Among the Israelis

From the outside, to newspaper readers, Israel may seem a country awaiting its doom. So going to Jerusalem over Christmas and the New Year for a few weeks, I half expected that I would find Israelis paralyzed, as the French were in 1939, anticipating their destruction. Having got there, however, I quickly realized that although their mood has become extremely serious, the Israelis are in no panic.

In fact what strikes one about Israel is how very much it is a going society: so active indeed that it gives one the impression of a country growing and thrusting upward. The forces which might intercept this growth are certainly present in the minds of the Israelis but practical concerns absorb them. Israelis seem to function on two timetables: one based on the practicalities of day-to-day living and planning, over which they have control; the other of contingencies threatening from the countries that surround them and, beyond those, of the much wider world of America, Russia, and Europe.

But the second of these timetables is not allowed to inhibit the first. The anxiety I heard several people express while I was there was not that they might be destroyed but that they were living in a situation which split their consciousness into two halves, of which one was absorbed in the continued and undeterred construction of the Israeli state and the other in things beyond their control which nevertheless had to be taken into account. An English teacher at the Hebrew University asked me not “Do you think we are in danger?” but “Do you think we are getting paranoid?” I asked her what she meant: “Well sometimes we have the impression that all our friends all over the world have forsaken us. Is this true? Or is it our paranoia?”

Doubts of this kind I heard repeated quite often. Israelis worry a bit about themselves, but this does not result in defeatism. I agree with I.F. Stone that the mood of Israel would be, in extremis, not that of Masada or, indeed, of the Holocaust but of Samson pulling down the pillars of the temple. This mood is based on determination that whatever happens, two things remain constant: Israel exists, and there will be no repetition of the Holocaust.

The mood then, however grave, is one of carrying on as though this nation’s future were assured. Frequently those responsible for planning the future—whether for rebuilding the old Jewish city of Jerusalem or for the University of Tel Aviv—said to me, “We are going to do this in seven, that in ten, years.” Israel continues to inspire confidence. A Jerusalem taxi driver said to me, “It would be a beautiful place except for the wars”—as one might say that London would be lovely except for the weather. Israel is in fact as little as possible like France or any other European country, unless perhaps Great Britain, in 1939. For like Great Britain then, it combines the sense of an indestructible destiny…

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