Ideology at the checkout

Everyday people in the UK were taking notice of what for us is an everyday theme; the complexity I felt I wanted to express in my answer scared me.

Checkout 311 TS (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Checkout 311 TS
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
As a former spokesman for the British Jewish community, and indeed having worked in Israeli embassies and government offices, I am familiar with having to represent Israel and indeed Judaism to the outside world, often on the spot and, as the Hebrew phrase would have it, standing on one leg.
However, after five years of living in Israel, a recent trip to London resulted in a whirlwind journey of realization and revelations for which I was thoroughly unprepared.
In true “oleh style,” I, together with my wife Yael, also a native Brit, took the opportunity to restock on some of the UK’s home comforts and, in fact, to remove the residual remnants of her childhood from her parents’ home, as they will, God willing, be joining us in Israel shortly. Knee deep in school reports, overly loved teddy bears and overtly embarrassing items of 1980s clothing, we began filling cases with tea, M&S underwear and Cadburys.
This of course required several arduous and tedious – apologies at this point to Avishai and Rafi, our two young sons – visits to Brent Cross and other popular North West London shopping locations where one is in reality more likely to hear Hebrew than English. As so many Jews and indeed native Israelis frequent these stores, it has never been surprising that shop assistants rarely bat an eyelid at our children’s flowing tzitzit, our two-year-old boy’s incredibly long ponytail, or the odd Hebrew phrase in our chit chat. Yet unlike all my previous trips “home,” those we encountered this time took a decidedly more active interest.
In several stores, the checkout assistant asked us if we lived in Israel – presumably the quantities of our purchases indicated we weren’t locals – and in a dramatic departure from the norm, and accepted British practice, we were greeted with more than the usual “Oh, must be lovely and warm,” or “I bet you don’t miss the rain.” To which our responses would typically have called for no more than, “No, I wish we had more rain there.”
Instead, this time many asked, “Is it as bad as it looks on the news?” Some asked, “Do you feel safe?” And on one occasion, “Oh, it must be very difficult out there.”
I was thrown the first time, but by the third, fourth and fifth encounters, I was dumbstruck. Everyday people we were meeting were taking notice of what for us is an everyday theme. These sorts of questions were previously the territory of Guardian readers alone, yet now seemed much more mainstream.
WHAT SCARED me more was the complexity I now felt I wanted to express in my answer. I wanted to say yes, it’s as bad as the news shows, but the BBC never shows why it’s bad for Israelis. I wanted to say yes, of course I feel safe, we have an army dedicated to defending our lives, and a medical system which leads the world in emergency care. But I also wanted to say that we’re living in the middle of a regional revolution with extremist, fascist, genocidal lunatics committed to our destruction and 80 rockets landing on our citizens in just one day.
I wanted to say Israel’s a great place of Jewish values and independence, of democracy, freedom and equality.
But I also wanted to say that there is a massive poor-rich divide, few can make ends meet let alone save, taxes are through the roof, utility bills look like phone numbers and the coalition government has more fires to battle than the London Fire Brigade during the riots.
But how can I fit all that into an exchange at a checkout without defaming Israel, or angering the impatient people in the line behind me? I instead found myself reverting to type. Simple sound bites that I had spoken in churches, university unions, rotary clubs and to media outlets across the United Kingdom.
“Israel is still the most free and stable democracy in the whole Middle East. We lead the world in academic, hi-tech, medical and entrepreneurial progress, and we do so against a backdrop of constant threats and incitement to our very existence. The news gets it wrong, but come and see for yourself.”
I felt my heart sink as I realized that after five years of living in Israel as a citizen, this black and white (or should that be blue and white) understanding of Israel was merging into an ever-unraveling shade of grey and gaining ever-increasing levels of complexity. I was due to leave London truly unsure of my path, and concerned that my Zionist ideals and clarity had perished under the Middle East sun.
But then, just like the British weather, something changed in an instant.
We took our kids to a beautiful green park, fully equipped with slides and climbing frames. As the children played, we relaxed for a moment in the breeze.
In search of a cold drink, I approached the obligatory and quintessentially English tea house selling snacks and ice cream. Amused to find they had a full display of Bamba – Israel’s own peanut snack – I called to my wife with a deliberately heavy Israeli drawl, offering her a packet.
The man behind the counter of course asked if I lived in Israel, and bracing myself I said yes. “Oh” he responded, “we’re making aliya to Ra’anana in January.”
“Mazal tov” I said, we exchanged numbers and I wished him a successful move home.
There are tough questions, there are difficult answers and choices. But sometimes, there are really easy ones.
The writer is co-managing director of the Israel office of US-based PR firm 0Steinreich Communications, and a former government press liaison.