News & Current Affairs

September 18, 2008

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

Jews lose hold on Antwerp diamond trade

There used to be tens of thousands of diamond cutters in the Belgian port of Antwerp. Now there are only a few hundred.

A Jewish diamond cutter in Antwerp

Traditional methods are coming under threat from globalisation

It is within the city’s Jewish community that most of the jobs have been lost – particularly among the Hasidic Jews who adhere strictly to religious laws.

Out of about 2,000 Hasidic families in Antwerp, 1,000 are now headed by a man who has no job.

Unemployment of 50% would cause great hardship among any group of people. But for Hasidic Jews it brings special problems.

Women do not usually work – they raise large families, with nine children on average – and the children are often given private religious education.

Jobs move abroad

In fact, diamonds still make a lot of money in Antwerp – but it is shared among a small elite.

Setting up as an independent dealer has become almost impossible.

But Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse, denies there is any prejudice against any particular group.

“It’s a multi-racial environment and we all get along well – it’s an example to the outside world,” he says.

“Like any other industry, we couldn’t afford to pay the heavy labor costs in Europe, so the polishing moved to India and China, but at a certain stage the goods come back. Antwerp gets 80% of all the rough trade and 50% of the polished diamonds.”

Africa, too, has taken some of Antwerp’s jobs. Nations where diamonds are mined, like Botswana, now insist the lucrative cutting process is also done within the country.

The use of lasers to cut the diamonds has also reduced the number of jobs.

Most of the Jews who work in the diamond trade are self-employed, which allows them to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.

Nowadays, though, the industry is increasingly dominated by huge businesses like de Beers, which made nearly $500m (£280m) profit last year.

Some of the Jewish men who have been left without work are now starting to retrain in other professions.

Sam Friedman believes it is vital for men from his Hasidic community to gain new skills, and so he offers them night classes in accounting, languages and computers.

“Training and education are very important for the Hasidic people to get a job, because in the Jewish schools they only learn about Jewish law and Jewish history but not about general things,” he says.

“So it’s very important after religious school to train some more so that you can find a job.”

Cultural clash

Even among other Orthodox, non-Hasidic Jews, there is a major debate over education.

Tradition-minded parents often do not let their children go to university, partly for fear that its secular environment will taint their religious beliefs.

Marcel Engelstein is a successful businessman in Antwerp who believes the changes in the diamond industry present an opportunity for positive change.

Alan Majerczyk, a director of the Antwerp Diamond Bourse

Alan Majerczyk says Antwerp still has a future in diamonds

“We have here a community connected to Israel – which has developed a lot of hi-tech businesses. We can use our brain power to bring the companies here,” says Mr Engelstein.

“The Hasidic and Orthodox people are using their brains all the time when they are learning the Talmud [religious law and history].

“So it’s very easy to teach them new things. They need a bit of guidance and a bit of will power, of course, but I think we can really get them to do that.”

Some people already have learned new skills – like Daniel Verner, a young man who is making a name for himself locally as an architect.

His father used to work in diamonds and his brothers still do. But he decided to go to university and then set up his own business.

“Twenty years ago people would proclaim you crazy for not going into diamonds, and today it’s just the opposite,” he says.

“When people try to look for jobs outside diamonds they gain respect, because everybody knows the situation is much more difficult today than it was back then.”

Mr Verner believes that loosening the links between the Jewish community and the diamond trade will transform the society.

“Everybody is going to have a different life, different schedules and different interests, so even when we talk together it’s going to be on different subjects. For sure it’s going to change,” he says.

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September 4, 2008

Palin takes battle to Democrats

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Palin takes battle to Democrats

John McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, has made a stinging attack on Democratic presidential runner Barack Obama at the US Republican convention.

She gave her first major campaign speech to an enthusiastic crowd at the convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Defending her small-town roots, she attacked Mr Obama as having talked of change, but done nothing of substance.

Mr McCain made a surprise appearance on stage, with her family, saying: “Don’t you think we made the right choice?”

The Arizona senator has been formally nominated as the party’s presidential candidate in a roll call vote by state delegations. He is expected to accept the nomination on Thursday.

I’ve learned quickly… , that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone
Sarah Palin

In a speech designed to rally the party base, she spoke of her family, including her elder son, who is about to be deployed to Iraq in the US Army, and her younger son, who has Down’s Syndrome.

The mother-of-five highlighted her background as a small-town “average hockey mom” and stressed that she was not part of the “Washington elite”.

In a salvo directed at media commentators who have questioned her qualifications, she said she was “not going to Washington to seek their good opinion” but to serve the people.

Mrs Palin praised the “determination, resolve and sheer guts” of Mr McCain and said she was honoured to help him.

Mrs Palin also attacked Mr Obama’s “change agenda” and suggested he was more interested in idealism and “high-flown speech-making” than acting for “real Americans”.

“In politics, there are some candidates who use change to promote their careers,” she said.

Justin Webb
I liked the parliamentary-style jabs at Obama
BBC North America editor Justin Webb

“And then there are those, like John McCain, who use their careers to promote change.”

She also targeted Mr Obama’s experience as a community organiser and remarks he made earlier this year when he spoke of “bitter” working-class people “clinging to guns or religion”.

“I guess that a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer’, except that you have actual responsibilities,” she said.

“I might add that in small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening.”

Mrs Palin – who supports drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge – said that while drilling “will not solve all of America’s energy problems”, that is “no excuse to do nothing at all”.

Democrats under fire

Former Governors Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee opened the night by hailing Mr McCain and attacking the Democrats.

Mr Romney, a one-time rival of Mr McCain for the Republican nomination, used his speech to hammer the Democrats over their “liberal” agenda.

“We have a prescription for every American who wants change in Washington – throw out the big government liberals and elect John McCain,” the former Massachusetts governor said.

He also lauded Mr McCain’s national security credentials, saying he was the presidential contender who would defeat “evil” radical Islam.

Mr Huckabee, also a former rival of Mr McCain, joked that he had hoped to be giving the speech on Thursday night – when Mr McCain will accept the party’s nomination to run for president in November’s election.

But, he said, he was delighted to be speaking for his second choice, Mr McCain – “a man with the character and stubborn kind of integrity that we need in a president”.

He defended Mrs Palin against criticism from the media, saying its coverage had been “tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert”, and attacked the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Rudy Giuliani speaks at the Republican convention in St Paul, 3 Sept
You need to face your enemy in order to defeat them. John McCain will face this threat and bring victory to this country
Rudy Giuliani

“I am so tired of hearing about her lack of experience. She got more votes running for mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, than Joe Biden got running for president of the United States,” he said, referring to Mr Biden’s performance in the Democratic primaries.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani followed Mr Huckabee on stage, calling the 2008 presidential election a “turning point” for the people of the US.

He charged the Democrats with being in denial about the threat from terrorism and said Mr McCain had the foreign policy, national security and leadership experience that counted.

“The choice in this election comes down to substance over style,” he said. “John has been tested. Barack Obama has not. Tough times require strong leadership, and this is no time for on the job training.”

Vetting questions

The Alaska governor’s speech comes amid scrutiny of her record and after two days dominated by the news her daughter Bristol, 17, is pregnant.

Mrs Palin and her family, including Bristol and her boyfriend, greeted Mr McCain at the airport as he arrived in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Ahead of her address, senior McCain campaign adviser Steve Schmidt issued a statement saying that media questions over how thoroughly Mrs Palin was vetted should end.

It has also been revealed that an attorney has been hired to represent Mrs Palin in an Alaska state ethics investigation involving alleged abuse of power.

Mrs Palin told US network CNBC she had “nothing to hide”. Her deposition is expected to be scheduled soon.

There have also been reports that Mrs Palin sought special financial favors for her city and state – something the McCain campaign is against.

She was elected governor of Alaska in 2006 and before that was mayor of the small town of Wasilla, Alaska.

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