When I was eighteen I knew everything.
I knew where my political allegiance lay and which party I supported. I knew where I should go to live for my future wellbeing. I marched in favour of nuclear disarmament, in England and spoke out on behalf of my beliefs in friendly forums. I even knew what I wanted to study at university, who were my friends and who I preferred to avoid.
Then, in line with my conviction that all Jews should go and live in their national homeland, I went to live in Israel in 1964.
My first few years in Israel were not always easy. Like most immigrants, I struggled with the language and the culture, and found many things that grated on my delicate British sensibilities. But I persevered, weathered the various storms, wars, children and other obstacles to self-fulfillment, and now that all that is behind me I seem to suddenly find myself on the wrong side of seventy, falling into ‘the sere and yellow leaf,’ as Macbeth puts it, and far less sure of all the things I used to be certain about.
I was here before the Six Day War broke out and felt perfectly happy about living in Israel as it was then, its borders defined by ‘the green line.’ After the war, when the euphoria of our victory over three Arab armies had begun to wear off, I was all in favour of giving the territories back, and was quite horrified when religious right-wing extremists defied official government policy and insisted on establishing settlements in the territory that the IDF had conquered.
Then came Hebron, where even more extreme extremists insisted on settling, asserting some kind of ‘right of return’ to a place that had formerly seen Jewish habitation for centuries. The need to protect them placed an additional burden on the IDF and Israel’s limited resources, but gradually the government line shifted, first towards acceptance and then to encouragement, of this and other settlement activity.
Today Jewish settlements are to be found pretty much everywhere throughout the area that was either liberated, conquered or occupied, according to your political stance, and the facts established on the ground cannot be denied. I avoid going to those areas to the best of my ability, but judging by the results of the last few elections, I now find myself in an ever-shrinking minority of Israelis.
But today, when I look back over Israel’s seventy-eight years of existence, awkward questions arise in my mind. In 1947, when the UN Partition Plan was proposed, the Arab countries refused to accept this, and sought to annihilate the fledgling State of Israel before it came into existence, with considerable loss of life on all sides. Israel prevailed, but was subjected to continuous infiltrations and terrorist attacks by what were then known as Fedayeen, inflicting more loss of life.
Then came the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Lebanon War, the constant attacks, first within and then from the Gaza Strip, and devastating terrorist attacks inside Israel. The common thread that unites all those events was the desire to destroy Israel and, failing that, to cause as much physical and psychological damage as possible. Threats to Israel’s existence continue to emerge from various other quarters, causing us to live in a constant state of being ‘on guard.’
The belief that peace with our neighbours is possible is gradually being eroded by the actions of settlers, on the one hand, and Palestinians, on the other. Religious and nationalist radicalization seems to have taken hold on both sides, and the prospect of any peaceful settlement of the dispute appears to be moving ever further away.
The thought of living in a perpetual state of war is depressing, though a long-term view of European history gives some hope that in the very, very long term some solution will eventually emerge. How much war and bloodshed we will have to endure till then is not clear, and as Maynard Keynes pronounced ‘in the long term we are all dead.’
But let’s look on the bright side. Perhaps in less than the one thousand years it has taken for the major European countries to settle their differences some of our descendants will be able to live in peace.