As I slumped down on the sofa the other night, I’d meant to tune into Newsnight to catch up on current affairs but — and I hope Kirsty Wark will forgive me for my lack of commitment — when I flicked through the channels I stumbled across an Austin Powers movie, and that was it for the next hour or two.
Yes, it was as very, very silly as I remembered from when it first came out. But there were two points I’ll invoke in an attempt to justify my use of the time (apart from gleefully enjoying the sheer brio of idiotic escapism).
First, what a reminder the comedy was of how carefree the Nineties were — a James Bond spoof for that golden moment between the end of the Cold War and all that followed after 9/11. The irrepressible positivity of Austin’s catchphrase “Yeah, baby!” was apt for the era; we hardly knew we’d been born.
But secondly, there was also the committed lampooning of old Hollywood’s notions of Britain. A London consisting entirely of dolly birds, Carnaby Street, swinging, groovy discos and guardsmen in their bearskins: a lovely joke that never tires in the retelling as we can laugh at the outdated, ignorant notions that are so at variance with reality. It got me thinking: suppose cinemagoers across the globe took everything at face value and believed this to be a vérité vision of the UK today?
Because that’s sort of where we are when it comes to the gap between the contemporary reality of Israel and the way in which it’s all too often depicted in the media.
I’ve recently come back from a whirlwind tour of Eretz Yirsael (organised by the European Leadership Network, ELNET), my first visit for far too long. It was an eye-opener. There’s a dynamic hubbub on the city streets and a palpable sense of hope and vision for the future. The technology and infrastructure are ahead of the UK — the roll-out of superfast broadband is happening at a dizzying speed — and per capita GDP also tops that back here, while the Abraham Accords have opened up an incredible new chapter for the region.
The whole story was summed up for me by the experience of one significant player who’s been involved in relations between Britain and Israel going back almost to the start of the century, and who remembered that back then about 80 per cent of the time was taken up with discussing the conflict, and only the remainder was spent on business. Here’s the kicker: now those figures are exactly reversed, at least in the experience of this particular individual.
In politics, the current government is admittedly suffering various travails, but still there can be no denying that the sheer diversity of the rainbow coalition including an Arab party leader is a veritable game-changer.
So, a nation transformed, brimming over with innovation and all kinds of possibilities for what the next few decades hold in store.
Yet there’s hardly a hint of that in what we read and watch in Britain. Terror attacks may eke out a few column inches and when outright conflict breaks out, as it did last May, the reports are virtually interchangeable with ones that were broadcast decades ago.
That’s in the mainstream but there’s also the apartheid charge which, although palpably ludicrous, is increasingly taking hold in left-leaning parts of the political spectrum, ideologically skewed NGOs and academia.
All of which bears even less relation to the reality of Israeli society than the Austin Powers flicks do to Blighty — after all, at least there once was a Swinging Sixties, which by the way is the very decade in which the Soviets first cooked up that lie of Israeli apartheid.
Would that these tired untruths, distortions and hackneyed cliches could be relegated to the risible, outdated oblivion of Dr Evil’s cackling demand for one million dollars.