Within minutes of meeting British op-ed writer and best-selling novelist Julie Burchill, the famous (or sometimes infamous) columnist lives up to her reputation.
“When is the photographer supposed to be coming? I hope he arrives before I get drunk,” she says airily stubbing out her cigarette and ordering two vodkas on the rocks and two bottles of white wine “for the table.”
It’s a Thursday lunchtime, and we are sitting in the historic east Jerusalem American Colony Hotel. When I remind Burchill that a photograph of her drunk will only enhance her trademark image, she quips: “I’m never offended on behalf of myself but I’m offended on Israel’s behalf all the time. I just won’t stand for it.”
A self-proclaimed “Zionist whore,” this is her fourth visit and she will say nothing more about the place other than “I love Israel, I love every part of Israel, I love everything in Israel, I love Jews, I don’t know why but I just do.”
In fact, Burchill, 51, loves it here so much that this trip has inspired her to set about organizing a literary/ comedy festival aimed at breaking the growing cultural boycott that saw artists such as Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Carlos Santana and, more recently, British filmmaker Mike Leigh, canceling their appearances here.
“I met with the British ambassador [Matthew Gould] yesterday and asked him if this was a crazy idea and he said, ‘No, it’s just what Israel needs,’” exclaims Burchill, who has already named the festival Sababa Tel Aviv.
Among the guests she plans to invite to the festival is British Jewish author Howard Jacobson, who recently won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for his novel The Finkler Question
Its likely to kick off sometime next November, says Burchill excitedly, and while she appears blasé about most subjects, between sips of her vodkas she coyly scribbles in a notebook the name of British Muslim funnyman Omid Djalili, star of the recent interracial comedy film The Infidel
, as a suggestion for someone who might agree to appear.
“My memory is shot,” admits the three-time married Burchill, who has shared almost all the intimate details of her sometimes sordid life – think drugs, sex and rock’n’roll – with the British public in columns that have appeared in newspapers such as the Mail on Sunday
, The Daily Mail
, The Sun
, The Times
, The Guardian
and, since this past summer, The Independent
. This time she has been brought here to write stories for The Jewish Chronicle
She is well-known in Britain for her contrarian views and was once described as the country’s “most famous controversial journalist,” but when it comes to Israel she refuses to discuss anything negative about the country or its people.
“Israelis might be brash and less polite than people in Britain, but they have a right to be,” states Burchill, saying only that she has been in love with Israel since she was 12 years old.
While later it emerges that her fascination with all things Israeli and Jewish started a little before 12, Burchill agrees that she likes to think that she had some kind of spiritual bat mitzva in her early teens and is happy when I suggest that perhaps she has a Jewish soul.
But then she throws out one of her famous catchphrases: “But I never went to university and I’m not that clever; I just don’t know.”
WHETHER she really does not know or simply won’t admit from where her vehement love of Israel is derived, what is clear is that her views have set her apart from most in the British media and have made her somewhat of anomaly in a country growing increasingly critical of Israel’s government.
“I love Bibi [Netanyahu] so much that I just would not trust myself meeting him. He’s married and I’m a married woman too; it just would not be good,” she says only half joking, before returning to praising the country that she once said was the only one she would “f-cking die for.”
And she flatly refuses to accept any notion that her blind love for a country that most other international journalists love to hate ultimately hurts its interests.
“I just don’t believe it,” she says when probed on the view that is gaining credibility among some Diaspora Jews. “I can’t explain why because I’m not that clever, but I just don’t believe it. There are enough people out there attacking Israel and its people.”
Harmful or not, what is obvious is that Burchill’s unwavering support has made her unpopular among certain groups in the UK and rendered her at loggerheads with various mainstream media, especially the ultra-liberal Guardian
“I couldn’t go on at The Guardian
,” she confesses. “It was mostly because they put my column on the same page as an opinion piece from Osama bin Laden. That was just it for me.”
So, how did a proud working-class British Christian, who never met a Jew until she was well into her 20s, become such a passionate Zionist?
“It was that ‘thing’ that happened,” she says gently, tears welling up in her eyes and turning serious for a few moments. “I’m not trying to get any pity from anyone, but it was because of my dad. Most dads have porn under their beds and children are curious about what’s under their parents’ beds, but my dad was so wonderful, he had a copy of the World at War
magazine, the Holocaust edition. When I was about seven or eight I looked under his bed and found it; I have never been the same since. I was immensely moved by what I saw and my life changed profoundly.
“I’m not a Holocaust fetishist and I’ve not even seen Schindler’s List
. Some people have an unhealthy interest in the Holocaust, but not me. I just think it should just never happen again.”
BURCHILL, WHO grew up as an only child in a rural suburb of Bristol, had to wait at least another decade until she actually met a real Jew and admits that she is still unsure how her romance with Israel grew so strong. However, what she is clear about is where Britain’s fascination with criticizing this country’s every move and defending its enemies at all costs stems from.
“It’s because of the ‘Turkish Delight’ advert that used to be on TV [in the 1970s and ’80s]; it made all things Eastern seem exotic and mysterious,” she says. “British people just love the Arabs, even the royal family refuses to visit here for that reason. I feel like I am being driven mad!
“When I hear people calling Israel ‘apartheid,’ I say that it’s the Arab countries that practice ‘gender’ apartheid and not Israel. People don’t look at the facts, Israel is a free and democratic country, it’s just so frustrating.”
Whether her “uneducated” view of perceived bias is correct or not, what is clear from this conversation with Burchill is that she is “more pro-Zionist than my Jewish friends.”
“Most Jews in Britain go like this,” she says, putting her head down on
her knees and covering it with the backs of her hands. “One time I told
the rabbi in my shul – Rabbi Susie, she was a liberal and a lesbian –
that she had to stand up for Israel and speak out against the Arabs, but
she could not handle my extreme views and she kicked me out of the
Even though Burchill does not elaborate on that point, I assume she is
referring to the legendary period in her life when her obsession with
Judaism became so strong that she briefly considered converting.
“My Hebrew name was going to be Re’ut,” she confides, but quickly tells me about a readers poll in The Jewish Chronicle
that asked whether they would “prefer me on the inside looking out or on the outside looking in.”
“The overwhelming response was that they wanted me on the outside
looking in,” laughs Burchill, shrugging her shoulders and lighting
another cigarette. “I think it was good logic because whenever a Jew
stands up for Israel, everyone says that of course they are going to do
that. But no one can really work out why I am so supportive of Israel,
and neither can I.”