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Review: Dateline Jerusalem

A collection of reports by the JC's former Jerusalem correspondent offers striking insights into Middle Eastern politics

    Observer and chronicler: Eric Silver
    Observer and chronicler: Eric Silver

    By Eric Silver
    Revel Barker Publishing, £15.99

    He was, as they say, a reporter of the old school. His no-nonsense copy would arrive, even in the age of email, with his typical telex-era slug: "Pro-Jewish Chronicle London, ex-Eric Silver, Jerusalem."

    Dateline Jerusalem, a collection lovingly assembled by Eric's widow, Bridget, is a snapshot of Silver's Middle East reporting and you can almost feel the worn shoe leather rippling from its pages.

    Taking the reader from the near euphoric days following the Six-Day War to the doldrums and anorexic coughs and splutters of the peace process as it was in 2008 (when Eric Silver died of cancer), the book's sometimes uncanny prescience exemplifies the adage that today's journalism is tomorrow's history.

    Most of the early pieces in the book are from the Guardian, a paper adorned by Silver after he joined it from the Harrogate Advertiser. A long-time labour correspondent for the paper, his declared ambition was to be a foreign correspondent and, yes, in his almost defiant Britishness despite his many years in Israel, there was a slight touch of the William Boot about him.

    Sadat and Begin in 1978
    Sadat and Begin in 1978

    But no "questing vole" in "plashy fen" for Eric. His Britishness defined itself in a passion for cricket and a love of good food and wine, twin obsessions that he was rarely able to indulge in Israel (except on high days and holydays such as the Queen's official birthday party at the British ambassador's residence in Ramat Gan).

    Perhaps the most enjoyable way to read this book - which also includes pieces written for the Independent, the LA Jewish Journal and some real beauties that were published in the JC - is with hindsight.

    A piece for the Observer, a portrait of Israel written in May 1973 to mark the country's 25th anniversary, concludes: "In the end, however, Israel's achievement is that it is there. Persecuted Jews have a champion, whether they are in Iraq or the Soviet Union… After 25 years, even its enemies acquiesce in the existence of a Jewish state."

    Or take Eric's pithy Observer pen-portrait of Menachem Begin, whose well-received biography he later wrote: "Begin believes in debate. He is one of the three or four best speakers in the Knesset, which he reveres with the clubland extravagance of a House of Commons man. When it suits him, he can still play the demagogue, but his preferred technique is that of an old-world cabaret turn…"

    When Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977, Eric turned a wry eye. "Now thrive the hucksters… would the army band have the sheet music for the Egyptian anthem? We smirked."

    For the JC, in 1993, Eric went to the Golan to catch the mood of 12,000 settlers fearful that a deal was to be struck between Prime Minister Rabin and Syria's President Hafez al-Assad. Eighteen years on, Rabin is dead by an Israeli assassin's hand, and Assad's son is wreaking bloody murder on his own citizens. The Golan settlers rarely raise the issue of a peace deal these days. As Eric predicted in 1993: "At their most pessimistic, they suspect that Mr Rabin and Mr Assad will never reach an accord anyway."

    He had his favourites to quote, Israeli (certain academics) and Palestinian (Sari Nusseibeh). But for a primer on Middle East politics, and a sense of the sheer enjoyment of being a foreign correspondent, Dateline Jerusalem makes rewarding reading.

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