Over a kibbutz breakfast of boiled eggs, fresh salad, olives, hummus and bread in the glorious spring sunshine, Valerie Chikly voices her frustration with the usual left-wing hostility towards Israel. "We are always compared to South Africa. It upsets me deeply," she says. The common cry of the outraged western liberal, that Israel is an "apartheid" state because of its treatment of the Palestinians, carries a particular barb for Valerie. She herself left South Africa 32 years ago to make her home in Israel. Armed with her socialist ideals, a hatred of apartheid and the belief that the Jews needed a homeland after the experience of the Holocaust, she set up home on Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu and has lived here ever since.
"Growing up in South Africa, growing up under apart heid . . . one of the reasons I left was I never felt comfortable there. Part of the thinking was that it was OK to believe the white man was a better person than the black man," Valerie says. She tells me she was convinced that Israel's problem was conflict, not racism. "Israel is always fighting for its survival. If we were able to make peace with the Arabs we would live together."
It is difficult to imagine a more idealistic, open-hearted lefty than Valerie Chikly. She still describes herself as a socialist and a committed kibbutznik, although privatisation and the nuclear family have replaced the original dream of communal living. She worked on a joint project teaching puppetry to Palestinian and Israeli children until one of her Arab students was shot during the second intifada. But the conflict has taken its toll, especially on the next generation. Valerie says her eldest son's time serving in the Israeli army has marked him. "I think his mistrust of Arabs is greater than mine. He has the experience of searching people and finding bomb belts on their bodies."
In Israel, the conventions of the generation gap are reversed, with young people often more hardline than their parents. Military service (three years for men, two for women) means that the younger generation has had experience of far more violent times. The Israeli consciousness is ingrained with death and violence. I will never forget the roll-call of more than 200 dead alumni from Herzliya High School, flashed up one by one on a cinema screen to the whole school during national remembrance day. I was a special guest on the occasion and was also shown a shrine to the dead, with photographs of each fallen soldier or victim of terrorism, which serves as a year-round reminder of the duty of each Israeli citizen to fight for the state's survival. I found the ceremony deeply disturbing - it also involved watching film clips of Israel's military legacy and performances by schoolchildren on the theme of war.
Yet still this does not answer the question: Why do liberals hate Israel so much? That was the question I found myself asking throughout my visit to the country this month.
As the great Israeli journalist Amos Elon wrote eight years ago in the introduction to his essay collection A Blood-Dimmed Tide: "Zionism was a child of the Enlightenment and the ideas of the French Revolution, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the need to separate church and state. Its aim was to provide persecuted Jews with a safe haven, recognised in international law, a National Home." Elon left Israel in disillusionment in 2004.
On the face of it, the answer to my question is simple. The British left hates Israel because it has abandoned its Enlightenment principles and set about the systematic oppression of a people whose land it occupies. The invasion of southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was a new low point that caused international outrage. For most people on the left in Britain, support for Israel is out of the question. Solidarity for the Palestinians is synonymous with the anti-American, anti-imperialist stance of the movement that opposed the war in Iraq. Thousands of people who marched in London against British intervention carried Freedom for Palestine placards, even though these were provided by the Muslim Association of Britain, an organisation of the Islamic religious right that supports the terrorist group Hamas.
Mike Marqusee, an organiser of the Stop the War Coalition, wrote in If I Am Not for Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew: "The blame for the misidentification of Jews as a whole with Israel lies principally with the Jewish Establishment, with the Zionists, with the Israeli spokespersons who justify every lawless, brutal act as a necessary part of the battle for Jewish survival. And with all those who've installed the cult of Israel at the centre of Judaism and Jewishness."
Victors and colonisers
The Israel issue has become a terrible fault line on the British left and betrayal is felt on both sides. Israelis I spoke to dated the breach to the 1967 Six-Day War, when the Jews of Israel turned from passive victims to military victors and colonisers. There is something in the argument that the left loves a victim and the modern Israeli does not fit the mould.
But there is more to it than that. The internet has flushed out a whole subculture of left-wing hostility to Israel that should make even Marqusee uncomfortable. This has a regular and willing outlet on the Guardian's Comment is Free website and the New Statesman also suffers from it whenever we publish articles on Israel. Postings on our blog casually link Zionism to fascism or South African apartheid. The language is so unpleasant that it is difficult not to draw the conclusion that many of the comments are driven by anti-Semitism.
I was travelling in Israel with a group of four other journalists as a guest of BICOM, a British organisation set up to improve Israel's image in the media. Not an easy task. The trip coincided with the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the state, a time for reflection and reassessment. It also coincided with the latest round of peace talks between Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. While we were there, hopes of peace faded even further. Olmert found himself embroiled in a political funding scandal that weakened his hand and a deal by the end of the Bush administration looks unlikely.
In four days we were given a crash course in the modern Zionist narrative of Israel. At Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust museum, our guide told us in no uncertain terms that a Jewish state was necessary because we in western Europe could not be trusted. We were introduced to government officials, politicians and senior military officers on the front line in Gaza and the West Bank who demonstrated the reality of the threat to Israel as they saw it. We visited Ramallah to meet a senior representative of the Palestinian Authority, but for the most part it was the Israeli case being made.
Propaganda aside, there is an Israeli case. And it is one the west, including the British left, ignores at its peril. At the police station in Sderot, a southern town of roughly 20,000 inhabitants less than a mile from the border with Gaza, Barak Peled stood next to a collection of several hundred rockets fired by Palestinian militants over the past few months. The attacks began in 2001, but intensified after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza three years ago. Most of the missiles were the home-made Qassams fired by Hamas, but each faction has its own makeshift devices. "Once it was stones and Molotov cocktails," said Barak. "Now look at it. They have brought the war to us." Even now the technology is moving on. Among the gruesome artefacts, Barak found the smashed fuselage of a Grad missile, Russian-designed but supplied by Iran.
Besieged by neighbours
This may be just so much Zionist PR, but the events are real and real people's lives are destroyed by the constant rocket attacks. No children play outside. A rudimentary siren system gives the people of Sderot 15 seconds to run to one of the bomb shelters dotted around the town. Sometimes it doesn't work.
Geut Aragon, a 34-year-old nurse, described how no siren sounded as her house was destroyed by a Qassam rocket in January. She, her four-year-old son and a neighbour's child were trapped in the rubble. The young mother still has shrapnel from the incident in her head. Asked about the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, she told me: "It was not a good idea. We knew it - you don't have to be very smart. We knew as soon as they pulled out we would be under attack."
Now, with the introduction of the Grad rockets, targets further inside Israel have come within missile range of Hamas, including the city of Ashkelon on the coast, which has already suffered a handful of attacks. Israel has always felt besieged by its neighbours, but today Iran poses a different order of threat. At the same time, a strategic alliance between the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas is causing concern outside Israel. The Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram has reported that Hamas is already developing a pilotless drone with the Brotherhood for use in Israel. Whether or not this is true, it is a sign of a growing nervousness about the rising military power of the Islamists.
One senior Israeli military source in the West Bank told me: "If we go back into Gaza, we know we will be facing a trained army. This will be a very different type of conflict from what we have seen before."
Iran is now a constant source of fear in the Israeli psyche. Mark Regev, spokesman for Olmert, said that Britain, like the rest of Europe, needs to wake up to the reality of the threat: "The governor of the Bank of Iran needs to understand that because of the nuclear programme, his daughter can't study at Cambridge."
There are all sorts of good reasons for the left to fall out of love with Israel. At the same time, it is quite possible to un derstand how left-wing Israelis feel betrayed by international liberal opinion. Valerie Chikly reads the international media online from her kibbutz, and says she has given up expecting support. "One of the reasons I came here was because of the Holocaust," she says. "I really believe we have to have our own country and we have to defend ourselves. Who else is going to defend us?"
But the threat from Iran - not just the direct threat of a nuclear bomb, but its support for militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah - gives the relationship a different dimension. For a long time Israel has been accused of crying wolf over surrounding countries that want to "drive it into the sea". Now it has a neighbour whose president has not only made that threat explicit, but who intends to develop the capacity to do it. In such a conflict, which has already begun for the people of southern Israel, on whose side will British left-liberal opinion be?