29 August 2015

Whose freedom is more valuable - a loved Israeli prime minister or his murderer?

Yitzhak Rabin (1922–1995) eventually became an Israeli politic­ian and elder statesman. But even from his humble beginnings, Rabin’s family path exactly followed my own family’s and that may be why my parents admired him so warmly. Rabin’s parents, who came from the Ukraine, raised their children with a strong sense of Zionism, socialism and workers’ rights. Rabin had a long career in the military, both before Israel's 1948 War of Independence and then after the War, in the new state’s national army.

Post-army Rabin took up ambassadorial and then political roles, being elected as Prime Minister of Israel in 1974. Later he became Israel's Defence Minister. It has been argued that his true moment of world fame came in 1992 when Rabin was elected as prime minister for a second term. This heroic individual signed vital agreements with the Palestinian leadership as part of the Oslo Accords. Quite deservedly Rabin won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 (alongside Israeli politician Shimon Peres and Palestinian politician Yasir Arafat). Most critically, Rabin signed a peace treaty with Jordan in 1994 so that Jews throughout the world would feel safer and more joyful.

Yet in November 1995, Yitzchak Rabin was murdered at one of the biggest peace rally the Middle East has ever seen. Yigal Amir (born 1970) was a very nasty and violent young man who wanted to sabotage the peace process. He planned for a long time how to achieve the murder, successfully ending the life of a hugely popular leader only on the third attempt. Soon he became the most hated man in Israel because he displayed to the entire world that even a Jew could a] smuggle a gun into a civilian function and b] kill civilians as if he was in the Wild West.

Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin
Oslo, Nobel Peace Prize winners, 1994

Amir was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment plus six additional years for attempted murder of the Prime Min­ister’s guardsman. Since I do not believe in capital punishment for any crime at all, the life sentence in gaol seemed appro­priate. Hopefully Amir would never see the light of day again.

In July 2010, after 15 years of solitary confinement, Amir conducted an appeal, asking to participate in group prayers in accordance to Jewish law. Unfortunately it was allowed. Then he wanted to watch television, use a phone, do exercise in a common court yard, meet a woman (Larisa Trembovler), marry her and make her pregnant.

Now a film has come out that celebrates the deep love between the hated Amir and the softly spoken, well educated Trembovler. Beyond the Fear, created by the late Herz Frank, was a controv­er­sial film from the outset. What would make this otherwise intelligent mother of four make the decisions she did? She set up meetings with Amir in gaol; then she divorced her first hus­band; married Amir by proxy; conceived a baby through artificial insemination in 2007; and finally she faces an almost univer­sally hostile reception by the citizens of Israel. Of course an adult could do what she liked, if she was the only person affected. But her four children must be fearing for their lives, every day the brutal Amir and his co-conspirators remain in gaol.

Bernard Dichek (The Jerusalem Report 10th Aug 2015) criticised Israel’s Culture Minister for protesting the showing of the film at this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival. Furthermore, Dichek said, the Minister threatened to cut off government funds for this festival, if the film was included in the programme. He was anxious to see whether or not the rights of artists will continue to be “protected” during this Minister’s reign.

In my opinion, freedom of expression is worth sod all, if an angry young man can murder a community leader yet go on to live the Good Life (albeit behind bars). The prime minister Yitzhak Rabin needed to be protected; no one needs to protect the right of a murderer to express his political opinion, nor the right of film artists to express themselves in a public forum.

25 August 2015

British boys growing up in an Australian bush orphanage

After WW1 the British government started taking a proactive approach to their social problems. Prominent clerics supported the idea of removing street kids out to the colonies – the colonies would benefit and so would the children. So some 10,000 young children were taken from British orph­an­ages and sent to Australia to help boost British population there. The programme ran from 1922-1967.

These children were given little reliable identification, presumably to make tracing by their biological families very difficult. And presum­ably the officials within the Department of Immigration who dealt with the “orphans” had to have been corrupt – why else (historians have asked) would they have allowed young children to be shipped off, without the biological parents’ consent. Not for personal gain, of course, but to strengthen the Empire.

Cover of John Hawkins' book
Note Tardun in the background

According to the book The Bush Orphanage (Port Campbell Press, 2011), John Hawkins’ Irish mother gave him to the Sisters of Nazareth as a baby, with the goal of putting him up for adoption with a stable English family. But it did not happen. When he was just starting primary school in 1953, John's world was thrown into confusion - he was about to be sent to Australia as a child migrant. He became seriously ill with a mental breakdown and spent a year, on and off, in a British hospital.

Finally removed from normal life in Britain in 1954, the little boy must have been very confused indeed when he landed up in a remote Western Australian orphanage. [I've spent most of my life in Australia and had never heard of Tardun, a sleepy town in the Mid West region of Western Australia].

Tardun Farm School had been established by the Christian Brothers in 1928 as St Mary's Agricultural School. After WW2, Tardun admitted wards of the state, child migrants, orphans and private admissions. Australian boys, and British and Maltese child mig­rants aged from 12-16 years lived at Tardun. In 1967, the Farm School became an agricultural boarding and day school which operated on the site until the end of 2008. Some children continued to be placed at Tardun by the state government child welfare departments.

What were the lives like for orphans such as John Hawkins? Loss of their biological families, hard labour, physical abuse from some of the Brothers, sexual abuse from some of the Brothers and endless neglect. At times there were inadequate meals, little water and only weekly showers.

But John Hawkins said for the most part he had good exp­eriences and close friends at the school. Some of the caring Brothers took them hunt­ing, bird nesting, to the Mullewa Agricultural Show, campfires and picnics on the beach.

The boys had to quickly learn who was to be feared and who was to be enjoyed. It was a tough and unpredictable childhood, but in some ways not far worse than many of my male school friends experienced in the 1950s. Except for the sexual abuse.

The book The Bush Orphanage could by itself have been the basis for the exhibition On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants. And the film Oranges and Sunshine, which starred Emily Watson as Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys  and was directed by Jim Loach. What started out as a programme of new and hopeful young lives ended up as one of Britain's and Australia’s shameful colonial secrets.

The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia's forgotten children, including Britain's child migrants, in 2009. Then the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised to the victims of the scheme, which resulted in thousands of children being sent to Australia and other British countries.

a public hearing into the experiences of former residents at four WA Christian Brothers homes
The West Australian Newspaper, 5th May 2014 

At a reunion of the ex-students in 2009, Hawkins explained he had become one of the founders of the Tardun Old Boys Association to ensure ongoing support for a generation of child migrants. Their objective was to preserve their unique legacy and keep safe a network of childhood friends who had clung together over the decades. Together these friends set up the Australian Child Migrant Foundation in 1995, raising hundreds and thousands of dollars to help reunite child migrants with their families. 

Hawkins said himself that this new and alien world was filled with heartbreak and hardship but also adventure, lifelong friendships and ultimately a happy life. “I have no regrets about my life or any animosity towards those who sent me to Australia. They were misguided and captivated by self-interest to serve a higher goal in the service of God. But they genuinely thought, for the most part, that they were helping British orphans who needed the Christian charity offered freely by Australia”.

Hawkins was actually quite generous. If I had known that some of the Christian Brothers had been beating, underfeeding or sexually abusing young lads in their care, I would have wanted those Brothers gaoled for life where they could be beaten and sexually abused by bigger cell mates.


I have not reviewed the last section of the book that described Hawkins’ attempt to find his biological mother and others back in Britain. The British Child Migration Scheme comes up smelling badly, avoiding their legal responsibilities to the so-called orphans and blocking every search for accurate documentation. But so do the State Governments in Australia, and the churches who were willing partners in the heartbreaking child migrat­ion programme.

The publishers said that John Hawkins was a forced migrant child from Britain who told about the “crimes against humanity” that were committed by both British and Australian government authorities and social workers at Australia House in London. The authorities were engaged in criminal neglect in the frenzy to get British children to fill Australian orphanages, fast.

But the publishers are being ridiculous. In August 1945 during WW2, the USA drop­ped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagas­aki. The two bomb­ings, which killed at least 129,000 adult, teenage and infant civilians, was a crime against humanity. The Nazi exterm­ination camps that killed 6 million Jewish civilians were a crime ag­ainst humanity. The genocidal mass slaughter of 500,000-million Tutsi Rwandans by the Hutu majority in 1994 was a crime against humanity. Taking young children from their families of origin and institution­al­ising them on the other side of the world was brutal, but it was not a crime against humanity.

22 August 2015

An Anglican church in Istanbul to memorialise the Crimean War

The Crimean War (1853-6) was a very strange war, fought between the Russians on one side and the British, French and Ottoman Turks on the other. The motivation for each of the belligerents was both complex and shifting. Even the location for the battles was unfortunate - the Crimean Peninsula saw most of the hostilities presumably because the most important Russian naval base was in Sebastopol. 

Battle of Balaclava, Oct 1854 
part of Siege of Sebastopol 
Painted by Richard Caton Woodville Jnr

Yet it is clear that religions and religious freedoms were at stake. The Russians insisted on extending protection to the Russian Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. And at the same time Russia and France were very anxious to protect the privileges of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in Palestine, a territory that was still ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

But if Emperor Napoleon wanted Catholic allies who would flock to him if he attacked Russia’s Eastern Orth­odoxy, why did he think he would attract Anglican Britain to the French Alliance? I am assuming that Britain did not give a toss about the religious rights of French Catholics or Russian Orth­od­ox in Ottoman territories. Rather Britain was hoping to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a buttress against the expansion of Russian power in Asia.

Neutral Austria too did not want to see Russia controlling the Dardanelles. But I believe that Austria, Britain and France were hoping for a diplomatic settlement and did not expect a war covering half of Europe's population. When the Ottoman Turks declared war in October 1853 and attacked the Russians, everyone was caught by surprise. Everything I know about the Crimean War came from the catast­rophic Charge of the Light Brigade in October 1854 and the catast­roph­ic attempt by Florence Nightingale (Oct 1854-Aug 1856) to save young, wounded soldiers’ lives.

Crimea Memorial Church, Istanbul

In February 1856 the war ended but the loss of life had also been catastrophic; of 1,650,000 soldiers who began the war from both sides, hundreds of thousands of young men died. 90,000 of these deaths were French, 21,000 were British, approximately 120,000 were Ottoman and approximately 250,000 were Russian. As soon as the surviving British soldiers were back at home, an appeal was launched in London to build a memorial church in Istanbul to British soldiers and their sacrifices in the Crimean War.

The Crimea Memorial Church was to be designed by the selected arch­itect William Burgess, the man famous for restoring Waltham Abbey and for building Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral in Cork. Yet something went wrong. The selection committee cancelled their choice of architect and instead gave the nod to ecclesiastical and royal courts of justice arch­it­ect George Edmund Street (1824-1881). Perhaps the selection committee suddenly discovered that Burgess did not like gothic reviv­al and that G.E. Street did.

Whatever the thinking, G.E. Street took over in 1863 and built on land granted by the Ottoman sultan. He had the church consecrated in 1868 and had all the other buildings completed before his death in 1881. The belfry looked like a minaret but everything else looked normal for a neo-Gothic Victorian church surrounded by a beautiful garden, a high stone wall and a tall iron gate. The church was rectangular, made of stone and has two small steeples above the door.

The narrow, tall interior of the nave featured a brown and black patterned floor, simple wooden chairs and a side chamber with a baptismal fountain. There were four arches impressed into the side walls of the nave, each adorned with three columns of stained glass and five support columns. The altar, separated from the rest of the nave by a decorated choir screen, was dimly lit by a rose window on the front wall. A beautiful pulpit, featuring white, red, and blue-green shades of marble, stood in front of the altar. The baptismal font inside the church was made of one piece of marble. The church's huge organ, made in England in 1911, was on the wooden mezzanine level and reached via a cast iron staircase also brought from England.

Crimea Memorial Church 
nave, painted rood screen and rose window

How many British Anglicans were there living in Constantinople back then and how many Anglican tourists visited the city each year? Not enough, apparently. The church was de-consecrated in 1976 when the altar was smashed, and the furniture and tiles were sold or destroy­ed. The entire church property would have been sold off to the highest bidder but a miracle occurred: in April 1990, just in time for the 75th anniversary of the Allies' Gallipoli campaign against Turkey, the property was saved; victims were remembered by an oak chancel screen in the church. Wrong war but never mind!
How times have changed. Norman Stone, in his Crimea Memorial lectures, described the Crimea Memorial Church as a heroic little island left behind by the retreating tide of empire. The imperial British banners, which once domin­at­ed the nave, are now in cupboards. Istanbul's Anglican chaplain said that it was no longer appropriate to have such nationalist and imperialist British symbols on display in Turkey any more. Does that mean that there are no longer any memorial plaques for the dead lads from the Crimean War? Or that the church itself remains as their memorial?