A week with family and friends in Israel


Jerusalem 11am

Glossy orange bags of expensive coffee line the shelf. Underneath, the dreadlocked cashier tongs shiny sufganyot into paper parcels for Chanukah-giddy customers. We’re still sitting with our empty mugs and croissant crumbs gazing keenly through the big windows onto the endless stream of hats, sticks, buggies, and shades. Every three minutes a silver tram glides past, dispatching the hats, sticks, buggies and shades to Mamila, the Old City, and Machane Yehuda. Inside, our excitable nattering competes with infant squeals and rapid-fire Ivrit from neighbouring tables. We’re revelling in old stories until one of us lowers her glasses and interrupts the familial niceties:

“You know… I hate driving there. The Arabs, if they don’t kill us with bombs they’ll get us on the road!”

‘There’ is a religious Jewish settlement located midway between Ramallah and Nablus. The drive is straightforward: an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on Route 60. ‘There’ is where her son lives with his wife and five children. Once I am over the delicious irony of an Israeli critiquing somebody else’s driving, a series of questions dart across my mind: is her fear of Arabs in cars extrapolated from recent ramming attacks? Is this an ill-judged quip or concerted racism? Can such an endearing woman be capable of concerted racism? Is there genuinely a paucity of quality driving instructors in the area? Did she think we’d laugh? Did she think we’d sympathise? Should we? Why does this son—my cousin—choose to live in a place too dangerous for the grandmother of his children to visit, a place presumably dangerous for his young family too? In a flash we’re onto somebody’s fiancée’s job and I swallow my questions.

Tel-Aviv 8.15pm

The English menu is an iPad and its black leather case is thick. Amid the standard options on the screen—Starters, Pizza, Fish, and Salads etc. — is Vegan. A finger’s punch transports you to a grid of guiltless dishes that make up in colour for what they might lack in calcium. It’s midweek and mid-winter but we’re wedged in, abreast the crowd, at a slender rectangular table. If this is the last supper I’ll pass on the vegan options. The Azrieli Towers glint above the restaurant. They loom behind me, two above my shoulders like good and bad consciences, the third skewering my head. With two big hands on the table one of us, an English-born Israeli, opines:

“Soon contemporary English will become Old English, and Arabic will be what’s known as contemporary English!”

This time somebody conjectures that this might be a bit racist; swiftly somebody else, perhaps averting confrontation, rules out the possibility. The comedian cum demo-linguist is an intelligent man with a big heart; his jest is all the more perturbing for these reasons. In the moment’s pause when I’m expected to laugh but unable to muster the faintest of chuckles, questions bubble: Does the joke reflect his fears about Israel’s demographic course? Is this even related to Israel: maybe he’s parroting xenophobic British relations living among large immigrant populations? What gives him the idea that Arab-directed prejudice suffices as comedy? Is Arab-directed prejudice his best means of finding common ground? The arrival of dessert diverts my attention to waffles.

Suburb near Jerusalem 5.30pm

Here we have the luxury of placing a Chanukia outside the front of the house, as well as on the windowsill. A spread of quiche, salads, cheeses and latkes endure small prods from the children cramming their paper plates. The antics of the various nieces, nephews, children, and grandchildren are a welcome distraction. They mitigate the awkwardness of language barriers and meeting relations that you last saw before puberty. The oldest in the room, swelled by the coming together of his progeny, speaks from his armchair:

“The whole world is against us… Anything is better than Barack Obama ”

At last, I can stop teasing political prejudice and social conclusions from off-hand remarks! This is a bold critique of UN Resolution 2334, and a Trump-accepting disavowal of the USA’s 44th President. The statement reflects analysis I’ve heard all week, and matches multiple headlines and Facebook posts I’ve seen. Yet, it shines in its own light, framed by, and adding colour to, the fragments I have already picked out.

From coffee shop, to restaurant, to lounge; and from Jerusalem, to Tel-Aviv, to Suburbia: casual racism, and a sense of having one’s back against the wall, pervades innocuous social interactions. Each of the comments I have extracted, lie somewhere on a spectrum between caution and paranoia; battle-hardened know-how and exaggerated, even fantasised, victimhood.

I did not conduct any surveys nor did I organise any samples. The conversations I had do not represent the varied and complex pockets of Israeli society. But, I think there are two general points we can draw. Firstly, the oppositions we are used to: legal and illegal; tolerant and racist; good people and bad people, are not clear-cut (and I’m not talking about when these lines are intentionally blurred for political reasons). In Israel, tolerant people live in illegal places, and good people say racist things. The web of conflict is tortuous and sticky; it is hard to wriggle every limb free. This leads me to the second point: hostility and fear, whether substantiated or not, grip like pliers on the mind. It will take more than the UN Security Council to abate this, on both sides of the Green Line.