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Monday, November 29, 2004

My nation of heroes, my chosen people . . .

Julie Burchill
Unreservedly pro-Israel, our correspondent reveals how her first visit to the country fulfilled a long emotional and political love affair

WHEN I TOLD people that I was going to Israel this autumn, I noticed that a lot of them had the same reaction. They’d look dubious, then worried, then say: “Ooo. Is it a story?” The implication being that only professional interests could take one to such a hellhole. They also expressed fear for my safety, going as far on the part of one friend (Gentile, never been there) to actually weep, and on the part of my beloved former mother-in-law (Jewish, never been there) to write to me that she would pray every night for my intact return, even though she is an atheist!

I had had it coming, the Big Jew Thing; ever since as a nine-year-old girl in a working-class West Country Stalinist family, I learnt about the Shoah and the Six-Day War at the same time. It must have been that collision, that schism; death, life, struggle, NEVER AGAIN! — how could I ever not believe? Then I learnt the word for what I was; philo-Semite. That so few people have heard of philo-Semitism, whereas everyone has heard of anti-Semitism, says it all, really.

And the puzzle comes back to this — why do these people, above all others, inspire such ludicrous, ceaseless, surreal loathing? Why is it that one of my sweetest, youngest, most educated friends said to me one night, not even drunk: “Come on babe, admit it — don’t you ever EVER think that if the Jews had never existed how much easier life would be?”

Over the years I have pursued the Jewish Enigma and, it must be said, often got it wrong. My marriage to a non-observing Jew in the 1980s ended after a decade, most of which was spent either having very good sex (yay!) or rowing about the Palestinian question (oy!), with the shiksa on the side of the Jews and the Jew having a good old kvetch on behalf of the Palestinians. It was during such rows with my Jewish husband and his Jewish family, for the first time, that I wondered whether it was actually the Jews I really liked most . . . or the Israelis, those SuperJews, on whose behalf I seemed increasingly to be going into battle.

It didn’t take a genius to see that the more Jews stood up for themselves, the less the world liked it, whereas other races were cheered on and drooled over as “freedom fighters”, no matter how bloody their hands got, I reflected. Could it be that anti-Semitism in England in particular was based on the fact that we had gone in the opposite direction to the Jews — from powerful to powerless — and felt great resentment about this fact? After all, they’d had a good deal more than loss of empire to deal with in the 20th century — the loss of one third of world Jewry, for instance.

And Israel is a country the size of Wales, which within the first 25 years of its re-establishment (remember, the Jews were in the countries of the Middle East some seven centuries before the Muslims even existed) — from the Declaration of Independence in 1948 to the Yom Kippur War of 1973 — single-handedly fought off murderous attacks from such neighbouring dictatorships as Egypt, Jordan and Syria. (The US, surprisingly, did not begin to aid Israel in any major way until the mid-1970s; the country was founded with arms from the Communist bloc, and the first Government comprised a coalition of the majority Socialist Mapai Party with the Stalinist Mapam Party to the Left and religious and liberal groups to the Right. Beat that for pluralism!)

During the same period, it’s worth noting, the might of the British Armed Forces couldn’t even keep the oddballs and bishop-bashers of the IRA under control, so tied were the hands of our soldiers. It became common in working-class English households during the Seventies to hear Dad, never a great fan of the Jews (“sneaky”, “arrogant”, “cliquey”), say grimly as the latest atrocity from Ulster made itself felt through the medium of the Six O’Clock News: “The Israelis would have that lot sorted out in no time!” In 30 years, the image of the archetype Jew had gone from that of a frail, bullied scholar walking meekly to his doom to that of a big blond brute in a tank bulldozing across the desert, scattering tyrannies before him, STANDING UP FOR HIMSELF!

If the English working class were seeing the Jews in a new and favourable light due to Israel’s military triumphs — small and scrappy, innee, yer Israeli? Bit like us! — it’s fair to say that both the right-wing ruling class and the liberal middle class were shocked senseless by developments. You could see the bafflement on the faces of the most well-meaning of liberals as the mild-mannered, ever-scapegoated People Of The Book morphed into the creators of the Uzi machine gun and the proud owners of a nuclear capacity. (Interestingly, when the Jews put their scientific brilliance to the service of the European powers, no one ever complained, as I remembered. No one ever said: “Ooo, Albert Einstein, don’t do that!”)

What the Jews had done, unique of all the oppressed races of the world, was to come back better than ever.

This was a country founded on socialist principles, by idealists and intellectuals, which could shape-shift at the merest whiff of cordite into a lean, mean, fighting machine that did not allow soldiers to salute their “superiors” yet was deadly effective. It was the only Jewish country in the world, yet surrounded as it was by hate-filled theocracies who had wan-ted Hitler to kill the lot of them, it held secularism to be the most precious cornerstone of its democracy; only in Israel do you find that the most religious Jews, the Haredim, are the most opposed to the existence of the Jewish state — the most extreme of these, the Neturei Karta, even supported the PLO’s charter calling for its destruction. Ultra-religious Jews are not generally drafted into the Israeli Army, and those who are end up in the “Rabbinical Corps”, checking that the kitchens are kosher.

Secular Israel regards them with its characteristic, ceaseless tolerance; but for their part, the men in their side-curls and suits walk alongside young Israeli hotties wearing less on the street than other girls wear on the beach with never a sneer or slur, let alone a stoning. Surrounded on all sides by countries where religion and politics are one, to the point that democracy is considered ungodly, and where the chosen religion spends so much time acting as a tireless curtain-twitching Mrs Grundy, determined above all to curtail the freedom of women, that it has no time to tackle the subjugation and impoverishment of its faithful by their filthy rich rulers, Israel’s cool, clear-eyed take on matters of faith and secularism is a lesson to all of us. Imagine — a country in which the MOST religious are the LEAST nationalistic!

Anti-semitism can be as in-your-face as smashing up synagogues. But it can also be sly, sneaky, subtle and sometimes surreal. It must, in my opinion, go some way to explaining why Israeli human rights issues are so obsessively concentrated on, while many Arab and African countries are allowed to treat their citizens with as much subhuman sadism as they wish — the pregnant, raped women so frequently sentenced to death by stoning under Islamic regimes come immediately to mind, but the list is never-ending.

In having one human rights rule for democratic Israel — which can be summed up as “Be perfect or we’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks” — and another for the dictatorships which surround it — “Do what you like to your people, it’s your culture!” — Whitey displays an interestingly sly bit of anti-Semitism which is also rather insulting to the said dictatorships and the people they lord it over. The Jews are seen to be the one ethnic group who “pass” as white; their insistence on making their state a democracy is also seen as a sign of their stubborn refusal to act the savage to Whitey’s civilising influence. In short, the Lord forbid that any ethnic group should ignore the all-important world dominance hierarchy and dare to turn from victim into victor — and that is Israel’s ultimate crime. So why did it never occur to me to actually go to Israel before? After all, since I broke my self-imposed travel embargo a decade ago (didn’t want to have sex with my various husbands, if you’re interested) I’ve been a veritable globetrotter, nipping off to places as far away as the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean at the drop of a luggage tab. Why I would choose to make 12-hour flights to places I had absolutely no interest in while Israel is a mere four hours away, has a climate which makes the Bahamas look like Bradford and everything about it fascinates me, is a mystery to me, but a lot of it probably has to do with inertia, fear and a long-held belief that one should never meet one’s heroes. This was the first time a whole country had been my hero — millions of the f******, all ready to let me down! — so naturally I held back.

Finally, the turn of events led me there. An avalanche of congratulatory e-mail from Jews around the world led to lunch with beautiful Michelle from the Israeli Tourist Board, which led to me and my best friend Nadia Petrovic — the only person I know whose philo-Semitism leaves mine in the shade — boarding an aircraft to Tel Aviv this October.

Even before your baggage goes through airport X-ray machines so huge that it would be possible for a standing adult, barely stooping, to walk through one, everything about going to Israel is larger than life, which is strange considering that it’s a country the size of Wales. Everything from the clothes you need to pack — not many, nothing warm, because it’s always hot and always informal unless you plan to hang around some neurotic, misogynistic Muslim/Catholic “ Holy Place”, in which case, COVER YOURSELF YOU FILTHY DAUGHTER OF A WHORE! — to the reaction you get from your friends — OH NO, YOU'RE GOING TO DIEEEEEE! — is Not Normal.

But that feeling ended, for me, the minute I was settled on the El Al aircraft. Looking around at my fellow passengers, in their various skullcaps, side-curls and crop-tops, I felt an eerie sense of calm, so different from the irritation, nerves and boredom that air travel usually provokes. My favourite bit of the Bible, verse 16, Chapter 1 of The Book of Ruth, came back to me, triumphantly this time after a lifetime of aloneness: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”

To be among them, but not of them; to “pass”, of all the outrageous things, when one of the stewardesses (minimal make-up, stern slacks; Israeli girls make the rest of us, even Oriental women, look like inappropriate drag queens, but somehow you can’t hate them because they’re beautiful as they don’t mean to be) speaks to me in Hebrew! I can’t get over this — it’s what I’ve been waiting for since I was nine years old! — but my face falls a little when snub-nosed, baby-blonde Nadia is similarly spoken to; no one could mistake her for one. Bitch. And this is the first of many sad lessons I learn in Israel — that because of the terrible fall-off in tourism since the intifada, Israelis presume that they have no friends abroad any more. They simply presume that every person on an Israeli plane, or in an Israeli hotel, is an Israeli. That was the first thing that broke my heart, there.

But it healed the moment we stepped out of the plane into the sunshine. In Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth’s self-loathing hero remarks of his first visit to Israel something like: “Look! — Jews — Jews everywhere — walking around as if they own the place! WHICH THEY DO!” What was striking to me, though, all through Israel, was the very absence of weight being thrown around.

“Shalom.” They say it, them Jews, every time. It’s their hello, their goodbye, their have-a-nice-day, and they mean it. You hear them say it, you see them do it, and sometimes, just a little bit, got to say it, it makes you hate them — makes you hate their endless belief in the goodness of Mankind, the very Mankind that came so very near to destroying them.

You see it in Jerusalem, where the mosques and churches gleam free. You see it in Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial, where the Avenue of the Righteous comes before everything else — the Righteous being un-Jews, that is. You see it from the car, being driven from Jerusalem to Eilat, when you ask your Israeli tour guide what is that place over there that looks . . . different? Oh, that’s the Bedouins. That’s the Palestinians. That’s where they cut off people ’s hands and stone women to death, because it’s their culture, and that’s what so much of the “civilised” world wants even more of Israel to be sacrificed unto.

You see it in Ariel Sharon, that alleged hawk of hawks, sending in the Israeli Defence Force to violently evict 8,000 Jews from the Gaza in order to go ONE STEP CLOSER towards peace with a people who want his own people dead. You see it in the beautiful English Jewish journalist Charlotte Halle from Haaretz, the “Tel Aviv Guardian”, married to an Israeli, with a three-year-old son, who only comes near to losing her temper once with me — when I express too much antipathy towards the Palestinians who already want her baby son dead, because he will grow up to be a Jew, and she is prepared to go, as her ceaseless, blameless, shameless people are always prepared to go, for ever a bridge too far.

You see it in Nadia’s eyes when she says, so serenely, in the car after Yad Vashem: “I always knew that lots of people had suffered. But if ever, EVER, anyone says that anyone has ever suffered like the Jews did, you know now that they’re either one of two things. One, they're silly. Or two, they’re just a little bit WICKED.”

You see it in Tel Aviv, on your balcony, your last night in Israel, with Nadia crying back in the room, and you really want to go home and see your husband and she does her son . . . but you really wonder how you will live now, back at home, beyond the wild blue yonder where these people, these F****** PEOPLE, did the thing they did — where they literally created the modern world.

Where they turned a place the size of Wales, which was just another regular barren Arab desert, into a Garden of Eden overnight, or at least over a decade. Where they came straight off the ships from Auschwitz and Belsen and Drancy and simply rolled up their sleeves and shook their heads and said, “Oyyyy . . .”

Where they created Tel Aviv — the first Jewish city in 2,000 years — by simply saying it was so, a few dozen ragged-ass Hebrew re-settlers, standing on some sand in 1909.

Where they don’t even WANT your help, the obdurate, stubborn, stiff-necked f****** —

All seven million of them —
Seven million . . .
So we won, then . . .

Back in the room, Nadia is singing now as she packs.

I’ve been back from Israel less than a week as I start writing this, and my suntan is already fading as my mind and soul shrink back to the size they were before — the size that fits so snugly around The X Factor and Brit Art and Whither the Novel Now and all those cultural Hula Hoops we keep up so frantically to distract ourselves from the big hole in the middle that is us.

Don’t get me wrong — I love my life. This isn’t a cheesy old I-was-lost-and-now-I’m-found snow job — I find that such woe-is-me eulogies tend to come from your basic dust-in-the-wind types anyway, who have neither the guts nor the inclination to change their lives but can’t pass up the chance of a little extra whine-time. No, like I said — I love my life. I love my God, my husband, my son Jack, my job, my friends and reality TV. I’m a happy bunny with such a high level of optimism that I frequently wake up in the morning, at the age of 45, feeling almost excited about washing my face and drinking my coffee — a sure sign, according to my shrink friend, of a person in A Happy Place. (Or a cretin.)

And yet, and yet . . . while all other parts of my heart beat properly, I feel that, increasingly, I have a country-sized hole in it. I have always loved my country with a fierce cool pride, knowing our faults, and still thinking “Yeah, we may well be stiff-upper-lipped/stuffed-shirts/sex-maniacs/drunks/po-faced/frivolous/whatever — but what’s the option? Being French — BEING GERMAN? I don’t think so!” No country is perfect, but relatively, I have always felt blessed to be British; generally, when prejudiced push comes to murderous shove, we have always tended to be on the side of the angels.

But increasingly, I don’t feel this. Because, in the face of all the evidence of history, and thus in the face of logic, Britain is slowly but surely ceasing to be Britain and becoming little more than an outpost of the “European Union” — the very name, I feel, echoes the join-us-in-friendship-or-else! promise/threat of an earlier European Unity dream-turned-nightmare. I have many minor gripes against the EU, such as its monstrous levels of corruption and waste.

But mainly I loathe the EU as I believe it to be a massive threat to what remains of the world Jewry which its leader, Germany, did so much to destroy. I cannot trust an organisation which has a belligerent Germany, aided and abetted by his vicious short sidekick, France, at its head — especially when that Germany is increasingly painting itself as the real “victim” of the Second World War. And it’s not just them, it’s us — in 2003 an EU survey claimed that six out of ten Britons believed Israel to be a threat to “world peace”, whatever that is.

Israel is not without its problems — but they are problems which are a result of other countries’ ignorant and destructive instincts and actions rather than its own. Because of this, they will be easier to solve — and, crucially, they make “war-torn” Israel a far better place to be in than peaceful Britain. Israelis can at least see the bombs that go off in their country — whereas ours go off in our minds and hearts, day after day, destroying everything which was once precious to us. I’m bad at languages, but I do have a heartful of soul and pretty soon I’ll have a Hebrew teacher — a female teacher, thankyouverymuch! — who I’ll see once a week. And eventually, I’ll get there.

Once I couldn’t imagine not living — or dying — in England, but as I get older the more I feel the need to walk in the sun; in the blatant, blameless light of confidence, of communal effort, of a cause greater than keeping the European gravy train/hate machine on track. It’s not exactly next year in Jerusalem — but, God willing, five years from now in Tel Aviv will do me just fine.