Far from the Promised Land

Many Britons still see Israel as a Middle Eastern Hampstead, a land of liberal idealists. But the li

The serenity was unnerving. I was staying at Mishkenot Sha'ananim, a residence for visiting artists and musicians. Built on the site of a former almshouse, it is run by the Jerusalem Foundation, a cultural organisation. It is where, it is said, Saul Bellow began writing To Jerusalem and Back.

Most evenings, after interviewing generals in the Israeli army or after returning from a torrid trip into the West Bank, where my television crew was filming putative Palestinian suicide bombers, I would come back to this oasis of liberal culture in the heart of the world's most divided city.

The place is everything Israel was supposed to be - liberal, cultured and tolerant of other creeds. It is how British Jewry in Hampstead and Highgate and Golders Green likes to picture the "homeland". The young men and women at the front desk were not really receptionists, more music and art students earning money to supplement their study. They, like so many people of their age, now want out of Israel. For the past 18 months, these young people have not had a single encounter with Palestinians (apart from training guns on them during national service in the army).

These are neither the children of the Holocaust nor of the battle to create Israel; their values are no different from those of your average twentysomething Londoner. They are Jews who are proud of their people and their religion, but who no longer see much hope for the state created in their name.

Israel is haemorrhaging idealism. The second intifada - which has led to clashes that now claim as many as 40 Israeli and Palestinian lives a day - has changed the psyche of the country. Downtown Jerusalem is dying on its feet. Only the most courageous or foolhardy go out to any of its once thriving restaurants or cafes. Everyone is suspicious of everyone else.

But Israel's crisis predates the latest outbreak of hostilities with the al-Aqsa brigades, Islamic Jihad and Hamas. In fact, the fear and animosity felt towards Palestinians is perhaps the only glue that is binding Israel together.

Israel is on a one-way demographic path. Fearful of being overwhelmed by Arabs within and the Palestinians without, the Israelis have taken to logical extremes their open-door policy for everyone who proclaims themselves a Jew. Just about anyone is welcome now, and the more imperilled the country becomes, the fewer the questions asked.

On any day at Ben Gurion Airport, you can see an Aeroflot or Transaero plane depositing the latest batch of immigrants from the nether reaches of the former Soviet Union. In the past few months, the numbers are down from the early post-communist years of the 1990s, but what is remarkable - given the violence - is that they still want to come at all.

Some of these people bring professional skills with them - computer analysts, engineers, doctors, videotape editors. But most of them do not. They are, in the words of several long-established Israelis I spoke to, "white trash".

In Moscow, where I spent several years, there was always a difference between Russians (or Ukrainians, or Armenians, or whatever they were) and "Sovs" - Soviet citizens, whose grasping was matched only by their intolerance of others.

Many of the more talented Russians who wanted to get out found their way to the United States or western Europe. The rest ended up in Israel. To do so under the country's Law of Return, they have to prove Jewish lineage from one grandparent. In most Soviet cities, such papers can always be arranged for a fee.

There are now one million Russians - or for the most part Sovs - who have made aliyah, who have "come home" to Israel. They constitute one-sixth of the total population. Scarred by generations of Soviet dictatorship and mental mind games, these Sovs know little about Israel and nothing about Arabs. Instead, they have brought with them a very Soviet racism. Whereas before, they hated the "blacks" of Central Asia or the Trans-caucasus south of Russia, they now reserve their hatred for the Palestinians and the Muslim countries that surround Israel. They have also imported the "might is right" culture that sustained the USSR after the Second World War.

The only Sovs who have any day-to-day contact with Palestinians are the organised criminals, who run the lucrative business of selling on stolen cars and smuggling weapons into the West Bank and Gaza that Israeli soldiers have offloaded to fund their drug habits.

Most of the new arrivals are anything but idealistic, and admit that their move to Israel was prompted by an economic imperative. One man I spoke to, from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, told me he was depressed about the state of affairs in his new homeland. So did he regret emigrating? "Have you ever been to Dnepr?" he asked me. I told him I had; and even by the standard of Soviet towns, it is miserable. We agreed that, no matter how bad the violence that is engulfing Israel, he might have a point.

Israel is like home from home for the Sovs. They have their own television stations, local and beamed in from Moscow, and their own newspapers. They have moved in to the concrete blocks in the nondescript dormitory towns that pepper the main road between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv; in many parts of Israel, Russian is spoken far more readily than Hebrew or English. They also have a strong social safety net, familiar from Soviet times. They do various jobs on the side, but know - as in their former country - that they will always be assured a minimum income.

It is not religion that drives them. Most of these Sovs have none. But they have struck an inadvertent and unholy alliance with other groups in Israeli society that has changed the political landscape of the country.

The Likud government of Ariel Sharon is being sustained by a combination of Soviets, Sephardim and the ultra-orthodox (the only group that is reproducing fast enough to match the Palestinians). These disparate groups have nothing in common except their hostility towards some form of equitable outcome for the Palestinians. The Soviets look down on the Sephardim - mainly Moroccans, Ethiopians, Iraqis and Yemenis; the orthodox Jews look down on the lot. And all these groups look down on the Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

These groups together ensured the election of Ariel Sharon - and he is by no means the most extreme member of the ruling coalition. The only real pressure on Sharon is coming from those more hardline than he. If they manage to oust him, they will almost certainly put in his place Binyamin Netanyahu. It is a dreadful prospect.

Israel's Labour Party, meanwhile, is in a complete mess. Its troubles are compounded by the flight of many of its erstwhile liberal supporters into the shoot-first-ask-questions-later camp. The demographics have long been working against Labour. The Ashkenazi Jews, those who fled Europe either before or after the Holocaust, are diminishing fast as a proportion of the voter population. Some are leaving in disgust or despair; and among those who remain, the birth rate is falling. Ehud Barak had to fall back on Israel's Arab minority to ensure an improbable victory in the 1999 general election. That is not something Labour likes to trumpet.

It is now hard to envisage how Labour will get back into office. Barak's portrait adorns the wall of the armed forces headquarters in Tel Aviv (he was once chief of staff of the Israeli Defence Forces). But among many generals, he is now an object of derision.

One army person to whom I talked spoke of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the only Israeli leader who had the courage to stand up to the virulent lobby of settlers, who for years have systematically undermined hopes of a peaceful settlement. "Killing him was a terrible thing to do," said the army man. "But you can understand the frustrations that might drive someone to do something like that."

The schism at the heart of Israeli society is not lost on the more thinking Palestinian leaders. "One option we had was to lie low, to do nothing, not to fight and to allow Israel to self-destruct," Marwan Barghouti, the head of Fatah in the West Bank, told me. Perhaps an example more of hubris than strategy, but the remark none the less points to one of the by-products of the intifada - it has allowed Israel to paper over its internal contradictions.

Security and identity have always been the twin axes of the Israeli psyche. The former has never been guaranteed; now the latter is equally imperilled.

On the steep, winding road into west Jerusalem, you pass the Andrei Sakharov Peace Garden, a plain but moving monument. Sakharov was an altogether different kind of dissident, a man who believed that ideals, rather than population or power, provided the raison d'etre of a nation. What would he have thought about the state that Israel is now in, and the role his former countrymen are playing in it?

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2002 issue of the New Statesman, Far from the Promised Land