A Letter from Israel

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, May 1992 | Go to article overview

A Letter from Israel


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


|I got stoned on the West Bank', read the slogan on the T-shirt for sale in Old Jerusalem. That ambiguous motif sums up in itself the combination of the political and the profane, which nestles next to the sacred and timeless in modern Israel. I had been in Israel 20 years ago on a travelling scholarship, which lasted for nine weeks. This time the invitation to return was for one week only.

As someone recently said to me, |we should not confuse accuracy with truth'. This is something to ponder on, but if it means that statistics may be literally true, but may evade the truth, and that the truth is present in impressions, then in this light I offer my own truths about Israel. Israel is first and foremost a land of contradictions. It is orderly and it is disorderly; it is organised and it is disorganised. It is radical and it is conservative. It is traditional and it is avant garde. It is tasteful and it is tasteless. It is cultured and it is vulgar. How can it possibly be all of these things? Well, it is.

Jerusalem is, like so many capital cities, (and other cities for that matter) perpetually being rebuilt and dug up. There is so much litter everywhere and so much disruption. The Arabs themselves seem to be, perhaps are, the victims of much squalor, even if it is to those of us who can go back to orderly homes, colourful squalor. There are so many little streetwise Arab boys, so much pestering by so many wanting to sell you trinkets, postcards and chewing gum, and offering you the best exchange rates for your money, (if they can spot that you are American, English or German). Why isn't the litter cleaned up? It is a real eye-sore. But here again we have the contrast. In old Jaffa, (Yaffo to the Israelis) it is indeed cleaned up, probably never was there in the first place; in Acre (or Akko) it is not. There is a prevailing atmosphere of neglect. Everything needs a good face-lift. Electric flexes hang from walls; buildings need repair. Yet in Haifa is no litter problem. Why is this? Because in the 1930s a far-sighted Mayor of Haifa decided that the litter problem can only be cured by educating the children. Now that generation, and subsequent ones, are proud that Haifa has no litter.

While on this vexatious subject, there is a little oasis of calm and clean in Jerusalem (actually there are many). This one is the Garden Tomb, which may or may not be the place where Christ was interred. It is owned by the English, and as near as possible, it is like an Oriental English garden, with water and no litter! Of course, it reminds us that the first problem in Israel is not the Intifada, it is not the security problems, or the hostages, or the occupied territories, or the influx of Jews from Russia and Ethiopia, it is water. There is never enough water. On the last day of our visit it rained. Israel has not had enough rain this year, and a drought is dreaded. Even though it may be a cycle of nature, the olive crop has not materialised this year. There are hardly any olives. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee are between four and ten feet lower than they should be at this time of year. But what can be done? All the Semitic peoples, Jew and Arab and Druse and Bedouin, are stoical and resigned in the face of nature of God, or whatever cannot be changed at once. Much can be attempted of course. The Israelis regret that Sinai, where they had made much progress, has now been returned to the Egyptians, its rightful owners, but also to the desert.

Since its inception, the State of Israel has lived in a state of flux. Every single year is a dramatic one. This mood is infectious. The Jewish people are an intense, active people by nature, and they live as much on their nerves now as they did twenty years ago. Sometimes their attitude is maddening and illogical and obstinate. …

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