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 right-off. But an American-born diplomatic correspondent at the heart of the British journalistic 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 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 form 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 a regular contributor.