The Ericle & Son Of Ericle returned from Israel early on Tuesday, just in time to celebrate the start of the Jewish New Year on Wednesday evening. It was an odyssey that took us from Jerusalem (4 nights) to Masada (1) on to Safed (3), via Nazareth, and then on to Akko (1), ‘Acre’ in old money. Our fortnight ended in ‘Modern Israel’ via Caesarea (2) & Tel Aviv (4). It was a journey where one of our party was looking at Israel with a disposition to approve and the other was more disposed to criticism or being ‘objective’ as he would put it.
Ever since I was old enough to engage in ‘more educated’ conversations on the subject, I have found Israel to be both a welcome and unwelcome obligation.
Modern-day Israel, as legitimised by the UN mandate, came into being some 15 months before I was born. So, we kind of grew up together. As a child, I collected pennies to plant trees there. By the time of my bar mitzvah in 1963, Israel had already fought 2 major wars in pursuit of its right to exist. The Arab in invasions of 1966 (The Six Day War) & 1973 (The Yom Kippur War) straddled my time at Sussex University. Indeed my major, International Relations, meant that I had an academic, as well as an emotional, investment in the subject of Israel.
As a result of being a Jew in the UK, I have very often found myself having not only to defend the actions of Israel but also its very right to exist as a state. This is not the place to set out the myriad of dimensions to such multi-layered debates. This notwithstanding I would care to believe that, whereas I have agreed with most of what Israel has done in its national interest, I have also expressed critical opinions on such matters as the protracted 1993 incursion into Lebanon and the settlements policies. In such debates, though, I am always dismayed by the lack of sympathetic understanding for the policies of a country whose right to exist is contested by many of its neighbours & near neighbours. Moreover, I am continually astounded by the standards many expect of Israel, which are way beyond the practices of other countries and, in many cases, their own.
The Ericle’s one and only other visit to Israel occurred exactly 40 years ago. I was intrigued to find out how much the passage of time had changed Israel and whether this would affect my opinions in any way. I had heard that Israel was a much-changed country and this was clear from the get-go. In 1977 Israel exercised security practices that were not only unique but a quantum difference to those deployed elsewhere. On this occasion, the security check-in at the airport was no different from any other flight and once in the country, besides a couple of ‘pinch points’ such as The Damsacus Gate in Jerusalem and when we travelled through to Masada via the corridor that borders The West Bank, that I really did not notice an unusually high level of security. That is because, in broad terms, today security has become an international commodity. Israel has become normalised; in some ways because the rest of the world has had to share its values & concerns, in others because the country itself has grown & prospered and become more mainstream as a result. So what appeared as an under-populated country 40 years ago today has a density of population with a social infrastructure to match. All of this is not to say that a great deal of the country, especially the bit that is away from the Mediterranean coast, does not have singular features. Israel’s unique location at the crossroads of modern and ancient civilisations entails that it offers an unrivalled intensity of experience; especially when one considers that the country is scarcely the size of Wales. But you can get all this from any travel book of the area, with whom I have no intention to compete or compliment. However, I do want to offer a few words on what travelling to Israel means to a diaspora Jew, such as myself.
A sort of stasis exists for places in the world with ‘heritage’ and Israel’s Holy Places are no different. One travels to such places with a sort of pre-nostalgia, knowing what to expect and seeking the same out. There is change, of course. The Jewish part of Jerusalem’s Old City, which had been almost totally destroyed under Jordan’s stewardship has been majorly rebuilt since 1966. The Wailing Wall now offers an air-conditioned part where the devout can pray in more comfort. The basilica of Nazareth’s Church Of The Annunciation is modern, while Akko’s underground city is under on-going archaeological development.
As a Jewish tourist to the Jewish national homeland, I realise that one’s disposition to find affirming meaning in the experience is a self-actualising process. And yet, nonetheless, the Israel experience still gave me a true sense of ‘belonging’. On our first day in Jerusalem, on a pre-ordained track, I bought a ‘kippah’, (a.k.a. ‘ a yamulka’), a Jewish skull cap. On a whim, I put it on my head there and then and there it remained for most of my waking hours until we reached Akko. When this behaviour was, quite reasonably, challenged by my son, I was unable to come up with an immediate answer. But then it dawned on me. In London, wearing a kippur is a non-mainstream occupation; something that marks one out as being in the minority. In most of Israel this proposition is turned on its head (sic!). It’s not that I want to go about the place declaring my religion or ethnicity but doing so in a Jewish state enhanced that afore-mentioned state of comfortable belonging that I genuinely felt and really enjoyed. Not surprisingly in Akko, a predominantly Arab city, wearing my kippur seemed strange and I put it in my pocket and also in Tel Aviv, where wearing such head-garb is surprisingly low on the ground.
My kippur-wearing behaviour would seem to be a good example of the Social Cognitive Theory of learning, which equates individual behaviour to the observation of others within the context of social interactions, experiences, and outside media influences. In our visit to Israel 2 extremes of behaviour intrigued me greatly – that of the Chasidic communities in Jerusalem & Safed and, at the other extreme, the secular behaviour of Jews in Caesarea & Tel Aviv.
In London, the Chasidic community is largely centred in 2 areas – Golders Green & Stamford Hill. In Golders Green they are part of a larger Jewish community, in Stamford Hill they are THE Jewish community. However, in both cases, I believe it fair to say that to the outside observer, Jew & non-Jew, the Chasidic community seems a self-centred one, which keeps itself to itself. As a consequence, I cannot recall any meaningful interaction with a Chasidic Jew that was anything more than cursory. As a result, even though I have some knowledge of Chasidic beliefs & practices, I would describe the attitude of the London Chasidic community as one of ‘don’t bother us/we don’t want to bother you’. It was a revelation to see Chasidic people in Jerusalem doing the same kinds of things as most other people: zooming down the roads on electric scooters & bikes, eating out at restaurants and, yes, even busking Beatles songs. This was further amplified in Safed which, to all intensive purposes, is a Chasidic town. We arrived in Safed just before the inauguration of The Sabbath and I was amazed to witness the blowing of shofars all over town. The prevalence of Shofar-blowing all over Israel – even in Tel Aviv for all sorts of reasons – is perhaps the image of Israel that remains with me the most.
At the other end of the spectrum is the behaviour of Jews in the more modern centre of Israel of Caesarea & Tel Aviv where, if it were not for Hebrew writing, one could be hard-pressed to know that one was in a Jewish city. (A bit of an overstatement but I trust you get my drift.) Here, as mentioned, kippur-wearing is a minority occupation, pork is on some menus and The Sabbath finds most people on the streets doing things & enjoying themselves; (as opposed to Safed, which turned into a ghost town). One element of behaviour in Israel became another unique symbol for me of that country – the impatient blowing of car-horns when another driver does not react immediately to a light change or does anything at all that irritates. Initially, I put this down to an unkind thought that this behaviour says something inherent with regards to the Jewish personality. That is as may be but I have come to realise that this view really does miss the point. The sounding off of car horns is not different to the blowing of shofars. Israelis do it because they can!
This above example of social cognitive behaviour really has brought home why Israel reaches out to me, and most other Diaspora Jews. It is a place where Jews can be themselves. I am not saying that every Jew wants to go about the place blasting shofars or car horns. Nor that being a Jew outside Israel is particularly problematic in most places. In London I do not feel inclined in London to wear a kippur on a daily basis, (it’s not that important to me that I want single myself out), whereas in Israel it felt good to be doing so. And for me being in Israel as a Jew felt pretty, pretty, pretty (Xref: Larry David) darn good.
Shana Tova, Chag Sameach!