Is Israel drifting away from the West? That was Hugo Rifkind’s claim in his column in the magazine last week. Hugo wrote:
‘Israel drifting away. Never mind whose fault it is; that’s a whole other point. But it’s happening. It’s off. No longer does it exist in the popular imagination as our sort of place. Once, I suppose, foes and friends alike regarded it as a North Atlantic nation, but elsewhere. Then a western European one, then, briefly, a southern European one. When was it, do you think, that Israel stopped being regarded as fundamentally a bit like Spain? Early 1990s? Then they shot Yitzhak Rabin, and Oslo didn’t happen, and it set off, perhaps via a sort of listless Greek interim, towards the Orientalish bafflingness of somewhere like Turkey.’
Let’s leave aside that ‘they’ (‘they shot Yitzhak Rabin’? as opposed to lone assassin, Yigal Amir, who remains in an Israeli prison, serving a life sentence after his trial by an Israeli court). And let’s also leave aside the notion that Oslo ‘didn’t happen’ for any reason other than that the terrorist leader Yasser Arafat was unwilling to give up his USP.
What is more interesting is this idea of Israel drifting away from the West. In his heartfelt and admirably frank piece Rifkind says of Israel: ‘I like it far more than Syria, China, Zimbabwe and plenty of other countries, but less than I do north London.’
I can understand why Rifkind and other westerners, Jewish and non-Jewish, might feel more culturally aligned to North London than to Israel. North London isn’t my thing, but life there seems fine. There seem to be few existential questions beyond the discussion of house prices and whether people can afford to send the kids private. Life is easy, life is good. Not especially noble, but nice.
Israel shares many of these characteristics. But it is also a nation which currently has to do what people in countries like this one — even people in North London — used to have to do but seem to have forgotten about: it has to fight for its survival. Israel is surrounded by enemies, as we have been for much of our history. But today we like to think that enemies are a thing of the past. There are no enemies, just phobias we haven’t been cured of yet.
Today Israel is also distinguished by a deep sense of its values and ethics as well as a profound awareness of their source — things we also used to have. Deep questions of survival, the tragedy and triumph of the past, present and future remain the stuff of every Israeli house I have ever been to, though are rarely heard among the residents of North London. So yes, these are very different lives.
Of course there are parts of Europe where such existential questions may re-emerge. I know Jews in France who are starting to think of moving away again. Last weekend in Paris a mob attacked a synagogue, trapping hundreds inside. Across Paris many ‘anti-Israel’ protestors seemed far more interested in ‘Jews’ than ‘Israelis’, up to and including the moment when the petrol bombs came out. ‘Dirty Jewess, inshallah you will die,’ one young Parisian Jew was told. Others were greeted by the crowd with the simpler chant of ‘Death to the Jews.’ But that’s East Paris. And North Paris. A world away from North London.
What I am coming to is that it seems to me — from many visits there, and seeing the country in peace and war — that it is Israel that remains the truly western country. It is Israel which takes its history seriously, thinks deeply about where it is going and what it exists for. It is Israel which takes western values seriously and fights for the survival of those values rather than sitting back and assuming they are simply part of some birthright. Israel’s questions and dilemmas are not the stuff of North London or other parts of western Europe these days, though they remain febrile in much of the US. In conclusion, and despite my admiration for his frankness, I cannot help thinking that Hugo has got this wholly wrong and upside-down. Geography aside, it is Israel that is still truly a western country. Far more than many parts of western Europe now are.
A gap may well be emerging. But not because Israel has drifted away from the West. Rather because today in much of the West, as we bask in the afterglow of our achievements — eager to enjoy our rights, but unwilling to defend them — it is the West that is, slowly but surely, drifting away from itself.
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