I have been invited on an Embassy-sponsored press trip to Israel which will open doors I have never been through before. It’s eighteen months since I was last here. Money that once went into settlements has been diverted to the roads. There is a freeway to Herzliya which is popular with tourists and will one day be a major player in the country’s high-tech business. Even the precarious but spectacular road to my family’s kibbutz, Mevo Chama, in the Golan, has been widened and improved. It stills feels like driving uphill through the Bible, best done with eyes closed if you are the passenger. I think of the North Circular Road where I live in London which has looked like a battleground for as long as I can remember and despair.
In Tel Aviv, I visit Orly Castel-Bloom, a novelist who has won both the Tel Aviv Prize and the Prime Minister’s Prize. Since I last met her she has had another child, Chanoch, who is fourteen months old. Israeli women novelists have come late to finding their voice. Generations of them have had no time to navel-gaze or make up stories in their heads. Their heads have been too full of tragedies, wars, and the possibility of children growing up to be soldiers, tank drivers, pilots, sailors, and naval officers on the front line. Every family in Israel knows someone who has been killed in a war or by being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb went off. As a rule, few women even have the luxury of a room of their own in which to escape and write novels.
We talk about the madness of writing and caring for small children, about the nightmare of shopping malls which is the setting for Castel-Bloom’s new novel. Israelis love shopping malls that serve as air-conditioned oases in the sweltering heat of long summers. We hope that perhaps Chanoch will be the first in a generation of Israeli children who won’t have to go to war. Osnat, her eight-year-old daughter has already experienced the terror of living through Scud attacks. “Maybe, just maybe, we’ll work out a way to peace,” she says. Like most of us, she’s very frightened and sceptical. “But I don’t think we have another chance.”
Orly Castel-Bloom, 62, was born in north Tel Aviv to a family of French-speaking Egyptian Jews in 1962. Her novel Dolly City (1992) has been included in the UNESCO Collection of Representative Works. She has lectured at Harvard, UCLA, Oxford, and Cambridge. In 2002, three years after being named one of the fifty most influential women in Israel, she was the first Israeli novelist to write about Palestinian suicide bombings. Castel-Bloom has been called by a leading Israeli literary critic, “A post-modern writer who communicates the despair of a generation which no longer even dreams the dreams of Zionist History.” She currently teaches creative writing at Tel Aviv University.
Yael and Ruth Dayan
Days later, I am taken to meet Yael Dayan, daughter of Moshe Dayan, the Israeli military leader and politician – famously recognisable by his black eye-patch – who died in 1981. I am not here to discuss politics. What, I want to know, is her relationship like with her mother Ruth Dayan? I have been commissioned to interview them for Relative Values. As always, I am fascinated by family relationships and the price children sometimes have to pay for being the offspring of famous, powerful, high-profile parents. Yael tells me that her earliest memories are of the times when her father was in Acre jail for his activities in the Zionist paramilitary organisation, the Haganah. Aged two and a half she visited him when he was covered in bandages, having lost an eye. “I wasn’t afraid to look at him in hospital, but I wanted my mother to tell me why he had safety pins in his nose.” Yael credits her mother with holding the family together. “My brothers, Udi and Assi have changed wives and girlfriends so often, they come and go but Ruth is still friends with the mothers of all of their children. She is the one with enormous reserves of emotional generosity. I’m only interested in my immediate family. My attitude upsets her, but Dayan family reunions are a bloody nuisance. Sometimes my mother comes to see me at the Knesset if I’ve been away she makes sure there is bread and milk at home. I can’t say I do the same for her.”
Ruth Dayan tells me about the Bedouin who make handmade jewellery for her from ancient traditional designs which are sold in the shop at the Israel Museum. I find it hard to believe that this extraordinary, vital, energetic woman is almost 77 years old. “You should meet my mother!” she says. “In many ways, Yael is very like her – unemotional and fiercely confident. Her name comes from the Bible. Yael was a fearless woman who killed an enemy with a tent peg. Where my children are concerned, I’m like a lioness. I’ll always justify what they do, rather than ask myself where did I go wrong?”
Yael Dayan is 83. An Israeli politician and author, she served as a member of the Knesset between 1992-2003. She was chair of the Tel Aviv City Council from 2008 until 2013. She has published five novels, a memoir of the Six-Day War and a biography of her father called My Father His Daughter.
Ruth Dayan was an Israeli social activist who founded the Maskit fashion house. She and Israeli Foreign Minister and General Moshe Dayan divorced in 1971 after 36 years of marriage. Active in many social activities for which she was a recipient of the President’s Medal of Distinction, she was also awarded the Yigal Allon Prize in recognition of her social empowerment efforts. Both of her sons are dead. One of them took his own life. Ruth Dayan died on 5 February 2021, one month short of her 104th birthday.
In Daliyat al-Carmel, a Druze village, I visit Louisa Hadid. Louisa’s husband, Khali, was a soldier in the Israeli army. In 1983 he was killed in a car bomb in Lebanon. Of the 27 others killed with him, 25 were Druzim. Louisa was left with three young children. She spoke about how Khali had died for the State and how the State has supported her as the widow of an Israeli soldier. The children have been her priority but they are now 17, 16 and 13 and she is slowly rebuilding her life. Louisa wears the traditional black dress and white head covering of the Druze. She works as a volunteer in the Community Center teaching embroidery and working with the elderly. Her children would like her to travel. She tells me she would love to come to London. I think of the groups of Israeli war widows who sometimes come to England and wonder if a Druze family has ever been included. If not, why not?
That evening I have tea with Hannah and Paul Birnbaum the gentle, hospitable parents of Simon, a young rabbi, father of four who, last year, was stabbed to death by an Arab whilst he was waiting at a bus stop. I have no idea how you deal with such grief, but, somehow they do. Their personal tragedy hasn’t altered their politics. “Peace is like motherhood,” says Paul. “You won’t find anyone against it.” I am then subjected to a historical lecture on exactly why the peace process can’t possibly work and feel utterly impotent.
In Jerusalem, I ask Shimon Peres, Minister for Foreign Affairs, about his childhood for a feature in the Times Magazine. We are in his office. I am fascinated by the sheer number of books which all look as if they have come straight from the publishers, arranged like an orderly low rise building in the right-hand corner of his desk. He tells me that deep in his heart he wanted to become a poet or an architect. Towards the end of the interview, he says that all his life he has been an optimist. “Everyone has a dark shadow within them, but personally, I never knew what to do with pessimism.” It seemed like an excellent message to take with me to Nablus the following day. Shimon Peres served as both Prime Minister and President of Israel. He died, aged 93, in 2016.
Nablus is a city in the northern West Bank, approximately 49 kilometres north of Jerusalem. It has been occupied by the Israelis since the 1967 Six-Day War. To say I am frightened during the drive from Jerusalem is an understatement. Even with my Israeli contacts in the car and a friendly, English-speaking Arab taxi driver, as we drive along the bleak yet beautiful road, I have my usual conversation with God. “If You’ll just get me back safely at 7.0pm I promise I’ll never ask for anything again.” So far, God has never let me down, but I never keep my side of the bargain because so many things frighten me. My kids driving on motorways is just one of them. So I keep on having the same dialogue.
At the university, I am overwhelmed by the sheer number of students. It is lunchtime. They all seem to be gathering in the courtyard or going from one class to another. The university is bursting at the seams. It doesn’t look much different from an English college except that it’s very hot and the buildings are dazzling white in the sunshine. I don’t see a student’s union, refectory or even a drinks machine anywhere.
Sami Kilani who teaches Educational Science borrows an office from the University director. In his lunch break, we talk about his brother Ahmed, the third of five boys, who was shot dead by an Israeli soldier at a demonstration during the Intifada. Sami explains that at the time, Ahmed was trying to shield an l4-year-old boy from their village. When he was killed, Sami and his other brothers – all of them activists – were in prison. He has lost count of the number of times he has been in and out of detention but now he is involved in peace dialogues. Ahmed was killed in October 1988. Five years on and Sami is crying when he speaks about his brother. “These wounds inside won’t heal unless we establish peace. I want a future for my three children. A future without killings. Without winners and losers on both sides.”
Professor Sami Kilani teaches in the faculties of Sociology and Social Work at the An-Najah National University in Nablus, Palestine. An acclaimed writer, poet and children’s writer, he is a visiting professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he was awarded a Ph.D.
Rawda Bassir is a speech therapist in Nablus and co-ordinator of the Arab/Israeli dialogue group for peace. She lives with her husband, Ibrahim, in a house which they share with his family. Their part of the house is bright, modern, and – apart from the phone which never stops ringing – strangely tranquil. It stands high on a hill overlooking the town. Between them, Rawda and Ibrahim have spent 25 years in Israeli prisons. Sitting with them, drinking freshly squeezed guava juice, it is difficult to think of this exhausted, hospitable woman in terms of the word “terrorist”. My editor has asked me to interview Rawda for A Life In The Day. She tells me, “I get up at 7.0 am and listen to the news. Everything is done in a hurry. I drink Nescafé and make all the phone calls I didn’t have time for the night before. Ibrahim works as a translator. Sometimes we leave together in a taxi. From eight until two, five days a week I run our speech therapy clinic. Some children are deaf mutes, some have Downs Syndrome, others are perfectly normal but for some reason they’r’e unable to speak or have difficulty pronouncing certain words. We don’t have any modern equipment and hardly any instruments, All we can do is to try and develop each child’s potential. Doctors send patients to us for hearing tests. Even Jordan sends us children. I trained in Italy and am hoping to go back there next month for a short time. Although many people are against the peace process I have been greatly encouraged by Arafat and Rabin. We have to listen to each other. For Palestinians and Israelis to become normal people is not going to be easy. It’s going to take time.“
Rawda explains that in 26 years of occupation, the Palestinians, in order to preserve their identity, refused to take any of the good things from Israel. “It was correct and not correct,” she says. “We were very mixed up. The humiliated eyes of my father were always a symbol for me. I’m one of five children, three daughters and two sons. My father brought us up exactly the same way. We were always made to believe that there was absolutely no difference in what we were capable of achieving. As girls, we didn’t feel inferior. All of us have professions in science, teaching, medicine and languages. As a young teacher, going into Jerusalem from Bethlehem, I was stopped three times a day, to have my identity checked. That humiliation passed on to me. Now we must take good things from our neighbours. We have to build a bridge for the future.”
When she was in prison the political prisoners made a garden for themselves. “It was our little bit of paradise. Now, before I go to bed, I go outside to my terrace and talk to my plants. I always have time for my plants.”
Rawda Bassir is now 68. The last news I found for her was a New Years Greetings Card photograph with her husband dated January 3 2021 on Facebook. A similar photograph without the gold and glitter, also on Facebook had this message Free Khalida Jarrar. Khalida Jarrar is a Palestinian Politician. A member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. She is also the Palestinian Representative on the Council of Europe and head of the Prisoners Committee of the PLC. She played a major role in Palestine’s application to join the International Criminal Court. In March 2021, after having been held without charge since 2019, she was sentenced by an Israeli military court to two years in prison after a please bargain. She has gone on record to state that her plea bargaining is due to the exhaustingly protracted nature of legal proceedings, lack of faith in Israel’s military courts, and the threat, unless she admits guilt, of serving a 7-year sentence. Jarrar was released on 26th September 2021.
On my last evening in Jerusalem, I attend a dialogue meeting between Israelis and Palestinians in Beit Sahour outside Bethlehem. The group, whose common language is English, has been meeting – even through the most difficult periods of the Intifada – for the past five years. Some of us are there for the first time. These include two young Palestinians, one of whom has just come out of prison. The other had been beaten by Israeli soldiers. Their hostility is something you can almost touch, but they had the courage to come to the meeting. During the ten-minute ride on the mini-bus back to Talpiot, I ask myself, If I was living in Jerusalem, would I join this group? I honestly have no idea.
Before leaving Israel, I meet Elisa Ben Raphael for coffee. She is the widow of David Ben Raphael who was murdered in 1991 when terrorists bombed the Israeli Embassy in Argentina. After the carnage, American friends were filled with pity for Elisa and her two small children. “My Israeli friends told me to be strong and come back to Israel. What would you choose – pity or strength?” Elisa went with Prime Minister Rabin to Washington for the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian declaration of principles. “It was,” she said, “An incredible moment of pain and joy.”