This week, I was talking to Israeli-born, London-based freelance journalist Daphna Baram, who wrote a fascinating book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel about that British newspaper’s relations with and perception of Israel. (The 2004 hardback is currently on sale at amazon.co.uk for an eye-popping £94.98p)
The only prejudice I know I have is that I am unthinkingly pro-Jewish, largely because I went to a grammar school with a very high percentage of Jewish pupils. That prejudice in favour of Jews used to transfer equally to Israel.
Hey! – remember why Israel occupies the West Bank, the Golan Heights etc – it’s because, in 1967, the countries surrounding it were foolish enough to threaten to attack Israel (not for the first time) in an attempt to wipe it off the face of the map… They lost their gamble… and, in six days – spookily the same amount of time in which the Jewish God allegedly created the Universe – Israel created more defensible borders. Like him, they rested on the seventh day.
Egypt, Jordan and Syria miscalculated so badly that Israel’s defensive attack originally pushed the Egyptian Army back to the Suez Canal and threatened Cairo, while Jordan’s West Bank territories were over-run and Syria lost the Golan Heights. But, when I hear the words “Golan Heights”, I don’t think “wantonly occupied by Israel”, my memory is of the Syrian Army pouring heavy artillery shells down onto the farmland of northern Israel from the heights before the Six Day War started.
My automatic pro-Israeli thinking, of course, has lessened. Bulldozing the houses of terrorists’ families and taking ten eyes for an eye if you are attacked smacks of the Nazis in their occupied territories in the 1940s and makes me think Have the Israeli government never read their own history books? It was counter-productive for the Germans. It is counterproductive for the Israelis. When they bulldoze a house, does the name Lidice never spring into their minds?
They only have to look at a map. The town of Lidice is still there on modern day maps.
I am always a simplistic thinker.
If you constantly fire rockets into Israel, then Israel is going to react, possibly – and not unreasonably – by sending troops into the country from which it is being attacked. If the IRA had been repeatedly/constantly shelling Liverpool from positions just outside Dublin, the British government would have done more than send a few SAS men into the Republic of Ireland to assassinate people (as they did without the provocation of suffering rocket-attacks from foreign soil).
But I mentioned to Daphna Baram that I thought Israel’s image in the UK had mainly gone downhill since my erstwhile youth largely because of accents.
When I was a kid, the Israelis were automatically the good guys because they sounded like us and wore Western clothes, whereas the Palestinians/Arabs sounded like foreigners and wore costumes straight out of Lawrence of Arabia.
In my erstwhile youth, Prime Minister Golda Meir had an American accent and looked like a grandmother from Baltimore. Israel’s long-time Foreign Minister Abba Eban spoke like he had been educated at a rather stuffy English public school and dressed like the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Yasser Arafat, on the other hand, looked and sounded like a rather dodgy bloke up an alleyway in Casablanca or some similar black & white movie, selling dirty postcards to tourists.
I mean… Golda Meir – she was a Jew, the Israeli Prime Minister – and she titled her autobiography My Life… you have to admire her for having a sense of humour. Yasser Arafat did not look like he sat at home and watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on TV. Golda Meir might have watched The Benny Hill Show.
It was around the time of Prime Minister Menachem Begin and his successor Yitzhak Shamir that things started to go downhill for Israel in PR terms. This was, I think, mainly because Begin and Shamir both had a guttural accent when speaking English though – yes, OK – there was also the minor matter of them both being former anti-British terrorists.
Begin had been leader of Irgun and Shamir was a former member of both Irgun and The Stern Gang.
But that has never been an insurmountable problem for the British – from Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya to Michael Collins, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness in Ireland, we have always accepted terrorists as the political leaders of ‘our’ former countries.
The trouble with Menahem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir was that they sounded as foreign and alien as their Palestinian rivals – and their suits were not as smart as Abba Eban’s had been.
Daphna did not really agree with me about accents changing Britain’s attitude to Israel, but she did tell me a story about Abba Eban.
In the late 1950s, when Abba Eban was Israel’s representative at the United Nations, Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered an especially murderous raid across the border.
Abba Eban stood up at the UN General Assembly and made a particularly brilliant speech defending the raid. He than phoned David Ben-Gurion to express his utter outrage at what he considered had been an appalling and reprehensible attack.
Ben-Gurion listened to Abba Eban, then said:
“Well, I was having second thoughts about the raid myself but, after I heard your outstanding speech, I was convinced that I did the right thing”.
A story more Oy! Oy! than Oy Vey! perhaps.