Zoe Strimpel

You stay away if you want to, but Israel is still my safe space

Though the headlines focus on drama and tragedy, the reality on the ground tends to be less wild


Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on July 18, 2020. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90 *** Local Caption *** חוף ים קיץ תל אביב קורונה

April 20, 2023 11:15

I was staring out at a cascade of deserty hillocks, the wind gusting through the shrubby flowers, the blasts of desert sun scorching my skin, when the texts started pinging in. Was I safe? Was I safe?

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis were out on the streets; Ben Gurion Airport was closed; the President had mentioned “civil war”.

Not only was I safe, but my family and I were almost oblivious. We were in the Negev, poking around the Ramon crater, getting together over the Passover period for the first time in a decade.

Occasionally, we’d hear the sonic booms from fighter jets training in the area but otherwise, our world was one of birdsong, deliveries of dates and yoghurt from the friendly hippie managing the cabins we were staying in, and the odd potter to a supermarket or visitor centre.

It’s not that we hadn’t read the news. On the contrary: Bibi’s proposed judicial takeover has serious implications, and the brief general strike that followed his sort-of sacking of the defence minister was shocking, exciting and real.

But what people don’t always remember –— especially in relation to Israel — is that although the headlines focus on drama and tragedy, the reality on the ground tends to be less wild.

Indeed, daily life in most countries, bar the most repressive and wartorn, is basically humdrum, the big news taking a back seat to a child’s toothache or the opening hours at the supermarket.

I can’t remember a time since I began visiting Israel regularly, nearly 20 years ago, that people’s eyes haven’t widened (or narrowed) when they hear where I’m going, followed by doling out some sort of warning about safety.

But if you don’t know much about the country beyond the mainstream narratives, then you won’t necessarily put any attacks in context.

Nor would it occur to you that if it’s safe enough for millions of Israelis, it could be safe enough for you.

Especially as they actually take counter-terrorism seriously in Israel, and have done for far longer than us in the West. I remember going to Israel after the 7/7 Tube bombings and feeling safer there than in the UK, because — despite its failings — I had more faith in Israeli intelligence and policing.

It is true that the intifadas saw many killed in terror attacks.

Between 2001 and 2004, more than a thousand were murdered in Israel. But in any normal year, the numbers are between about 15 and 35.

Still too high, but Israel mostly feels much safer than parts of France, for instance; hence the large numbers of French Jews making aliyah. Yet when you say you are going to France on holiday, you are rarely met with those widening eyes and repeated pleas to “be safe”.

This time, however, the cascade of well-meaning “be safes” didn’t seem to be about the managed threat of terror, whose recent tragic examples included the execution of a British rabbi’s wife and two daughters on the West Bank and the car-ramming of an Italian tourist on Tel Aviv beach (two days after I had strolled along it myself).

Rather, the messages concerned the protests, which have been going on around the country every Saturday since January. The biggest, in Tel Aviv, regularly attracts 70,000-80,000 people.

The world has been fascinated by the sea of Israeli flags being waved in the name of democracy. Viewed from afar, they look like Western protests (only with a taboo flag): big, volatile, angry, scary.

But here is where I felt the sharpest difference between “us” (Jews who go to Israel) and “them” (everyone else, especially non-Jews with no connection to Israel bar politicised narratives).
I knew before I went, without having to ask, that the only thing to fear in the protests was possible Palestinian terrorism.

A politics nut I know, who has dabbled in activism, warned me that crowds can turn on a dime and get nasty.

My attempts to tell him that wouldn’t be the case in Israel ended up with the inarticulate insistence that “you won’t understand unless you’ve been there”. The truth is, he couldn’t understand unless he was also Jewish and knew that Jews don’t often beat up other Jews.

And so it was without fear that I set off, on the last night, to the Jerusalem rally, just days after the Al Aqsa mosque raid by Israeli police and the furious Palestinian rhetoric, terror attacks and rocket chucking that reliably followed.

There were Magen David paramedics and police galore, but the protest turned out to be exactly as I predicted: full of Israelis of all political stripes, though mostly from the left, most of whom knew each other, or the police, or the police’s sister or cousin. The only people kept out were the thuggish counterprotesters. All two of them.

The average age appeared to be about 65. There were many old and infirm people in attendance and many families and children.

At times, it had the atmosphere of a left-wing dinner party. But it was more ideologically diverse. Imagine a rally against the government in Blighty attended by both Jacob Rees-Mogg and Owen Jones.

Precisely. You can’t.

While the “be safe” brigade meant well, until they actually spend some time in Israel, there remains only that inchoate response to their concern: “you can’t understand”.

April 20, 2023 11:15

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