Observations of an ex pat: Adventures in Israel

A long time ago—back in 1977—I was invited to Israel as a guest of the Israeli government.

At the time I was the diplomatic correspondent of a large chain of British newspapers, and, despite the Balfour Declaration, the British press was not known for a pro-Israeli stance.

Their reporters seemed more attracted more to the wild open spaces and the vast starlit skies of Arabia than the Biblical lands.

I, however, am an American, and had absorbed a pro-Israeli stance through osmosis. The Arabs were in bed with the Reds and the plucky democratic Israelis had seen off repeated attempts to push them into the Med.

When I visited everyone was still arguing about the outcome of the 1967 War in which the Israelis managed to secure the rest of Jerusalem and, the West Bank of the Jordan and the Golan Heights in just six days. It was a triumph and the poster of the year in America was of a weedy-looking Hasidic Jew bursting out of a public phone box while tearing off his Black coat to reveal a superman costume.

But ten years later the world was demanding that Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders. No, said Israel. We need “defensible borders.” That was the diplomatic mantra: “defensible borders , defensible borders.”

I arrived in the heat of the summer but waiting for me was an air conditioned limousine, a driver and a young Israeli from the foreign ministry. I was his first diplomatic assignment.

After the mandatory tour of Jerusalem we started a week-long road trip with a drive to the Lebanese border. Lots of wire and guards. We then turned south and drove along the Jordan River through the Hula Valley and Jordan Rift Valley.

It was—still is– a rich and fertile land whose kibbutz farms churned out thousands of tons of oranges every year. As we drove south towards the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, I was shown the Golan Heights that gently rose in the East–the left side of the car. On the western side of the valley there was an almost vertical wall of mountains.

“You can see,” explained my young diplomatic guide,” why we need to occupy the Golan Heights. Before the Six-Day War the Syrian-backed Fedayeen would just sit on the heights lobbing mortars into the Kibbutz below. Thousands of families lived under constant fear of attack and death. It was an impossible situation. We need to occupy the Golan Heights to secure defensible borders.”

I rolled down the window, leaned out and studied the layout of the Golan Heights as the car sped south. I then looked around my guide and through the other window to the mountains in the west.

In all innocence I blurted out the results of my observation: “Have you ever thought that the mountains might be a better defensible border than the Golan Heights,” my guide’s eyes opened wide and his lower jaw dropped. I ignored him and ploughed on. “Think about it,” I said. “You could offer to return the Golan Heights and relinquish the valleys in return for peace and the most defensible borders possible. “ The blood started to rise from his collar.

I added: “I think the international community would be astounded by such a grand gesture in search of a lasting peace.”

The diplomatic mask slipped. The guide exploded. He banged his fist so hard on the leather armrest divider that the driver jumped and nearly drove off the road. “We will never,” he bellowed “ relinquish one square millimetre of Eretz Israel. This land was given to us by God.”

I had encountered the intransigence of a national policy based on religion. Political consensus was not on the table. Why should it be? God was on their side.

Unfortunately, the Islamic world believes just as firmly that God backs them. This makes the Arab-Israeli conflict the most intractable and difficult to resolve in the world. Donald Trump’s recognition of the Holy City of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has just made it more difficult.

* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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13 Comments

  • Tom puts his finger on a real problem with the Israeli position. I like the idea of giving up the valley and having a country’s defences on the mountains as a way to stop terrorist attacks across the border on Jewish villages.

    On Wednesday evening I was watching Newsnight and the man who was interviewed from America was saying that Jerusalem had been the capital of Israel for thousands of years. This is a complete rewriting of history. There is a lot of doubt about whether David was even a Jewish king, with some stating the earliest evidence for a Jewish kingdom is about 890 BCE. In 597 BCE Jerusalem fell to the Assyrians and the Jewish king Jehoiachin or Joconiah was deposed. Many Jews were exiled. Palestine was then part of the Assyrian Empire, then the Achaemenid Persian Empire, the Empire of Alexander the Great and then the Seleucid Empire. There was a brief period on independence under the Hasmoneans 164-63 BCE. Then the Idumaean or Herodian semi-independent rule as a client state of Rome 37 BCE – 6 CE and 41-44 CE. Then it was part of the Roman Empire and from 637 part of the Arab world until 1948, with a couple of brief periods when it was the capital of a Christian kingdom 1099-1187 and 1229-44. Therefore from 890 BCE until now is about 2907 years and of them Jerusalem was the capital of a Jewish state for less than 439 years, while it has been Muslim for about 1179 years only counting up to 1918.

  • Very interesting article. Thank you.

  • Helen Dudden 9th Dec '17 - 7:15pm

    This issue is complex. Judaism is older than time itself.

  • @ Helen Dudden
    “Judaism is older than time itself.”

    I can’t believe that any rabbi would agree with you. The most orthodox of rabbis would have to admit Judaism didn’t start until God gave the Jews the Torah (dated to 1312 BCE). According to scholars the earliest parts of the Bible were written in the 8th century BCE (Amos, First Isaiah, Hosea and Micah) and large parts of the Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic history written in the 7th century with the Torah reaching its near current form in the 5th century after the Babylonian Exile (There are four slightly difference current versions.) Older theories have J a southern text and E a northern text both being written before the 6th century and again the Torah reaching its near current form in the 5th century after the Babylonian Exile.

    Therefore Judaism is not older than time. If you take the orthodox religious view it was formed in 1312 BCE; it you take the scholarly view it developed from the 8th century onwards but not taking its current form until after the Kokhba revolt (132-36 CE) when there were few Jews left in Judah and they were banned from Jerusalem which was renamed Aelia Capitolina (and then called Iliya once conquered by the Arabs).

  • Geoffrey Payne 10th Dec '17 - 7:42am

    The “Islamic World” has been given no choice but to look after millions of Palestinian refugees who because they believe in the wrong religion are not allowed to live in the land of their ancestors. I wonder how pragmatic we would be if a religious group claimed sovereignty of the South East of England, expelled the non believers and made London their capital?

  • @ Miranda Pinch

    I studied Zoroastrianism at university. As a major religion for so long, it is a shame it is not more widely known about. I think it has a common root with Hinduism as well as a major influence on Judaism and Christianity. I am not aware of which tenets of Islam were based on Zoroastrianism rather that the various varieties of Judaism and Christianity of the time.

  • That’s interesting, Michael. Don’t the Yazidi Kurds practice a pre-Zoroastrian form of faith?
    Presumably Israeli’s will claim a lineage back to Abraham, if not Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and certainly Abraham is seen by Jews as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people.

    If Abraham is put in a political context, the Torah says that it was Abraham who received the covenant from Yahweh on behalf of the Jewish people, it made them the Chosen People. So Orthodox Jews will say ‘Because of Abraham, Jerusalem and the Holy Land is ours – God has given it to us.’
    But of course in Islam, it’s Abraham who is the first person who surrenders to Allah – and the very word ‘Islam’ means ‘surrender’ – so he’s an incredibly significant figure in Islam as well. From Islam’s point of view, that surrender by Abraham, which again took place in that narrow disputed bit of land, means that Jerusalem and the Holy Land is for Islam.
    Of course, Palestinian Arabs and Jews are both semitic people with closely related DNA. I think the Samaritans were descended from a tribe of Israelites, although only a few hundred remain in Palestine today.

    Miranda Pinch is of course right to say “that no one group of people have the right to any bit of land in perpetuity or to believe that they have more right to a good life than any other.” But, all do have a right to share equally in the gifts of nature. How to achieve it without resorting to warfare is a problem that humankind has yet to satisfactorily resolve.

  • nvelope2003 13th Dec '17 - 9:23am

    Was it not Edwin Montague, a Jew, who asked that the Balfour declaration should make clear that the rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine should be respected ?

  • Jewishness is not just a religion. There’s an ethnic, tradition based and historical element involved. I’ve got Jewish ancestors and living relatives. A a good few of them were and are atheist. but still saw/see themselves as Jewish. As far as I know being a Muslim is defined by religion/belief in God in the way that say being a Mormon or Presbyterian is. Also very orthodox religiously Jewish people tend to be against the idea of Israel on principle. I’m no expert, but it’s what I’ve gleaned from experience.

  • @ Miranda Pinch

    I am surprised any Muslim would suggest that the 5 daily prayers came from Zoroastrianism. As I have read Tom Holland’s book I should have been aware of this theory. I am also surprised any Muslim would suggest that mosques were based on the layout of Zoroastrian temples. I would not be surprised that Muslims took over Zoroastrian temples as they took over some churches such as Hagia Sophia in present day Istanbul which was converted into a mosque from 1453 until 1931. Therefore in Iran it is quite likely that new mosques were built along the same lines as the Zoroastrian temples which had been converted to a mosques.

    @ Joe Bourke

    Zoroastrians still exist today, but they are few in number. I am not aware of anyone claiming that Yazidi Kurds practice a pre-Zoroastrian form of faith. However it does have similarities to Zoroastrianism, Islam and Christianity.

    Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are considered Patriarchs of Judaism. However only the descendants of Jacob (renamed Israel) are Jews. The tribes of Israel are only considered descended from Jacob. The descendant of Ishmael, Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, Shuah and Isaac’s oldest son Esau are not considered Jews. Abraham had the covenant of circumcision. The promise of the land was for the distant future. It was not made to Abraham, it was made for generations in the future. It is more than 400 years and another 4 generations in the future. Do the Jews really claim all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates (Gen15:18)? The Jewish people are chosen during the time of Moses (Deut. 14:2).

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