My Word: A question of identity

Questions of national identity naturally come to the fore this time of year. This year they seemed heightened.

In that uniquely Israeli time zone around Holocaust Remembrance Day, Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers and Independence Day, questions of national identity naturally come to the fore. This year they seemed heightened.
It started with the royal wedding. Nearly 63 years after Britain finally ended the Mandate and the State of Israel was born, the marriage of the prince and his bride captured the country’s heart. More than 30 years after I left Britain, I, too, got caught up in the wedding fever, belting out the words to “Jerusalem” from my humble home in the holy city; wondering about the guest list, and how British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was coping with the service; and pondering such important fashion issues as why Samantha Cameron, the prime minister’s wife, had strangely decided to go hatless, and whether those extraordinary fascinator contraptions would ever be acceptable headdress in an Orthodox shul (slightly more likely than Sacks attending a service in a Reform synagogue, I concluded).
The ceremony was completely in keeping with the likely future role of Prince William as head of the Church of England. Amazingly, it didn’t even wink at multicultural Britain. This was traditional Great Britain.
The Britain of myths and legends of yore.
Did I feel homesick? Not at all. But it occurred to me that I am so firmly entrenched in my Israeli identity that, unlike during my first years here, I no longer try to downplay my British roots – and it was nice to have a reason for some communal pride for a change.
Incidentally, the charismatic Jewish British ambassador Matthew Gould, also demonstrably proud of both sides of his heritage, is proving to be a local media hit, due as much to his British sense of humo(u)r as to his elementary Hebrew.
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A FEW YEARS ago, I became friendly with a Pakistani journalist I met during a press trip in Turkey. He had made his equivalent of “aliya,” moving from Britain to Pakistan – an unfashionable direction even before the turmoil there of recent years.
Unfortunately, it seems that not only decent people looking to build a better future have been attracted to move to Pakistan.
The death of Osama bin Laden gave another reason for celebration. I am particularly pleased that the Americans were the ones behind it. I’m not the first person to note that had Israel carried out a targeted assassination in another country’s sovereign territory, let alone then burying the body at sea, the international community would have called a special session of the UN to condemn the crime.
Israel would have ended up in the International Court of Justice in The Hague had it eliminated the arch-terrorist in front of his daughter, a few days after killing the son and three young grandchildren of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, even if he is suddenly World Public Enemy No. 1.
The only regrets I have about bin Laden’s death are the fact that he was discovered to be living in a luxurious home (I’d rather hoped he was still hiding in caves in Afghanistan), and the knowledge that getting rid of him does not mean the end of al-Qaida or its many cancerous cells.
That Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh denounced the killing of “a Muslim warrior” a few days before signing the ostensible unity pact with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – another step toward declaring an independent Palestinian state in September – is not encouraging, to use good old British understatement.
Actually, the situation in Pakistan is pretty frightening from wherever you are sitting. Unlike Iran, Pakistan already has nuclear capability. And it obviously also has terrorist organizations which feel at home. That is a marriage made in hell.
I am also concerned about the Bangladeshi precedent.
I remember the wave of refugees who arrived in England in the 1970s. The circumstances surrounding the crisis resonated particularly strongly with me when the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 under the slogan “Gaza and Jericho first.” As a Jerusalemite, the question of what was “second” and “third” or after that seemed to be pertinent, but above all, I queried the wisdom of trying to create a Palestinian state in two separate regions, with guess who in the middle. It reminded me then, and it still reminds me now, of how Pakistan was created when Britain pulled out of that part of the Indian subcontinent in 1947. The situation in which East Pakistan was separated from West Pakistan by more than 1,500 kilometers and different traditional ties was unsustainable. Hence, after a bloody war, East Pakistan ultimately became Bangladesh in 1971.
It’s safe to assume a Palestinian state divided into two wings with different traditional affiliations will not work either. In fact, that is the only safe assumption, given that the inevitable split is bound to have an impact on the Jewish state, squeezed uncomfortably between the Palestinians in the mountainous east and those bordering the sea to the west.
THE NEWS OF bin Laden’s demise created a stark contrast with the mood on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year. Nonetheless, the country marked the day as always with a two-minute siren, ceremonies and special activities and broadcasts.
One of the most remarkable radio spots I heard was broadcast from Tel Aviv on Yaron Deckel’s morning current affairs program. Israel Radio technician Gershon Meital brought to the studio a Nazi Morse code transmitter that had been found by his uncle during the war and which Meital had fixed. Proving it was now in working order, reporter Alon Shani, who learned Morse in the Israel Navy where he still does reserve duty, twice tapped out the message: “Am Yisrael Hai,” the people of Israel live. I hope the Nazi who once operated it was turning in his grave with every letter transmitted over the Israel Radio airwaves.
Israel Television is also marking this period. On the first program of the “Scorched Memory” series, Liat Regev hosted religious Zionist leader Rabbi Dr. Benny Lau and writer Nava Semel, a well-known figure strongly associated with the Tel Aviv cultural milieu.
The program examined questions of Israeli identity, and couldn’t have been more Israeli itself. Firstly, it turns out that Lau (whose father, Naphtali Lau-Lavie, saved the life of his younger brother, later chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, in Buchenwald) is a cousin of Semel (also the daughter of Holocaust survivors and the younger sister of local singing legend Shlomo Artzi).
Secondly, Regev comfortably called the learned rabbi “Benny” throughout (unthinkable in the Britain I grew up in, even if you are personally acquainted) and lastly, as Semel pointed out: A discussion like this wouldn’t take place in England.
But despite the differences, were Queen Elizabeth or the honeymooners to decide to visit the country, they would be assured of a royal welcome, Israeli-style: not necessarily polite, but enthusiastic.
The writer is editor of the International Jerusalem Post.

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