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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 with a readiness to meet whatever happens.

Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem, more than anyone else in Israel seems to embody, at their best and most energetic, the characteristics of Israelis I met who were in responsible positions. He is at once a public man and intensely personal. No wonder that Auden put him in a short list of three politicians whom he liked to be with. Blue-eyed and fair-haired, of flourishing open all appearance without being in the least florid, he has the smile of someone who really appreciates things. It is obvious that everything he says comes out of his real feelings. He can tease and be teased, and he works without stopping—though he told me that his real work is done between six and nine AM; the rest of the day is spent in getting around and encouraging whoever needs encouragement.

Kollek was anxious to put on show for me everything he is doing for Jerusalem. Nothing in fact gives one more the feeling of the upward movement than Jerusalem with its high-rise buildings, its suburban developments, its gardens in process of construction, its newly opened Islamic museum, its scattered children’s playgrounds, and its archaeological excavations. These expressions of vitality are also sensitive areas of criticism, and Teddy Kollek is well aware of this. He admits that some of the high-rise buildings are a mistake, but defends others. The point surely is that, given the problems of population and of tourism which exist in every part of the world, town planning is a euphemistic name for juggling with stone and steel and concrete as best one can to satisfy inescapable needs. Jumbo jets fly in with a load of tourists who spring up into the sky through the twenty stories of a Hilton hotel.

Jerusalem copes with necessity with a more agonized conscience and less hideously than Paris, Rome, or London. The Old City remains untouched. The old Jewish quarter is being reconstructed in ways that retain its character. When we discussed the building going on in Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek had a way of bundling us into his car and taking us to the sites, explaining en route that Jerusalem is the only city in the world where, in addition to putting up new buildings, they are opening up spaces within the city itself to make gardens and vistas. We drove past a part of the Old City wall where, as he explained, two buildings had been torn down to reveal a most beautiful part of it. They have also discovered that the surround of most of the wall is silted up by the accumulated rubbish of generations. They intend to clear this away to reveal the wall in its complete height and down to its foundations.

What city of comparable size in the world has 60,000 acres of public gardens?” Teddy Kollek asked proudly. He took us on a little tour to show the effects of floodlighting on the walls and on chosen buildings, including the Russian monastery where a Russian princess, descended from the Romanovs, and now ninety-two years old, is a nun. He said because there is practically no night life in Jerusalem, he decided to floodlight the city—and thus provide some pleasure for the eye. We drove past a place which, he says, “almost proved my undoing.” Why?” I asked. “Because, against the wishes of my council, I allowed a memorial to be put up here for the Arab dead in the Arab-Israeli wars. Speeches and articles appeared asking where in England there was a memorial to the German dead.” Isaiah Berlin, who was in the car with us, said that a memorial to German as well as British members of New College who died in World War I had been put up at Oxford. Kollek said he regretted he had not known this. He drove on a bit further, then stopped the car at the edge of a gully. Almost immediately below us was the old first-century Jewish cemetery with Absalom’s tomb—a dazzling white miniature pyramid—and, to the left of it, another, cone-shaped, white tomb. These seemed cut out of the deep perpendicular darkness below us. Above, there was the Russian monastery.

The new buildings in Jerusalem may sometimes be ugly, but it cannot be said that good will, ingenuity, and imagination are lacking in the work of planning and construction. I visited a slum where, since there was not enough money to tear it down and build less cramped new houses, the city had permitted the owners to add rooms onto their homes wherever possible. One sees rooms added on and supported below by concrete pillars. In the same slum, in gaps between blocks of houses, miniature public gardens had been made, with gaily painted swings, slides, wooden horses, merry-go-rounds—toys for the children. Since there is so much overcrowding here everything has been done to make spaces away from home, outdoors, or in the form of libraries, in which the children can get away from their crowded homes and play and study elsewhere. The outdoors is their playroom, the library their study.

I was told that since 1967, with the annexation of the Old City, the Arab population of the unified Jerusalem has risen to 80,000 as against 230,000 Jews. Yet despite occasional acts of terrorism, Jerusalem is a much more peaceable city today than Belfast, and it seems remarkably free from fear. However, good will is undercut, of course, by the fact that the Arabs of the Old City are, and feel that they are, under occupation. Their loyalties are to Jordan or to the idea of a Palestinian state. It makes no difference to them that within the context of occupation they are more prosperous than they were under the Jordanians.

A young man who drove me around Jerusalem said the Arabs have their own schools, and they are free to study for entrance to Arab universities abroad unless they wish to work according to the Israeli educational programs in Arab villages, where, in addition to studying the Koran, they study Hebrew. There are Arabs studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Nevertheless most Arab students prefer to go to the universities at Alexandria or Beirut. On the other hand, the number of Jewish students studying Arabic has increased.

The lithe and nervous young man who supplied me with this information stated the Israeli attitude brashly. “We don’t try to force the Jews and Arabs to be good neighbors,” he said. “If they come to be, this will happen naturally. But they should not be forced to live together. The fact is,” he added with growing excitement, “Arabs and Jews don’t like one another. So we say to them ‘OK, you don’t like us, then we won’t make you. You don’t want to study at the Hebrew University but at Alexandria, or Beirut. OK, you do it. OK, we aim at tolerance, coexistence, peace, but OK, we agree not to like one another.”’ There were too many OKs for comfort. Like other Israelis I met he talked of these aims but scarcely touched on the painful subject of the cautious censorship that exists in Israel—it is officially justified by the continual war situation—and that affects mostly the Arab press, next the English, and least of all the Hebrew press.

The effort to build bridges between Semites is pursued by liberals. Mayor Kollek took us on Christmas Eve to an Arab-Israeli luncheon, given by the mayor of Bethlehem. Despite the fuss of security checks as we entered and left the Bethlehem municipality, this was a coolly cordial occasion. It was very much in the American style (I was disappointed not to be eating kebash and rice), with the two hundred or so guests standing around drinking whisky or soft drinks for twenty minutes, then seated at many tables to be served chicken dinner followed by a honey cake, which seemed the only concession to the Orient. My neighbor, Joshua Palmon, a blue-eyed, fair-haired, stockily built man, formerly an assistant of Teddy Kollek and an expert on Arab affairs, told me that until three years ago this get-together had been a real Arabian feast, with the cooking done by rival Arab families whose women competed to produce the most succulent strips of roast lamb.

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