A cat has come up to me, mewing ferociously in cat-Hebrew, but it’s not getting my kosher sandwich. I’m at the train station in Tel Aviv, taking a welcome break in a café, having travelled from Bethlehem via Jerusalem, with the help of a taxi, a bus, a tram and another bus.
I find this a rather difficult country to get around. In some respects it is easier to get around the West Bank because, although things are more chaotic, people are so helpful, even excessively so, and if you go with the flow, things always work out somehow. But here, it’s not just that signs are in Hebrew script, but also there don’t seem to be many of them – you’re somehow supposed to know where to go. Everyone moves around studiously ignoring one another. I find myself asking the way of soldiers, and some have been very friendly.
Back in Jerusalem I took the new tramline from the Arab bus station in Sheikh Jarrah, just by the Damascus Gate. It said it was going to the Central Station – I sought a train to Tel Aviv. But when I got there, it was a bus station. I asked a man where the train station was and he looked at me as if I was crazy. “You want a train? Don’t take a train, take a bus – the trains here are no good”, and he walked off. So I asked a soldier, standing there chatting with his girlfriend, both with sub-machineguns languidly slung over shoulders, and he told me where to get the Tel Aviv bus, the 480.
Earlier today, back at the Gilo checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, the soldier who examined my passport took a cursory look at it and said “How’re you doing? Have a good day!”, with a pleasant smile. Something is changing in this country: the lengthy searches, interrogations and security queues seem to have loosened up, and soldiers and security people seem more relaxed and, frankly, bored. It’s perhaps an unwitting response to the fact that the Palestinians have stopped fighting – they want a more normal life, as do Israelis. So even though Israeli conventional wisdom determines that Palestinians are a threat which must be countered at all costs, the Palestinians aren’t like that and, intuitively, many Israelis know it even if their conditioned belief says otherwise.
Nevertheless, the security scanners you have to pass through to get into bus and train stations are tedious, with long queues – the one at the Jerusalem bus station took 25 minutes to get through. Most Israelis were more upset about it than I, and the poor security workers, most of them the ‘guest-workers’ who have moved to Israel to replace Palestinians in the more low-paid and tedious jobs, had to deal with the protestations of Orthodox Jews and old men who, in their eyes, should be exempt from security checks.
Then, when I arrived in Tel Aviv, I sought a café. I asked an old man. “Café? You want a café? This is a bus station, can’t you see?” he said, looking at me as if I were slightly crazy.
“Well, yes, but isn’t there a café here?” Again, he looked at me as if I were from another planet. In this he is not incorrect but, to me, where people are waiting for trains and buses, I’m accustomed to cafes being there.
“Go to the train station, there. There’s a café there. It’s lousy.”
So then I had to go through the security scanners again. “What’s in your bag?” asked the soldier. “Computer, camera, personal things…” “Got batteries in there?” “Er, yes.” For some reason he accepted my word, nodded and let me go. Ah, today I’m no terrorist – that’s good news. Now for another session of returning the contents of my pockets to their proper places – how many times a day must this go on?
Nevertheless, Tel Aviv is a very different place from Jerusalem. It’s a pleasant, modern and cosmopolitan city, built in a modernistic style based on a grid of five main streets running parallel to the Mediterranean shore, with wide boulevards crossing them at right-angles. People don’t advertise their Jewishness here as much as in Jerusalem – it’s a city of business and culture beside the Mediterranean, and a good deal warmer than Bethlehem this time of year. Also it’s a very different environment, a different planet just 50km from Bethlehem – a good place to reflect on what I’m doing back in the West Bank, and to get ready for the next phase.
But when you walk down these genteel tree-lined streets, in some parts lined with four-storey blocks of apartments built in the German Bauhaus style, or a 1950s-60s modernist style, it’s difficult to remember that, just 25 miles eastward, there is a military occupation going on. Joggers prance along in the park, cars drive hither and thither, and high-rise offices and flats pierce the skyline with a certain elegance. In Jerusalem you get a greater feeling of polarisation and edginess, while here you get a sense of the good life being lived – there’s hardly a sense of the ongoing hardships and atrocities of the occupation in the West Bank, and soldiers in uniform are not such a common sight. Here one can ‘live inside the bubble’, as if all is well on Yahweh’s good earth.
But my hostess Ora feels differently. She certainly doesn’t favour what’s going on in her country, and she comes from a leftist, enlightened family who have never approved of the occupation and Israel’s Zionist tendency. She lives her life intensely aware of the elephant in the room and the mass of gloop under the Israeli national carpet, and she has difficulty finding people to talk to about it. Most people either support the Zionist agenda or they keep their heads down and don’t look at it. I think that’s why she’s enjoying my visit – and I’m not one who pits himself against Israel either, meaning that she can speak her truth without having to deal with the otherwise rather fixed and polarised anti-Zionist mindset that many overseas Palestine activists have. She can speak of the issues she encounters as an anti-Zionist Israeli without feeling she’s treading on glass or feeding the anti-Israeli prejudices some foreigners have – such as the belief that Israelis all must be fascists, negative or severely disturbed.
She’s constrained also by being an Israeli. She cannot travel freely in Palestine. She can break the rules and pass beyond the signs which say ‘Entry to Israelis prohibited’, which stand at the entries to Palestinian Areas A and B, and she does do so, but she cannot easily feel secure there, knowing that, when there, she relies on the goodwill and trust of sympathetic Palestinians to keep her from trouble – and she could get into double trouble from the Israeli authorities too. She doesn’t actually get much trouble, since Palestinians judge others on manifest behaviour more than religion or nationality – but it’s still a nagging insecurity in the back of one’s mind. Palestinians also don’t tell her everything or fully open up since, to them, every Israeli is a potential risk, and Palestinians too can be pressured by their peers if they mix too much with people from the other side.
Also Ora, a computer techie who builds websites, served in the Israeli army in radio monitoring and eavesdropping, back in the 1970s – so she herself has been part of the problem even if she now means not to be so. I first met her at the meeting of the Center for Emerging Futures in Beit Jala, mentioned earlier on in this blog. What connects us is that we’re both aged hippies, with a similarity of viewpoint, and a similarity of experience too, where the respective societies we live in have a serious case of denial over the issues we talk about and hold to be important.
She was born in the 1950s at a time when Israel was a brave young nation struggling to build itself up, to establish its patch, in the shadow of WW2. It was a brave time of nation-building, of bringing Western ways to the Middle East, and of reviving from the horrors of the Holocaust. She told me of older people she had grown up amongst, who had been together during the dark years of WW2 and then migrated to Israel traumatised and huddling together for protection while starting a new life. For example, one neighbouring household when she was a child was composed of a married couple together with the wife’s sister, and everyone wondered what exactly their relations were – but they had survived a nightmare together and become bonded in mutual self-protection as a result. Little did many of the earlier Israelis know of what was taking place or brewing as Israel, in the late 1960s, transited from being a small, struggling nation into a relatively rich and invincible regional power.
For Israel has gone through roughly three phases thus far: the first two decades as it established itself as a largely secular, left-wing refuge for Jews drawn from many countries, particularly Eastern and Central Europe; in the second two decades, the 1970s-80s, after Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza (and, for a while, the Sinai Peninsula), the country developed further and became more set in its ways as a developed country and an occupier of Palestine; and then in the last two decades the country became more exaggerated in its rather schizoid polarisation between corporate-capitalist materialism (in Tel Aviv) and religious and right-wing nationalism in Jerusalem – the days characterised by the leaderships of Ariel Sharon and Binjamin Netanyahu.
The West Bank settlement project started after the 1967 Six Day War, during the second phase, and grew immensely from 1990ish onwards as the Israeli occupation and settlement of the West Bank was consolidated, even under the nose of the wider world in the 1990s, which naively believed there was a peace process going on.
Ora finds it difficult living in this environment. Her grown-up son moved to London ten years ago – one of the strategies many more free-thinking Israelis resort to. She looks at his virulent Facebook postings about Nazism in Israel, in essence agreeing with them, though also deeply upset that, while put in an extreme way, this description of her country is horribly true. Yet here in Tel Aviv you would not think so. You could live here in this city of cafes, cultural centres, computer-industry start-ups and the modern good life, turning a blind eye to it all, if you so wished.
Events of the occupation are hardly covered on TV, and many Israelis don’t even know about what’s happening in their name. It’s all covered by that ubiquitous term ‘security measures’, as if necessary and justified thereby, though it is largely propaganda. But she cannot turn a blind eye. I reminded her that, in a less acute way, we Brits live with the same self-delusion: we are a military nation too, though our battles and occupations are further away on foreign shores, well out of sight, and our arms industry is conveniently rationalised as a business providing jobs and profits for the British economy. And my beige Marks and Spender chinos are made by faceless low-paid workers in Bangladesh. We are by degrees the same as Israelis.
In the morning we went to a pleasant outdoor café down by the beach to have a late breakfast and meet two other ladies, both of whom were activists against the occupation. I was interested to discover that one of them, though she has been involved in opposing the occupation for some years, knows very little about Palestinians – she asked me questions about Bethlehem and listened with rapt attention when I talked about Palestine, Jordan and some of the history of the conflict. After all, Israelis are the third tranche of foreign occupiers of this land in recent centuries – the first two being the Ottomans and the British. And each occupation has been worse than the previous one.
We wandered around the old port of Tel Aviv – now a harbourside precinct of cafes and service outlets – built by the British in the 1930s when the Arabs of Jaffa stopped permitting Israelis to land there and trade through their ancient port. We’ll visit Jaffa this afternoon – something that interests me because, in my studies of the Crusades and other times of history, Jaffa, with Acre, has been a prominent place. This evening, I shall sit in on Ora’s Arabic conversation class, and then we’re going to a world music concert together with some leftwing anarchist friends of hers.
I find myself a little restless to get back to the fray in Bethlehem though, so I’ll leave tomorrow, go to visit my friend Yitzhaq in Jerusalem and proceed back to Bethlehem. I’m concerned about Hope Flowers and my role in helping them keep going through the crisis that now faces it. I don’t know whether I’m a sucker for punishment or simply dedicated to this work, but hanging out in comfortable Tel Aviv, while interesting, is not what I came to this land for.