Israel: Day One

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself studying in Jerusalem. But God is able to do abundantly more than we can ask or think. I do not know what (or who) will come my way in the next 4 weeks — and to be honest, this uncertainty is a bit unnerving — but I suppose that’s all the more reason to feel excited.

The excitement started even before I left London. The EL AL (Israeli airlines) security measures at Luton Airport was quite an experience. While queuing at the check-in counter, I was immediately singled out by an EL AL security officer for questioning. It seems that shaving my moustache and beard didn’t help. I shaved for nothing. ūüė¶

The security officer asked a whole lot of questions, some of which were ludicrous, like ‘Why is your surname so strange?’ (I had to tell him that Goa used to be a Portuguese colony, and a lot of D’Souzas, De Silvas and D’Almeidas come from there). I also had to pull out multiple documents, remove the lock from my suitcase, and hand over my backpack to be searched thoroughly. In fact, I had to remove my bag and coat to use the toilet before boarding the plane. But I don’t really blame the EL AL crew. Even with my innocent and hairless face, I was still a young man travelling completely alone to Israel for the first time. I must have come across as a suspicious character.

Everything else from that point on was pretty uneventful. But I did meet some interesting people here at the Rothberg International School, including a few Jewish Americans, a Chinese American, an Ivorian, a Nigerian and an old Frenchman who must be at least 60 years old (that’s lifelong learning!). Also, the staff conducted a tour of the Hebrew University campus, which I found quite astounding, with its spectacular view of Jerusalem and well-equipped facilities.

After the general orientation, the staff took all the students to the only shopping mall in Jerusalem in the evening so that we could shop for some basic necessities. As we approached the entrance of the mall, I spotted an armed guard in front of a metal detector. As I sighed at the prospect of having to go through security checks every time I want to enter a building for the next month, I realised that I have no right to complain. Such security measures are part and parcel of day-to-day life in Israel. Tension is the norm, be it between Israelis and Arabs or the ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. And yet, the people here carry on with their lives — undaunted, undeterred, undismayed.

As Day One comes to a close, the week has come to an end too. I think it will take me some time to get used to the idea of Thursday being the last day of the week.

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Gandhi and Churchill: Lessons in Greatness

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that I was bored of reading about Plato, electoral systems and the Cold War in the Middle East, so I made a snap decision to buy a new (well, second-hand, to be precise) book. As I browsed through the shelf of second-hand books in Waterstones, an¬†epic¬†title caught my eye —¬†Gandhi & Churchill¬†by Arthur Herman. What a gem for an aspiring history buff! The Singaporean inside of me couldn’t resist the “two-in-one” deal, so I bought it immediately.

I haven’t finished this fascinating double-biography yet, but so far, it’s been an enthralling account of the two men’s lives, framed in the style of a “David and Goliath” duel. Throughout the book, Herman makes astute comparisons between the two titans. Their upbringing, family background, culture, personal convictions, temperament and other aspects of their lives were diametrically opposed to each other, but similar in more ways than we think. I like how Herman’s account appeals to our innate fascination with dramatic face-offs.

But as different as Gandhi and Churchill were from each other, one undeniable similarity is that they were both controversial figures. That shouldn’t be surprising — anyone who decides to swim against the tide of popular opinion and culture is bound to have both followers and naysayers. Both men were unwavering in their resolve, and they were simultaneously praised and excoriated for that. Both men risked their lives (and the lives of others), and they reaped rewards and suffered losses at the same time. You can’t reach that level of greatness without becoming divisive.

It’s easy to forget that greatness is born in the throes of hardship and sacrifice. Or rather, I choose to forget this inconvenient truth about greatness, because my human nature wants to reach the peak without scaling the mountain. (Now¬†that’s¬†achieving the impossible.) But needless to say, this is wishful thinking. I think Herman’s account of Gandhi’s and Churchill’s struggles is a good lesson about two aspects of greatness that we often overlook.

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The Cost of Greatness

We are told that pride comes before a fall. But allow me to add to that — many falls come before pride. I realise I’m using “pride” in a different way — what I mean is that¬†an individual can only lay claim to great achievements after he has shown that he can recover repeatedly from failure. That is exactly what Gandhi and Churchill demonstrated consistently throughout their lives. At certain points in time, they were two of the biggest failures in the world. At least they must have felt that way.

Gandhi’s civil activism in South Africa began in response to the prejudice against Indians that he observed and personally encountered. In 1906, he organised demonstrations of civil disobedience, or¬†satyagraha¬†(soul force) campaigns, in response to a law that required all Indians to register with the government (a law that he called the Black Act). For seven years, thousands of Indians were jailed and flogged for refusing to register. Gandhi was thrown into jail several times. In the face of such of such¬†a heavy-handed response from the South African government, Gandhi appealed to his comrades to stand firm, but many of his supporters backed down. Still, Gandhi organised 3 satyagraha¬†campaigns in total, even though no one would have blamed him if he had given up after the first one.

Alas, Gandhi’s efforts achieved very little. After all that effort, the Black Act wasn’t repealed, and after negotiations with the government, Gandhi decided to register after all. Of course, he attempted to dodge accusations of hypocrisy by claiming that he registered voluntarily, not because he was expected to. Nonetheless, many of his supporters called him a cop-out, and one of them even attacked him on his way to the registration office. He soon became one of the most hated men in South Africa.

The weight of guilt and failure was probably enough to crush a man’s soul. But not Gandhi’s. In the face of condemnation, he was convinced that his method of¬†satyagraha¬†would eventually conquer all injustice (as idealistic as that sounds). He continued leading campaigns of civil disobedience in India, without allowing past failures to hinder future success. He continued his interminable pursuit of Truth, and rallied millions of people to fight (non-violently) for their freedom.

Gandhi was not the only one to bear the burden of his cause. His wife, Kasturbai, saw him bruised and beaten many times and often suffered great humiliation. His sons, Harilal and Manilal, were never given a formal education. The life of the Gandhi family is a solemn reminder that greatness can never come without a cost.

The Greyness of Greatness

With great power comes great controversy. Gandhi and Churchill somehow managed to unite their nations despite dividing them at the same time.

For example, not everyone was convinced that Gandhi’s method of non-violence would help Indians achieve the freedom and justice that they wanted. There were other nationalists who taught that the only way to achieve freedom was to fight for it, which must have seemed like a reasonable proposition since repression is usually countered with force. Gandhi also conducted many “experiments” to strengthen his soul by curbing his passions and swallowing his human pride. One of his most controversial experiments was to sleep with naked girls to test his commitment to his vow of¬†brahmacharya or celibacy. I’m sure I’m not the only one with raised eyebrows.

How about Winston Churchill? To most people, he was a war-time hero, a national saviour, one of the greatest Prime Ministers ever to lead Britain — in other words, a demi-god. But this is a highly embellished account.

Although Churchill was brilliant, decisive, unrelenting, and fearless, he was also arrogant, narcissistic, ruthless, and obstinate. As a young soldier, he yearned to be on the front-lines for the thrill of fighting in a war. He took pride in violence — after the Boer War, he proudly told his mother that he had shot at least 5 people. When it came to war, the stability of the British Empire was more important than the sanctity of human life. He was obsessed with war.

He was also a white supremacist who believed that Indians would never be capable of self-rule and independence. He once declared that the lives of 300 million people rested in the hands of the British.¬†Of course, this was common at that time. But most people would balk at such a notion today. Moreover, as the Home Secretary in 1911, he demonstrated his Social Darwinian convictions in drafting a bill that involved involuntary sterilisation of individuals with mental disabilities. Fortunately, this bill wasn’t passed.

(Interestingly, Arthur Herman writes in a footnote that Churchill’s Trade Boards Law of 1909 was “eugenics-inspired”, because the national minimum wage that the law introduced was not a gift to the poor but a policy that aimed to push less productive workers out of the labour market.¬†Sidney Webb, founder of the LSE, was an advocate of this: he said that the minimum wage was necessary to push “the sick and crippled, the incorrigibly idle, deficient in strength, speed, and skill” and other “parasites” out of the labour market, thus clearing the way for organised labour.)

Don’t get me wrong — the flaws that Gandhi and Churchill possessed certainly do not disqualify them from being revered as heroes of our age. It is not my intention to pass negative judgement on these two men, but to point out that greatness always falls within a grey area. Greatness polarises opinion — it is very difficult to conclude that Gandhi and Churchill were “good” or “bad” men, or that their actions were “right” or “wrong”.

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The Cost of Greatness and the Greyness of Greatness. I think¬†we all harbour thoughts of greatness. But it all comes with a cost and tremendous uncertainty. How willing are we to shoulder the burden of our beliefs in the face of opposition? And more importantly, how willing are we to constantly re-evaluate the rightness of our beliefs? Food for thought ūüôā