Our gentleman in Jerusalem

A book of Eric Silver's dispatches from 1967 to 2008 is a testament to the late Israel-based correspondent's compelling journalism.

Eric Silver 521 (photo credit: Courtesy/Bridget Silver)
Eric Silver 521
(photo credit: Courtesy/Bridget Silver)
Eric Silver was a superb journalist with an elegant style, as well as a thorough gentleman who respected the people about whom he wrote – and both of these qualities shone through in the news stories he penned while based in Israel for the better part of more than four decades.
Dateline: Jerusalem, a book of his dispatches from 1967 to 2008 – many for The Guardian and The Observer in the UK – has just been published, three years after his death at the age of 73.
Bridget Silver, his wife, came to The Jerusalem Post recently with a copy of the book she had compiled, which I devoured in a week. It is the type of book you can read slowly, though, one article at a time, and I thoroughly recommend it to readers interested in Israel’s past and future.
Sir Martin Gilbert correctly observes in his “Appreciation” that the articles tell us not only about the country’s history, but about its soul.
“Each article published here is worth reading, and each article has lessons that can be pondered,” Gilbert writes. “Even the articles of several decades ago have relevance today.”
The Leeds-born, Oxford-educated Silver was first dispatched to Israel by The Guardian following the Six Day War in 1967, and five years later he also became the Jerusalem correspondent of The Observer.
But although he became a veteran of the foreign press corps here, writing for several other foreign publications – including The Jewish Chronicle in London and The Los Angeles Jewish Journal – he also wrote for local publications, including the Post and The Jerusalem Report. (He had initially served as a Post correspondent in London in the 1960s.)
Silver fell in love with Jerusalem, which became his home, and the city where he and Bridget raised their three daughters.
Unlike the West Bank and Gaza, he wrote – somewhat prophetically – in a dispatch for The Guardian on June 24, 1967, “the future of Jerusalem is a problem of a different dimension. The Old City has gained such symbolic significance for the Israelis that it is hard to conceive giving it up....
“Emotions are controlled but strong. When I visited the [Western] Wall all was very calm till one woman suddenly cried, ‘Let there be peace in the land and the whole world.’ Universal amens were released like pressure from a vacuum.”
In another dispatch five years later, titled “Two states projected for co-existence in Palestine,” Silver gives the other side of the story: “Mohammed Abou Shilbayih is a dreamer. But then, as he disarmingly reminds you, so was Theodor Herzl. Last year Shilbayih’s Arabic testament, ‘No peace without a Palestine Free State,’ sold out in four days.
“This week, like the founder of political Zionism 76 years ago, Shilbayih has followed it with a manifesto. His theme is still that Jews and Arabs must stop brandishing guns and slogans and learn to live together in a land where they both have roots.”
Silver’s first big stories as a foreign correspondent were the Lod massacre in 1972 and the Yom Kippur War a year later.
The book includes profiles ranging from Shimon Peres’s rise to power and Menachem Begin’s peace treaty with Egypt to Ehud Barak’s bold gamble at Camp David, a tribute to Yitzhak Rabin, and Binyamin Netanyahu – Israel’s best salesman – selling himself.
In between, there are also fascinating dispatches on Ariel Sharon’s formation of Kadima, the spate of suicide bombings following Yasser Arafat’s arrival in the Palestinian territories and a piece for The Jewish Chronicle in 2003 on “Where and who are the Jewish settlers.”
“In contrast to their television image, not all of the settlers are religious,” Silver writes. “Nor is the settlement enterprise an Anglo-American bunion on the toe of sabra Israel.”
The book ends, eerily, with a comment after the attack on the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva on March 14, 2008, in which eight students were murdered.
“It is a sad truth that the Mercaz Harav massacre highlighted the fragmented state of Israeli society,” Silver writes. “Almost all the mourners at the memorial service and the funerals that followed it were drawn from the pro-settler religious Zionist community.... Israel has become a tribal society.” Martin Woollacott sums up Silver’s legacy nicely in his “Afterword.”
“Eric Silver lived in the wonderfully named Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem, and the consensus of his friends was that he looked the part,” writes Woollacott, a colleague at The Guardian. “Tall and commanding, and with an always evident confidence in both speech and writing, he was one of the foremost journalist interpreters of the Israeli scene for British and other English-speaking readers for over 30 years, and at the same time a very English presence within the Israeli press corps.
“If he was not literally prophetic, he was nevertheless an extremely accurate and reliable guide to the complexities of Israeli politics.”