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Book review: Michelle Mazel’s “Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil”

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

Just finished reading “Julius Matthias – A Pact with the Devil” by Michelle Mazel (published by New Meridian, ISBN: 978-0-997603842).

It’s a remarkable work, not least because it takes Mazel into new literary areas. An accomplished author, Michelle Mazel has previously perhaps been best known for her Alfassi thriller series, a trilogy that weaves together the heat of the Middle East with the never-ending conflict that continues to tear the region apart.

With this latest book, however, Mazel paints on a much broader canvas – and an unusual canvas at that. Once again, the backdrop is regional conflict, but this time not in the Middle East, but the World War that began in Europe and ripped an entire world apart.

Interestingly, however, it is not World War Two that is depicted, but World War One. That in itself is enough to pique the reader’s interest. It’s a departure from the expected that is typical of the entire book.

Michelle Mazel has a fine eye for the human-interest stories of people going about their daily lives in a turn-of-the-century Europe that, unknown to most, was about to undergo a massive and irrevocable change. The author wields her literary brush with great delicacy to paint the fine details of those lives against the backdrop of major events that reshaped not just nations and states but the entire world.

The storyline is based in Transylvania, as if that weren’t a stark enough departure from the expected. The story deals with the interlocking lives that sometimes pitched Christians against Jews, women against men, secularists against the strictly observant, traditionalists against a new breed of liberals, young against old, Rumanians against Hungarians, the dying star of the Austro-Hungarian Empire against emerging Soviet influence, Axis powers against Allied forces. All told, a world in flux.

Michelle Mazel tells the story of Julius Matthias, a highly principled young man determined to become a doctor, whose only way of achieving his goal is to enter into a loveless marriage and have his education paid for by his father-in-law. Without giving away any of the storyline, suffice it to say that this is just the start of the multiple layers of intrigue interlaced throughout the book.

For the reader interested in the gradual unfolding of a new world order as rural Europe was overtaken by events spawned in urban political powerhouses, “A Pact with the Devil” is riveting reading. For anyone interested in inter-faith issues at the turn of the previous century, likewise. If you feel there are innumerable works of fiction based on World War Two but very few set in World War One, this one is right up your street. As a gripping, almost documentary – yet fictional – examination of religious, political and social relationships as the 19th century faded and the turbulent 20th century was born, “A Pact with the Devil” is highly interesting reading. And if you like occasional steamy yet beautifully understated romantic (read: sex) scenes, this book has got that too.

It’s a page-turner that ultimately disappoints simply because you eventually come to the last page – it really was that hard to put down once opened.

Read “Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil”. It will give you plenty to think about.

Not least, after you finish the book and take stock of the global situation today, one thing will strike you above all else: Michelle Mazel is keenly attuned to the foibles of humankind and takes a delight in depicting people, warts and all. But she is in equal measure a faithful historian with an eye on the bigger picture.

And that’s when it hits you: a century has passed since the first scenes depicted in “A Pact with the Devil” – but since ultimately the book is not so much about events as it is about people, not a lot has changed in the intervening hundred years.

“Julius Matthias: A Pact with the Devil” is about humankind. The beautifully pictured settings, the book’s myriad of tiny details that only a true historian and a keen observer would note, are mere window-dressing. It is the human interest that author Michelle Mazel captures so well.

I’d give the book a 5-star rating.

Interesting talk by Israeli ambassador Isaac Bachman at theSweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Highly interesting breakfast meeting this morning with Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Isaac Bachman, at the Sweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce in Stockholm. Almost every single seat was taken, which says a lot about the importance of commercial and other non-political ties between Sweden and Israel. After five years in Stockholm, Isaac Bachman will soon return to Israel, and his address this morning was also something of a summary of his five-year tenure in Sweden.

Here’s a thing: I firmly believe in the adage “Smile first thing in the morning and get it over and done with for the rest of the day”. Because anyone who knows me also knows I wake up early and then spend the rest of the day waiting (in vain) for an improvement in the weather so I can go out cycling.

That pretty much sums up the ambassador’s view on his past five years representing Israel in Sweden. He started his talk with three bright notes – “Sweden is a country of honey, but the bee is never far away with its sting”; “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our stay, meeting remarkably friendly and warm people”; and “Sweden is a great country”.

Those were the smiles for the day, at 8.30 in the morning. The rest of his talk was a heartfelt appeal for greater understanding from the Swedish government, the Swedish media and – above all – the Swedish opposition, which he rightly pointed out differs very little from the coalition government in its treatment of Israel. Five years after taking up his appointment in Sweden, like me waiting for better cycling weather in Gothenburg, he too is still waiting for better political weather in Stockholm.

Isaac Bachman emphasised that trade and commerce represent a well-functioning chapter in relations between Sweden and Israel, something that not many people realise. The members of the Sweden-Israel Chamber of Commerce all know this, of course, but the message doesn’t seem to penetrate outside. He said several times that this is the fun part of being the ambassador to Sweden, seeing how well developments are continuing in behind-the-scenes bilateral exchanges. He pointed out that he would love to see more open acknowledgement of this relationship, but even without that openness, the fact is that commercial ties between the two countries have never been stronger. He pointed to successful companies such as Volvo, Ericsson, IKEA, H&M and others.

Mr Bachman referred repeatedly to Sweden and Israel as being two “mature democracies” offering immense developmental potential to each other. That potential would be even greater if the political climate were smoother between the two, with vast prospects in the offing. It is Sweden’s political echelon that is limiting progress in this respect.

Touching on the political aspects of his position as ambassador to Stockholm, Isaac Bachman said that working at the embassy is like sitting atop a seismograph, gauging every single little change in the ambient climate and waiting with trepidation for the next calamity. In his words, “Nothing prepares you for how Israel is treated in Sweden – the agreed climate regarding Israel is immensely negative. There is a kind of systematic intimidation of anyone who differs, who departs from the agreed line”. He described an “awful climate” that simply “doesn’t match with concepts such as liberalism and pluralism” for which Sweden repeatedly claims it is renowned. He used the word “brutal” to describe the way received wisdoms on the need to treat Israel negatively go unchallenged.

Poignantly, ambassador Bachman said “we are not paranoid when we see the Swedish government, media, and church all chasing us”. He reiterated several times that Sweden’s unfortunate decision to recognise Palestine was not an issue, because Israel is mature enough to acknowledge political facts on the ground and then progress beyond them, working within a changing diplomatic reality. It is Sweden that appears to be unable to move with the times. It seems to have taken upon itself a role as avowed critic of Israel – irrespective of facts on the ground. He repeated several times that in his meetings with Swedish politicians – including a one-hour long meeting with PM Stefan Löfven – he emphasised that “Israel wants to reset and reopen our mutual relationship”. To no avail.

Ambassador Bachman appeared justifiably disappointed with the lacklustre – I personally would go further and say non-existent – role of the Swedish opposition parties. He had organised a trip to Israel for Swedish Conservative Party and opposition leader Anna Kinberg-Batra – including an absolutely unprecedented 90-minute face-to-face meeting with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. At the end of her comprehensive visit, all Anna Kinberg-Batra had to say was “We do not approve of Israeli settlements”. Precisely in line with the Swedish left-wing government. Mr Bachman returned several times to the issue of the non-functioning political opposition in Sweden. He pointed out that the Swedish government and opposition actually cooperate more closely than the coalition government of Israel does within its own ranks…

It was painful – but not one bit surprising since he is perfectly correct – to hear the Israeli ambassador repeat several times that the daily grind of Swedish opposition to Israel means that Sweden has lost Israel, that Israel has totally given up on Sweden. As a case in hand, he mentioned that Sweden took it upon itself to appoint an “envoy” to Israel – but declined to inform either the Israeli ambassador in Stockholm or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem. The ambassador, being the perfect diplomat that he always is, said that this behaviour was “unprecedented”. I would suggest a better word: “incompetent”, together with “offensive”, “amateurish” and “immature”. As the ambassador explained, in the diplomatic world there is a mechanism that governs the behaviour of countries with each other. Sweden, unfortunately, routinely ignores this mechanism – but only when it comes to its behaviour with Israel. I am not a diplomat, so I do not have to express myself diplomatically; Sweden’s behaviour is nothing short of scandalously incompetent.

One particularly painful episode to underline this disconnect between how countries are expected to behave with each other on the diplomatic stage is that of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s repeated allegations that Israel commits “extrajudicial executions” of terrorists who have already killed civilians and are in the process of killing additional civilians. Yet this same Swedish politician – and her compatriots – are full of praise when Swedish security forces shoot dead a Swedish terrorist carrying out random murders at a school in the Swedish town of Trollhättan. He pointed out that Sweden never EVER uses the term “Palestinian terrorism”, but is perfectly happy to use the word “terrorism” to denote other identical killing sprees carried out by other identical groups for identical ideological reasons. As he so poignantly pointed out, “while we are burying our dead, Sweden accuses us of extrajudicial executions of the terrorists responsible for those deaths”.

As he rounded off his talk, ambassador Isaac Bachman revealed that Swedish Social Democratic parliamentarians have confided in him that it is not favourable to their continued careers to speak openly to him or to even be perceived as remaining neutral on issues dealing with Israel.

On that sombre note, the ambassador once again thanked his hosts and indeed Sweden for five exciting years and wished his successor a fruitful tenure.

One of the people in the audience was none other than former Swedish ambassador to Israel Carl-Magnus Hyltenius. Interestingly, Mr Hyltenius said that he could not disagree with what ambassador Bachman had said, although he did point out that historically, Sweden and Israel had once enjoyed a good relationship. He pointed out that politicians come and go, but that countries remain, so it was his hope that the historically warm and firm relationship between Sweden and Israel would outlive its current crop of politicians, to the benefit of both nations. He pointed out that “Sweden and Israel need each other. Working through trade is a great way to maintain our relationship.” He went on, addressing ambassador Bachman: “You have always done great work to maintain that relationship.”

And Mr Hyltenius is absolutely right. Ambassador Bachman has done sterling work for five long, arduous years in Sweden. We wish him the very best in his continued career upon returning to Israel.

Isaac Bachman takes away many fond memories of Sweden, not least his newly acquired love of ice-hockey. Accordingly, he was given a blue and yellow woollen scarf worn by supporters of Swedish championship cup-winning HV71. Perhaps not the most suitable item of clothing now that he is returning to the hot summer of Jerusalem.

Best of luck Isaac Bachman.

The Swedish Institute: a hotbed of illegal profiling and illegal documenting of political opinions

Wednesday, May 17th, 2017

The Swedish Institute is a department that answers to the Swedish government, formally under the Foreign Ministry.

The Swedish Foreign Ministry is headed by Margot Wallström.

You might have heard of Margot Wallström in any number of contexts that praise Islamismexcuse terrorism against Jewsblame the Jews for terrorism against Jewish civilians, and trade moral and ethics in favour of support for some of the world’s most despotic Islamist regimes and serial human rights abusers.

The Swedish Institute writes on its website that “Our commitment is to gain knowledge and understanding of different cultures, their people, and to promote Sweden and Swedish issues globally.”

As part of this drive to gain knowledge and understand different cultures and their people, the Swedish Institute has created an illegal computerised register of more than 12,000 people whom it deems as inconvenient and for whom the Institute has blocked access to its Twitter feed.

Those 12,000 people include the Israeli Ambassador to Sweden, several Swedish Members of Parliament, and many journalists. The ambassador represents the only democracy in the Middle East, the MPs represent all political parties apart from the Left and extreme Left, and the journalists include renowned reporters who spotlight the plight of civilians in war-torn Syria.

Read that again. Under the aegis of Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, Sweden “gains knowledge” and “understands different cultures and people” by blocking knowledge and opinions and by declaring as inconvenient people from different cultures and political backgrounds.

Now bear in mind that this is not the stuff of Kafka, but the product of the fertile imagination of the Swedish government, in all its demagoguery, support for Islamist terrorism, denial of Jewish rights at home and abroad, and rank amateurism.