The promise in this land

November 24, 2016 23:22

Yesterday, a sack of Bibles arrived. I ordered one months ago. Amazon sent 11. They were in a US Postal Service bag together with pieces of a dismembered Amazon box. Quality packaging!

The sack was so heavy the lady in the post office refused to try to lift it.

Not a single copy of the book was undamaged - stained, torn or scrunched up. Welcome to the Israeli postal service. I sent off an angry email to Amazon. I guess they thought that an order for a sack of Bibles from the Holy Land was not unusual.

This is all because I found it ridiculously hard to get a decent English translation of the Bible in paperback - and I am in Jerusalem! I'm learning the ropes - and how to use my elbows. As Israelis keep on telling me, you need sharp elbows to get by in this country. I now find myself gesticulating at queue jumpers and uttering angry "sleechas" at the people who run you over with their shopping bags and pushchairs.

Why should we queue or have to steer? This is Israel! This country wasn't built by people who say "excuse me" or "thank you so much".

Jobwise, everything here seems to be done by word of mouth. My cousin's secretary works at the King David, so can get me an interview. A guy at ulpan has a meeting at the Anglican School so will talk to them about me. And so on.

There's no shame in exaggerating credentials either. A contact phones me up to tell me he is writing to a think tank on my behalf. He says, "Simon, I have a question for you. You are an expert on the EU?"

"Um, no. I know a bit about it."

"You know more than I do!"

"Maybe, but…"

"So you are an expert!"

The phone clicks and goes dead.

I love this country! So I decide to write down some more things I love about Israel, because not enough people in the world love this country like they should.

I love that this is a country of sharp elbows, not like in Britain where it is all about status connections - class, really - but in a democratic sort of way. The connections that everybody has. Your neighbour. A guy at work. Someone you met at the supermarket. I love that this is a country built by the sharp elbows of immigrants who not only were given nothing on a plate but in fact had an awful lot taken away from them, and refused to give up.

On a Jerusalem tram-car, you see the Orthodox, the secular, the black, brown and pale, Arab ladies in head scarves and teenagers slouched over mobile phones. Apartheid, obviously.

I love seeing the young men and women in uniform everywhere. I didn't think I would. I am not a militarist kind of guy. But here it is different. These are citizen soldiers, teenagers mostly, asked to serve at a time and in a place where the streets and bus stops are often the front line and where they are targets. But they do it anyway. They still put on their uniform and go out there each morning, bravely and proudly.

I was upbraided by a young man in a restaurant when I mused aloud about whether the loss of young Israeli lives defending places like Hebron or West Bank settlements is really worth it. Of course it's worth it, he said. My friends who were killed thought it was worth it, too. Why? Because we are defending Israelis!

They are defending me.

And, by the way, more Palestinians die every year in traffic accidents than are killed by Israeli soldiers.

I love the passion here. Sure, there is craziness. The janitor at my cousin's building says that the dust storm that settled over Jerusalem the other day was the fault of the Arabs who have failed to make their deserts bloom. But walking home down Jaffa Street of an evening you hear angry arguments between left and right, religious and secular, peaceniks and hawks. On one occasion, a leaflet from one was snatched from my hand by the other and set on fire with a cigarette lighter. But then one of the agitated arsonist's comrades gently takes me aside and makes sure that I get a new copy of the offending literature from someone whose views he bitterly hates.

I love that so many people here are prepared to demonstrate for what they believe in - in their tens of thousands - whether for a reasonable cost of living, peace, or animal liberation, or the memory of an Eritrean man whose life has been cruelly snuffed out because he was mistaken for a terrorist. Life means something, and people here care.

I love that this country loves animals. A quarter of Israelis are either vegan, vegetarian or seriously considering becoming one. Army dogs killed in battle are buried with special honours. The army offers new recruits leather-free boots.

I love that this society is kind to children. This is not like Britain, where children are not only expected to be unheard but preferably unseen as well. In London, bus passengers tut at school kids, public places carry signs telling children not to play, and schools regiment and work their students to the point of exhaustion and depression.

Here, I sit in a Ministry of the Interior office to get my new ID card and I am surrounded by strollers and little ones zipping past and around my feet. Schoolkids hang out and mingle around adults as if they are part of the family, and a Ministry of Education brochure for immigrant teachers just off the plane says "Well guys, prepare yourself for a world where kids have freedom and ALL the parents want your phone number".

I love that this country still thinks that the spiritual matters. George Osborne is happy to sell off Sunday. Here, most people are secular, but everything shuts down on Shabbat. Rabbis debate the ethics of killing a terrorist who is about to kill you - and this is in the pages of the newspapers.

Even the animal liberation crowd is deeply imbued by a sense of Jewish ethics. This means that people can say kooky things, and no one seems to care. A woman I meet on a date has dreams where voices tell her to talk to animals. A messianic Christian at my ulpan says that he is a creationist, and adds that he can say that here without people looking at him funny. Did the Arabs really send over that dust cloud on purpose? Maybe the ones who think that the Jews stole the idea of falafel and humus and salad from them?

Yes, there's madness. But there is a sense that there is something more to life than the material and the financial, something that binds us all together, whatever our differences. Does all this sound like a wicked Apartheid, fascist, baby-killing, racist country? Boycott anyone? Or do the Israel-bashers need to look again, and wonder whether maybe there is more promise in this land than they could scarcely have imagined before.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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