An outsider’s view of Israel

A new book offers a personal look at the 1978 visit of Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser.

Lady Antonia Fraser, pictured in Jerusalem during her trip in 1978 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lady Antonia Fraser, pictured in Jerusalem during her trip in 1978
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In May 1978, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter and Lady Antonia Fraser, a celebrated historian who later became his wife, visited Israel. Fraser has now published her diary of that fortnight in Israel almost a decade after Pinter’s death.
Fraser is the daughter of the seventh earl of Longford, an Anglo-Catholic and socially distant from Pinter’s Jewish working- class background in Hackney. This work is a quintessentially English account in the Disraeli tradition of Middle Eastern exoticism. In Our Israeli Diary: Of That Time, Of That Place, Fraser observes modern Israel as a sympathetic outsider, trying to make sense of Jews, Jewishness and this promised land. She is taken to all the usual tourist sites and is totally enthralled by their history. She emerges as someone who is a committed advocate for a state of the Jews, but admits her ignorance and wishes to become more knowledgeable.
When New York Times correspondent Anthony Lewis comments “how incredibly cut-off Israel is,” Fraser retorts that she did not personally find Israelis “irritating, just wonderful.” But this is 1978 and the first year of a Likud government – and she adds the caveat: “But then I have not interviewed Begin, have I? Nor argued about Judea and Samaria with him.”
While Fraser prepared herself in London by reading Saul Bellow and Abba Eban, she possesses no guide for the perplexed when confronted with occurrences such as the use of plastic hammers (on Yom Ha’atzmaut) and the willingness to use them on unsuspecting strangers. On entering an Israeli supermarket, she immediately recognizes the “push, push, shove, shove” syndrome of her youth in London’s Golders Green. She is desperately unable to find a trolley and asks why indeed should milk be put into plastic bags rather than into glass bottles. When she asks for her small number of items to be delivered to Mishkenot Sha’ananim, she writes: “To us, the Stone of Sisyphus; to him a source of laughter, nay ridicule. ‘Is that all? I can’t ask my drivers to deliver that. They would laugh at me.’” While Fraser reads The Jerusalem Post daily during this trip and Golda Meir’s My Life, Pinter comes across in the book as enigmatic and to some extent undecipherable.
Given Pinter’s alignment with the far Left in later life and his support for a myriad of causes, including the Palestinians, as well as endorsing the war criminal Slobodan Milosevic in the former Yugoslavia, how did he relate to this brief trip to Israel? Fraser dedicates her book to Pinter’s parents, Frances and Jack – “who loved Israel.” Yet Pinter did not follow in their path. His Jewishness was a source of confusion for him – and he seems to have buried it. On the day of his arrival, he speaks about the memory of preparing for his bar mitzva: “something I haven’t thought about for years” and proceeds to read a long profile of Golda Meir in The Jerusalem Post.
As the visit unfolds, Pinter becomes more and more interested in Israel. He comments: “I definitely am Jewish. I know that now. But of course that makes it more complicated. I am also English. And this is an Arab town.” He avidly reads O Jerusalem by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
He meets a long-lost kibbutznik cousin, Moshe Ben-Haim of Kfar Hanassi – a.k.a. Morrie Tober from Hackney – and is moved by this reconnection.
He is often asked why he left it so long before coming to Israel. Perhaps he was frightened by what he might find there and how he would relate to it – one theme running throughout his plays is a fear of betrayal. It seems that Fraser’s interest in Israel and her close association with the publisher George Weidenfeld was a factor that finally brought him to Jerusalem.
Like this writer, Pinter went to Hackney Downs Grammar School, known as “Grocers,” and was taught by Joe Brearley, the eccentric mentor who introduced the future playwright to new writers and intellectual themes. Unlike several of his contemporaries, Pinter never forgot Hackney and his schooldays and even wrote poems about his walks with Brearley. Why then was Pinter selectively conflicted about the Jewishness of his background? Indeed, Fraser seems far removed from the virulence of his opinions about Israel in his last years. Yet it is clear from her diary that she adored Pinter despite his reputation as “a difficult man,” and their marriage lasted nearly four decades.
As they were leaving Israel, the world-renowned playwright decided to buy some jewelry for his wife at the airport and gave his name for the bill.
“Just like the writer, including the spelling!” exclaimed the salesgirl. Fraser does not report Pinter’s reaction, but he may just have smiled.
This book, aimed at a general readership, is a worthwhile foray for devotees of Pinter as well as for Hackney loyalists.
■ Colin Shindler’s next book, The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History, will shortly be published by Rowland and Littlefield.