Gloria Tessler reflects on a changing Israel.
I had left it too long to meet Israel again. In my mind I could still hear the hooting of cars on the outer curve of the Ben Gurion airport perimeter, the shouting of excited visitors on the cusp of their promised land. Now, too many years later, the airport is just another elegant and streamlined hub, like any in Europe and America. The higgledy-piggledy bustle that characterised the old place has morphed into a motorway taking you straight into Tel Aviv. But I could no longer recognise the city.
The old Bauhaus flats, created amidst clusters of sand during an unfathomable tragedy by a wave of German immigrants in the early 1930s, reminds you that Tel Aviv was part of a city of innovation, of impulse. Now they are entwined within the skyscrapers of this techno-boom town, soaring upwards because, as someone reflected to me, with irony, ‘Tel Aviv has nowhere else to go.’
And so it rises, a bubble shaped by a booming economy of international investment, high-tech and start-up companies — its transport congestion three times that of the average small European country.
If you had told me I was in L.A, I would have believed you. I had lost all connection with this dense and energetic city, whose grid-like proportions I once understood, whose Dizengoff café society where people stared at or flirted with each other, felt so Mitteleuropa. It also recalled the shtetl.
And many young people are discovering their European roots, acquiring Czech, Lithuanian or German passports. The daughter of my Jerusalem cousin, of Czech descent now lives in Prague. She is not alone. According to recent research, over 100,000 Israelis of European descent hold citizenships in Central and Eastern Europe. It’s considered an insurance policy.
For my mother’s generation of German-speaking cousins, so anxious to escape Europe, Israel was their insurance policy. They have all gone, and suddenly I was mourning them again. Where was Leah, who reminded me of an ageing Anne Frank? And the energetic Yossi, the industrial curtain-maker, and his wife Ruth, so proud of their new country, so eager to show me around – because something barely understood lingered within them – the footprint of a deeper, alienated European memory.
Today their two daughters have discovered letters which Yossi had left from his days in the British army. Shattered by his unspoken past, they needed to understand everything he had experienced, suffered. Why? They wondered. Why had he never told them?
It was as though the past had begun to invade the present – the danger on the borders– the long-failed peace process. This time I noticed fewer soldiers on the streets but for my younger relatives at least, those troubles are just part of life. The older generation’s tendency, which had always infuriated me, to denigrate the Palestinians as incapable of logical debate – deriving perhaps from a deep-rooted fear of ‘the other’ which had the power to overwhelm them – had softened in their children.
Now, of course, a new age is dawning. The agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, brokered by US President Donald Trump, gives Israel and the UAE full diplomatic relations, making it the third Arab state after Egypt and Jordan to fully recognise Israel. While many Israelis view these developments with joy and relief, others, conscious about their country’s future, are concerned whether the Palestinians have been sold down the river. Annexation plans for the West Bank, home to Palestinians and hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers, remain, according to Prime Minister Netanyahu, on temporary hold.
‘Look’, said a young Israeli father of two small boys. ‘No-one in our family is right wing. I don’t support Netanyahu. But when I’m called up for miluim (reserve duty), I am aware that a buffer zone stands between me and my Arab assailant: it’s the settlements.’ Suddenly this vibrant, soaring country seemed as fragile, as evanescent as a dream.
But a friend who made Aliyah from the UK with his wife a few years ago, sees it differently. He had been worried about antisemitism in the Labour Party infiltrating British society in the age of Corbyn. Although under the leadership of Sir Kier Starmer this may be yesterday’s news – ‘as a Jew this is the safest place to be’, he insisted. As a middle aged Brit with two married daughters, he is not looking to Europe for certainties, as some young Israelis may do. Israel is ingrained in his DNA.
What about Trump’s decision to site the US Embassy in Jerusalem? ‘It’s the least of our problems’, said the young father of two. ‘Let him put the embassy where he wants.’ The US embassy of course, has now officially opened in Jerusalem’s Arnona section of the US Consulate, coinciding with full Trump triumphalism with the 70th anniversary of the Israeli Declaration of Independence.
And there, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv’s sophisticated energy dissolved into the beige glow of Trump’s chosen diplomatic site. Although new buildings are also sky-rising, the differences are less tangible. I did not see the totemic burnt-out tanks of Israel’s war of independence which pock-marked the road to Jerusalem, as that stony city rises like a mirage from rocks and sand. Arabs, Jews, Orthodox and secular wait at the crossroads of this eternally conflicted city.
The driver who took us back to the airport, drove helter-skelter past the West Bank, past the silent minarets beyond the wall. I felt sad I had missed so many changes in this driven country, so much of Israel’s rite of passage to prosperity, to its cultural and emotional growth. And yet something of that magic, that inexplicable glow, that indomitable pioneering energy still flourishes. It is the glow of youth and innocence. But can it survive?
Art by Gus Condeixa