It all looks different from Israel

Our columnist pays his first visit to the Holy Land in 10 years, and is impressed


‘So, what do you make of all this political corruption? Why do politicians behave this way? They’re all in it for themselves — for what they can get out of the system, eh?”

These were the opening remarks of a fascinating conversation I had just a few days ago with an informed and talkative taxi-driver. But the journey I had booked was not in the UK. It was in Israel.

There I was, in liberated Judea, journeying from Efrat to Jerusalem. The driver somehow knew I was English (was it, I wonder, my bad Hebrew spoken with a Hackney accent?). And as we negotiated the Efrat-Jerusalem road he began to wax lyrical on the subject of corrupt politicians.

For a few minutes I thought he must  have been referring to the local political scene, and that I was about to be lectured to on the iniquities of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who has recently managed to save his government — for the moment — as he faces the possibility of indictment for corruption.

But it was not Mr Olmert to whom my remarkably well-read cab driver (who turned out to be a university graduate) was referring. It was Dr Gordon Brown.

“Your Dr” — he stressed the word ‘Dr’ with an impressive, facetious grin — “Brown. Look at him! Look how he bought off those who opposed the 42-day-detention proposal. Look at the mess your political system has got itself into over party donations. How do you cope with it all? Westminster?  The mother of parliaments!”

Well, what could I say? Could I defend the UK by replying that however bad things were at Westminster they were not half as bad as the goings-on in the Knesset?  And if I did, would this be true?

The world, you see, looks very different from an Israeli perspective.

Marion and I have come to Israel for a family simchah. But we have taken the opportunity to travel extensively over the centre of the country, including Judea and Samaria. It has been a full 10 years since my last visit. I am astonished at what I have seen.  Astonished and humbled.

Israel features in the British media only at times of political crisis and terrorist outrage. The picture thus painted is — inevitably — one of predicament and emergency. But from the moment you step off your aircraft into the ultra-modern Ben-Gurion airport, you realise just how unreal this picture really is.

The first things that struck me about 21st century Israel were the number of new, dent-free cars on the roads, and the volume of new construction that had taken place since I was here last. This is especially true of Judea and Samaria. The settlements that I had visited a decade ago were still unkempt building sites, with the distinct air of frontier, wild-west towns. Now they wear the mantle of civilised and ordered permanency (a sure sign of which are the number of pampered pets one encounters on the sidewalks).

Israel on the 60th birthday of its re-establishment has moved on from the kibbutz-dominated society that I knew and experienced 40 years ago. It is high-tech. In Jerusalem and Tel Aviv I have met construction engineers and research chemists who live on kibbutzim but work in the big cities. In Netanya I have schmoozed with media tycoons and computer geeks who jet-set, but still regard Israel as their home.

There can be no doubt that many Israelis regard the passing of the old order with nostalgia and regret. Modernity has brought with it all the evils that we experience here in the UK: street crime; pollution; a sensation-addicted tabloid press.

About politicians there is widespread cynicism — as deep and as unforgiving as that measured and confirmed by opinion surveys here in the UK. 

But what I have not found is any morbid obsession with the security situation. In much the same way as we British got on with our lives during the IRA emergency of the 1970s and 1980s, so Israelis have learned to live with terrorism and the challenges and inconveniences that it brings.  As distressing and as shocking as terrorist attacks are here in Israel, I have been asked searching questions about how we in Britain cope with home-grown campaigns of violence and intimidation.

What I am describing is not and must not be confused with complacency.

Rather, it is maturity. Israelis see themselves as living in a mature, self-reliant society.

Things, in short, do look very different from over here.

    Last updated: 9:23am, July 10 2008