whose main world shrine is in Haifa, where the Bahais maintain a magnificent golden-domed temple surrounded by beautiful gardens. There is also a Bahai garden in Acre (Akko) that is not as well-known. The exact number of Bahais living in Israel, – almost exclusively in Haifa and Acre – is not known and probably varies. Most are temporary residents. The Bahais have made a pact with the Israeli government that they will not proselytise and make converts. Israel is the only country in the Middle East that does not discriminate against the Bahais.


Finally, there is the most problematic minority of all – the Jewish sects, problematic because it is a moot point as to whether they should be considered Jewish or not. Two Jewish sects are recognised, the Karaites and Samaritans. Both are allowed under Jewish law, to marry Jews.

The Karaites are a Jewish sect that only recognize the Bible, and reject the Talmud and Rabbinic Judaism. The Karaite movement formed in Baghdad between the seventh and ninth centuries CE. The Karaites, at one time, constituted a significant proportion of the world’s Jewish population.Before the establishment of the State of Israel, the Karaites were to be found mostly in Crimea in southern Russia (now part of the Ukraine), as well as in Egypt and Iraq. Today it is estimated that there are as many as 30,000 Karaites worldwide, of whom 20,000–25,000 live in Israel.

The Samaritans, once as powerful and numerous as the Jews in the Holy Land, have dwindled in numbers to a mere 300 or so. They have established communities in Holon in Israel and in Nablus on the West Bank. They are the only Jewish sect to have integrated fully into both Israeli and Palestinian society. For instance, one Samaritan family contains a brother working for the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah while another brother works in Jerusalem for the Mizrahi Bank, a bank affiliated to Israel’s National Religious Party. Every Samaritan family claims to be able to trace its ancestry back to the time of Moses. The Samaritan form of worship is akin to that of Judaism. The Samaritans keep strictly to the Jewish dietary laws but only recognise the Five Books of Moses and the Book of Joshua as Holy Writ.


Dealing with such a varied range of minorities has been a complex task for the Israeli Jewish administration, one with which it has not yet got to grips. While it is true that successive Israeli governments have discriminated against the Arab minority in particular in the allocation of resources (most Arab villages did not get piped water or electricity until well into the 1970s) at least the minorities have equal voting rights with Jews as well as equal access to healthcare, pensions and other services, and an equality of status as citizens not enjoyed by any other ethnic minority elsewhere in the Middle East.


© Josephine Bacon, 2010

Jul 242014

How the Story of Naaman Reveals a New Cure for Diseases

© Josephine Bacon, 2014


The Biblical story of Naaman, commander of the armies of Aram (the Syrians were just as belligerent in those days!) was cured of what the Bible[1] refers to as “leprosy” which was probably a skin disease such as psoriasis or sebhorreic dermatitis – by bathing seven times in the Jordan River at the behest of the prophet Elisha. Sound fanciful? Yes, but there may be something in it.

In the desperate search for alternatives to currently known antibiotics—one that world leaders, such as David Cameron, have urged drug companies to engage in as a priority—a potential new cure for certain bacterial infections has been found and it lives in rivers.

This wonder cure is an amoeba, a one-celled organism, that merges with others of the same species when it runs out of food to form a myxomycete or slime-mold. Its scientific name is Dictyostelium discoideum. The organism lives in rivers as an amœba, clumping together in wet places, whether in water or in damp forest soils. It lives on a diet of certain groups of bacteria many of which are harmful to humans and animals.

What makes this one-celled organism different to antibiotics derived from fungi (molds) is that it does not kill the bacteria or stop them reproducing as fungi do—it eats them! One of the bacteria to which D. discoideum appears to be particularly partial is Seratia marcescens, a strain that has been found to be responsible for a range of infections that are often contracted in hospital. The amoeba does not “eat” all types of bacteria and does not distinguish between gram positive and gram negative species but it has a fondness for several bacteria that are seriously dangerous to humans. It is also easily cultivatable in the laboratory.

The slime-molds, the group to which Dictyostelium discoideum belongs, are a group of living things about which not nearly enough is yet known. They grow on any kind of rotting vegetation all over the world and although microscopic, when they clump together they are very much visible, especially as they are often brightly colored. One well-known species often encountered in American and European woodlands is Wolf’s Milk (Lycogala epidendrum) a scattering of pink blobs growing on rotten trunks throughout the Eastern and Western United States (though for some reason not in the center of the country).

Myxomycetes were once considered to be fungi but they have one distinctive property which has caused scientist to put them in a separate classification—they can move! The fruiting body, known as a plasmodium, slowly creeps over the medium on which it is growing! Scientists still do not classify slime-molds as animal (though the rabbis will have to decide whether they are animal for the benefit of patients being treated with drugs derived from them!) but put them in category that is midway between plants and animals. In every other way, the slime-molds resemble bacteria, but, unlike bacteria, their cells contain a nucleus.

Because this particular slime-mold has catholic tastes (!) and feeds on a wide range of bacteria, the bacteria are unlikely to be able to develop resistance to it, at least in the near future, so it holds out hope for treating a wide range of infections, from skin diseases to bacteria causing typhoid fever.

D. discoideum was discovered and written up as long ago as 1935, but its curative properties have only recently been discovered and they could point the way to using other slime-molds for medicinal purposes.


Dictyostelium discoideum in slime-mould form

Dictyostelium discoideum in slime-mould form


[1]II Kings, chapter 5.

Jun 262014


In 2010, soon after Kenneth Clarke became Secretary of State for Justice, the Ministry decided, for no apparent reason, to end the system whereby court interpreters (all of whom were freelancers) were hired through translation agencies working with the courts or directly by the courts themselves. It handed over the commissioning of all interpreters, lock, stock and barrel, to an obscure translation agency called Applied Language Solutions, located on the Yorkshire Moors, close to where the Moors Murders were committed. This agency had previously had some involvement in hiring interpreters for courts, but it was one of the smallest in the field. The Ministry of Justice signed a three-year contract with this agency, worth several million pounds, for the supply of an unlimited and unspecified number of interpreters to work in the criminal courts throughout the UK. Prior to its decision, the Ministry of Justice had conducted a so-called “consultation” with court interpreters, which the court interpreters’ union has dubbed a “non-sultation”. Representatives of the Ministry toured the country and were surprised to discover that at every venue, the interpreters were unanimous in their outright rejection of the idea. Their opinions were ignored. Yet even before the ink was dry on the contract, Applied Language Solutions had been taken over by Capita plc, a gigantic company growing by leaps and bounds which describes itself as   “UK leader in business process management and outsourcing solutions”. The result was nothing short of a disaster, to such an extent that no fewer than two government committees have since been investigating the deal.


The Ministry of Justice had originally claimed that this outsourcing to a single monopoly was a cost-cutting measure that would save  £18 million a year. This figure – plucked from thin air, of course as are all these “cost saving estimates” – was subsequently reduced to £12 million. No revised figures have been provided (surprise!), but one day it will be revealed that this “cost-cutting” exercise will have actually cost the taxpayer a great deal of money.


The reasons for this are many. First of all, no surprise to learn that professional court interpreters who were now being offered a maximum of £16.00 per hour of actual time spent working in court (no compensation for travelling time, waiting time, etc.) were unenthusiastic about continuing to work for what amounted to below minimum wage. It should be pointed out that to become a professional interpreter, holder of the Diploma in Public Service Interpreting required an investment in an expensive training course and taking the examination set by the Chartered Institute of Linguists which costs £800. Consequently, trained interpreters left the profession en masse, some even leaving the UK in order to earn a decent living as a court interpreter in their country of origin. The quality of the present crop of court interpreters can be imagined, it certainly leaves judges and barristers quailing at the prospect of cases involving interpreters. Many interpreters do not bother to show up, so that the court’s time is wasted and defendants languish in custody who would have been released on bail weeks ago if an interpreter had been provided. The follow-up to this move by the Ministry of Justice was to cut the money paid to lawyers through the Legal Aid Scheme to such a low figure that the big law firms and of course law students and young practitioners are fleeing the criminal justice system. If the situation continues, there is no future for the practice of criminal law in the United Kingdom and defendants will be denied their fundamental human right of representation in a court of law.


The takeover by Capita of all the interpreting services for the whole of the United Kingdom is symptomatic. Capita’s tentacles now extend through virtually every service industry in the UK, from share registration to estate agencies to education, healthcare, recruitment and children’s services. The company boasts that 120 local authorities use its services. It is symbolic of this government’s worship at the Church of Privatisation, and preferably Monopoly Privatisation.


Several other companies will spring to  mind when the subject is mentioned of companies with far-reaching tentacles and multiple interests. In fact, between four and eight such companies currently dominate business in the United Kingdom, their inefficiencies and even failures swept under the carpet, as they continue to be awarded big government contracts. G4S, “the largest security company in the world” according to its website, was responsible for failing to provide security staff for the Olympic Games and is under investigation for misreporting prisoner tagging statistics to our old friend, the Ministry of Justice. Their management of private prisons, together with their alleged rival Serco, is also under investigation. Ed Miliband has called for a rethink of the “outsourcing of policing” and said that G4S should be blocked from getting new government contracts in the wake of the Games controversy.


There has never been a government, even a Conservative government, that oversaw such a concentration of big business dominating and crushing the competition, despite European Union competition and anti-trust laws. These companies have proven their inefficiency time and again but they cock a snook at any attempts to curb their power. It is vital that this situation be ended.


Following this week’s ministerial reshuffle, Mike Penning MP and Andrew Selous MP have joined the ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice.
Mike Penning has been appointed as joint Minister of State for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, this means he has responsibilities both at MoJ and the Home Office. He is the Member of Parliament for the Hemel Hempstead constituency, and joins us from the Department for Work & Pensions.
Andrew Selous has been appointed as Minister for Prisons, Probation and Rehabilitation. He is Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire.


Josephine Bacon is a freelance journalist and translator, a member of Camden Labour Party and the executive of the Jewish Labour Movement.