Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
I’ve been in Israel since the end of August, and will be back to England just in time for the joys of the party conference – five weeks in total. Why? Well, I don’t think you need to have been somewhere to hold views on it. Otherwise, few of us could denounce North Korea. Or, increasingly, Nazi Germany. But it’s particularly difficult – anywhere – to find objective information about this place, so I thought that trying to do so here would be constructive.
I’m currently based in Jerusalem, where I have relatives – but I’m grateful to the Conservative Friends of Israel for providing me with a comprehensively revelatory start to my trip. I spent the first week of September as part of one of their delegations: meetings with MKs in the Knesset, a briefing in a nuclear bunker from Netanyahu’s spokesman, being shown the security fence by the man who designed it, and visits – all over – to hospitals, charities, building projects, and businesses.
But the more I learn about this country, the more unsure I am as to how to piece together what I’ve learnt. And the more unsure I am how to select what to write about. So, out of indecisive necessity, today’s column will feature four things that have surprised me so far.
Wait a minute, you think – or maybe you did some time ago: so you’re only going to focus on Israel, are you? Oh. So you haven’t been to Palestine? And you don’t care about the Palestinians? Perhaps I’ve lost you already.
For what the term is worth, though, I do care. My opinion remains that it is right to support and criticise Israel in the same way one would any similar democratic nation. And as for the Palestinian people? I still consider it negligent to offer well-meant apologism for their oppression at the hands of terrorists. We don’t have time to go into the diffuse and brawling factions of Palestinian leadership, but suffice it to say that I strongly disagree with what I take to be the Corbyn view of Hamas.
Diffusion brings us to your second question. Have I been there? Yes. But this, of course, is the problem – where is ‘there’, precisely? The UN-recognised (flags and all) observer state of Palestine? The Palestinian Territories? Somewhere with ‘occupied’ on a helpful signpost? We’re not talking about a single geographical entity. Yet, many Britons seem think that Israel and Palestine are neighbouring countries. The irony of this is that that is exactly what they aren’t, and exactly what is longed for by most of those seeking a solution: ‘Two states, ’67 borders, land swaps,’ as politicians here like to say.
I’ve been to the West Bank quite a lot over the past few weeks – to Ramallah and Rawabi with CFI, and other places since then. The ABC partitioning of areas under differing proportions of Israeli and Palestinian control is highly complex. Controversial elements include security, bureaucracy, old settlements, new settlements, the word ‘settlement’, voting rights, access to resources, and much more; it’s certainly not a matter of one simple border. But, usually, for foreigners and Israelis, travel isn’t difficult. It’s mostly just a question of license plate colour. It’s not so easy for Palestinians, but some 100,000 cross into Israel every day.
I haven’t been to Gaza, and I don’t have time to discuss what that means. This isn’t evasion: I’ve decided I’ll focus on Israel, today. And these places and people are more than their disputes. So, apart from where necessary (OK, probably almost everywhere), I’ll save writing about the Palestinian Territories for another occasion.
For now, here are those surprising points:
1. Many Israelis claim to feel safer here than when they’re travelling abroad. This comes as somewhat of a surprise: it’s tempting to assume that they’re constantly aware of the danger they face. (That said, it doesn’t really feel dangerous at the moment. Not just in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; even late at night, or with reports of riots.) But there’s something more. People here feel safe because they are, indeed, conscious of local – and global – danger. Because they believe that they’re told the truth about it. Defence spending is at 6 per cent of GDP, and although some consider the cost of the IDF to be too high, all Israelis know the importance of security – not least through having had first-hand (or close) experience of being in the army. Whilst, undeniably, he is not universally loved, Netanyahu is – on the whole – seen as a necessary protector, to whom there is no obvious successor.
2. The wine here is really, really great. The export and – therefore – awareness of this can be restricted by BDS (I have no time to examine the disquieting nature of this movement now), but the excellence of Israeli wine is by no means surprising, when you remember its Biblical abundance, and all those years the Romans spent here, cultivating and drinking it. Building on the later foundations of a nineteenth-century Rothschild reignition, there’s been a big Israeli wine revival over the past few decades. These days, most of the grapes used are French and Italian: the climate is Mediterranean, and the natural challenges posed by the diversity of Israel’s geography are (as with its dairy industry) remedied by a world-leading technology sector. But its wine remains very much within the country’s traditions. More than 90 per cent is kosher: containing only kosher ingredients, it must be made (and opened!) only by observant Jews. Also, many of the best wineries are family-run, or on kibbutzim that have monetised their production to maintain financial self-sufficiency.
3. Religion is at the epicentre of everything. Oh, that’s surprising is it? Well, I’d read – from Theodor Herzl onwards – about the reasoning for, needs behind and workings of the Jewish democratic state: I knew that, in practice, many places would close over Shabbat, that the restaurants serving meat often wouldn’t serve dairy, and that Jewish law acts as a final arbiter. But, in reality, it’s much more than that. Judaism is so many Israelis’ reason for living here, and, whether they’re observant or secular (again, there’s no time to explore this intricate division now) their faith completely underpins their life. Understanding this seems to be at the heart of understanding Israel. The other day, I went to a talk celebrating fifty years of Israeli-German relations, and someone said, ‘The thing is, today’s Germany is post-military, post-religion, and post-nationalism.’ I think the relevance of this observation is critical. For many, this statement would come close to describing Britain, too. Not in a tabloidy ‘Our traditions have been stolen!’ sense. Rather, in a general feeling of our society having managed to supercede some of its previous constraints: for instance, I like that in Britain we don’t define people by their religion or race. This doesn’t make it inconsistent for me to believe in Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish country – I do. But I have felt unnerved by the contented acceptance of casual segregation here.
4. Finally – not such a surprise, maybe – but important to note, anyway: this place is not Syria. And by ‘this place’, I include Gaza (yes, we know I haven’t been). Rockets, retaliation, risk, and terrorism remain an everyday fact of life, throughout this land. But none of it is comparable to the current situation in Damascus. Here, top-end security means that – regardless of certain intentions – if one side stops attacking, effectively they both do. For a long time, many have thought the Israeli-Palestinian problem to be the nucleus of discord in the Middle East, and that a solution would bring peace to the area. This naivety has been rumbled. And so should its ensuing negligence.
In the fallout of the Arab Spring, Israel’s experience of dealing with Islamic extremism, acceptance of the sometime need for military intervention, refusal to avoid addressing difficult questions, and examples of non-partisan humanitarianism make it an invaluable ally. And this is the case not only for its traditional associates, like Britain. Optimistically, it is also a growing possibility for other countries in the region that share some of its fears for the future.