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Coming Back to Israel

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March 27, 2011 by happyhenry

After almost four years in Cambridge I find myself back in Israel. Perhaps it is this country that has changed, or me, but either way returning here has been quite a struggle. The food is better here, you may say, and it is probably true, but the place – to put it mildly – is not so appetising. It is not the five hours I spent at the Ashdod Port speaking with smoking secretaries next to no-smoking signs in a desperate attempt to release the two boxes I sent from England two months ago. It is also not the prices of apartments for rent in Tel Aviv, which makes Cambridge look like a suburb of a developing country. It is something deeper than this, which has less to do with the place, or its people, and more with the political culture which seems to penetrate also into the air.

I think it struck me a few days ago when I went with my nieces to an ecologic farm outside Jerusalem. It is a place where children learn about nature and environment, and are encouraged to look beyond the materialistic world outside. There, they and I learned how to make all-natural car air-fresheners using lavender leaves that we crushed ourselves, and we also prepared a special fragrance made with fresh sage leaves. We listened to a member of the group which runs the place, and found it so exciting (not for me though) to hear about the way of life they chose for themselves. They live in houses made of mud, and eat only food which grown there, vegetarian of course, and only according to the season. Nothing is bought from outside and all kinds of recycling takes place there. Even the toilets, I learned to my urban horror, are nature-friendly, with a pile of earth replacing the flush of the water.

I can’t remember when exactly I noticed that our guide was wearing an IDF shirt. Not a military uniform, but those cheap khaki t-shirts which are mostly bought by tourists who come for a visit to Israel. He said that he was 18 and that during 2011 he is spending a year of pre-military service which he is giving to society and nature, before fulfilling his three-year duty in the army. He said his dream is to join the Israeli Navy and serve on a Missile Boat. Israel, I then pondered, is probably the only place on earth where an ecologic, environmental, anti-capitalist, and naturalist campaign can so naturally go hand in hand with a military organisation which is in charge of an ongoing siege in the Gaza Strip, a 44 year occupation in the West Bank, house demolitions, land confiscation, and the uprooting of people and trees, from their houses, and lands.

This can probably better explain how the latest escalation between Israel and Hamas was read by Israeli politicians. From Minister Matan Vilnai (Labour) who said that “another round of clashes with Hamas is just inevitable” to Minister Silvan Shalom (Likud) who said that “there is no other way than a massive operation which will topple Hamas”, to the leader of the opposition, Zipi Livni (Kadima), who said that “in this matter there is no opposition and coalition… Hamas understands only the use of force”, it seems that Israeli politics is captured by a militaristic paradigm which places the IDF in its middle, and which has the use of military force as its first language. Quite a sad conclusion, I guess, for a country that tried so many times to win in the battle field, and which should by now have realised that its military “victories” are a mere veneer for its ongoing political losses.

So it might be this centrality of the army, and the way the conflict – and its agents – have become part of the routine of Israeli life, which contributed to my homesick to England. A two hours relief a week, however, I do get on Saturdays at 5pm, Israel time. Then, when I listen to BBC 5 and get the live coverage of the football, I feel I am getting my weekly injection of sanity. Yes, I know it sounds mostly insane but when the correspondent gives the results of the Championship, this is when my weekend starts. And if Norwich actually wins, it is a sign for a good week ahead. It’s quite a precious asset for me to have, in Israel, in 2011.

Yonatan Mendel is finishing his PhD at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. He moved to Israel in February 2011. He is a researcher at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, and a contributor to the London Review of Books.

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