Views on the Borderline
It is almost 40 years since I came to live in Israel. It was something I knew I would do from a much younger age, from my teenage days, as an active member of a Zionist youth movement, Bnei Akiva. Almost all of my close friends came to Israel immediately after they finished their first degrees, a group of them moving from the luxuries of North West London, Manchester and other Jewish communities in the UK to set up a new kibbutz, Bet Rimon, on the top of an isolated, barren mountain in the Galilee, not far from Kibbutz Lavi where most of us had spent a year on hachshara some years previously.
Israel had always been on my agenda. Ever since I knew myself, as part of an Orthodox rabbinical, Jewish family in the UK, members of my family had always gone to live in Israel from the earliest days of the state. They were mostly Orthodox (albeit not exclusively), all strongly Zionist and it wasn’t even something special to think about the possibility of going to live in Israel. Our extended family who originated in Britain and now run to grandchildren, great grandchildren and even the next generation, number in the many hundreds today and we are probably the largest British Hamula in Israel.
There was a potential blip. When most of my friends went to live in Israel, I decided to stay behind in the UK and spent almost four years in the North East of England studying for a PhD. Everyone was convinced that they would not see me – or my wife another ex Londoner who I had brought back from Israel after she had already made aliyah – in Israel. For a Londoner it was a new and enjoyable experience to be part of the provincial communities of Newcastle (where we set up our first home), Sunderland (which no longer exists as a Jewish community) and even the ultra orthodox community in Gateshead (the only growing Jewish community in the UK outside London and Manchester) and were made to feel very welcome. A great place to start married life as part of a community but without parental intervention. But come the completion of the degree and we were on the next plane out, without so much a second thought, without an idea of where we would find employment, where we would live or how we would cope in the initial phase.
There was a burning desire to live in Israel and, like the rest of my family and friends who made the similar move, it had absolutely nothing to do with fears of anti-Semitism. It was only about wanting to be part of this amazing Jewish miracle where the public domain was Jewish, in many different ways, and for many of us the inherent religious obligation of enhancing our Jewish lives.
I could easily have ended up becoming a diplomat instead of an academic (despite the fact that diplomacy is not always my best visiting card). There I was in 1982, newly arrived in Israel with a PhD, trying to sell myself to one of the university departments, and I received an invitation to visit the then Director general of the Foreign office Dave Kimchi – famous for his past exploits in the Mossad and later to become a peacenik in his final years. It turns out that he had been at school in London with my father in the early years of World War II and had been evacuated together to Cornwall. Someone had told him about this young British Jew, come on aliyah, educated, Queens English, well versed in the ways of the world – and I was invited to meet him.
On the morning of the planned meeting, the Lebanon War broke out and the meeting was cancelled. The following week I went to a seminar at Tel Aviv University where I was introduced to the Dean of Humanities, the legendary professor Moshe Brawer who was in the same field of research as me – Political geography – and who spent most of the time reminiscing on his war years in London as a correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Hatzofe. The following week I was offered a position in the Geography Department at Tel Aviv. Five years at Tel Aviv University (while living in, and commuting from, my beloved Jerusalem) and then on to the dynamic young Ben-Gurion University in Beer Sheva, from the on never to look back. During the 30 plus years at BGU, I have been fortunate enough to create a new department (Politics and Government), a new research centre (for European Studies) and even to serve as Dean of the Social Sciences in what is a very Israeli environment. And moving to the south of the country where we have been fortunate enough to bring up four children (all now married with children of their own) on the desert margins of the Northern Negev.
Definitely not something I had planned or ever foreseen when planning my move to Israel.
When I started out at Tel Aviv University, I was only a few years older than the undergraduates and I knew almost nothing about academic life in Israel. From the outset, I struggled with ninety minute lectures in Hebrew. Without doubt , one of the best decisions I ever made was to refuse the offer of teaching in English during the first two years. My students must have suffered but it certainly allowed me to become as fluent in Hebrew (the basics of which I already knew from home and from many visits to Israel) in a country where English was less common then it is today, and was even frowned upon by some for whom the rebirth of the Hebrew language was one of the key foundation stones of the State.
What a difference that is today where one of my present tasks is to promote the teaching of degrees in English, not only to foreign students but also to Israeli students, as a means of strengthening the international posture of the University and ensuring that Ben-Gurion University, like all Israeli universities, is out there competing on a global stage and that our students and researchers feel at home throughout the international arena – as indeed Israeli science is.
I was also fortunate that as an additional research job I became involved with (the now defunct) Centre for Study of Settlements in Rehovot, headed by the former head of the Jewish Agency settlement division and a world authority on regional development, professor Raanan Weitz. For five years I drove with him from Jerusalem to Rehovot twice a week, discussing , learning, arguing and shouting (we were both very opinionated people and I was initially unaware of what esteem he was held) and travelling throughout the country to as yet undeveloped areas and advising on the future development plans. It couldn’t have been a better way of becoming socialized into Israel and Israeli society, away from the English speaking communities.
It was through this work that I came to know about a new small community being set up north of Beer Sheva, called Metar, just south of the West Bank. We moved there in 1988 and eventually built a house on an empty plot of land overlooking the surrounding hills, then desert, now covered in trees planted by the children of the community in its early years. A community of less than 1,000 inhabitants has now grown to almost 10,000, part of the ring of suburban communities to the north of Beer Sheva – Metar, Lehavim and Omer. From my window I see the neighbouring Bedouin community of Houra, while on the other side of Metar runs the Green Line separating Israel from the West Bank. And overtime, this region has become more accessible and better networked to the centre of the country through the expanding road and rail networks which have been constructed during the past three decades. Metar remains one of Israel’s best kept secrets.
Four children, two of them married into Yemeni families, a sister married into an Iraqi-Kurdish family, and we have experienced the entire miracle of “mizug galuyot” which Israel is all about. Customs, ritual and, most importantly, cuisine ranges across the entire Ashkenazi – Sephardi spectrum. What in the past appeared to be exotic has become the norm, and our children and grandchildrens generations don’t even think twice about the ethnic background of their partners and schoolmates, whom they meet as neighbours, in school, in the army and throughout the q workplace.
Not everything is perfect.
I am not happy with the nature of Israeli politics and the inability to reach an arrangement with out Palestinian neighbours. I sincerely believe that we, in Israel, as the stronger partner to the conflict, could have done a lot more to make the necessary compromises, but I am part of a vibrant democracy here and it would appear that I am increasingly in a minority. But that doesn’t make Israel any less attractive a place to live.
It is not black and white – both sides have something to contribute, major compromises to make, but equally time has moved on and the traditional mantras (two state solutions, withdrawal to the 1967 boundaries, right of return etc) are no longer relevant in their unchanging formats. It is over fifty years since the Six day War – three times as long as the period that elapsed between the establishment of the state and 1967 – and the realities on the ground and in our respective societies are vastly different to what they were then. We have to seek new ideas, think beyond the box, and see the conflict and the world through the eyes of our children and grandchildren who were born into a strong Israel – economically, militarily. Without ever forgetting the lessons of history, we are no longer an Israel which is fighting for its very existence and who have first hand experiences of the horrors of the Holocaust or the expulsions from communities throughout the Middle east and North Africa where they had lived in for hundreds of years.
It is for these younger generations, many of whom see the world through a different prism, who benefit from the immense successes of the founder generations, to take up the challenges of the future, to fight injustice, to end Occupation, to ensure security and safety, and to create a better and just society for all those who live in this tiny piece of land.
I miss many things about the UK and travel there frequently. I am a bit of a chameleon, some would describe it as schizophrenic, and can feel equally at home in many respects in the UK as I do in Israel.
But deep down, my home is only in one place, in Israel. And that is out of choice not because of a need to find a safe haven. That is one of the benefits that a Jew from the free west has over his/her compatriots who came as refugees or was forced to come because of fear for their safety. It is a totally different way of looking at Israel. It is all about participating in something new and rejuvenated, about looking at the positive of Israel rather than seeing it as the lowest common denominator under the slogan of “Never Again”.
My generation were gifted the establishment of the State by our parents, many of whom went through trials and tribulations we can only be thankful we did not have to experience. Without wishing to sound like an Aliyah emissary, I believe it is incumbent upon Jews who are able to do so, to come and contribute and even further, to help build and strengthen this vibrant, dynamic, forward looking, brash and arrogant, religiously diverse (although it could be a lot more diverse) society. Especially within the religious Zionist world within which I grew up, life in the Diaspora has become far too comfortable and they have largely forgotten that coming to live in Israel is a religious imperative, rather than a place for monthly travel and second homes and a place to escape the observance of Second day Yom Tov.
As you celebrate this years independence day, take a moment to think about joining us – to being part of the greatest Jewish experiment in two thousand years and experiencing the same, often, unexpected road which I, and so many hundreds of my friends and family have experienced during the past forty years. Jewish leadership in the Diaspora is important but it can only ever play secondary role to being part of the twentieth century’s single greatest miracle – the establishment of the independent and sovereign State of Israel, the place for Jewish rejuvenation and self confidence.
Chag Atzmaut sameach.