April 25, 2004
We are all Israelis now. Strange statement to make, but it is, in a sense, true.
Tel Aviv in 1994 was a marvellous city. It was like any other Mediterranean metropolis: loud, brash and hot. The city faces the sea and all urban life centres on the beach.
Like Barcelona, Marseilles or Naples, It was a late night party town full of clubs, bars and cafes blaring music late into the night. The Israeli expression is that “Jerusalem prays whileTel Aviv plays” and this perfectly sums up the relationship between the cities.
In fact, there are scant outward signs That Tel Aviv is a Jewish city at all. Unlike Jerusalem, there are few Orthodox Jews around, while synagogues are, for the most part, invisible.
Ethnically, although Jewish, Israelis are an exotic mixture of western Europeans, north Africans, Yemenis, Iraqis, Syrians as well as Irish, English, Russians, Poles, Americans, South Africans and South Americans.
It is a monotheistic melting pot of a diaspora that brought back with it the culture, language and customs of the four corners of the earth.
Most Israelis are a bit of this and a bit of that. Unexpectedly, there are more black men in uniform than you will see in most American or British cities, because, due to demographics, the Ethiopian Jews make up a disproportionate number of young soldiers.
In short, Israel is quite the opposite of a uni-dimensional, Jewish country. The best acid test of this statement is the cuisine. Worldwide, you can tell how diverse the population is by the food smells of the streets and the choice of menus.
In Israel, you can eat almost any speciality, from Yemeni to Russian, from real Mediterranean to bagels. And as with any immigrant country, the first generation cooks. That’s what the Chinese, Indians and Pakistanis did in Britain.
Italians cooked when they arrived in New York, as did the Mexicans. Immigrants cook and that is precisely what wave after wave of poor Jews did when they arrived having been kicked out of Baghdad, Berlin and Bosnia.
Another giveaway is language. Israelis, although held together by the common language of Hebrew, speak a variety of quite unexpected languages.
There is a Spanish language paper published every day in Ladino, the medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews kicked out of Andalucia by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
These people, sought refuge mainly in the Ottoman Empire and continued to speak Ladino to each other for centuries in the great Jewish centres of Istanbul, Thessaloniki and Sarajevo.
In contrast, sitting in Tel Aviv’s busy Dezengof Street, old cafes hum with German. The older German immigrants still chat away in Hoch Deutsche – the language of Goethe, Schiller and Bismarck.
Further down the street, you are in little Odessa. Russian signs, Russian food, Russian newspapers, even Russian language television are now the norm.
In contrast, many orthodox folk will not even speak Hebrew to each other.
Their lingua franca is Yiddish, the hybrid Germanic/Slavic language of the disappeared East European Jewry.
Israel is a cultural melting pot simmering away inside a political pressure cooker and it is deeply divided. Israelis cannot have dinner or a drink with each other without the “issue” coming up.
The issue is where you stand on the Palestinian question. They are split right down the middle on this and people describe even very good friends in terms of where they stand.
There is no sitting on the fence.
Either you believe in giving back land or you don’t. Either you believe in peace or conflict, or more to the point, you believe in peace through military strength or peace through political parity of esteem.
You believe either in a heavy military response or a full, political settlement. I have yet to meet an Israeli who does not believe that the Palestinians are victims or one that does not feel some guilt about the way the Palestinians have been treated.
In my experience, most Israelis understand the terrifying logic of the late Edward Said’s description of the Palestinians as the “victims of victims”.
However, in Israel you have to commit.
You are one thing or the other, whether your father was an east European intellectual or the son of a Moroccan pauper.
Back in 1994, basking in the warm Afterglow of Oslo with Yitzhak Rabin at the helm, the majority of Israelis were behind the peace process, Shimon Peres was talking about a free trade area from Tel Aviv to Kuwait where goods and, more importantly, people could move uninhibited.
He spoke about the EU approach and cited the friendship between France and Germany as models for Jews and Arabs.
Remember that Peres is no softy.
While appearing dovish to the outside world, he never flinched in his core obsession with Israel’s security. It was Peres who masterminded Israel’s secretive nuclear programme with French technical help in the 1950s.
He encapsulated the mainstream view that Israel could be simultaneously militarily secure from its Arab enemies like Iraq and politically generous to its domestic neighbours, the Palestinians.
When you think back to the mid 1990s, it is hard to believe that Ariel Sharon – a disgraced general, was seen as a dinosaur from history.
Yet the left-wing majority was slim and everyone still had a definitive position on the West Bank and the settlements. (In fact, the majority of Israelis I worked with had nothing but contempt for the settlers in their fortified compounds. Settlers only account for 4 per cent of the Israeli population. The 96 per cent of the remainder live within undisputed international boundaries.)
The population was and still is totally politically polarised. This polarisation, which was unique to Israel, is now manifesting itself all over the West. You get the distinct impression that we are all taking sides now. No longer do people respond on the Middle East question with the uncommitted, “Well, there are two views” approach.
These days, public opinion is either with the Bush/Blair/Sharon camp or against it.
Sometimes, there is a fairly predictable common suite of ideas that line up behind the anti-Bush/Sharon/ Blair camp, such as someone who is likely to be in favour of more government spending at home, is also quite probably against American hegemony abroad.
But the most interesting change in recent weeks has come from many traditional right-wingers, business people and many who believe in a strong and militarily dominant America. These people are now reassessing the wisdom of the Bush/ Blair/Sharon axis.
The question is why? Maybe it is best summed up by al-Khaleej, a newspaper from the United Arab Emirates which, earlier this week, when referring to the US activities in Iraq, claimed that a “new Israel is emerging in the heart of the Arab world”.
It dismissed the American contribution as “Apache freedom, Apache democracy and an Apache regime” and accused America of simply emulating Sharon’s tactics in Palestine.
No matter how much the Americans plead that Iraq and Palestine are different, it doesn’t look like that to millions of people.
The reason millions of us are taking definitive sides could be because we are frightened. Quite apart from the politics of the Middle East, an apparently reckless America, at the vortex of the Arab world, occupying one of its oldest cities, scares us in away that nothing has before.
This is why Chris Patten, the EU Commissioner, said last week that Iraq and Vietnam were not similar. “If Iraq goes bad,” he continued, “it will be much more dangerous for us all.”
Israelis talk about an existential threat to the Jewish people based on the fear that their entire culture faces obliteration if they lose one war with the Arabs. This frightens them and informs their rigid views. But the underlying point that cannot be overlooked is that they are scared.
Underneath all the bravado and macho nonsense that sometimes passes for strength is a petrified nation. And this fear is beginning to affect us all.
Many detect a sense of hopelessness and in Europe, helplessness. People can rightly ask where has the real political and philosophical alternative to “an eye for an eye” gone. Where have the Mandelas and Gandhis gone? Where is the light at the end of the tunnel?
It is against this fearful background that attitudes have hardened. As it is unlikely that the Americans will leave or be allowed to leave Iraq in the next few months, attitudes will harden further in the near future.
Because it is no longer acceptable to sit on the fence, whether you are Irish, French, German or Spanish, we are all taking sides. In a strange way, trapped in the political cul-de-sac of Bush’s White House, we are all Israelis now.