Archive for January, 2014

Israel, Impressions and Reflections: 18 January

January 18, 2014

A Congress of Cousins in Tel Aviv after Christmas followed by New Jerusalem. A return to Israel after 17 years…

A friendly, civilised country. Cafes are full, especially over the Sabbath. People love to meet, to talk, to relax with others in the open spaces. The weather is right, even in winter. Most people live in small apartments. Meeting outside makes sense. It is also relished. I felt drawn into the friendliness.

No noticeable litter. No noticeable drunkenness. Out with many young Israelis in West Jerusalem at night, no-one seems bothered about getting pissed. Nights out without the barbaric undercurrent of alcohol are delightful.

No mansions, no slums. Israel looks more equal than anywhere else. Our tour guide lamented that the old egalitarian vision has been replaced with a strident capitalism of the haves and the have-nots. The look and the feel is still that there are no extremes of rich and poor. This makes everyone happier, as it always does. (See

Freshly squeezed pomegranate juice is great. Thinking this is Mediterranean, tomato-growing, land I kept asking for tomato juice. I kept being offered carrot juice – nice but no sense of stored sunshine. Carrot juice seems Eastern European. Israel is Eastern Europe on the Med.

Proud to be military. We were shown where the first Jewish settler armed ‘protectors’ lived. We were taken to the first Holocaust Museum, dedicated not to all who perished, not to all who perished in Warsaw, but to the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I ducked out of the visit to the underground bullet factory. After centuries of putting up with violence and persecution, these Jews chose to fight back. Israel was built with them. The financiers may have been more influential but it is the fighters who are celebrated.

Very religious Israelis don’t serve in the army. They know to live ‘not by might but by God’s Spirit.’ Yet they don’t actively make peace either, they don’t build cooperation with the Arabs.

A British invention. We visited the first settlement of the first wave of modern immigrants from Romania, financed by Edmond Rothschild. The guide later told me that the Romanians had been recruited by a Scottish Lord. Some British, well-connected, fairly fundamentalist Christians were advocating Zionism before any significant Jews. George Eliot popularised the idea in Britain in her novel, Daniel Deronda, in 1875. 20 years later Theodor Herzl, the Hungarian journalist, known as the Jewish founder of Zionism, wrote his influential book ‘The Jewish State.’

In 1917, the British Government, grateful for the key contribution of a Zionist Jewish chemist to British production of cordite for the war effort and hoping to gain the support of influential US Zionists for US involvement in the war, declared their support for ‘the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’ which would not ‘prejudice the existing civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine…’ A blithe declaration that the British Empire could now square a circle. As with Syria and Iraq, questions are asked as to whether British country-creating was such a good idea…

The British found that it was very hard, to say the least, to support both a Jewish national home and the existing non-Jewish communities in the same small area. They tried to police the inevitable tensions, more or less successfully. With and after the Holocaust, Jewish fighters did not want to wait any longer for the British to work things out and fought to remove the British from Palestine. My grandfather thought that the British should be given longer to broker an agreement. We have a newspaper cutting of an interview with my grandmother stating this unusual view. Instead, the United Nations voted for the creation of Israel.

The circle is still not squared. A key issue now is that Jews have settled in Palestinian areas, effectively claiming these areas for an enlarged Israel. A cousin lives in such a settlement, on the East of Jerusalem, an inner suburb. He explained that he is not there for ideological reasons, but simply because housing is much cheaper. The neighbouring Arabs are happy to have the Jews and their business. Plenty of Arabs live happily inside Israel. He is confident that when a final border is agreed, his suburb will be in Israel. He recognises that it took hundreds of years of conflict for Europe to settle on its borders. Israel and Palestine will get there eventually.

I briefly suggested that, just as some Arabs live happily inside Israel, he and his Jewish neighbours could happily live inside a Palestinian State. As long as the borders are open and he can still get to work in Israel, he wasn’t strongly opposed to the idea. But the many more ideologically motived Israelis would not consider Jews living in land which is not Israel. Fewer and fewer people now support this hard Zionist view.

Israel, then, is also isolated. The friendly, warm, civilised Israelis are fixed in their military determination to continue to build Israel. The need for a mighty Israel is a fact which cannot be questioned. Part of me wonders if what I experienced was ghetto life writ large. The ghettos of Eastern Europe were renowned for their civilisation, their orchestras even amidst the very worst persecution. Is Israel, behind its separation wall, a country-sized ghetto? What will be its fate?

Roger Harper