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Israel’s best hope lies in a single state

In East Jerusalem, vigilantes prowl, hunting for Jewish girls who consort with Arab men. Slavoj Žiže

In Israel, there is a growing number of initiatives - from official bodies and rabbis to private organisations and groups of local residents - to prevent interracial dating and marriage. In East Jerusalem, vigilante-style patrols work to stop Arab men from mixing with local Jewish girls. Two years ago, the city of Petah Tikva created a hotline that parents and friends can use to inform on Jewish women who mix with Arab men; the women are then treated as pathological cases and sent to a psychologist.

In 2008, the southern city of Kiryat Gat launched a programme in its schools to warn Jewish girls about the dangers of dating local Bedouin men. The girls were shown a video called Sleeping With the Enemy, which describes mixed couples as an "unnatural phenomenon". Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu once told a local newspaper that the "seducing" of Jewish girls is “another form of war" and a religious organisation called Yad L'Achim conducts military-style rescues of women from "hostile" Arab villages, in co-ordination with the police and army. In 2009, a government-backed television advertising campaign, later withdrawn, urged Israeli Jews to report relatives abroad who were in danger of marrying non-Jews.

It is no wonder that, according to a poll from 2007, more than half of all Israeli Jews believe that intermarriage should be equated with "national treason". Adding a note of ridicule late last year, Rabbi Ari Shvat, an expert on Jewish law, allowed for an exception: Jewish women are permitted to sleep with Arabs if it is in order to gather information about anti-Israel activity - but it is more appropriate to use unmarried women for this purpose.

The first thing that strikes one here is the gender asymmetry. The guardians of Jewish purity are bothered that Jewish girls are being seduced by Palestinian men. The head of Kiryat Gat's welfare unit said: "The girls, in their innocence, go with the exploitative Arab." What makes these campaigns so depressing is that they are flourishing at a time of relative calm, at least in the West Bank. Any party interested in peace should welcome the socialising of Palestinian and Jewish youth, as it would ease tensions and contribute to a shared daily life.

Until recently, Israel was often hit by terror attacks and liberal, peace-loving Jews repeated the mantra that, while they recognised the injustice of the occupation of the West Bank, the other side had to stop the bombings before proper negotiations could begin. Now that the attacks have fallen greatly in number, the main form that terror takes is continuous, low-level pressure on the West Bank (water poisonings, crop burnings and arson attacks on mosques). Shall we conclude that, though violence doesn't work, renouncing it works even less well?

If there is a lesson to be learned from the protracted negotiations, it is that the greatest obstacle to peace is what is offered as the realistic solution - the creation of two separate states. Although neither side wants it (Israel would probably prefer the areas of the West Bank that it is ready to cede to become a part of Jordan, while the Palestinians consider the land that has fallen to Israel since 1967 to be theirs), the establishment of two states is somehow accepted as the only feasible solution, a position backed up by the embarrassing leak of Palestinian negotiation documents in January.

What both sides exclude as an impossible dream is the simplest and most obvious solution: a binational secular state, comprising all of Israel plus the occupied territories and Gaza. Many will dismiss this as a utopian dream, disqualified by the history of hatred and violence. But far from being a utopia, the binational state is already a reality: Israel and the West Bank are one state. The entire territory is under the de facto control of one sovereign power - Israel - and divided by internal borders. So let's abolish the apartheid that exists and transform this land into a secular, democratic state.

Losing faith

None of this implies sympathy for terrorist acts. Rather, it provides the only ground from which one can condemn terrorism without hypocrisy. I am more than aware of the immense suffering to which Jews have been exposed for thousands of years. What is saddening is that many Israelis seem to be doing all they can to transform the unique Jewish nation into just another nation.

A century ago, the writer G K Chesterton identified the fundamental paradox facing critics of religion: "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may fight the Church . . . The secularists have not wrecked divine things but the secularists have wrecked secular things, if that is any comfort to them." Does the same not hold for the advocates of religion? How many defenders of religion started by attacking contemporary secular culture and ended up forsaking any meaningful religious experience?

Similarly, many liberal warriors are so eager to fight anti-democratic fundamentalism that they will throw away freedom and democracy if only they may fight terror. Some love human dignity so much that they are ready to legalise torture - the ultimate degradation of human dignity - to defend it. As for the Israeli defenders of Jewish purity: they want to protect it so much that they are ready to forsake the very core of Jewish identity.

Slavoj Žižek is a philosopher and critic. His latest book, "Living in the End Times", is published by Verso (£20)

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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The living lights that guide us home

A reflection on the summer magic of glow-worms.

There’s a species of summer magic I chase every year. It’s small, fierce and insistently beautiful and your best chance of seeing it is on hot nights in June and July. Tonight I’m searching for it in a disused chalk quarry on the outskirts of Cambridge, an eerie, lunar landscape of towering white cliffs and patches of bare ground resembling snowfields strewn with bones.

This is a nature reserve – one of only three UK sites where moon carrots grow – and it is brimming with life. Green longhorn moths the colour of stained gold velvet decorate pale scabious flowers; rabbits graze in drifts of trefoil, kidney vetch and thyme. The evening air is full of huge beetles with handlebar antennae, hooked feet and wildly erratic flight: cockchafers. I feel small, insistent tugs as they get entangled in my hair and impatiently comb them free with my fingers. I’ve not come here for them. I’m waiting for something else and it’s nearly time.

With a little thrill of anticipation I see that the light is fading fast. By 10.30pm, the last snowy glow has faded from the cliffs, replaced by thin starlight and a soft, mothy blackness. And then the magic begins. Twenty feet away, a point of intense light winks into existence. Over there, another. And another: tiny motes of cold fire mapping a sparse star field over the ground. I walk up to one, kneel and peer carefully at the other-worldly brilliance. It comes from the tail end of a small, elongated, wingless beetle, clutching hold of a stem of grass and waving its abdomen in the air. It and the lights around me are glow-worms, Lampyris noctiluca, things both sublime and ridi­culous: half intimations of remote stellar distance and half waggling beetle bums.

Only female glow-worms shine like this. They can’t eat, drink or fly but spend their days burrowed deep in stems and under debris, emerging after twilight, when the light drops to around 0.1 lux, to clamber up plant stems and glow to attract the smaller, winged males. Once mated, the females extinguish their light, lay between 50 and 150 small, spherical, faintly luminous eggs and die. Their adult lives are short and made of light – but in their two years as larvae, they are creatures of macabre darkness, using their jaws to inject snails with paralysing, dissolving neurotoxins before sucking them up like soup.

As I kneel by the glow-worm, transfixed by its light, this encounter in the summer night feels more like the workings of magic than chemistry, though I know that the light is the result of a reaction when the enzyme luciferase acts upon a compound called luci­ferin in the presence of oxygen, adenosine triphosphate and magnesium. The precise mechanism of their cold luminescence long puzzled natural philosophers. In the 17th century, Robert Boyle found that the glow was extinguished if they were kept in a vacuum – although, noticing that when kept in crystal glasses between experiments they continued to glow, he mused that their light was akin to “certain truths” that shine freely “in spight of prisons”. In the early 19th century John Murray conducted laborious experiments on Shropshire glow-worms, placing their luminous parts in water heated to various temperatures, or in acid, naphtha, oil or spirits. One specimen glowed for several nights when suspended in olive oil. “Viewed at a distance of about ten feet, it twinkled like a fixed star,” he recounted, while “the eye steadily and tranquilly observed the beautiful phenomenon”.

It is hard to write about glow-worms without recourse to metaphors of stars and lamps. Their beguiling effect on the obser­ving eye and their singular light populate myriad works of literature; these are the creatures of an “ineffectual fire” in Hamlet and the “living lamps” in Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow-worms”, courteous beasts that guide wanderers home to safety.

Glow-worms prefer chalky, limestone habitats and you can find them on old railway lines and embankments, in cemeteries, hedgerows and gardens. But no one knows how many there are in Britain. They often go unnoticed because their light is easily obscured by headlights and torches. Certainly they are threatened by habitat degradation and urban development – males are attracted to streetlights and brightly lit windows – and this colony survives partly because the sodium glow of the surrounding town is blocked by quarry walls. Because the females do not fly, colonies are often venerable in age and easily rendered extinct: it is hard for them to move. But where they are known, local colonies are often passionately guarded and night-time glow-worm tours have become a summer tradition in many parts of the country, local experts guiding visitors around the natural light show, often with drinks and snacks laid on.

We live in a world of distracting, glowing screens but even so, these shining, tiny beacons retain an allure that draws people out in droves to stand and wonder. It is hard in these days of ecological ruination to find ways to reconnect people to a natural world more commonly encountered on television and video than in living reality. The greatest magic of these creatures is that their light cannot be captured meaningfully on film. Glow-worms are part of our hidden countryside. Like Marvell’s living lamps, they are still able to guide us distracted wanderers, giving us a keen sense of place and showing us a way to think of the nature around us as home.

Helen Macdonald is the author of  “H Is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double