Not a cause, not a problem - Israel is a country

The weekend before last, I was in Jerusalem again, for the third time in my life.

The third time in my life in Israel and every time, no matter how brief the visit, I come away feeling something different.

My earliest visit was in 1977. I was on a student “fact-finding” delegation to Israel, Lebanon and the West Bank.

We’d been first to Beirut where the PLO was then based and had done the rounds of the tawdry suburbs that were the refugee camps, of the wrecked Tal-al-Zataar camp where the Christians had pushed the Palestinians out and destroyed the whole place, and of the various Palestinian agencies.

Then we drove south to where the Palestinians and local allies held a shooty front-line against the South Lebanese Army, which was backed by Israel.

From there, we looked past the carcasses of two SLA tanks, over the valley to where the Good Fence marked the beginning of the Jewish state.

By the time we got to Tel Aviv, we had been immersed in the Palestinian story. The student leaders we met on arrival were Likud — supporters of Menachem Begin, the man then in power.

A visit to a kibbutz and an interview with Golda Meir did little to dispel the image of American Jews noisily telling us what a bad lot the Arabs were, and how Judea and Samaria were a natural part of their Promised Land.
Their brashness contrasted with the dignified mayor of Ramallah, with whom we took apple tea in the garden of a wooden house. I went home no lover of Israel, though no hater either.

Was that really less than four years after the Yom Kippur War?

A quarter of a century later I was back, making a programme about antisemitism in the Arab world. Now the crude assertions I was seeking out were being made by Egyptian film-makers and Gazan school-teachers.

Now the picture seemed to be far more nuanced than before, despite the fact that Likud was in power again and the peace process was suspended. Two British Asian kids had just bombed a Tel Aviv beach bar, conditions in Gaza were horrific and the second intifada was in its second year.

Many times I had turned down other opportunities to go to Israel, all of them extended by pro-Israeli organisations. I might return as a journalist, but not, I thought, as a visitor or a conference-wallah.
I told myself I had no desire to become, no matter in how small a way, a part of any propaganda campaign. If I replied at all, I said no.

Until this year. When I realised that I was turning down invitations and suggestions that, had they been made by almost any other country, I would have jumped at.

So I went back, but this time to meet and talk to Israelis about things that had nothing to do with high politics, walls, terrorism, borders and settlements.

For two days, we talked about social media and the internet and our children and other people’s children.
Likud still provided the Prime Minister.

The wall marched across the hills outside Jerusalem. The house-tops in the Old City still showed, with play areas behind wire, the exact position of Jewish-owned houses in the Arab Quarter.

But now great colourful crocodiles of middle-aged Nigerian Christians made their way between the sites, completely uninterested in Palestinian versus Jew or where the peace process had got to.
And like them — rather than as a cause or a problem — I saw Israel as a country.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times

    Last updated: 12:37pm, December 5 2013