Israel - then and now

Every day seems to bring yet another story of Israeli persecution of the Palestinians. Any criticism is met by accusations of anti-Semitism as if that is the card that trumps any rational or humane argument. It is the attitude of a petulant adolescent, not a grown up – as was well described by Tony Judt, the historian, who was well able to say these things as he had been a kibbutzim and served in the Israeli army.

A visit to Israel is fascinating – one of the most interesting and valuable travel experiences - as it is very difficult to have any understanding of the issues there without a feel for the geography on the ground. The abiding impression is how small it is. From the Mount of Olives looking down on Jerusalem you can see to the Mediterranean one way and to the Dead Sea the other – across the width of the country and you could drive from top to bottom in less than four hours. For anyone bought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition, every place name is redolent with history and legend – Jericho, the Baths of Bathsheba, the Garden of Gethsemane, Masada ; who could not be moved by Jerusalem and its extraordinary history? Equally, when you see on the ground just how the settlements have been stamped all over the West Bank as a crude and brutal land grab it is difficult not to share the anger and despair of the Palestinians

However, despite its current iteration as a regional bully, the story of the creation of state of Israel is still one to wonder at. What other nation, after a diaspora of two thousand years, has retained its sense of identity to the extent that the Jews did? There is something miraculous and moving in the experience of the Israeli paratroopers capturing the Wailing Wall of Solomon’s Temple in 1967 having kept alight the candle of nationhood through persecution and exile for so many years.

This sense of young nation living on the edge was very powerful when I first went there nearly thirty years ago. Aside from the historical and geographical experience the strong memory for me was one of a society that was very different from the one I was living in. The food was simple and there was little drinking. The young people of student age were nearly all in uniform and it was commonplace to sit in a cafĂ© next door to fit and lean men and women with their guns scattered over the table. The culture was of a frontier society – ascetic almost. It was also a vibrant and noisy democracy where politics were heatedly discussed over tables and in newsprint; Israel had recently invaded Lebanon and the issue was a burning one.

Visiting it again with my children recently was intriguing. The Palistinian question has ossified into a brutal land grab and statement of separation given physical form in the wall that separates the two peoples. We were driving to the Dead Sea and were trying to find our way through – there are no road signs or any obvious gates. We spied two Israeli soldiers and wound down the window for enlightenment. One shrugged. “Why don’t you go and ask the fucking Arabs down there” was all he said. “Welcome to Israel” was what I turned and said to my shocked passengers.

But the most abiding impression for me was the change in  society. The ascetic has been replaced my materialistic. It looks and feels like America – no lean, tanned reservists but many podgy and spoilt looking young people of both sexes. The usual mass-affluent brands are there in abundance as well as restaurants and bars which are full. The feeling of a frontier society has disappeared. This is, of course, a generalisation - but it it is an impression and not an attractive one. Then nor is a bully attractive - nor an adolescent who accuses anyone criticising their behaviour of child abuse.


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