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'You Will Never Be Part of Our Nation...'
Last uploaded : Wednesday 24th Apr 2002 at 22:29
Contributed by : Adam Blenford


Several years ago, an Israeli bike mechanic shattered my blurred vision of his country. Until I sat with Avi, a wiry 25-year-old darkened by the Tel Aviv sun, and discussed our heritage, I had laboured under the illusion that Israel was a homeland for the Jews, a sanctuary from the troubles we always found elsewhere. I had never understood why I might need sanctuary, because to my mind the comfortable middle class life that most British Jews enjoy posed few threats to life and limb. Despite grim warnings from my father, who was careful to teach the lessons of the Holocaust as I stumbled through my formative years - backward-looking lessons which exhorted the Jews to rely on nobody but themselves, and never to underestimate the power of those who would oppress us - I felt safe and sound in Britain. I felt British. I felt normal.

My father was not speaking with the intention of scaring me. To his mind, as the son of an Austrian forced to flee his homeland as the Nazi menace grew, to take sanctuary in a land which locked his family up in lunatic asylums on the Isle of Wight, there was nothing backward-looking about giving his own son a healthy dose of caution. I can remember listening to my elders have their say throughout my childhood, while I, too young to object, too unworldy to oppose, sat and obsorbed the tenets of post-war diaspora Judaism. The Arabs want to push us into the sea, said my grandmother, a formidable woman whose intelligence was clouded only by her imapssioned love of her religion and her people. When push comes to shove, the only people who will look after the Jews are the Jews.

It was stealth Zionism. In today's horribly politicised world, where support for the state of Israel is portrayed as a bigger crime than casting your vote for racist politicians, what my family put me through was simple brainwashing. While I plodded through my Sunday cheder classes at the local synagogue, where we were taught how to recognise the characters of the Hebrew alphabet so that we could stand with our mothers and fathers and say words which meant nothing to us - just like our parents had, unquestioningly, for the past generation or three - on the home front my formative influences were tediously predictable. I was born into a middle-class Jewish family. It was my family's task in life to furnish me with some understanding of Israel - my other homeland, far away from London, some other eden where my father could not blame all the world's ills on the goyim, the gentiles.

Through no fault of their own, as I grew up my family competed for my attention with other influences more diverse than religion, more exciting than family. For a decade until my night with Avi the bike mechanic I gorged myself on secular culture, soaking up stories, sights, sounds and tall tales from the four corners of the earth. By the time Avi and I relaxed over a beer at a fading hotel deep in the Kenyan countryside I had learned much about my Jewish heritage. I knew it was important that I did not dismiss my heritage without giving it a fair crack of the whip.

I had too much respect for my family, too much fear perhaps, to drop everything merely because I had not found spiritual enlightenment on my bar mitzvah day. Aged 16, I took my place on the traditional summer tour to Israel, where I visited the famous sites, felt the warmth of the Holy Land sun, and listened with scepticism as Zionist youth workers told us how wonderful it would be for us if we took up the offer of citizenship we all enjoyed in our Jewish birthright.

A year later I wandered around continental Europe peering through the mists of time at the relics of a civilisation wiped from the face of the earth. In Dachau, in Prague, in Budapest, under the shadow of the evil watchtower at Auschwitz-Birkenau, I found compelling evidence of the tragic past my family had always spoken of. Later, in the inhospitable surroundings of revolutionary Iran, I joined the proud remants of a once-huge Jewish community as they celebrated Passover. I qualified my growing secularism in day-to-day life with a curiosity about my heritage which offered a fresh take on history and politics. And still I remained strangely attached to Israel.

Avi was not rude to me when I suggested that through our religion we had a common bond. If he sounded brusque, it was merely the Israeli way - short, sharp and direct.
"What do we have in common," he barked, softly. "Yes, you are a Jew, and so am I. That does not make us brothers." I protested. Of course it did. We at least shared some history, some values.
"You are wrong. You look to Israel and claim to know my country because you too are Jewish and we share the same holy places. We read from the same book on religious festivals. But you are not Israeli, and I am not British. Neither of us is religious. Why then do you cling to this idea that this religion, which is such a small part of your life and an even smaller part of mine, should be some bond between different people?

I could come and live in Israel next week, though. "Do you speak Hebrew?" He barely needed to ask. "Then you will never be part of our nation. You will be part of a different Israel. You will never know what it is like to be an Israeli."

This exchange has never been far from my mind, and while Avi may be unrepresentative of Israeli youth in general I suspect he spoke an uncomfortable truth. The relationship between Israel and the Diaspora is changing. Where in the past the scattered communities of global Jewry would proudly send their money to bolster the Zionist state, in the current climate such a demonstration of support is a dangerous political statement. During the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1960s and 1970s young men and women from Europe and America travelled to Israel to help run the country while the reservists fought the wars. Today potential volunteers risk being ostracised by non-Jewish workers, friends, perhaps even relatives.

Ariel Sharon's Israel is deeply unfashionable in the salons of the liberal and radical left, and there is growing evidence that opinion-formers in those communities are failing to act with the necessary swiftness and rigour to prevent legitimate protests against Sharon's actions merging seamlessly into a dangerous form of latent anti-semitism. Yet those who back Israel in its struggle against the Palestinian intifada -whether they be Jew or gentile - are labelled 'Zionists', the term spat at them laden with bile, and accused of complicity in 'massacres' and 'genocide'.

The eternal division between Jews and the rest of society has become a schism since Ariel Sharon sent the tanks into the West Bank. The warnings of my family have mutated into an ominous prophesy, yet three years ago, at a time of peace and hope in Israel, a young Israeli casually dismissed the youth of the Jewish diaspora. In these circumstances, what meaningful response can the Jewish community of the future muster?
Adam Blenford, 24, is a freelance journalist currently researching a project about Britain's young Jewish community. He works regularly for the London Evening Standard and has written on Jewish issues for the Jewish Chronicle and The Observer.


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