Jews and Cycling

June 13, 2010

Did you know that every (dry and warm) Sunday, several groups of middle-aged Jewish men take their bicycles out into the countryside north of London on what they call training rides?  They are training for one of the many charity bike rides that take place throughout the summer months.

These cyclists are easy to spot.  They ride fancy bikes, wear lurid Lycra and they puff and pant.  We may turn up our noses at balding beer-bellied football fans in their club shirts but surely they’re no worse than balding cake-bellied cyclists hoping to pass themselves off as Lance Armstrong?  Of course, having the kit doesn’t make them Lance Armstrong.  For one thing, Lance likes to ride his bike whereas a Jew likes to admire his bike through the window of a coffee shop while telling his friends how much it cost.

The other topic of cappuccino conversation is how much they have raised so far for their chosen charity.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a good cause, and as a keen(ish) environmentalist can think of few better ways than a cycle challenge to achieve it.  I just think it’s a pity that they have to fly out to the other side of the world in order to participate.  Instead of stumping up hundreds of pounds just to get to the start line, they could give even more to the charity and keep their carbon footprint confined to their fancy schmancy carbon-fibre bikes.

Truth be told, you’ll be lucky if you ever see a Jew actually riding his bike.  If he’s not resting in Starbuck’s after a solid three miles in the saddle he’s trying to fix a puncture without suitable tools.  And when I say he’s trying to fix a puncture what I really mean is he’s amongst half a dozen men crowded around his dismantled wheel, rather like the doctors who examined the Roswell aliens; at the same time curious and fearful.

After several minutes one will suggest using tyre levers to extract the inner tube.  “Good idea” says his pal.  “What are tyre levers?” asks a third as he pathetically pokes around with an old butter knife (the Jew’s universal tool) that lives in the neat little under-the-saddle tool bag – the one that contains, apart from the butter knife, his keys, a wad of cash to pay for coffee and cake, several credit cards in case he needs more coffee and cake, and a couple of energy bars.

Eventually the self-appointed mechanic snaps the butter knife and withdraws in embarrassment leaving the rest to clear up the mess.  Before long they are back on the road and heading for the nearest café.

Of course I’m generalising.  Some Jewish cyclists take the sport incredibly seriously.  My friend Moishe is one such and his speciality is hill climbing.  When he’s managed to negotiate a few speed bumps he heads directly for the coffee shop claiming to be “King of the Mountains”.  Mountains of cake, more like.

The other place you’ll see a Jewish cyclist is in the bike shop.  In every group of Jewish cyclists at least one will be preening proudly aperch his brand new super-lightweight machine.

Why, when he only bought a new bike last year, has he gone and spent the equivalent of Greece’s national debt on another?  “Because this one is faster on account of it being three grammes lighter than that old piece of junk”, he’ll inform you as he squeezes through the doors of Starbuck’s on his way to yet another latte and cheesecake.

Why Israel Came 14th with 71 points in the Eurovision Song Contest 2010.

June 1, 2010

I realise I’ve chosen a somewhat geeky title for this piece.  That’s because this is a somewhat geeky piece.  The statistical nerd in me was let out for a rare opportunity to play around following Saturday night’s Eurovision Song Contest, the 55th such contest, in case you’re interested.

It’s well known that the music has very little to do with the outcome of the competition and that it’s all to do with political alliances, international sucking-up and immigrant dispersion.  So, with that in mind, I thought I’d try to understand why those who voted for Israel voted for Israel and why Israel voted for who they voted for.  That I’m not doing the same for the UK should be patently obvious.  Finishing last with a paltry ten points simply demonstrates that we are the Millwall FC of Europe.  Everyone hates us.

It is for this reason that for the rest of this article I shall often be referring to Israel as “us” or “we”.  Doesn’t everybody?  Let’s start with the countries that gave us the most points and work down.

First up, The Netherlands, dix points; always a friend and probably the only country that truly shared the pain of the holocaust as if it were her own people that suffered, rather than just the Jews who lived there.

Finland: also ten points.  Although Finland actually fought alongside Germany during the war this was more a case of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”, their real concern being Russia.  Nevertheless, Finnish Jews were largely protected, even by the Finnish right wing, which was essentially controlled by the Lutheran ministry.  In 2000 the Finns apologised to the Jews for handing over to the Nazis eight Jewish refugees.  My guess is those ten points were part of that apology package.

Belarus: huit points (Belarus: eight points).  President Lukashenko has, let’s face it, not exactly stood out as a lover of Jews, having spouted some fairy unpalatable stuff about us.  What better way, then, to trot out the old “some of my best friends…” line, than with the added clout of a generous points gift at Eurovision.  How could anyone possibly suggest that the Belarusians are anti-semites?  Add to this that Belarus is quite keen on some economic / agricultural co-operation with Israel and we might even wonder why they only gave us eight points.  Oh, and let’s not forget that a chunk of Belarusians have relatives living in Israel.  By the way, this probably explains why nine out of the 15 countries that gave us any votes at all are former iron curtain states.

Slovakia: eight points also.  Given the enthusiasm with which the Slovakians took part in eradicating almost 80% of their Jews during the holocaust it’s perhaps no surprise that they’ve been kissing our butts since the wall came down.  In fact Slovakia has been one of Israel’s best friends in Europe, no doubt also fuelled by a desire to get into our technological and agricultural pants.  I’m going to stop here; this paragraph is getting a bit icky.

Slovenia: six points.  With around 500 Jews in the entire country it’s not likely that this was achieved through phone votes, unless the Jews of Slovenia are the only idiots that fall for premium rate TV voting in that country.  No, I suspect this is another one that’s all about the economy.  Slovenia and Israel have been getting very chummy in recent years with Israel doing some good business over there.

Azerbaijan: 5 points.  Sounds generous but actually we gave them seven points.  This Israel / Azerbaijan love-in is no co-incidence.  Azerbaijan is one of the few European nations with virtually no history of anti-Semitism and Israel was one of the first nations to recognise it as an independent nation. Israel supported Azerbaijan in their war against Armenia and the cooperation has continued in the areas of security, trade and culture.  Not bad considering that Azerbaijan is more than 90% Muslim.  It is said that both nations share a sense of existential fragility, and perhaps more practically, a shared perceived threat from Iran.

With all this one might think that we ought to be discussing a mutual 12 pointer, so why only five and seven.  Well, it seems that Azerbaijan is conflicted about the extent to which it wishes to been seen to cosy up to Israel.  It’s like marrying out, with the rest of the Islamic family not altogether happy with the relationship.  Let’s say both sides are pretending to feign indifference when really they love each other madly.

Which brings us to Israel and Armenia.  Why, if Israel took sides with Azerbaijan in this conflict, does she award Armenia the maximum douze points?  Well, also involved in the bigger story here is Turkey and the USA.  These were the main players in the Armenia / Azerbaijan conflict and with rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia now well underway, it’s perhaps time for Israel to extend the hand of friendship to Armenia.

And let’s not forget that Israel and Armenia are major diamond trading partners.  There’s no doubt that relations between the two countries are at a low level, particularly in the cultural realm, but I’d say there is a willingness on both sides to increase friendship. There’s your 12 points, then.

Norway: 5 points.  The people of Norway appear to be more supportive of Israel than the Government, suggesting that these points came largely from the phone votes.  Norway’s opposition Progress Party has been an outspoken supporter of Israel in recent years, and has gained votes and supporters from parties that have been critical of Israel.  Relations at the governmental level have been strained recently.

We now come to a tail of countries that gave us 4 or fewer points.  Let’s begin with three Balkan states, Albania (4 points), Bosnia and Herzegovina (1 point) and Moldova (1 point).

We’ve had an odd relationship with Albania over the years.  While it was the only country occupied by the Nazis to finish the war with a larger Jewish population that at the beginning, (they protected their own Jews vehemently and took in a number of refugees), and recognised the State of Israel early on, they nevertheless refused to establish diplomatic and economic relations with Israel until the fall of the Berlin Wall and were outspoken in their criticism of Israel during the 1967 war.  To a large extent they were at odds with many of their communist block neighbours on this subject, but we should remember that Enver Hoxha was a bit nuts and at odds with Soviet policy for much of the cold war period.  He was a Stalinist and closer to China than Russia, China having no relations at all with Israel.  Full diplomatic ties were established in the summer of 1991 and have continued to develop in other fields ever since.  Israel provided much aid to Kosovar Albanians and took in many refugees in 1999.

Bosnia-Herzegovina is more concerned with Serbia and Croatia than anyone else.  Israel and B-H drew in a football match back in 2001, so maybe the point they awarded us was for old time’s sake?

Moldova does not exactly boast a stellar performance in terms of being nice to the Jews.  They did, after all, play hosts for the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 and weren’t much use during the war either.  Un point for an apology?

Two points from Cyprus – probably about right.  The two countries have generally enjoyed friendly relations over many years.  Cypriots were particularly compassionate and helpful to Jews making their way to Israel after the war, and there are good economic ties.  The two countries are near neighbours, both democracies, and they share the two countries in one land problem.  On the other hand Cyprus has been critical of Israel on several occasions and the odd scrap has ensued between the two over the Palestinian question.

Israel has probably never enjoyed such a friendly relationship with the French President as they do with M. Sarkosy, but the same cannot be said as far as the people are concerned.  This is pretty much in line with the UK and most of Western Europe and probably explains the one point received.  We should be grateful for even that, and certainly the three from the UK voters.  I suspect that tally was the result of hundreds of Barnet residents using the automatic redial facility on their phones.

Going in the other direction, I don’t think there will be many people out there wondering why Israel awarded 10 points to Russia but for those that are, about 12% of the Israeli population is Russian speaking.  This phenomena probably also explains the eight points that went to Rumania, Georgia’s five and Ukraine’s two.

Ireland was awarded 6 points.  Relations between the two are cordial as far as trade is concerned, with good business being done, particular when the Irish economy was doing so well.  The three awarded to the UK was probably as much a cap-doff for the continued support for the war on terrorism as anything.

Denmark was awarded four points. The two countries have enjoyed very strong relations since the establishment of the state, and Denmark has been a good and tolerant host to Jews for as long as history can recall.  During the holocaust there was enormous resistance to deportation and many were saved.

Finally one point from Israel to Spain.  Maybe because so many Sephardim can trace their roots back to the Iberian peninsular or maybe they just like Lionel Messi and his Barcelona team mates?

One thing is for sure, as with all the other countries, it had nothing to do with the song.  We won’t mention the winners.