As a former spokesman for the British Jewish community, and indeed having worked
in Israeli embassies and government offices, I am familiar with having to
represent Israel and indeed Judaism to the outside world, often on the spot and,
as the Hebrew phrase would have it, standing on one leg.
five years of living in Israel, a recent trip to London resulted in a whirlwind
journey of realization and revelations for which I was thoroughly
In true “oleh
style,” I, together with my wife Yael, also a
native Brit, took the opportunity to restock on some of the UK’s home comforts
and, in fact, to remove the residual remnants of her childhood from her parents’
home, as they will, God willing, be joining us in Israel shortly. Knee deep in
school reports, overly loved teddy bears and overtly embarrassing items of 1980s
clothing, we began filling cases with tea, M&S underwear and
This of course required several arduous and tedious – apologies
at this point to Avishai and Rafi, our two young sons – visits to Brent Cross
and other popular North West London shopping locations where one is in reality
more likely to hear Hebrew than English. As so many Jews and indeed native
Israelis frequent these stores, it has never been surprising that shop
assistants rarely bat an eyelid at our children’s flowing tzitzit
two-year-old boy’s incredibly long ponytail, or the odd Hebrew phrase in our
chit chat. Yet unlike all my previous trips “home,” those we encountered this
time took a decidedly more active interest.
In several stores, the
checkout assistant asked us if we lived in Israel – presumably the quantities of
our purchases indicated we weren’t locals – and in a dramatic departure from the
norm, and accepted British practice, we were greeted with more than the usual
“Oh, must be lovely and warm,” or “I bet you don’t miss the rain.” To which our
responses would typically have called for no more than, “No, I wish we had more
Instead, this time many asked, “Is it as bad as it looks on
the news?” Some asked, “Do you feel safe?” And on one occasion, “Oh, it must be
very difficult out there.”
I was thrown the first time, but by the third,
fourth and fifth encounters, I was dumbstruck. Everyday people we were meeting
were taking notice of what for us is an everyday theme. These sorts of questions
were previously the territory of Guardian
readers alone, yet now seemed much
WHAT SCARED me more was the complexity I now felt I
wanted to express in my answer. I wanted to say yes, it’s as bad as the news
shows, but the BBC never shows why it’s bad for Israelis. I wanted to say yes,
of course I feel safe, we have an army dedicated to defending our lives, and a
medical system which leads the world in emergency care. But I also wanted to say
that we’re living in the middle of a regional revolution with extremist,
fascist, genocidal lunatics committed to our destruction and 80 rockets landing
on our citizens in just one day.
I wanted to say Israel’s a great place
of Jewish values and independence, of democracy, freedom and
But I also wanted to say that there is a massive poor-rich
divide, few can make ends meet let alone save, taxes are through the roof,
utility bills look like phone numbers and the coalition government has more
fires to battle than the London Fire Brigade during the riots.
can I fit all that into an exchange at a checkout without defaming Israel, or
angering the impatient people in the line behind me? I instead found myself
reverting to type. Simple sound bites that I had spoken in churches, university
unions, rotary clubs and to media outlets across the United
“Israel is still the most free and stable democracy in the whole
Middle East. We lead the world in academic, hi-tech, medical and entrepreneurial
progress, and we do so against a backdrop of constant threats and incitement to
our very existence. The news gets it wrong, but come and see for
I felt my heart sink as I realized that after five years of
living in Israel as a citizen, this black and white (or should that be blue and
white) understanding of Israel was merging into an ever-unraveling shade of
grey and gaining ever-increasing levels of complexity. I was due to leave London
truly unsure of my path, and concerned that my Zionist ideals and clarity had
perished under the Middle East sun.
But then, just like the British
weather, something changed in an instant.
We took our kids to a beautiful
green park, fully equipped with slides and climbing frames. As the children
played, we relaxed for a moment in the breeze.
In search of a cold drink,
I approached the obligatory and quintessentially English tea house selling
snacks and ice cream. Amused to find they had a full display of Bamba – Israel’s
own peanut snack – I called to my wife with a deliberately heavy Israeli drawl,
offering her a packet.
The man behind the counter of course asked if I
lived in Israel, and bracing myself I said yes. “Oh” he responded, “we’re making
aliya to Ra’anana in January.”
“Mazal tov” I said, we exchanged numbers
and I wished him a successful move home.
There are tough questions, there
are difficult answers and choices. But sometimes, there are really easy
The writer is co-managing director of the Israel office of US-based
PR firm 0Steinreich Communications, and a former government press liaison.