Sunday, 21 August 2011

Reflections on a visit to Israel

I recently enjoyed a perfectly pleasant and uneventful trip to Israel, which nonetheless brought me to see the country in a new way. I had been used to thinking of it as an abstract way, as the nexus of various political and moral problems. Now I see it as a more real and normal country and, at the same time, a more unique one.

First there is the incredible landscape of mountains, deserts, forests, olive groves. On the news we hear constantly about disputes about tiny pieces of land and wonder about the rationality of those who would refuse to compromise over something so minor. But seeing it first hand one can understand how easily this Land can get into your soul, and why so many people are willing to fight and even die for it. Why the peoples who have lived here dream of it even in exile and will not let it go.

View of Jerusalem Old City from the Mount of Olives.
Second is how small and close everything is. In Jerusalem I stayed on the Mount of Olives, in the Arab area and so rather poor and suspicious of strangers. But with a direct line of sight to the Old City and the Dome of the Rock a few hundred yards below. On the television news we see only particular flashpoints and you don't get the same feeling of how crowded together all the places and people they're talking about really are.

All the troubles go on between neighbours. And disputing neighbours can be incredibly petty. The Palestinian houses were old and tatty, and interspersed with wasteland, despite being on prime real estate close to the centre of the city. For some reason they find it hard to get the necessary permissions to build or refurbish homes (!). In contrast the Israeli ones looked spanking new. A hundred yards below the hotel a fortress-like cluster of Israeli homes had been established in the Palestinian area. Just to make it clear who was boss, a hundred-foot high flagpole carried an enormous Israeli flag, lit up at night (see picture). It really reminded me of Belfast.

Third is the striking diversity of Israel's population. The news simplifies the clashes as if they were between homogeneous corporate agents - 'the' Israelis vs 'the' Palestinians. We're also used to seeing suave Western seeming Israelis articulating and defending Israel's point of view in ways calculated to win over Western audiences (in contrast, Palestinian representatives have always had a terrible grasp of PR). So it is a shock to realise that Israel is, at least these days, hardly a Western country at all! There about a million Russian immigrants, for example, and English - that lingua franca of the Western world - is surprisingly scarce. The internationalisation and moralisation of Israel's policies to the Palestinians in the international media has obscured the centrality of domestic political concerns, particularly the often venal bargaining to form coalition governments between parties representing very different and often distinctly illiberal electoral constituencies.

Finally there are the religious nuts. Not only the loopy Christians of all denominations with crazy eyes, but also the hundreds of thousands of ultra-orthodox jews omnipresent in Jerusalem in their black 19th century suits and sacred tassels. Like Goths, there are sub-groups that can be distinguished according to minute differences in hat style, sidelock curliness and length, etc. (Spotting these differences is a pleasant travel game.) They are heavy users of public transport and I was struck by their other-worldliness. Other than being very careful to avoid proximity to women, they seemed to have no attention for anything except earnest conversations with each other in low voices. I imagined deep scholarly conversations about different readings of scriptural passages and wondered if this is what a nation of philosophers would look like. Not entirely a positive vision.

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