Observations of an expat – Israeli memories revived

The ongoing debate over anti-Semitism within the British Labour Party plus Israel’s planned annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has revived old memories of a visit to Israel.

The year was 1976. I was invited as a guest of the Israeli government.

The reason for my invitation was that I was a young (27) American recently appointed diplomatic correspondent. The Israeli government regarded – with some justification – the bulk of the British foreign affairs writers as a pro-Arab write-off. But an American-born diplomatic correspondent at the heart of the British journalism establishment had the potential to be a real coup.

They were, in theory, right. Americans imbibe pro-Israel sentiments at their mother’s breast. This is probably the result of the Jewish lobby, Holocaust guilt, Biblical teachings, Israel’s democratic government in a sea of absolute monarchies and dictatorships and, finally, Israel’s geostrategic position in the oil-rich Middle East.

When I arrived in London, I, like most of my countrymen, was pro-Israeli. When I stepped off the plane at Tel Aviv I was still pro-Israeli. And for the next few days the Israelis worked hard to confirm my opinion. They set up interviews with Teddy Kollek, the charismatic mayor of Jerusalem, foreign minister Yigal Allon, scandalous Mandy Rice-Davies who had set up a couple of night clubs in Tel Aviv, and even organised a dinner date with the talented, beautiful and young prima ballerina of Israel’s state ballet company.

To make certain that I travelled safely from A to B the Israeli foreign office provided an air-conditioned limousine and a young Israeli diplomat to keep me out of trouble, answer questions and entertain me. He was charming – until about halfway through the trip.

We had made a quick look-see trip to the Lebanese border and were driving due south towards the Sea of Galilee through the fertile Hula Valley where Israeli Kibbutz produced most of the fruit that the country exported. The valley had been a swamp, but, as my young guide pointed out, Israeli expertise converted the land into an agricultural paradise. However, before the 1967 Six-Day War it had been plagued by mortar attacks launched from the Syrian-controlled Golan Heights just to the east of the valley.

“It was terrible,” said my young guide, “Several times a day young women and children had to run from the fields to bomb shelters. All the men had to carry guns as they worked in the field. The Golan Heights completely dominated the valley. You can see why we need to occupy them.”

At the time all the talk was about Israel’s need for “defensible borders” which had been implicitly recognised in the British-sponsored UN Resolution 242. “Occupation of the heights,” continued my guide, “provides us with a defensible border.”

I nodded my head in agreement and then turned to the right where, on the western edge of of the Hula Valley, a mountain range shot straight into the air at a 90 degree angle. A thought popped into my head and I voiced it: “If you really want defensible borders why not withdraw from the valley and establish defences at what looks like an impenetrable mountain range and give the valley to the Syrians in exchange for peace and recognition?”

The friendly mask fell from my guide’s face. There was a sharp intake of breath. His eyes flashed and jaw dropped. The diplomatic fist came crashing down on the padded armrest that separated us. Veins nearly popped as he bellowed: “Never. Never will we give up one square inch of Eretz Israel. We will march on Damascus. Beirut and Jordan are ours. This land was given to us by God and will never be taken away again.”

The result of this outburst was that I had a Damascene conversion on the road to Galilee from pro-Israeli to pro-Arab. I could not, I still cannot, support a foreign policy based on religion. It removes all possibility of compromise from the negotiating table and the ability and willingness to negotiate is the essential requirement of intelligent and successful diplomacy. How can you negotiate if the foundation of your state is a gift from God who, by definition, is infallible?

And this affects the thorny issue of anti-Semitism, because Israeli insistence on accepting God’s gift as the foundation stone of their political existence makes it difficult to separate the state’s action from the Jewish religion. That is why almost every criticism of the Israeli government is viewed as anti-Semitic by Jews and fundamentalist Christians whose literal interpretation of the Old and New Testament forms their political beliefs as well.

It remains a conundrum for everyone who seeks a solution to the Arab-Israeli deadlock and actually wishes the best for the Jewish people – history’s pariahs who have given us so much and deserve much in return.


* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • What ever your guides personal views Israel is for the most part a secular state.

  • Actually the Hula Valley was a demilitarized zone after the 1948 war. The Syrians built outposts and started shelling it.

  • Manfarang, There is an ongoing secularism v theocracy debate in Israel. The theocratic Orthodox community comprises roughly 28 percent of the population and controls an important bloc vote in the Knesset. Israel’s Declaration of Independence includes the statement: “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here, their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” If this connection between land and religion did not exist than the Jewish homeland would be in Uganda.

  • @Manfarang – Actually the Hula Valley was a demilitarized zone after the 1948 war. The Syrians built outposts and started shelling it.

    “the fertile Hula Valley where Israeli Kibbutz produced most of the fruit that the country exported… Israeli expertise converted the land into an agricultural paradise…”

    There is more to this than the simple explanations that gloss over events…
    It is clear the Israeli’s wanted the fertile Hula Valley to be part of (new) Israel and probably went about settling it (ie. claiming it as theirs) in the provocative way that has frequently been reported over the years. It was probably targetted because it was easily (and relatively safely) accessible…

  • Roland; Having read your comment I consulted Wikipedia. A major feature of the Hula Valley, Lake Hula is fed by springs and it appears that, prior to the drainage scheme carried out, from 1951 to 1958 and funded by the JNF (Jewish National Fund), its marshy surrounds were infested with malaria carrying mosquitoes. The indigenous population around the lake had been Bedouin with Jewish settlement starting in 1883. The drainage scheme had severe adverse effects on the local ecosystem with loss of species, soil erosion and peat fires due to desiccation and in the 1993 the lake was partially restored and a nature reserve created.
    I believe that the motivation for consolidating control over the area was very much associated with grabbing the water resources of the Jordan river.
    Regarding the JNF we have the rather bizarre state of affairs that the JNF-UK, formed in 1939, is a registered charity so that UK tax payers are in effect supporting JNF activities which include helping to finance illegal settlements in the West Bank Territories.

  • I recall a conversation with a young kibbutznik in 1971 and he said,”There is room for both.”( Arabs and Jews) In today’s Israel there are those who still uphold this view.

  • Manfarang, I know you are right in asserting that there are Israelis who actively advocate a settlement which satisfies both the Jewish and Palestinian communities. They should be encouraged. Unfortunately, they have not been in government for some time.

  • Miranda Pinch 6th Jul '20 - 12:23pm

    Tom. Thank you. My mother was a refugee from Czechoslovakia in 1938 and although she lost everything, that did not stop her from being horrified at what was being done, in her name as a Jew, in Palestine.
    Since 2009 I have spent much time in Israel and Palestine including 3 months in Hebron and the South Hebron Hills. I have had firsthand experience of the increasingly dreadful treatment of the Palestinians. I was threatened by Jewish settlers for daring to accompany Palestinian schoolchildren on their way to school who said that the title deeds of the land had been God given. I was pelted with stones by settlers while talking to Palestinians on their own property and I spent time in a village which was regularly attacked, especially on the Sabbath.
    To conflate Judaism with the actions of the Israeli government is the greatest antisemitism of all. The Bible is clear that the land belongs to God and that the Jews were commanded to look after and share with the alien in their midst. Their own Prophets condemned their behaviour. Many Orthodox Jews do not see modern Israel as Biblical. And even many ‘Zionist’ Jews believe that the treatment of the Palestinians goes against everything their religion stands for. As for Christian Zionists, theirs is an even more antisemitic belief that when the 12 Tribes of Israel return to Eretz (Greater) Israel then Christ will come again and the Jews will either be converted or destroyed. So my point is that even if you believe in the Biblical narrative, having commanded the Israelites to destroy the people who lived there before them, it is not clear cut. God’s Jubilee means that the land should revert to the original owners every 50 years, and God’s commandments are clear that the alien should be cared for and shared with.
    The historical contect needs to be remembered. We do not and cannot obey many of the Jewish commandments that include terrible treatment of women and of adulterers, not to mention all the prohibitions on wearing mixed cloth etc, so why is it in any way acceptable to believe that the land totally belongs to one group of people who can do what they like? For Christians, Jesus was very clear indeed when he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. He told her that although she worshipped on a mountain and the Jews worshipped in Jerusalem, the time would come and, in fact God preferred, that He should be worshipped in spirit and in truth and that the land was of no importance.

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