From an Israeli Diary
When I returned to London the other day, it was with a sense of anti-climax, for throughout a long stay in Israel, I had felt more than usually elated. This was not easy to explain to some of my Israeli friends, who find the country in its present state far from exhilarating. Once the shooting ceased, once the outside pressure lessened a little, all the internal problems reappeared with a vengeance: widespread official and wildcat strikes, violent demonstrations by “Black Panthers,” young couples in search of apartments, an economic situation which had not basically improved, a religious Establishment as obscurantist and intransigent as ever toward all outsiders (with the exception of some recently arrived underworld figures from the United States). Hadn’t I sensed the new vulgarity in Israeli life, reflected in the commercials on the radio, the advertisements in the press (“Now that you have arrived, you need a new car commensurate with your social status”), the idiocy of the current pop-culture heroes, the mushrooming of those American-style restaurants called steakiot?
Before going to Israel I had been reading Balzac; more than once in Tel Aviv I was reminded of César Birotteau, the nouveau-riche perfume producer whose doom is foreshadowed by the ruinously expensive soirée he gives to impress his friends. Who in Israel can afford the sumptuous weddings and Bar-Mitzvot with many hundreds of guests which have recently come into fashion? (Meanwhile the rabbis have come out against this practice.) Who earns enough to buy luxury apartments (“a new concept in civilized living”), to frequent the ludicrously expensive restaurants? Conspicuous consumption on the one hand and intense social conflict on the other: there was no day while I was in Israel without two or three major strikes.
And yet with all this there was a pervasive feeling of optimism notably absent in other parts of the world, a liveliness and spirit of enterprise which make up a mood very different from the mood one now encounters almost everywhere else. According to official statistics Israelis sleep and eat longer and work fewer hours than most Europeans and Americans. Yet if these surprising figures are correct, which I doubt, it must be that Israelis manage to get a great deal done in their working hours—or so it would seem from the new buildings, the new industries, the new suburbs and settlements.
Perhaps after long exposure to London and New York I overrate the advantages of the small-town atmosphere in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, the fact that Israel as a whole is still a “polis,” a face-to-face community in which, figuratively speaking, everyone knows everyone else. One could think of many reasons for an intellectual to feel unhappy with the present state of Israeli culture: the provincialism; the lack of discrimination with regard to foreign importations; the pompous self-righteous types on one side and the “trendy” followers of international fashions on the other. But it would require a considerable effort to feel alienated. The danger is of too much involvement, not too little. I have spent a third of my life on and off in this country. Some of those years were not the happiest I have known. But I do have roots here; everywhere I go I see familiar faces, and whenever I enter that air-conditioned hall at the airport in Lod there is, for better or worse, the feeling of coming home again.
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My seminar at the university on “Communism Between the Two World Wars” has a total attendance of eight, average age fifty-one. But so many young students wanted to be in the parallel seminar I am giving on. fascism that I could not accommodate all of them. Who would have thought that Communism would become a boring subject and that fascism would again attract so much intellectual curiosity? For these young Israelis want to know how anyone could ever be a fascist. Anti-Semitism, too, remains quite inexplicable despite Pinsker, Herzl, and Nordau, who are apparently no longer read. We talk about the spread of anti-Semitism in Germany during the 20′s, and I hear myself repeating the standard explanations: the concentration of Jews in certain areas, the fear of Jewish competition, the menace of the Jewish department stores, the disproportionate number of Jewish lawyers and physicians. I have been vaguely dissatisfied for a long time with this view of the matter. Someone asks whether it can be proved that there was more anti-Semitism among German lawyers and physicians than among, say, farmers or insurance agents. Later, in the library, I try to check and find my suspicions confirmed. There was no obvious correlation in Germany or Austria between Jewish occupational concentrations and the incidence of sympathy for Nazism.
I was lucky to get these books, for on the whole library facilities are deplorable in the new universities, which makes teaching, let alone research, very difficult indeed. But there is yet another problem: of the younger students few have a good knowledge of English or French or German. My generation picked up a working knowledge of several languages—it was one of the side effects of being uprooted. The young Israeli today has to make a major effort to familiarize himself with languages other than Hebrew. Even the professional translators can no longer be trusted. The previous weekend a Hebrew daily had featured an article of mine originally written in English; I did not bother to check the translation. The article began with the following words: “Some anti-Semites clearly prefer to call a spade not a spade but an agricultural implement.” Apparently unfamiliar with this colloquialism, the translator rendered it literally. A few people told me that they had read the article with interest, but wondered why I had to bring agriculture into a discussion of anti-Semitism.
Leaving the library I meet a colleague who tells me that there is much indignation at the Hebrew University because several prominent Jerusalem professors recently left to join the faculty at Tel Aviv. Relations between these two institutions of learning are rather strained. Jerusalem, which had a monopoly for so long, is finding it difficult to adjust to its new role as one of several universities; it is still very good in some fields but has been overtaken in others. It is also still the largest university with 14,000 students, but only just, for Tel Aviv now has 12,000 (and a staff of 1,400). Haifa has 5,000 (and a staff of 400), Barllan (also in Tel Aviv) almost that many, and even Beersheba University, the newest of the lot, already has some 2,000 students.
I am frequently asked what I make of the students here and how they compare with their contemporaries abroad. It is not easy to give an answer. Those aged thirty or older are on the whole excellent and there are quite a few of them: kibbutzniks, army officers, mothers whose children have left home; they are, to use the fashionable term, highly motivated. It is more difficult to generalize about the younger ones. There are not so many high-fliers as in the better American and English universities, but the average level is probably the same. They lack sophistication, and few write easily or really well. The idea of writing a short essay or two each week, as they do in Oxford and Cambridge, would be rejected as utterly impossible. But it seems to me that Israeli students achieve more than their English or American counterparts during their years at the university, perhaps because they are a little older, generally with three years of army service already behind them. I sometimes wonder whether Mao and Khrushchev were altogether wrong when they sent their students to work in factories and on farms. Such an experience might not do a brilliant physics student any good, but for those studying history and politics, not to mention sociology and psychology, some exposure to life as it is really lived by most people from day to day, would do no harm at all.
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For anyone who lived here in the early 50′s the economic improvement seems far more impressive than it is likely to look to the new immigrant or the tourist who comes for the first time. I am still surprised by the delicatessen shops with imported goods, the boutiques, the many new cars on the roads. I wonder how the survivors of the Second and Third Aliyot feel about it all. Their sense of savoir-vivre was certainly underdeveloped, in private life they were modest: no dandies and gourmets among them. They could not understand how people could waste time and money on “frivolities” instead of concentrating on the “really important things” in life. They were egalitarians and their egalitarianism was strongly rooted in the Russian-Jewish socialist tradition. At the first Histadrut conventions speakers regularly insisted that white-collar workers should on no account earn more than manual workers and argued that it would be unseemly for trade-union and party leaders to enjoy a higher standard of living than the workers they represented.
But the Israel of today is no longer the Eretz Yisrael ha’ovedet (“the laboring Land of Israel”) of 1923, when the Histadrut had a few thousand members in a Jewish population of about 100,000. If general wealth and consumption have increased, so has economic and social differentiation. The poorest 20 per cent of the population received 7 per cent of the national income in 1954; their share fell to 4 per cent in 1969. The top 20 per cent earned 38 per cent of the national income in 1954 and their share rose to 42 per cent in 1969. In absolute terms the discrepancy is even more striking: housing, for instance, is more expensive than in America or Europe. In the United States and most Western European countries, most people can afford a car. But the cheapest car in Israel costs more than $4,000—and the average monthly wage is still less than $200.1
Economic indices are a source of bewilderment. Industrial production has gone up by more than 60 per cent since 1967; and the Israeli G.N.P., which amounted to some 40 per cent of Egypt’s when Nasser came to power, will probably catch up with Egypt’s (population 35 million) by 1972. But defense spending has gone up fourfold since the Six-Day War and 80 per cent of state revenues goes to defense. I have mentioned the present strike wave. The Histadrut has become much more militant. Yitzhak Ben Aharon, its secretary, has been bitterly criticized by Pinhas Sapir, the Finance Minister; both are members of the Labor party. This new militancy is of course not in the least surprising: the more affluent the country, the more viable its economy, the greater the wage claims. As recently as 1966, at a time of serious economic recession, there was substantial unemployment, but there is full employment now. The other day I had to look up some 1954 newspapers; I found one lonely ad in the “positions vacant” section of the (English-language) Jerusalem Post, and not many more in the Hebrew press. Now many hundreds of such advertisements can be found in the weekend editions.
The squatters (young couples, Oriental Jews, ex-soldiers) who occupied some new buildings scheduled for new immigrants have shocked public opinion, but their action should not have come as a surprise either. In the present state of affairs rents are well beyond the reach of anyone living on an average salary, while to buy even the cheapest house or apartment a deposit is needed which few can afford. According to official statistics the average price of an apartment in one of the main towns is around $7,000. That may be, but the ones advertised in the papers cost at least two or three times as much. It would take the average wage-earner decades to pay out a new apartment, provided of course he had the money for a deposit in the first place and could meet his mortgage and loan payments on an income of, say, $180 a month.
In the ghettos of East Europe families of five, six, or more used to live in a room or two, and not so long ago the average apartment in Israel consisted of two or three small rooms. But no one looks back. The other day, in a somewhat hysterical manifesto datelined Waltham, Mass., a student, apparently of Oriental origin, denounced inter alia the Ashkenazim for keeping the new arrivals from North Africa in “rotten wooden huts.” How quickly people forget. When we first came to the kibbutzim, these wooden huts seemed the height of luxury. We lived in tents for a year or two until our turn came to move into one of them.
Since then expectations have risen, tents have disappeared, and the idealistic pioneering spirit seems to have vanished. The spokesmen of the Jerusalem “Black Panthers” have announced that they have no intention of working in agriculture or on building sites. Some old-timers are outraged, while the social scientists point out that many of the building workers of 1936 and 1946 have meanwhile become entrepreneurs. But during the last fifteen years there has been no mass immigration, and as a result social mobility has sharply decreased. The thousands who arrive from the Soviet Union and the United States are mostly professional people. Those who are now manual laborers fear that they may never rise above their present status and they resent it.
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I come home with the weekend editions of the Jerusalem Post, Ha’aretz, Davar, Al Hamishmar, Lamerhav, Ma’ariv, and Yediot Aharonot. Tel Aviv has some nineteen daily papers, which is more than New York and London combined, though fewer than Beirut. How much there is to read. Each paper contains dozens of articles, and the weekend illustrated sections compare not unfavorably with the Observer, the New York Times Sunday Magazine and the (London) Sunday Times. Whatever the current problem—the Rogers Plan, the grievances of Oriental Jews, or the nurses’ strike—local editors seem to believe in saturation coverage. On foreign affairs (which means the Arab countries and Soviet activities in the Middle East) there are very frequent contributions by generals and colonels. Herzl, in his Diaries, predicted that in the coming Jewish State the officers would be kept in their barracks and the rabbis in their synagogues. In Israel the generals are very prominent in public life, especially the media, and the rabbis certainly do not keep to their synagogues.
On the whole the articles on foreign policy are thoughtful; considering the depressed state of the world’s press, they are by comparison on a fairly high level. But there is also a certain amount of outright nonsense—such as the long, involved pieces arguing that Israel should seek a rapprochement with the Soviet Union, on the ground that this would be the best way to keep the occupied territories for good. Too much ingenuity goes into the analysis and interpretation of current events and this, needless to say, distorts the whole perspective. Israelis find it difficult to understand that neither Nixon nor Rogers, neither Pompidou nor the Russians have the time—all other considerations apart—to invest as much thought in the problem of Sharm-el-Sheikh as they themselves have. There is a tremendous amount of speculation; this may be the only press in the world which gives more coverage to events that may happen than to those that have actually taken place. Since hard facts are frequently not available a good deal of space is devoted to rumors: according to an obscure French weekly, some unnamed Soviet journalist mentioned to an equally anonymous American official that war in the Middle East might break out at some unspecified date.
Over the radio this kind of thing goes on day by day almost without interruption, and although Jews have always tended to be an easily excitable people, the public apparently takes this massive exposure to mostly pessimistic news and comment in stride.
In some respects the situation is unique: where else would an ambassador (Yitzhak Rabin, for instance) appear as a political commentator on the radio? And where else would the press periodically give marks to the country’s envoys abroad? There are few if any secrets in Israel: the press informs everyone that X no longer enjoys Golda’s confidence, that the Foreign Minister had a bitter quarrel with Y, that Z is really Dayan’s man and reports directly to him. The cabinet meets every Sunday; the next day, or at the very latest a few days later, Margalit in Ha’aretz, Zimuki in Yediot, Yoseph Harif in Ma’ariv publish full, occasionally verbatim, accounts of the closed proceedings. Golda Meir has tried to stop this, but without the slightest success. How foreign policy can be conducted effectively in such circumstances is beyond my comprehension. So far as the government is concerned, perhaps the only consolation is that the papers report not only everything that did happen but also much that did not, which is a source of confusion to friend and foe alike.
As for the papers themselves, Lamerhav has now ceased publication, or, to be more precise, has merged with Davar. This follows a general pattern all over the world: party newspapers (Lamerhav was the daily of Ahdut Avoda) are less successful than those which have no direct, obvious political affiliation. The socialist parties in Europe, with all their intellectual and financial resources, never succeeded in producing a decent daily newspaper. Nor does it seem to matter: Gahal, the Israeli right-wing party, does not do badly at the polls, though both its dailies have shut down their presses.
* * * *
I have known Eliahu for almost thirty years. Summer and winter he is to be found at the corner of Jaffa and Havatzelet Streets, squatting with his friends, the Kurdish porters, in front of a bookshop and waiting for customers looking for light and heavy removals. He helped me to move out of the German Colony in late December 1947 when sniping and street fighting were already in full swing. Whenever I meet him, which happens once or twice a year, we have a cup of coffee or tea and talk about the good old days, about Jerusalem and business and sometimes a little politics.
This time, inevitably, the “Black Panthers” came up for discussion. Eliahu took a dim view—they were not good Jews, he said, and they did not want to work either. An army officer of Turkish origin who was just preparing his dissertation on experimental medicine and who joined our conversation, differed sharply: the problem was one of wilful Ashkenazi neglect. True, Oriental Jews had far too many children; the problem of overcrowding would not be solved, they would not get an equal chance, if they continued to beget eight and nine children. But who had encouraged them to have that many? Had it not been official government policy to boost the birth rate? He was, of course, quite right.
I had yet another conversation on the same subject with a Jerusalem Sephardi, a member of one of the old families, of which there are quite a few, such as the Elmelichs, the Manis, the Abulafias, the Recanatis, and the Bejaranos. He told me how the Sephardim had been systematically oppressed by the Ashkenazim, but his sweeping statements struck me as wildly exaggerated. I have seen too many industrialists, surgeons, merchant bankers, and other pillars of society hailing from Salonika and Sofia, from Baghdad and Cairo.
The Sephardi ideologists assert that they are deliberately excluded from positions of influence in politics and society. It is true that there are relatively few cabinet ministers of Oriental origin, and though the new secretary of the Histadrut is one, Sephardim are indeed under-represented in the upper reaches of the government, as they are in many areas of Israeli life. And North African Jews on the average earn only about 55 per cent of what European Jews do.
Some observers argue that resentment among the Oriental Jews may cause a radical realignment in Israeli domestic politics and ultimately bring about the downfall of the Mapai party, which has dominated the local political scene for forty years. This seems somewhat farfetched to me, for Gahal and the religious bloc—with which Oriental Jewry would have to ally itself to form a new majority—are even more “Ashkenazi” in character than the Labor party; they have hardly any Jews of Asian or African origin among their leaders. The situation is, however, gradually changing; at the municipal level Israeli parties have shown themselves fully willing to absorb Oriental Jews. About 40 per cent of the municipal councillors are of Afro-Asian origin; in the big cities their share is somewhat smaller (22 per cent in Tel Aviv, 32 per cent in Jerusalem), but in the new towns they constitute a majority.
It will be far more difficult to tackle the socioeconomic roots of the problem. Birth control is bound to come, but there will be opposition on religious grounds, and resistance from other directions will have to be faced. Cheap housing or, to be precise, apartments at reasonable rents would not only remedy overcrowding; it would make people more mobile, enable them to look for better jobs. But such housing can only be provided through state intervention on a massive scale. The present free-for-all, laissez-faire building system is clearly indefensible.
On the whole the Israeli record of absorption is not at all bad. The Jewish population of Palestine was about 600,000 when the state of Israel came into being. Within twenty years more than twice that number of destitute immigrants was absorbed. Twenty years ago three-quarters of the population of Israel was considered to be living in poverty; now the figure has fallen to about 20 per cent. Yet as Lea Ben Dor points out in a recent issue of the Jerusalem Post, the government was mistaken in thinking that the large and disorganized families from the Arab countries which arrived after 1948 would be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The government was not, of course, entirely inactive; under the late Zalman Aranne, then Minister of Education, the decision was made to give underprivileged children special assistance, but these steps did not go far enough. It now appears that “operation headstart” has to begin much earlier and proceed on a larger scale: it has to include tutoring from the very beginning, waiving of all school fees, bigger grants. It is an uphill struggle, and it would be foolish to assume that the problem can be solved within a generation or two. But it is not an impossible challenge, and it can be met once the recognition becomes general that it deserves the highest priority.
The other evening we spent some hours with a group of newcomers from the Soviet Union. The impressions I got were conflicting. Some said they had not really encountered any anti-Semitism in the USSR. But it appeared that “anti-Semitism” for them meant pogroms—and pogroms, of course, had not taken place. They left, they said, because a general upsurge of nationalism, and not only among the Russians, has made the situation of self-respecting men and women who are neither Russians nor Uzbeks nor Armenians by birth very complicated indeed. Many of them now react violently against any form of socialism—they would not dream of joining a kibbutz, and even Mapai is a little suspect. Others, especially among the young who went to school in Russia and never had time to experience the discrepancy between doctrine and realities, are great Soviet patriots and resent any criticism of their native country. Many do not want to work in private enterprises; they are afraid of exploitation and they think (quite mistakenly, as it happens) that working in the private sector is harder than working for the state. It will take quite a few years before most of them adjust to life in a democratic society.
They find their new surroundings quite puzzling. Why is there such a multitude of shops offering so many different commodities? Why does the state not play a more active role in certain areas of society? Why is so much left to private initiative? Why is Israeli life so informal? Why is there so little distance between rulers and ruled? Why do cabinet ministers mingle with the crowds in the supermarkets, coffee houses, and cinemas?
More intense Zionist feeling exists among the new Soviet immigrants than can be found anywhere else these days. But life in Russia taught them to demand, to claim, to insist—especially in government offices. There is the story of one recent arrival who insisted on getting five apartments: one for himself, another for his divorced wife, the third for his children, the fourth for his old parents, the fifth for his mistress. He did not get all he wanted. Most of the new arrivals are reluctant to go to places such as Arad or Kiryat Shmoneh, and a few may leave Israel. Some of my friends are shocked; they must have forgotten that of the Second Aliyah, the pioneers of 1904-1914, almost two-thirds left, returning to Russia or moving on to the United States. Of the Third Aliyah, after the First World War, only about one-half stayed. Israel is still a difficult country for any newcomer who is not so young and strong and adaptable, who does not have the right profession, who knows neither the language nor the ropes. Many Israelis refuse to see this.
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Rabbi Abraham Atiya was attacked last night, while walking in Yehezkel Street in Jerusalem, by five youngsters who tried to cut off his beard, apparently with partial success. Reporting the story, Yediot Aharonot noted that such outrages occurred in Poland between the two world wars and in Nazi Germany; who would have thought that this could happen in Jerusalem? But there are strong feelings in Israel over the interference of the Orthodox parties, their opposition to civil marriage and their power to impose restrictions of all kinds.
The other day I came across a letter from Weizmann to Herzl dated May 6, 1903: “. . . this group [the Mizrahi] will one day use its growing power in a most unexpected and stubborn manner. . . . [Western] Jews are alienated because they recognize within the [Zionist] movement the hollow Jewish ceremonial and formalism from which they fled: Eastern Europe, on the other hand, sees the cultivation of Mizrahi Zionism as the Zionism. This will lead straight to catastrophe. If there is anything in Judaism that lias become intolerable and incomprehensible to the best of Jewish youth, it is the pressure to equate its essence with the religious formalism of the Orthodox. Mizrahi represents the element that in the natural course of events is dying by degrees. Their fanatically religious viewpoint and way of life has no bridge leading to contemporary youth.”
Jabotinsky was not less emphatic. In an article in Rassviet dated September 28, 1926, he bitterly attacked the religious Establishment for its obscurantism, its hatred of free learning, its attitude toward women, its interference with daily life.
The Orthodox bloc still elicits such feelings. The Sephardi rabbis seem to be more flexible than the Ashkenazim, and good things are said about Rabbi Goren, who has just become Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv. But Goren will always have to look over his shoulder to see whether his more liberal policy is not too much out of line with the stand taken by his extremist colleagues. One suspects that the Orthodox fundamentalists in Israel will never accept reform, that a Kulturkampf is in the long run inevitable, and that in the end growing public pressure will force a disestablishment of the Orthodox.
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For many years Ben-Gurion opposed television, with the result that the Israeli Arabs—and quite a few Jews too—got all their spiritual fare from Cairo and Amman, Beirut, and Damascus, and nothing from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It took a long time to get TV launched, and even now, several years later, Hebrew TV is on the air for only a little over two hours every evening. Most of the young people I know, however, seem to work for it. The television headquarters are located in Romema, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The general impression is one of more or less successful improvisation rather than clockwork efficiency and precision. So far no one has been able to hold the job of director for any length of time. The chain of command is cumbersome and confused; the director, when there is one, has to report in great detail to the weekly meeting of the TV Council, which consists of representatives of the major parties who give him both detailed advice and explicit instructions. There are many vested interests and they frequently conflict. Everyone complains that he does not get enough time on the air. Moreover, the director is not entitled to hire and fire as he sees fit; the whole set-up seems quite unmanageable. Since the basic structure of the Broadcasting Authority is unlikely to change, and since the TV Council will certainly not give up any of its prerogatives, Israeli television will probably jog along from crisis to crisis.
One night I appeared with three other people on a round-table program: Is time working for Israel? We had agreed beforehand that each of us would make a short statement, and I was to be the last. But my predecessors all used more than the time they had been allocated, and when my turn came the program was virtually over.
Had I been able to speak, I would have said approximately the following:
It should be Israel’s intention to reach an accommodation of some sort with Egypt even though recent changes in Cairo have complicated the situation. Everyone who has been to Egypt of late confirms that there is little enthusiasm for war; some even talk of peace—though not, of course, peace at any price. Suspicion of the Russians is growing. Unless Israel encourages these stirrings they will never become a factor of decisive political importance. Concessions involve risks, but the dangers of immobilisme are even greater. There may have been a chance for an Israeli initiative after the Six-Day War. There was another chance after Nasser’s death, in January 1971, to be precise. The Israeli government remained inactive; it was argued that Sadat would not be able to deliver the goods. There may be another opportunity in the next few months for a partial solution and it should not be missed.
Whatever the policy toward Egypt, an Israeli initiative should be taken toward the Palestinian Arabs, not because they are at present a major military or political danger, but precisely because their fortunes are now at a low ebb; no one would assume that Israel was under any pressure. It should be acknowledged that as a result of Jewish immigration to Palestine and the emergence of a Jewish state, the Palestinian Arabs suffered an injustice. The injustice was historically inevitable—for the Jews of Europe faced extinction—but the dislocation of the Arabs was still an injustice for which reparation must be made, perhaps through the creation of an autonomous Palestinian state.
It is—I would have gone on to say—a matter of regret that so few Israelis seem to realize how greatly a move of this kind would improve Israel’s standing. Of course one has to think in terms of secure borders, but for a great variety of reasons territory alone cannot provide absolute security. China can afford to ignore world opinion—a small country like Israel cannot. For ultimately this could lead to isolation and affect even the supply of money and Phantoms.
If time is not working for Israel, neither is it working for the Arabs. But the perpetuation of the conflict certainly does work in favor of the Russians. Moscow is bound to suffer setbacks such as the recent disaster in Sudan, but this, needless to say, is not the end of the story. The gradual strengthening of Soviet influence in the neighboring countries is infinitely more dangerous from the Israeli point of view than any number of speeches by Arafat or even Sadat. Not that the Egyptians want this to happen: they did not regain their independence to become a Russian military base. Yet the longer the Russians stay, the more difficult will their hold on Egypt become to break. One day the Egyptian leaders are bound to realize that Russia constitutes a bigger danger to Egyptian independence than Israel, but by that time the point of no return may have been reached. Some Israelis might say that this would serve the Egyptians right, but such Schadenfreude would be misplaced, because Egypt’s loss would by no means be Israel’s gain.
I strongly doubt—I would have said in conclusion—whether the Israeli government missed any real opportunities for accommodation before the Six-Day War. Before 1967 there was virtually no willingness on the part of the Arabs to accept the existence of Israel. Nor was there anything of importance that Israel could have given up and still remain a viable state. This is certainly not the case today. Admittedly, an accommodation with the Egyptians would not necessarily mean the end of Fatah acts of sabotage; some Arab leaders would no doubt continue talking about the coming destruction of Israel. But Israel could live with this as well as with the Fatah pinpricks. If the Arab countries were to get a “peace with honor,” if some of the bones of contention were to be removed, the “Israeli danger,” which in the past overshadowed everything else (and incidentally made for national and inter-Arab solidarity), would in all probability cease to dominate Arab politics. The Arab leaders would have other urgent problems to face. The Fatah realize this and therefore oppose any partial solution; they know that the momentum of the “holy war” would be irretrievably lost.
I am not sure whether I could have said all this on television with the utter conviction of a professional politician. Probably not. The subject is far too sensitive for discussion on TV anyway, and no doubt I would have ended up pulling my punches.
* * * *
The day I left, I remembered the day thirty-three years earlier when I had first arrived. Then, too, there was real trouble; one had to get a special permit from the British army to travel to Jerusalem. It was a much smaller Tel Aviv at which we disembarked, and it was a different Yishuv; few people bothered to lock their doors. The first night I was put up by perfect strangers; I forget their name and where they lived. I met a friend walking in the street reading Schopenhauer and another studying Franz Rosenzweig. There were no luxury apartments, and so few privately owned cars that “taxi” was the synonym for any automobile. One thinks back with some nostalgia to those bygone days. But of course it could not last; Israel was bound to become a normal country. Measured by the absolute standards of the utopians it may well be a great disappointment, but in an imperfect world this is not at all a bad country. Above all it is still very much unfinished, one of the few places on earth where one feels much of the time that individual and collective initiative may yet affect the outcome of events. The smallness of the country is a source of weakness in international affairs, but in other respects smallness has certain blessings which, I suspect, can be fully realized only on the spot.
1 A footnote on the standard of driving: it is abysmal, and official attempts to raise it have been quite ineffective. More cook books are published in England than in any other country, but England does not have the world's most exquisite cuisine. Israel is the only country with a daily broadcast (at 7:55 A.M.) advising, admonishing, pleading with motorists to drive carefully—without any apparent effect.