[FIRST PUBLISHED ON THE 25TH JULY 2017]
I knew long before we arrived in Tel Aviv that our week in Israel and Palestine was set to be one of contradictions and conflictions. I’d put off visiting the Holy Land for years, unsure how best to reconcile a growing sense of unease and concern regarding the ongoing treatment of Palestinians, with the desire to visit a part of the world which to three world religions (and many, many sects) and even to folk like me, holds a distinctive and sacred quality. Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Galilee, Nazareth, all places which hold power of millions of people the world over and are familiar to millions more, disproportionately so when compared to other locations in the same part of the world.
All these places, and many more which are pertinent to the average person of the Book, held an almost mythological place in my mind similar to Camelot, Cair Paravel, and Lothlórien; visiting places of such mythos was bound to be an unsettling and simultaneously deeply unsettling experience akin to when you realise the back of your wardrobe doesn’t really lead to the Western Woods and the Lamppost.
Spending a week in Israel and Palestine and attempting to offer any sort of profound commentary on the way of being that has developed there over the last 60 years is akin, I imagine, to reading the first part of the story of Isaac’s almost premature death at the hand of his father Abraham and presuming the Jewish, Islamic and Christian faiths must all be filled with child-sacrificing monsters. It would be completely unfair of me to do anything other than say that spending just 7 days in any country will only ever give you the briefest of insights, particularly in a context so divisive, emotive and potentially destructive as Israel and Palestine. Instead, I’ve decided to reflect on 3 things that most struck me during our visit, all tied to the concept of culture.
Firstly, the culture of military service and its incestuous relationship with patriotic nationalism is everywhere in Israel. Military service, as many will know, is compulsory for both men and women (with some religious exceptions) and this serves to not only keep Israel’s borders “safe” but to also educate generations of people according to the will of the state. Whilst in Palestine we visited a museum at The Walled Off Hotel (a Banksy creation) which both looked back at the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict and the present-day reality for Palestinians living in both the West Bank and Gaza. Included in this were interviews with Israeli’s who had served in the military and who wished to share of their experiences, how they were encouraged to treat Palestinians and of the levels of indoctrination that they were subjected to (I’m here carefully replicating language that the interviewees themselves used). We also met an American girl in Tel Aviv who relocated to Israel so that she could serve in the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), which we were then led to believe is not an uncommon experience. She shared how she had wanted to move to Israel specifically to serve in the military and could do so because of her father’s Israeli heritage. It’s also fair to say that there is no smoke without fire (although the question remains as to who started the first fire), and that our trip was overshadowed by violence incurred by Palestinians before, during and after our visit, primarily focussed around the Temple Mount/Haram esh-Sharif in Jerusalem, but also a failed rocket attack from Gaza on the evening we departed from Tel Aviv back to London. Physically it was very clear that the West Bank is an occupied territory; although we entered and left the West Bank with no issues, it was a humbling and unpleasant experience to pass through a stark, rundown and dystopian military checkpoint – something that I find hard to imagine having to daily and without the ease that our British passports gave us. On our return to the Israeli side of the checkpoint a Palestinian man before us repeatedly had to show his documents and offer his thumbprint for scanning, and when the guard changed halfway through this process he had to complete the whole routine again. We, however, barely had to raise our passports before being waved through the gate, another striking example of the inequality and segregation that is part of the very fabric of daily life for many.
Secondly, the culture of both Israelis and Palestinians is one of hospitality, as it is across the Middle East. Tel Aviv was buzzing with people from all walks of life, religions and dietary choices (veganism seems to be the hipster trend of choice), and it felt like a safe, happy and diverse city. Aspersions of pink-washing aside, I felt comfortable as a gay man and when questioned as to the nature of mine and Steve’s relationship when passing through the strict security procedures at the international airport on our exit, felt no discomfort in sharing with the female guard that we were married. Our apartment hosts went above and beyond what you’d expect of someone you were renting accommodation from and the youthful population added a sense of vitality and vision to the waterside metropolis. Both our time in Israel and our brief visit to Bethlehem in Palestine was marked by the friendliness of those we met, the desire to share and be shared with, and to encourage us to enjoy the treasures that both peoples have to offer. It seems a deep and troubling shame that two cultures that have so much in common, continue to divide and be divided.
Thirdly, the culture of colonialism that remains alarmingly prevalent in Israeli society and one in which we as Brits need to feel partly responsible for. It is clear that the Jewish sense of ownership and belonging to the lands of Israel comes from an orthodoxy of spiritual belief that many find alien. It is also clear that the illegal Israeli settlements which continue to be built in the West Bank have an alarming resonance to how the British once behaved in lands which we wished to stake a claim to. In fact, it is the British “giving” of Palestine to the Jewish diaspora to form the nation state of Israel that can at least be in part attributed to the current state of play in that troubled part of the world. On the one hand, Jews had been persecuted, hounded, and mercilessly killed throughout the world for centuries and particularly Europe in the years preceding the formation of the state of Israel, and so the British decision makers of the time were seemingly acting in the best interest of a marginalised people group; whilst simultaneously marginalising another people group whose claim to the land could be argued on scriptural, historical and current ownership in much the same way as the Jewish diaspora. British mandate Palestine was never truly ours to do anything with, and it is another startling example of how the culture of arrogant colonialism can have shocking consequences decades into the future. Of course, this is all a far too simplistic overview of the political, ethnic and religious undercurrents that played and still play into the culture of colonialism that has ironically become the birth-right of modern-day Israelis.
The complexities of Israel and Palestine play out daily in the regular lives of those living there, either freely or strictly controlled by the state. It is a land of contradiction, of deep conviction, of ceremonial ties to a past better best forgotten, or at least forgiven. It is also a land of hope, of tech start-ups, a new generation of young Israelis who are questioning the occupation and the treatment of their Palestinian neighbours, and a growing desire amongst the Palestinian authorities to see a peaceful resolution to the decades of conflict. It is the land of the Prophet Mohammed, Jesus Christ, King David, of Tel Aviv Pride, the best hummus you will ever eat, the Dead Sea, the land of history that harks back to the beginning of time and the land whose future is yet to be decided. It is a land I hope to spend more time in, home to peoples I hope to speak more with, and conflicting cultures who fit together, overlap and completely cover one another in a several millennia old shifting pattern of chaos and cohesion. It is the Holy Land.
The Lion and the Lamb, represented in "The Walled Off Hotel", created by Banksy.