An Irish love affair

I came here to support my team, and became besotted.

Some day, when I have passed the labyrinthine requirements set by the Interior Ministry and have acquired the right to work in Israel, I will write a book. I know the title already - A Jew in Israel. I use the term "Jew" as a metaphor for "outsider," or oddity - what all too many Jews have been considered in foreign lands. I was asked to explain my fascination with Israel during a recent visit that coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's debilitating stroke. Grumpy sods as they first appear, Israelis are really tremendously warm and involving. Maybe the former stems from a siege mentality after years of conflict; maybe it's something more intrinsic. For a country lambasted for being insular and xenophobic, the Israelis are a curious bunch. My brother called them "cheeky bastards." Brazen and inquisitive, their attitude reveals a mind-set that is constantly ticking over. This puts Israelis (the older generation in particular) above most other cultures: the ability - nay, willingness - to pick your brain and see what you're made of. So how did I get mixed up with them? Soccer. I followed the Boys in Green to Israel for a World Cup qualifier last March. Having lost our original tickets, my father and I - complete with green jerseys and clutching our flags - were the only Irish amongst the Israeli "hard core." "Should I ask a steward to get you into the Irish end?" we were asked several times. Not remotely, we thought. Talking to Israeli fans was a hell of a lot more interesting than the match. That night I discovered the surprising closeness in the national characters of our two nations. Smart-assed in humor and without that mind-numbing boredom many Europeans display, we felt ourselves united - in a haze of beer. The Irish I met in Israel were all astounded by what they found. The problem had been that aside from perceptions of terrorism's dangers, nobody had really known what to expect. The social scene, food, historical sights - these things are too seldom publicized outside Israel. But while the culture, landscape and history are tremendous draws, they come in second to the wonderful girl I met the night of the match. I was apprehensive about whether an Israeli would be interested in a non-Jew. The reputed exclusivity was a concern, but it failed to show. A consistent characteristic in the Jews I met is a fascination with current affairs. They feel free to utter unpopular or terribly un-PC comments - these are the manifestations of free minds. (But, when engaged, I was prepared to hear the axiom Nu! - well! - a lot.) Essentially, these are the things I loved hearing from her, and from Israelis in general. Many mundane things, such as being allowed to bring your dog into a restaurant, represent a freedom lost under the positively "fascist" rule of the health-and-safety cognoscenti back home. Describing a people, one cannot omit the circumstances that helped to form them. Americans aside, perhaps, few appreciate Israelis' passion about their place in the world, the Land, and their will to defend home and honor. This has enabled Israel to become a nation that is, to a large degree, one ideologically homogeneous standing army - at least that's how it looks to this outsider. How on earth could people from pacifist, neutral nations appreciate this? As Sharon himself declared during the Lebanese campaign in 1982: "We are fighting a war of survival here. When you are fighting to live, you do everything you have to. If you aren't fighting to live, you can't judge it." WALKING ALONG Tel Aviv's Rothschild Blvd., we came across a procession of bull statues which fascinated me. One had inscribed on it: "Fertile land for technology to grow." Like on a previous visit to Israel during Purim, I found a refreshing lack of cynicism about sentimentalism and a celebration of life. This the Israelis do so well. The way the corporate sponsors of these bulls - the statues represent the optimistic bull market - have helped harness a benevolent national pride and sense of purpose is marvelous. As far as being part of this country I so admire is concerned, it pains me that intelligent, would-be immigrants, willing to contribute and grow in Israel (I have heard "We need people like you" too many times) find it so difficult to get work visas. Largely, I'm afraid, this is a consequence of economic illiteracy, with a statist, zero-sum concept of employment capacity in the labor market. Ministry of Interior - are you listening? Without core values and a belief in the self, a culture or a nation does not stand a chance. Western Europe is experiencing this vacuum, and all it has done thus far is blame itself and attack its own ancient values - two inevitable responses of a culture deficient in the life-blood vital for the continuation of a people. Israel, in contrast, is truly a country with a purpose and a vision. By condemning Israel's actions Western Europe demonstrates its own failure to recognize Israel as the civilizing force it is in the Middle East. In effect, Israel protects Europe from its own ignorance of the situation. For, in truth, what Israel represents is what Western Europe envies: confidence in herself as a morally strong, vibrant nation. The author is a freelance writer.