In Oscar Wilde’s novel, ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, a young man magically preserves his unblemished good looks while leading an increasingly dissolute life. Meanwhile, a portrait of him, securely stowed away in his attic, gradually takes on the ravaged appearance which matches his true age and lifestyle. In a dramatic denouement, the young man attempts to destroy the portrait but succeeds only in killing himself. When his body is found, it is that of an old man, unrecognisable in its ugliness, while the portrait itself has miraculously reverted to its original beauty.
I was reminded of this story when reflecting on the changes wrought by the ageing process in both me and Israel over many decades. My emotional attachment to Israel was formed during the nineteen forties, fifties and sixties, when I was swept along by a strong current of Zionism. I have never lost that attachment but the complexion of the country I once fell in love with has changed alarmingly since those halcyon days, as no doubt has mine. I once saw Israel as a vibrant young nation, a phoenix risen from the ashes, the only country in the world where a Jew could feel truly safe. And I, too, was young and brimming with idealism and energy.
I was born and raised in South Africa, a country once seen as a land of opportunity and a haven from persecution for the Jews of Eastern Europe. However, in the minds of many Jews, South Africa was merely a stopgap, a stepping stone to Israel. My father taught me to read and speak modern Hebrew and my mind was filled with the writings of the early Zionists. Chaim Weizmann’s ‘Trial and Error’, Golda Meir’s ‘My Life’ and Shmaryahu Levin’s superbly crafted autobiographical trilogy were among the central ingredients of a staple diet, and I followed with eager partisanship the newspaper accounts of Israel’s struggle to survive in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Many of my relatives, too, breathed the heady atmosphere of Zionism.
In 1965 my idealisation of Israel reached a peak. At around the same time, the tensions and iniquities of the apartheid system brought me to the realisation that South Africa was no place for a young Jew to build a future. In the parlance of the day, I decided to ‘make Aliyah’. Alas, it did not take long for my idyllic portrait of the country to lose some of its glow. The rough and ready culture, bordering in my mind on incivility, the bureaucratic merry-go-round, my unanticipated struggle with Hebrew and the dawning awareness that I would have to accept life in a far-from-safe militarised society, were all good enough reasons for me to beat a retreat. I returned briefly to South Africa with my tail between my legs and made a second attempt to emigrate, this time to the United Kingdom, where I was to put down roots.
Despite the setback of a failed ‘Aliyah’, I never lost my attachment to the Zionist ideal. I attributed my failure to adjust to life in Israel to my own temperamental limitations and I continued, at a distance of several thousand miles, to support the need for a Jewish State in the face of continuing antisemitism, now largely masquerading, it seemed to me, as anti-Zionism.
I still believe that the hostile refusal to accept the quintessential Jewishness of the State of Israel is largely fuelled by age-old antisemitic prejudices, but there is another cross-current in the tide of conflict which continues to flow through Israel, an alternative narrative of another dispossessed people, the Palestinians, armed with their own legends of grievance and hatred. I am not foolish enough to pontificate about solutions to the problem from my remote location in Britain, but I know enough about human nature to be able to say that violence begets violence and that injustice leaves wounds which, if they ever heal, take a long time to do so.
The country which was once young and struggling to survive is now mature, powerful and capable of hitting back mercilessly. However, it takes a special kind of strength to be able to see grounds for compromise and compassion in a region which has become riven by bitterness. I am not impressed by the convoluted justifications for injustice being put forward by the present Israeli government, currently being bolstered by an intolerant strain of religious belief.
The portrait of the Israel I once knew has undergone a significant change. The features I once admired have hardened with age and taken on an expression of steely indifference to the sufferings of others. In today’s Israel, democracy is no longer being vaunted as an ideal to be upheld. I hope that my pessimism in this regard is misplaced, and that the empathy which resides in the Jewish soul will be able to reassert itself.