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The A-Z of Israel

On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?

Editor's note: Today, we're featuring Simon Sebag Montefiore's entry on Jerusalem. To browse the rest of the A-Z, scroll down to the index below his piece and click on any letter to go to that entry.


J is for Jerusalem

While Israelis and Palestinians alike aspire to make Jerusalem their modern centre (Israel claims it as its “undivided capital”, though this is not internationally recognised), it has been a centre of religions for thousands of years. Here, Simon Sebag Monte fiore describes morning in the Old City: At 4.30am, Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel, begins his daily ritual of prayer, reading the Torah. He walks through the Jewish Quarter to the Wall, which never closes, its colossal layers of Herodian ashlar stones glowing in the darkness. Jews pray there all day and all night.

The rabbi, 42 years old and descended from Russian immigrants who arrived in Jerusa - lem seven generations ago, proceeds down through the Jewish Quarter, whether it is cold or hot, raining or snowing, until he sees Herod the Great’s Wall before him.

High above Herod’s stones are the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque on what Jews call the Mountain of the House of God, but “there is room for all of us”, says the rabbi. He is in charge of keeping the Wall clean: the cracks between the stones are filled with notes written by worshippers. When he reaches the Wall, the sun is rising and there are already about 700 Jews praying there. He may nod but there is no talking as he wraps the tefillin around his arm. He recites the morning prayer, the shacharit, which finishes: “God bless the nation with peace.” Only then does he greet his friends properly.

Shortly before 4am, just as Rabbi Rabino - witz is rising, a pebble skims across the window of Wajeeh Yacoub al-Nuseibeh in Sheikh Jarrah. When he opens his door, Aded al- Judeh, aged 80, hands Nuseibeh a heavy, medieval 12-inch key. Nuseibeh, now 60, sets off briskly through the Damascus Gate down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Nuseibeh, who has been the custodian of the Holy Sepulchre for more than 25 years, knocks on the towering ancient doors. Inside the church, the sextons of the Greeks, Latins and Armenians have already negotiated who is to open the doors that day. The priests of the three reigning sects have spent the night in prayer and jovial companionship. Only one Copt is allowed to stay the night but he prays alone in ancient Coptic Egyptian.

As the gate opens, the Ethiopians in their rooftop monastery and St Michael’s Chapel, its entrance just to the right of the main portal, start to chant in Amharic, their services so long that they lean on shepherds’ crooks. Now the sexton opens a small hatch in the right-hand door and hands through a ladder. Nuseibeh takes the ladder and leans it against the left-hand door. He unlocks the lower lock of the right door with his giant key before climbing the ladder and unlocking the top one. When he has climbed down, the priests swing open the immense door before they open the left leaf themselves. Inside, Nusei - beh greets the priests: “Peace!”

At the same time as the Rabbi of the Wall is waking up and Custodian Nuseibeh hears the pebble on the window announcing the delivery of the Sepulchre key, Adeb al-Ansari, 42 years old and a father-of-five, is coming out of his house in the Muslim Quarter. He passes through the checkpoint of blue-clad Israeli police, often Druze or Galilean Arabs charged with keeping out Jews, to enter the Haram al-Sharif. Ansari greets the Haram security and begins to open the four main gates of the Dome of the Rock and the ten gates of al-Aqsa. This takes an hour.

Meanwhile, Naji Qazzaz is leaving the house on Bab al-Hadid Street that his family has owned for 225 years to walk the few yards up the steps through the Iron Gate and on to the Haram. He proceeds directly into al- Aqsa, where he enters a small room equipped with a microphone and bottles of mineral water. Qazzaz sits and stretches, then breathes and gargles. He checks that the microphone is on and when the clock on the wall shows it is time, he starts to chant the adhan that reverberates across the Old City.

It is now one hour before dawn. The sun is rising over Jerusalem, its rays making the light Herodian stones of the Wall almost snowy – just as Josephus described it 2,000 years ago – and then catching the glorious gold of the Dome of the Rock that glints back at the sun. The divine esplanade where heaven and earth meet, where God meets man, is still in a realm beyond human cartography. Only the rays of the sun can do it and finally the light falls on the most exquisite and mysterious edifice in Jerusalem. Bathing and glowing in the sunlight, it earns its auric name. But the Golden Gate remains locked, until the coming of the Last Days.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of “Jerusalem: the Biography” (Phoenix, £9.99)



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A is for Architecture

Tel Aviv is Israel’s teeming metropolis – and it is also a haven of modernist architecture. Planned in the early 20th century and built mainly between 1920 and 1945, it began life as an extension of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Jewish immigrants from Europe developed suburban areas to the north, but it was not until the early 1920s that a comprehensive plan for the city was produced by Sir Patrick Geddes. The central White City area of Tel Aviv is a full realisation of his observational ideas of town planning which, rather than being led by a fixation on design, seeks to adapt itself to the requirements of the place and the needs of the people who live there.

As Geddes did not prescribe an architectural style in his plan, the buildings in White City were designed by a large number of architects, many of whom had trained and practised in Europe. By the 1930s many Jewish architects, particularly of the Bauhaus school in Germany, were fleeing to Tel Aviv as the Nazi Party grew in power. One such immigrant, Arieh Sharon, built residential areas, public buildings and hospitals incorporating Bauhaus principles of functionality but adapted them to the climate and demands of life in Tel Aviv.

The melding of the Bauhaus style with the ideas of Le Corbusier and the work of the expressionist Erich Mendelsohn resulted in the White City emerging as one of the best and most extensive examples of the international style. In 2003, it was named a Unesco World Heritage site in recognition of its outstanding significance to 20th-century architecture. In more recent years, Israel has pioneered a very different kind of architecture – see W for Wall.

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B is for Bibi

Binyamin Netanyahu plays the family man in the company of his wife, Sara, and their sons, Yair and Avner. Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr writes: One of the paradoxes of Israel is that, for a country whose identity depends on continuity over millennia, it is very young. None of the first generation of prime ministers, from David Ben-Gurion to Shimon Peres, was born an Israeli. That generation spans the foundation of the state in 1948 to May 1996, when Binyamin Netanyahu was first elected.

At 47, Netanyahu was then the country’s youngest ever premier and the first to deploy slick, soundbite-driven, American-style campaign strategies. (He studied in the US in the 1970s and, unlike his predecessors, speaks English with a distinctly American accent.) The political old guard, in his own conservative Likud party and on the left, thought his style vulgar and insubstantial. Then they saw how well it worked. Yet the image of the polished performer, lacking in substance, stuck to the man they call “Bibi”.

Now he is 63 and no one disputes that he is a political heavyweight. That first period in office was marked by a relative stagnation in the peace process that looks, with hindsight, like the beginning of the end of optimism. He then crashed out of office in 1999, surrounded by corruption scandals.

Netanyahu retired briefly from politics, returning in 2003 to serve as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet. The portfolio allowed him to express a streak of hard economic conservatism in the Thatcherite vein (see P for Protest). He resigned over Sharon’s decision in 2004 to withdraw Israeli military forces from Gaza, a gambit that remains the last significant territorial concession made by any Israeli government. Netanyahu’s opposition to it indicated an ideological aversion to compromise. It also demonstrated a strategic judgement about the political dividends available to a politician who might tap in to public insecurity and the appetite for intransigence.

He succeeded Sharon as leader of Likud and engineered a reorientation away from the party’s position as a pillar of the centre right, courting voters who were gravitating towards more religious and extreme nationalist parties (see U for Ultra-nationalists). Some analysts detect in that shift the influence of his father, a Zionist historian wedded to the territorial vision of a Greater Israel. Others see Bibi’s rightward march as raw tactics, sealing off a leak of traditional Likud voters to the fringes.

He won the premiership again in 2009 and is generally expected to stay in that role after elections on 22 January. Last year, he merged Likud with Yisrael Beiteinu, a fiercely nationalist party whose rhetoric has explicitly racist overtones. Now he is facing an insurgent challenge from a new right-wing group – Jewish Home, run by Naftali Bennett, a former Netanyahu chief of staff.

With the most recent generation, Israeli politics has shifted aggressively to the right. Pessimism about the peace process has nurtured insecurity and corroded the liberal credentials of the state. Extreme nationalism and a paranoid, hair-trigger militarism have colonised the centre ground. That shift has tracked Netanyahu’s rise. He has followed the trend and accelerated it. There is no doctrine or great project that can be associated with Bibi, nor even any great military or diplomatic achievement – just the galvanising of fear into a desperate and ruthless campaign for self-preservation which serves as a description of the man’s career, his personality and the policies he has pursued.

Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman

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C is for Calories

In October 2012, after a four-year campaign by the human rights organisation Gisha, the Israeli government finally released a document that made public its “red lines” for “food consumption in the Gaza Strip”. The document contained a figure – 2,279 calories per person. Israeli officials had calculated this was the minimum necessary to keep Gaza’s residents from suffering malnutrition. The plan was made during Israel’s economic blockade, which began in 2007 after Hamas, the winner of the Palestinian legislative elections a year earlier, took control of Gaza.

To many, the “calorie count” has come to symbolise the asymmetric conflict between Israel and this tiny strip of land by the Mediterranean, where 1.7 million Palestinians live in some of the most crowded conditions on earth. The blockade –which did not ease until mid-2010 in response to international pressure, following Israel’s deadly attack on a Gaza-bound international flotilla that May – at one point restricted imports of such items as coriander, ginger, nutmeg and newspapers. To compound this, there has been a barrage of military operations, punctuated by outbreaks of open conflict, such as Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and the bombing campaign last November. In 2009, a South African judge, Richard Goldstone, led a UN delegation to Gaza which concluded that Israel’s policy amounted to “collective punishment”.

Israel justifies its actions by maintaining that such actions are necessary to weaken Hamas, whose charter commits the Islamist movement to the destruction of Israel, and points to the stream of rocket attacks Hamas supporters have launched across the border. Yet the timing of its military operations – which often come in the run-up to election campaigns – and the misery inflicted on the residents of Gaza make peace ever less likely. The fear of rocket attacks is pushing Israelis even further to the right (see B for Bibi); at the same time many Gazans who chafe under the repressive rule of Hamas feel they have no alternative but to support their leaders.

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D is for Demographics

Ramadan in Jerusalem's Old City in 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Ali Abunimah writes: Israelis and Palestinians don’t agree on much, but a 2012 poll, financed by the Konrad Adenauer and Ford Foundations, suggested that 70 per cent of Israelis, and an almost equal proportion of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, rated the chances for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the next five years as “low” or “non-existent”.

They are right. There won’t be an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and there will be no “two-state solution”. This is a conclusion that many diplomats and peace process officials acknowledge in private but refuse to concede publicly.

The immediate reasons are clear: since it occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967 (along with Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai), Israel has devoted its energies to making the occupation irreversible by confining and displacing Palestinian communities, replacing them with sprawling, Jewish-only colonies.

This project failed in Gaza, where Israel abandoned its settlements in 2005 (see C for Calories). In contrast, Israel redoubled its settlement efforts in the West Bank, to the point where well over half a million settlers live a privileged existence there, controlling as much as 42 per cent of the land (see W for Wall). In the past three years alone, Israel’s settler population on the West Bank has grown by 18 per cent.

For decades, there has been a consensus – backed by numerous UN resolutions – that Israel’s colonies are illegal and must be removed. Yet, instead of confronting Israel, the “international community” has been complicit, channelling aid and Palestinian energies into maintaining a bantustan-like “Palestinian Authority” that, far from being the nucleus of a state, acts as an economic/milit - ary subcontractor for Israel. The dilemma, from a Zionist perspective, is that the settler project succeeded but did not quite go far enough. Though Israel is entrenched in the West Bank, the overall Jewish population in historic Palestine hovers at just 50 per cent. In a short while, Palestinians will once again be the majority, just as they were before 1948 when more than 700,000 of them were expelled. There is no Zionist solution to Israel’s dilemma that does not perpetuate gross injustice. Palestinians and Israelis cannot be separated into ethnically homogeneous nations without the risk of violence of the kind that occurred when Israel was created.

If two ethnically distinct states are unachievable and unjust, where can we go? Remarkably, the Konrad Adenauer/Ford poll found that 36 per cent of Israelis (28 per cent counting only Jews) and 31 per cent of Palestinians agreed with the argument that “there is a need to begin to think about a solution of a one state for two people[s] in which Arabs and Jews enjoy equality”. These numbers are surprisingly high, given that no leading political party or international figure has advocated such an outcome.

Increasingly among Palestinians, the focus is shifting away from statehood towards a discourse on rights. Nowhere is this embodied more succinctly than in the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel. Without stipulating one state or two, this call demands the end of the Israeli occupation; recognition of the fundamental rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and that any outcome respect, protect and promote the rights of Palestinian refugees to return home.

Could these demands – rooted in universal rights and international law – be fulfilled by a two-state solution? Conceivably, I have argued, if such an approach is modelled on the 1998 Good Friday Agreement for Ireland. However, it is not a two-state solution that any Zionist would accept. No just political outcome, whether under one state or in two, can preserve a demand for the supremacy of Jewish rights over those of Palestinians.

Ali Abunimah is the author of “One Country: a Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse” (Holt McDougal, £10). A version of this article first appeared in the New Statesman of 23 July 2012

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E is for Energy

For a country in the Middle East, Israel is not exactly flush with oil. The nation has no reserves of its own, and its relations with its neighbours aren’t conducive to running pipelines, either. What it does have – in abundance – is sunlight. The Negev Desert, a vast expanse that contains most of southern Israel, receives just 31mm of rain annually and typically has no precipitation at all for four months of the year. As a result, it is the location of the National Solar Energy Centre, one of Israel’s leading research organisations.

As well as bread-and-butter research on areas such as photovoltaic cells, the centre looks at ways to use energy from the sun without having to convert it into other forms, which is inefficient. Its Solar Optics Laboratory investigates methods of channelling and concentrating sunlight which could replace lasers in surgery, while its Parabolic Trough Laboratory experiments with focusing sunlight on a loop of heating oil, raising its temperature enough to drive a turbine.

Outside the lab, the use of solar power has spread throughout the country. More than a million households – in a nation of just seven million people – have installed solar panels on their roofs for heating water. That technology is now mandated for all new residential buildings.

But the squeeze for resources isn’t just about energy. Bordered by salt water on two sides and even saltier water, in the form of the Dead Sea, on a third, Israel suffers from endemic shortage of water. Solving its energy problems will allow it to scale up its desalination programmes and make at least some of that water usable and potable.

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F is for Foreigners

Israel’s “law of return”, a pillar of the Zionist project, gives Jews the world over the right to settle in Israel and gain citizenship. Successive waves of arrivals have contributed to the country’s patchwork of customs and languages (see Q for Qoph) and even precipitated shifts in the political landscape (see M for Mizrahim and U for Ultra-nationalists).

Yet Israel is also part of the global economy, and workers from the Far East and elsewhere plug gaps in the labour market. They have been joined by refugees from conflicts in Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea who cross into Israel through the border with Egypt. Many have thrived but tensions have also risen. In 2003, one Israeli firm insisted on making Chinese labourers sign a pledge, as a condition of employment, that they would not have sex with or marry Israelis. More recently, there have been outbreaks of violence against Africans living in working-class districts of Tel Aviv.

Politicians have been quick to play demagogue. At an anti-immigration rally in May last year, which was followed by assaults on Africans and the looting of their shops, an MP from the governing Likud party described the asylum-seekers as “a cancer in our body” (in a subsequent opinion poll, 52 per cent of Jewish Israelis agreed with her views). For some, such as the Jewish Chronicle and Guar - dian columnist Jonathan Freedland, the violence had uncomfortable historical echoes: he described it as a “pogrom”.

Anti-immigrant sentiment and racist violence and rhetoric are by no means unique to Israel. But in a country where many people believe that their identity is under threat from a future “Arab majority” (see D for Demographics), and whose “security” is ensured by limiting the rights of Palestinians, the feelings are all the more intense.

Israel prides itself on being a “Jewish and democratic state”; but when it comes to the rights of migrants, Israelis may be forced to decide whether ethnicity or democracy is the stronger of the two principles.

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G is for Golda

Golda Meir in 1970. Photograph: Getty Images

Patrick Tyler writes: Golda Meir was secretly fighting lymphoma and a host of other ailments endemic to a chain-smoking, overweight and sleep-deprived matriarch. As she convalesced in Switzerland in September 1968, Egypt unleashed a huge artillery barrage against Israeli forces dug in along the Suez Canal. With a percussion of violence along the 100-mile-long front, the two armies slugged it out over Israel’s occupation of the Sinai Peninsula since the Six Day War of 1967.

The attack caught Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister, by surprise just as he had learned that he, too, was fighting cancer. The news of his illness was suppressed. But, fearing for Labour’s hold on power, Pinchas Sapir, a senior minister in the party’s ruling coalition, flew to Switzerland to find Golda.

Eshkol had less than a year to live, Sapir told her. The leaders of the Labour coalition insisted that she return to Jerusalem to prepare to assume the post of prime minister, in order to avoid a damaging succession battle.

She had devoted her life to the Zionist cause and the Jewish state. She knew her mortality was a flickering candle. She had every reason to demur. But that was not Golda’s way.

She had clashed and collaborated with David Ben-Gurion, the founding father and first prime minister of Israel, almost her entire life, opposing his militancy in the 1950s but then returning to his side in a war for influence that they waged constantly against the young guard of Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres. They had elbowed her out of the way to build clandestine relationships with France and Germany to purchase modern weapons and, in the case of France, to acquire a nuclear reactor that would produce Israel’s first atomic bomb (see N for Nuclear weapons). She seethed over Ben-Gurion’s rush to do business with Germany; she was appalled by his refusal to tell the Americans the truth about the country’s hidden nuclear programme. She despised Peres, but had remained a loyal member of the inner circle despite formidable rivalries.

By 1968, Golda, like Ben-Gurion and Esh - kol, seemed a spent force to many Israelis. But sitting there, ill and haggard in Alpine Europe, she faced a moment of truth. “As long as Eshkol lives, what do you want from me?” she asked Sapir.

It was her way of saying yes.

Anyone who had ever met the only woman who would achieve the premiership in the male-dominated military culture of Israel (see T for To the End of the Land) probably never doubted that Golda would accept the mantle for which she had waited all her life. She took Ben-Gurion’s chair with the same wilfulness with which she had clutched his coat-tails in the early years, and with which she had imposed discipline and unity among Labour’s rank and file and, most importantly, with which she had soothed and stroked Israel’s friends and donors abroad.

Ben-Gurion considered Golda his secret weapon. This diminutive matron, who had grown up from 1906 to 1921 in Milwaukee and Colorado before joining the Zionist crusade, could reach out so effectively to sympathetic American audiences that their chequebooks parted as if Moses had commanded it.

She had been born in Kiev, but her American experience allowed her to bridge the distance between the Middle East and the US, using grandmotherly looks that could level an adversary with a Yiddish barb or freeze him with a moralising glint. She looked out from dark eyes that conveyed the weight of leadership, but her greatest weakness was a doctrinaire rigidity, to which she clung as if it were her greatest strength.

Her undoing was the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Along with Dayan and the generals, she became convinced that the Arabs would not go to war again unless they could establish air superiority, something that would entail years of investment and training. But Golda misjudged Anwar al-Sadat, who was gambling that a new war would bring the Americans into the diplomatic mix and produce a lasting peace that might win the return of Sinai and save Egypt from economic collapse.

He bet correctly, and although the Israelis claimed victory, nearly 3,000 of their soldiers died. The high casualty rates and recriminations over the intelligence failure devastated Israeli morale. Battered veterans called Golda a murderer and demanded that Dayan resign.

Only in one sense was the war her finest hour. This stubborn and dogmatic party apparatchik, at the age of 75, had held the country’s military establishment together as centrifugal forces were pulling it apart. But her performance notwithstanding, Golda Meir, in so many ways, had barred the door to the negotiation and compromise that might have prevented it all.

Patrick Tyler is the author of “Fortress Israel: the Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country – and Why They Can’t Make Peace” (Granta Books, £25)

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H is for Hatufim

Homeland, the hugely successful American TV drama about a US marine “turned” by his Islamist captors in Iraq, was in fact a remake of an Israeli series. Hatufim (literally “the abducted ones”; it was broadcast in the UK in 2012 under the title Prisoners of War) was first screened in Israel in 2009, while Gilad Shalit, the Israel Defence Forces reservist captured by Hamas fighters near the border with Gaza, was still in captivity. The pilot episode of Hatufim, in which two Israeli prisoners of war, Uri and Nimrod, return home after 17 years in captivity, anticipated Shalit’s release in October 2011 in exchange for more than a thousand Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners.

That context, plus the presence of 1,500 former prisoners of war living in Israel, explains the extraordinary reception for the series: it became the country’s highest-rating television drama. Hatufim didn’t spare its audience, either. The show’s creator, writer and director, Gideon Raff, used the oppor - tunity to explore in often visceral detail the physical and psychological effects of the torture to which captured Israeli soldiers are often subjected.

Hatufim is not the only Israeli television series to have been repurposed for the American market – the psychiatric drama BeTipul was remade by HBO as In Treatment, and the makers of Mad Men have acquired the rights to Yellow Peppers, a popular show about a family with an autistic son.

A second series of Hatufim aired in Israel in autumn 2012.

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I is for Institute

Uri Dromi writes: Israel’s Institute for Intel - ligence and Special Operations (haMossad leModi’in uleTafkidim Meyuchadim, or “the Mossad”), established in 1951, analyses in - telligence and performs special covert operations beyond Israel’s borders. According to its official website, over the years it has extended its activities to include preventing the development and procurement of nonconventional weapons by hostile countries; pre-empting terrorist acts against Israeli targets abroad; and bringing Jews home from countries where official aliyah (Jewish immigration) agencies are not allowed to operate.

Though officially Israel has refrained in the past from volunteering information about the Mossad, the state acknowledged some of its early operations, the most prominent one being the abduction of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960 under the personal command of its then-chief, Isser Harel. After the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Golda Meir ordered it to launch “Operation Wrath of God” and kill Ali Hassan Salameh, head of the Palestinian terror group Black September, which had committed the crime. Mossad agents in Lillehammer, Norway, killed a Moroccan by the name of Ahmed Bouchiki, mistaking him for Salameh.

In 1997, in broad daylight in a street in Amman, Jordan, its agents also tried unsuccessfully to kill Khaled Meshal, the political leader of Hamas. However, these embarrassing failures pale in comparison to the series of successes that won the Mossad the respect of other intelligence agencies and the admiration of millions of Israelis.

With the rise of the threat of Israel’s enemies acquiring nuclear capability, foreign sources reported that the Mossad was responsible for gathering the intelligence that led to the successful aerial attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. It is believed that it was the Mossad which, in 2010-2011, killed vital Iranian nuclear engineers and managers and carried out serious sabotage. After retiring in 2011 as the head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan spoke publicly against what seemed to be a determination by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. In what appeared to Israeli observers a “oneman crusade”, he said that Israel should leave the leadership role to the United States (see V for Veto and X for X-band radar), implying that covert actions are much more efficient than a military attack, which might spark unforeseen grave consequences.

Uri Dromi was spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992-96

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J is for Jerusalem

Ethiopian Christians celebrate the Holy Fire ceremony at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Photograph: Getty Images

While Israelis and Palestinians alike aspire to make Jerusalem their modern centre (Israel claims it as its “undivided capital”, though this is not internationally recognised), it has been a centre of religions for thousands of years. Here, Simon Sebag Monte fiore describes morning in the Old City: At 4.30am, Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites of Israel, begins his daily ritual of prayer, reading the Torah. He walks through the Jewish Quarter to the Wall, which never closes, its colossal layers of Herodian ashlar stones glowing in the darkness. Jews pray there all day and all night.

The rabbi, 42 years old and descended from Russian immigrants who arrived in Jerusa - lem seven generations ago, proceeds down through the Jewish Quarter, whether it is cold or hot, raining or snowing, until he sees Herod the Great’s Wall before him.

High above Herod’s stones are the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque on what Jews call the Mountain of the House of God, but “there is room for all of us”, says the rabbi. He is in charge of keeping the Wall clean: the cracks between the stones are filled with notes written by worshippers. When he reaches the Wall, the sun is rising and there are already about 700 Jews praying there. He may nod but there is no talking as he wraps the tefillin around his arm. He recites the morning prayer, the shacharit, which finishes: “God bless the nation with peace.” Only then does he greet his friends properly.

Shortly before 4am, just as Rabbi Rabino - witz is rising, a pebble skims across the window of Wajeeh Yacoub al-Nuseibeh in Sheikh Jarrah. When he opens his door, Aded al- Judeh, aged 80, hands Nuseibeh a heavy, medieval 12-inch key. Nuseibeh, now 60, sets off briskly through the Damascus Gate down to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Nuseibeh, who has been the custodian of the Holy Sepulchre for more than 25 years, knocks on the towering ancient doors. Inside the church, the sextons of the Greeks, Latins and Armenians have already negotiated who is to open the doors that day. The priests of the three reigning sects have spent the night in prayer and jovial companionship. Only one Copt is allowed to stay the night but he prays alone in ancient Coptic Egyptian.

As the gate opens, the Ethiopians in their rooftop monastery and St Michael’s Chapel, its entrance just to the right of the main portal, start to chant in Amharic, their services so long that they lean on shepherds’ crooks. Now the sexton opens a small hatch in the right-hand door and hands through a ladder. Nuseibeh takes the ladder and leans it against the left-hand door. He unlocks the lower lock of the right door with his giant key before climbing the ladder and unlocking the top one. When he has climbed down, the priests swing open the immense door before they open the left leaf themselves. Inside, Nusei - beh greets the priests: “Peace!”

At the same time as the Rabbi of the Wall is waking up and Custodian Nuseibeh hears the pebble on the window announcing the delivery of the Sepulchre key, Adeb al-Ansari, 42 years old and a father-of-five, is coming out of his house in the Muslim Quarter. He passes through the checkpoint of blue-clad Israeli police, often Druze or Galilean Arabs charged with keeping out Jews, to enter the Haram al-Sharif. Ansari greets the Haram security and begins to open the four main gates of the Dome of the Rock and the ten gates of al-Aqsa. This takes an hour.

Meanwhile, Naji Qazzaz is leaving the house on Bab al-Hadid Street that his family has owned for 225 years to walk the few yards up the steps through the Iron Gate and on to the Haram. He proceeds directly into al- Aqsa, where he enters a small room equipped with a microphone and bottles of mineral water. Qazzaz sits and stretches, then breathes and gargles. He checks that the microphone is on and when the clock on the wall shows it is time, he starts to chant the adhan that reverberates across the Old City.

It is now one hour before dawn. The sun is rising over Jerusalem, its rays making the light Herodian stones of the Wall almost snowy – just as Josephus described it 2,000 years ago – and then catching the glorious gold of the Dome of the Rock that glints back at the sun. The divine esplanade where heaven and earth meet, where God meets man, is still in a realm beyond human cartography. Only the rays of the sun can do it and finally the light falls on the most exquisite and mysterious edifice in Jerusalem. Bathing and glowing in the sunlight, it earns its auric name. But the Golden Gate remains locked, until the coming of the Last Days.

Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of “Jerusalem: the Biography” (Phoenix, £9.99)

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K is for Kibbutz

Meaning “group” or “clustering”, the word “kibbutz” has come to describe the utopian collective communities that were founded in Israel in the early 20th century. The first such establishment, Degania Alef, was founded in 1910, on land then situated in Palestine, and was purchased with donations from the Jewish diaspora.

As anti-Semitic persecution grew in eastern Europe and Russia, a wave of immigrants followed suit – many of them members of Zionist youth movements – founding their own communities, often in previously unsettled regions, but also on terrain taken from the Palestinians during the 1940s. Kibbutz members stressed shared ownership and placed an emphasis on agriculture, both as a means of achieving self-sufficiency and in keeping with the Zionist focus on land.

As the kibbutzes matured and more were founded (there are now roughly 270 of them in Israel) new challenges arose, particularly with regard to the care and education of children. Many kibbutzes created communal children’s homes where their young ones were cared for and educated together, rather than in nuclear family units.

Increased globalisation and the growing drift towards urban areas in Israel during the 1960s and 1970s led to many kibbutzniks establishing careers outside their commu - nities. More aspects of the kibbutzim’s work were privatised and the popularity of kibbutz life waned.

This decline has reversed in recent years – working-age adults and families are attracted by the lifestyle, which helps to mitigate the impact of the ageing population – and many kibbutzes now have a waiting list.

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L is for Ligat HaAl

Lior Eliyahu is one of Israel’s biggest stars. At over two metres tall, the 27-year-old basketball player is well suited to playing as power forward for his team, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Basketball is a huge sport in Israel, battling with football for top spot, and the Ligat HaAl is the country’s biggest basketball competition. The tournament – its name translates as “super league” but it is also known as the Ligat Winner Sal, after its main sponsor, the national sports betting regulator – is the equi - valent of English football’s Premier League: an elite contest, with 12 teams taking part, and very little movement in or out.

Just four teams have won the Ligat HaAl since it was founded in 1953 (well, apart from the 1956 contest, which was cancelled because of the Suez crisis). Hapoel Tel Aviv won five times in the 1960s, Hapoel Galil in 1993 and 2010, Hapoel Holon in 2008, and Maccabi Tel Aviv every single other time, for a grand total of 50 victories (hapoel is roughly similar to the British “sporting association”).

On 18 November last year, in the middle of Israel’s most recent bombardment of Gaza (see C for Calories), the reigning champions won their match against south Israel’s Hapoel Eilat, but only after a shaky start. At the end of the third quarter, Maccabi were nine points down and it was thanks to Eliyahu, who was partly responsible for an astonishing 21-2 run in the game’s fourth quarter, that they pulled it around. Speaking to Haaretz after the game, he explained why his team-mates’ minds were elsewhere: “We were listening to the news all day in the hotel, and we’re trying to explain to the foreign players exactly what’s happening. Then we came to play, and tried to stay focused.”

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M is for Mizrahim

Yemeni Jewish sisters Aden and Jamila as they sit in an apartment in Sanaa. Photograph: Getty Images

Rachel Shabi writes: First-time visitors notice it, but they don’t always know how to put it. They might say that the country is not as “European” as they’d imagined; or perhaps less developed-looking – or, more bluntly, “backward”. One foreign correspondent, on arriving in Tel Aviv and seeing its Mizrahidense, open-air food market, told me: “It’s not exactly Tel Aviv University, is it?”

Global Jewry is predominantly Ashkenazi, or European, in origin but Israel isn’t. Almost 800,000 Jews came to the nascent Israel from all over the Arab and Muslim world: Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Yemen, Libya and a few from Leba - non. By the 1980s these oriental or “Mizrahi” Jews (the word means “easterner”) – “black”, as their European co-nationalists sometimes called them – were the majority in Israel. The mass arrival of Jews from the collapsed Soviet Union a decade later reshuffled the pack, so that Mizrahim (the Hebrew plural) now comprise about 40 per cent of the population.

That shows up on the streets – in the food, pop music and dancing, mostly: the harmless stuff. But the reason why Mizrahim are more visibly working the food markets is that they faced persistent discrimination in Israel, whose pioneers (see G for Golda) intended it to be a European construct. Disproportionately sent to Israel’s initial “transit camps” and stuck there longer than others, disproportionately sent to the country’s remote periphery – often at night, told that it was close to main cities – the Mizrahi population grew disadvantaged. They were denied equal access to land and resources, sent to factories and vocational schools and told that their home culture was backward and had to be discarded.

Israel was supposed to be a melting pot, into which everyone’s cultural bounty would be thrown to produce a new, national amalgam – but in reality the country’s culture was set to the tastes of the Europeans in power. Scores of children of first-generation Mizrahim told me how they had become embarrassed about their parents’ Arabic language, their oriental-accented Hebrew (see Q for Qoph) and obsession with Middle Eastern music. Leading Israeli sociologists developed theories about social absorption, claiming that Mizrahi Jews needed to come up to European speed or Israel’s foundations might get swept away.

By the 1970s, it was obvious that class had an ethnic dimension among Israeli Jews, as the majority of welfare recipients were Mizrahi and the majority of the nation’s better-off citizens had European roots. There were mass demonstrations, rapidly mobilised by the Israeli Black Panthers, consciously binding the plight of African Americans to that of the “blacks” in Israel. The Panthers didn’t just want an equal share of the pie, they wanted Mizrahi involvement in its distribution. But these demonstrations were vilified by the government and media, crushed and semico- opted, while the social causes were dismissed – as they always are.

In the late 1970s the right-wing Likud party clocked that the way to dislodge Labour, the European-dominated party that had been in power since 1948, was to play for the Mizrahi vote. Likud’s then leader, Menachem Begin, visited the country’s Mizrahi-dense slum cities and peripheral towns and addressed people’s sense of alienation and discrimination. So popular was he that, at one point, rumours began circulating among the Mizrahim that the Polish-born Begin was in fact Moroccan. He won by a landslide in 1977. And then in the next election, in 1981, Labour put out leaflets that depicted oriental-looking crowds with the tagline: “This time you must choose between this sort of reality, or an enlightened government.”

Israel is still in denial about its denigration of Mizrahim and, by extension, the disdain for a long, proud Jewish history in the Middle East. Even those who concede that there was historic discrimination say it was not deliberate, and in any case has been redressed. They will talk about intermarriage between Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jews, as though this is how dominant cultures stop dominating. Yet there remain gaps in education, employment and pay. And there is still an absence of Mizrahi faces in the judiciary and academia, on serious radio and television, or even in serious advertising (Mizrahim get to appear in ads for down-to earth products such as hummus and the lottery; European Jews sell cars, banks and education courses). The ethnic dispute persists, unresolved but unforgotten – weakening Israeli society and disconnecting the country from its own Arab heritage. And, by extension, from the region, too.

Rachel Shabi is the author of “Not the Enemy: Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands” (Yale University Press, £10.99)

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N is for Nuclear weapons

Israel has never officially confirmed or denied possessing nuclear weapons, preferring to rely on the ambiguous formulation that it “will not be the first nation” to “introduce” them to Middle East. In 1968, pressed by the US to explain the meaning of “introduce”, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s ambassador to the US, said it had not tested nuclear weapons, and so could not be regarded as having “introduced” them to the region, a tacit admission that it was indeed in possession of them.

From its establishment in 1948 onwards, Israel sought to acquire nuclear weapons as the “ultimate guarantor” of its security following the Holocaust. The nation’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, declared that what Einstein, Oppenheimer and Teller, all three of them Jews, had “made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel for their own people”. In 1960 the CIA discovered that the Israelis were constructing a reactor, with French support, and they were reported to have acquired nuclear weapons in 1969. The first extensive details of the programme emerged in 1986 when a former nuclear technician, Mordechai Vanunu, gave the Sunday Times photographs that he had taken at the weapons facility in Dimona. He was subsequently drugged and abducted by Mossad agents (see I for Institute) in Rome. He served 18 years in prison for treason and espionage.

Israel is one of four nuclear-armed states that are not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the others being India, Pakistan and North Korea. The CIA estimates that Israel has between 200 and 400 nuclear warheads. Last December, the UN General Assembly voted by 174 to six, urging it to join the NPT “without further delay” and to open up its facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

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O is for Orthodox

Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty watch the funeral procesion of their rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager in March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

David J Goldberg writes: From his election as chairman of the Jewish Agency in 1935 during the British Mandate until his retirement from the Knesset in 1970, the single most important figure in Israeli politics was David Ben-Gurion. His single biggest mistake during all those years at or near the helm was to insist in 1948, against the objections of his socialist colleagues, that religious parties be included in his coalition cabinet.

Ben-Gurion’s motive was understandable. A convinced secularist with a Marxist disdain for religion, he nevertheless wanted the first Jewish government in 2,000 years to be as broad-based as possible. The price he had to pay was to grant the Orthodox the final say in matters of Jewish status. That dispensation has never been rescinded, because their parties invariably are an indispensable factor in whichever coalition emerges after an election.

And they are canny in pushing their interests. From state funding for their schools and faith institutions to exemption for Talmudic students from military service (see T for To the End of the Land), they are experts at – if they will pardon the expression – pork barrel politics. To this day, Orthodox criteria define who is a Jew and who may or may not be religiously married or buried in Israel, although less than 20 per cent of the Israeli electorate ever votes for a religious party and four-fifths of Israelis are unabashedly secular.

Nor should it be imagined that the miniayatollahs in black gaberdine coats, with their prayer shawls and beards and side curls bobbing as they bustle through the streets of Jerusalem, are a cohesive group. They come in all shapes and varieties of belief, from Neturei Karta (“guardians of the city”), who don’t recognise the state because it was not established by the Messiah (but who enjoy its handouts), to adherents of Mizrachi, the religious Zionist party that seeks to build the state on Torah-true values. Various Hasidic branches do not recognise or talk to each other. The ultra-Orthodox – or Haredim, meaning “tremblers (before God)”, as they are known, who want to force women to the back seats on buses, recently spat at an eight-year-old girl for being immodestly dressed and declared it a sin to sell property to non-Jews – are not to be confused with the ultra-nationalist zealots who set up camps on hilltops in Judaea because they are part of “our sacred homeland”. Mainstream Orthodoxy, willing at least to recognise the challenges that sexual equality and women’s emancipation pose to traditional belief, is embarrassed to be associated with such fundamentalists.

Yet thanks to Israel’s unworkable system of proportional representation, this motley and diverse conglomerate, representing perhaps 10 per cent of the population but growing exponentially because of its fecund birth rate, five times the national average, always holds the electoral balance. Politicians of the right or left have to swallow their distaste and curry favour with the religious vote. Other branches of Judaism such as Reform or Conservative have established themselves in Israel, but their rabbis are denied recognition, their converts rejected and their synagogues refused state funding, all due to the coercive power wielded by the Orthodox rabbinate. Israel prides itself on being the only proper democracy in the Middle East; yet the excessive influence of religion on civil government has more in common with Iran, Egypt or Turkey than it does with western countries where separation of church from state is the norm.

An incident just over a year ago became a symbol of the worsening Kulturkampf between the Orthodox minority and the secular majority. Israel’s ministry of health decided to give a prize to a professor of paediatrics, Channa Maayan. Knowing that the ultra-Orthodox acting minister and other religious figures would attend the award ceremony, Prof Maayan dressed in long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt and sat separately from her husband in the segregated women’s section. That was not enough. She was told that a male colleague would have to accept the prize on her behalf. Furious protests ensued.

In 1891, Achad Ha-Am, a formerly devout Jew-turned-humanist and advocate of “cultural” Zionism, paid his first visit to Palestine. The pervasiveness of conventional Orthodoxy appalled him. In a celebrated essay (“Truth from the Land of Israel”) he wrote:

I went first, of course, to the Wailing Wall. There I found many of our brothers, residents of Jerusalem, standing and praying with raised voices – also with wan faces, strange movements and weird clothing – everything befitting the appearance of that terrible Wall. I stood and watched them, people and Wall, and one thought filled the chambers of my heart: these  stones are testaments to the destruction of our land. And these men? The destruction of our people.

Nowadays, the situation is even worse.

Dr David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and the author of “This Is Not the Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)

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P is for Protest

Israelis gather on a balcony in Tel Aviv as they occupy an abandoned public building and protest against the rising cost of living. Photograph: Getty Images

Dimi Reider writes: There’s protest (mecha’a) and then there’s The Protest (ha-mecha’a), applied as a collective name for all aspects of Israel’s nascent social justice movement. The word is used to refer to the enormous demonstrations of July to August 2011, rallies and “popular assemblies” that mirrored the likes of the actions by the Spanish indignados. It is used to refer to what is intuitively perceived as the mesh of ideals, grievances and taboos uniting the movement: “the goals of the Protest”; “the Protest is not political”; “the Protest is not about the occupation”; and so on. And it is used as a collective noun for “the movement” itself.

What began on 14 July 2011 as an inconspicuous tent camp on Tel Aviv’s plushest boulevard – sparked by outrage at soaring rents and a housing shortage –marked a watershed moment in Israeli political history. Not only did J14, as the movement is also known, produce unprecedented scenes of unrest (the peak in 2011 was a rally of 500,000 in a country of seven million people – the largest turnout ratio anywhere in the world during that tumultuous year), it also fun - damentally changed the popular discourse, driving both the conflict with the Palestinians and the glare-contest with Iran away from the front pages.

For the first time in recent memory, the ongoing general election campaign (see B for Bibi) is placing as much emphasis on socioeconomic issues as on the conflict with the Palestinians or the broader tensions in the Middle East. What’s more, the neoliberal policies that have delivered economic stability to Israel but multiplied the gaps between the very rich and everybody else have come under public scrutiny.

This may not seem like the best of news for progressives. Indeed, one of the chief criticisms levelled against J14 by activists both at home and abroad was the movement’s reluctance to discuss the Israeli occupation of the West Bank (see W for Wall) and the blockade in Gaza (see C for Calories) – two policies inflicting hardships on Palestinians that dwarf those experienced by the middle-class and working-class Israelis who took to the streets.

There were several good reasons for J14 to leave the conflict largely off its agenda. For a start, a mass movement that focused on the occupation would have been a contradiction in terms. The conflict is the single most important wedge issue in Israel – think the divisiveness of abortion, gun control and the Middle East in US politics all combined. When critics chide the Israeli indignados for imposing a “let’s not talk about the war” etiquette, they forget that progressives and conservatives in Israel talked about nothing but the war for the past 62 years and it got neither Israelis nor Palestinians anywhere.

The power of J14 stemmed from having introduced a fresh language – of solidarity, fairness and economic equality – to replace the wearisome one of national identity and existential threats. The new light this shed on the political and social landscape even illuminated issues most Israelis prefer to ignore, such as the systemic discrimination against Israel’s Palestinian citizens (see Z for Zoabi, Haneen), many of whom joined the protests. As violence flared in southern Israel during the summer of 2011, the demonstrations veered sharply to the centre, abandoning Palestinian protesters and their demands, yet the fact of their participation and its prominence cannot be undone.

Now, the movement is in disarray. An attempt to revive mass participation in 2012 faltered, even though a number of protesters set themselves alight in the manner of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 27-year-old Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation lit the flames of the Arab spring.

Unlike its sister movement in Spain, J14 has allowed the media to appoint “leaders” for it –mostly from among the activists who started the initial tent vigil, plus a bland, centrist chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, which provided most of the infrastructure and logistics for the protests. Although horizontal organising and its popular assemblies played a significant part in the movement’s reach, this select group came to dominate. Several leading members of the group are about to enter parliament for the same stale and unpopular centrist parties to which they tried to posit an alternative; but those who stayed out of the race wield little political influence at this point.

The protests may have altered the terms of debate, but tangible political change is still a long way ahead.

Dimi Reider is a founder of +972 Magazine ( and an associate fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations

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Q is for Qoph

This entry was brought to you by qoph – the 19th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, an 18-point word in Scrabble, and, in representing the letter Q, 17th in the basic Latin alphabet.

But enough of the maths – the glyph is thought to resemble the eye of a needle, or a monkey (it can be pronounced in two ways – one to mean needle, the other to mean monkey). This is typical of the Hebrew language, which is full of ambiguities. Most modern pronunciation draws from a mixture of Jewish reading traditions.

The earliest examples of written Hebrew date from the 10th century BC. The language stopped being spoken about 200AD, surviving only on paper and in religious rituals, but in the 19th century it was revived and it is now spoken by more than five million people.

Qoph is also a sister of the letter qaf in Arabic; the two languages share Semitic roots, and both are classified as “official languages” in Israel. All government notices must be published in both. In all, however, there are 33 languages spoken in the country – Russian, English, Romanian, Yiddish and others.

Historically Hebrew has been referred to by the Jews as their “holy language”. The Torah is written in Hebrew, and the name itself is thought to derive from a word for the Jewish people – Ibri. This is an adjective thought to spring from the name Eber, an ancestor of Abraham’s, and is possibly also based on a similar word meaning “to cross over” – perhaps referring to the people (the Jews) who crossed over the Euphrates River.

Hebrew was also co-opted by non-Jewish peoples such as the Samaritans, who still use it in religious ceremonies.

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R is for Recipes

Customers in a restaurant at the Mahne Yehuda Market in Jerusalem. Photograph: Getty Images

Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi write: In the part of the world we are dealing with everybody wants to own everything. Existence feels so uncertain and so fragile that people fight fiercely and with great passion to hold on to things. Land, culture, religious symbols, food – everything is in danger of being snatched away or of disappearing. The result is fiery arguments about ownership, about provenance, about who and what came first.

As we have seen through our own investigations, these arguments are futile. First, they are futile because it doesn’t really matter. Looking back in time or far afield into distant lands is simply distracting.

The beauty of food and eating is that they are rooted in the now. Food is a basic, hedonistic pleasure, a sensual instinct that we all share and in which we all revel. It is a shame to spoil it.

Second, you can always search further back in time. For instance, hummus, a highly explosive subject, is undeniably a staple of the local Palestinian population but it was also a permanent feature on dinner tables of Aleppian Jews, who have lived in Syria for millennia and then arrived in Jerusalem in the 1950s and 1960s (see M for Mizrahim). Who is more deserving of calling hummus their own? Neither. Nobody “owns” a dish, because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that.

Third, and this is the most crucial point, in the soup of a city such as Jerusalem, for example, it is completely impossible to find out who invented this delicacy and who brought that one with them. The food cultures are mashed and fused together in a way that is impossible to unravel. They interact all the time and influence each other constantly so nothing is pure any more. In fact, nothing ever was.

As a result, as much as we try to attribute foods to nations to ascertain the origin of a dish, we often end up discovering a dozen other dishes that are extremely similar, that work with the same ingredients and the same principles to make a final result that is just ever so slightly different, a variation on the theme.

From Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem”, published by Ebury Press (£27)

Stuffed aubergine with lamb and pine nuts

4 medium aubergines (about 1.2kg),
halved lengthways
6 tbsp olive oil
1½tsp ground cumin
1½tbsp sweet paprika
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
2 medium onions (340g in total), finely chopped
500g minced lamb
50g pine nuts
20g flat-leaf parsley, chopped
2 tsp tomato purée
3 tsp caster sugar
150ml water
1½tbsp lemon juice
1 tsp tamarind paste
4 cinnamon sticks
salt and black pepper              

Preheat the oven to 220°C/200°C fan/gas mark 7. Place the aubergine halves, skin-side down, in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate them snugly. Brush the flesh with four tablespoons of the olive oil and season with one teaspoon of salt and plenty of black pepper. Roast for about 20 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly.

While the aubergines are cooking, you can start making the stuffing by heating the remaining olive oil in a large frying pan. Mix together the cumin, paprika and ground cinnamon; add half of this spice mix to the pan, along with the onion. Cook on a mediumhigh heat for about eight minutes, stirring often, before adding the lamb, pine nuts, parsley, tomato purée, one teaspoon of the sugar, one teaspoon of salt and some black pepper. Continue to cook and stir for another eight minutes, until the meat is cooked.

Place the remaining spice mix in a bowl and add the water, lemon juice, tamarind, remaining sugar, cinnamon sticks and ½teaspoon of salt. Mix well.

Reduce the oven temperature to 195°C/ 175°C fan/gas mark 5½.

Pour the spice mix into the bottom of the aubergine roasting tin. Spoon the lamb mixture on top of each aubergine. Cover the tin tightly with foil, return to the oven and roast for an hour and 30 minutes, by which point the aubergines should be completely soft and the sauce thick. Twice through the cooking, remove the foil and baste the aubergines with the sauce, adding water as needed if the sauce dries out.

Serve warm, hot, or at room temperature.

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S is for Settlers

A Jewish settler argues with Israeli border policemen near the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad. Photograph: Getty Images

Jason Cowley writes: One morning late last year in Tel Aviv, I had coffee with Danny Dayan, the chairman of the Yesha Council and leader of Israel’s settler movement. It was warm and sunny and, because I had to catch a flight back to wintry London later that afternoon, I asked if we could sit outside on the café’s terrace. He pulled up a chair and then, looking straight at me, said in English: “The settlements are a fait accompli.” There was no preamble or attempt at contextual explanation; it was as if, before our conversation could begin, he wanted there to be no doubt over just where he stood on the issue of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, which the settlers refer to as the old Jewish lands of Judaea and Samaria.

Dayan is a resonant name in Israel. Danny is distantly related to Moshe Dayan (1915-81), one of Israel’s most uncompromising Sabra (native born) military leaders. Born in Argentina, he was 15 when he moved with his family to Israel in 1971. An economist and software entrepreneur, he likes to beguile, even to charm, sceptical reporters.

In manner and appearance he was not what I expected of an unyielding defender of the settler movement. Clean-shaven, urbane and wearing a casual, open-necked pale blue shirt, he seemed less like a religious or poli - tical zealot than a metropolitan intellectual who wouldn’t be out of place among the café cultural elite of Buenos Aires. His heroes were less surprising: the messianic “revisionist” Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and Menachem Begin, a leader of the militant Irgun and founder of Likud.

On 8 January, Dayan announced that he was resigning as chairman of the Yesha Council so that he could campaign for Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beiteinu party during the election period. When we met, he described as “magnificent” Netanyahu’s expansion of settlement-building after a ten-month freeze but, unlike the prime minister, he does not profess to support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stalemate. A one-state solution was also obviously anathema to him – as it is to most liberal Jews, for whom an Israel with a majority Arab population would imply either the end of the democratic Jewish state or the emergence of a de facto apartheid state, with the Arab majority deprived of full citizenship and democratic rights.

“My conscience is clear on the settlements,” Dayan said that morning in Tel Aviv. “Before 1994, I would have nothing to do with South Africa . . . Israel is not like apartheid South Africa. [The war of] 1967 was an unforgivable act of aggression . . . [The Arabs] did not want us to exist. It’s their own fault there’s no Palestinian state.”

Home for Dayan is the hilltop settlement of Ma’ale Shomron, 20 miles from Tel Aviv, in the occupied West Bank, where he went to live in “an act of unity” during the first intifada. He hurried me through a brief history of the Israeli-Arab wars of 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982 and on into the present. His conversation was annotated and footnoted with references to various failed international initiatives: the 1937 Peel commission, the Arab League’s rejection of the 1947 UN partition plan for Palestine, and so on. The object was to demonstrate Arab intransigence.

When Ariel Sharon ordered the unilateral evacuation of the settlers from Gaza in 2005 (Israel had disbanded the settlements in Sinai after the peace accord with Egypt in 1979), 8,000 people were uprooted. But there are now as many as 600,000 Jews living in East Jerusalem and the occupied territories of the West Bank. Ever since Israel began building on the land seized from Egypt, Syria and Jordan during the 1967 “six-day” war, the remorseless logic of the carve-up and occupation of the West Bank has been that the settlements will harden into something permanent and immovable. As a result, the creation of a Palestinian state will become incrementally more difficult, until one day it is no longer viable.

Yet for Dayan, though he thinks there is “no solution” to the Israel-Palestine conflict, the “status quo is also not acceptable”. He expects the Hashemite dynasty in Jordan to crumble from within like a rotten tooth or be toppled in an uprising before too long. Jordan will become an ethnic-Palestinian-majority controlled state and this, in his account, will change the dynamic of the conflict.

“That there is no solution is the bad news. But what we can do is improve the status quo. We must improve the human rights of the Palestinians and give them freedom of movement. The barrier [or security wall] is a disgrace and should be dismantled. Eventually we should try to reach agreement with Jordan on joint responsibility [for the West Bank], with the River Jordan as the dividing line of sovereignty. The solution will be peculiar because the conflict is so peculiar: there’s no other example of a people returning to their homeland after 2,000 years.” With that, he chuckled, shook my hand and was gone.

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T is for To the End of the Land

David Grossman’s To the End of the Land, arguably the finest Israeli novel of the first decade of the 21st century (and there’s a good deal of competition for that mantle from writers of the stature of Amos Oz, Etgar Keret and Aharon Appelfeld), has its origins in a long walk that the author took along the Israel National Trail in 2004 – from the Lebanese border in the north to his home outside Jerusalem.

When Grossman began working on the book, his elder son was nearing the end of his military service. (All Israeli citizens over the age of 18 must do military service, with certain exemptions on religious grounds, and for Arabs.)

His younger son, Uri, subsequently joined up, and in August 2006, when Grossman had almost finished writing the novel, he was killed, aged 20, while on active service in southern Lebanon.

In an author’s note appended to the book, which was published in Israel in 2008 (the English translation appeared two years later), Grossman wrote: “What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.”

That echo is heard in the peregrinations of the novel’s protagonist, a woman named Ora, who leaves her home in Jerusalem to walk across Israel’s rugged interior to Galilee. Ora is in flight from the “notifiers” who are despatched by the Israel Defence Forces to inform families of the death of their loved ones in action. Her son Ofer has re-enlisted in the military and she is convinced that he won’t die as long as she keeps walking, and talking and writing about him as she walks.

Grossman’s compatriot and fellow novelist Alon Hilu has called To the End of the Land “the main book in the last decade of Israeli literature, because it deals with Israel but in a way that is so personal”. It does this by universalising Ora’s predicament – she hates what has become of her country, yet she has nowhere else to go.

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U is for Ultra-nationalist

For the second time in four years, Israeli ultra-nationalist parties will play a pivotal role in the creation of the central government, evidence of a shift to the right among the voters.

Following the February 2009 general election the centrist Kadima emerged as the party with the most seats in parliament but, with the help of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel is our home”) and a ragtag of other religious and secular right-wing political parties, Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud was able to build a working coalition (see B for Bibi).

Yisrael Beiteinu campaigned under the banner “No loyalty, no citizenship”, a direct challenge to the 20 per cent of Israel’s population that is Arab (see Z for Zoabi, Haneen) to pledge allegiance to the Jewish state of Israel and commit to military service. The party’s support is underpinned by Russian immigrants whose nationalism can be traced to the European, secular Zionism of the 18th century (se O for Orthodox).

Four years on, Netanyahu is poised to win a third term as prime minister when Israelis vote on 22 January but, again, he will be dependent on the ultra-nationalists – and not just Yisrael Beiteinu, with which he entered into an electoral pact in October, but the emerging power Jewish Home, led by the 40-year-old Naftali Bennett. Jewish Home is on course to become the third-biggest party in the Knesset and Bennett will have leverage over those in power to ensure that his views are represented.

These views include the belief that peace between Palestinians and Israelis is impossible and that the two-state solution is undesirable. The best Bennett can offer Palestinians on the West Bank is self-government on 40 per cent of the existing land, or Israeli citizenship across the rest.

“I want the world to understand that a Palestinian state means no Israeli state,” he said in a recent interview.

As the status quo has become entrenched, aided by creeping settlement-building on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem (see W for Wall), many more Israelis are starting to share this view, however uncomfortable it might be for the rest of the world to hear it.

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V is for Veto

Avi Shlaim writes: In English the letter V stands for victory, but not in Yiddish. After Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol at once began to wear a Churchillian V sign. His wife, Miriam, a militant moderate, said to him: “Eshkol, what are you doing? Have you gone mad?” With characteristic humour he replied: “No. This is not a V sign in English. It is a V sign in Yiddish! Vi krikht men aroys?” Roughly translated, that means: “How do we get out of this?” It is a question to which Eshkol’s compatriots have not yet found an answer.

The world did offer a way out: UN Security Council Resolution 242 and the principle it incorporated of land for peace. Israel was asked to relinquish its territorial conquests in return for peace with its Arab neighbours. Whenever this principle was put to the test, it worked. It was the basis of the peace treaty with Egypt in 1979 and the one with Jordan in 1994. Peace with Syria was also on offer but it came at a price that Israel was not willing to pay: the complete restoration of the Golan Heights to Syrian sovereignty.

The core of the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, is the Palestine question. Resolution 242 addressed this as a refugee problem but since then a broad international consensus has emerged in favour of a two-state solution based on Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, with minor border modifications. Yet Israel has undermined this option by expanding its settlements on the West Bank. Rhetoric aside, the real aim of the ruling Likud party is to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.

How can a small country like Israel defy almost the entire international community? Part of the answer is that Israel enjoys the virtual power of a veto on the UN Security Council. It exercises this power not directly, but through a proxy – the United States of America. Since 1972 the US has used the veto 42 times on behalf of Israel. This partisanship in favour of one side undermines the credibility of the US claim to serve as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Since 1967 the United States has arrogated to itself a monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Arab-Israeli conflict, excluding as far as possible the other actors. True, there is the Quartet, which consists of the US, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, but in the absence of real American pressure on Israel to end its illegal colonisation of the West Bank, the Quartet remains futile. In April 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, the Quartet issued its road map for peace in the Middle East. The road map envisaged the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel by the end of 2005. It was a good map but it led nowhere quickly because of the Bush administration’s indulgence towards Israel. With US connivance, Israel vetoed the road map. The Quartet’s special envoy is Tony Blair. Need one say more?

The election of Barack Obama raised high hopes of a more even-handed policy. In his 2009 Cairo speech, he solemnly pledged his support for Palestinian statehood. He also identified the expansion of Jewish settlements on the West Bank as the main obstacle to peace. Obama had three confrontations with Binyamin Netanyahu (see B for Bibi) to secure a freeze on settlement activity but he backed down each time. In an effort to persuade Netanyahu to extend a partial, ten-month settlement freeze by 60 days, he proposed a long-term security agreement, a squadron of F-35 fighter jets worth $3bn and the use of the US veto at the UN Security Council to defeat any resolution that was not to Israel’s liking. Secure in the knowledge that the money comes not from the president but from Congress, Netanyahu rejected this extraordinarily generous offer. Perversely, the lesson that Obama’s advisers drew from the experience was not that he should have been tougher, but that it had been a mistake to raise the matter in the first place. And the lesson Netanyahu drew was that he could continue to defy the president with impunity.

Subservience to Israel involves America in internal contradictions and diplomatic isolation. Two recent examples serve to illustrate the point. In February 2011 the UN Security Council voted on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion on the West Bank. Fourteen members voted in favour and only the US voted against. Now the official US position is that the settlements are illegal and an obstacle to peace. So the veto of this resolution was tantamount to a vote against the Americans’ own policy. The other example of US duplicity was in relation to the Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the UN in September 2011. The Americans claim that to favour the emergence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and UN recognition would, logically, be a step in that direction. Yet they joined the Israelis to threaten dire consequences if the Palestinians went ahead with their bid.

Israel’s friends in Washington argue that the interests of the two countries are identical. This is patently not true. I would argue that the occupation of the Palestinian territories does not serve Israel’s long-term interest because it erodes democracy and leads inexorably to an apartheid state. Be that as it may, the occupation most emphatically does not serve US interests. On the contrary, it undermines America’s position in the Middle East and beyond. As General David Petraeus told Congress when he was in charge of Central Command, the occupation hurts the Americans by fomenting anti-US sentiment in the Muslim world and limiting strategic partnerships with Arab governments.

Israel’s ability to impose its own agenda on its senior partner is all the more remarkable given its dependence in the economic, military and diplomatic spheres. Since 1949, America has provided economic and military aid worth $115bn to the Jewish state. US aid continues to run to $3bn a year. The US is also Israel’s main supplier of arms and the guarantor of its “qualitative military edge” over all its adversaries. Last but not least, the Americans shield Israel from the sanctions that are usually visited on serial violators of UN resolutions. It is this unconditional support from the sole surviving superpower that enables Israel to continue to dominate the region militarily, to attack its neighbours with impunity, to steal Palestinian land and to frustrate the international consensus in favour of an independent Palestinian state in a mere 22 per cent of Mandate Palestine.

Obama’s election for a second term has in no way diminished his tolerance for Israeli stonewalling. During the 2012 presidential race, Netanyahu openly supported the president’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney. Yet in the TV debate on foreign policy, the two candidates vied with each other to protest their unconditional support for Israel. If Romney had won, he would have tilted US policy even further in favour of Israel, to loud cheers from the Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Obama won but all the structural constraints that limited his freedom of action in the first term, notably the power of the Israel lobby, remained in place. In practical terms, his victory amounts to a vote in favour of the colonial status quo and a veto of the two-state solution.

As the defence minister Moshe Dayan once said to Nahum Goldmann, the veteran American Zionist leader: “Our American friends give us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we reject the advice.” “What would you do if we make the money and arms conditional on accepting our advice?” Goldmann asked. Dayan had to concede that Israel would have little choice but to follow its ally and benefactor.

Slowly, American public opinion is shifting against Israel because of its intransigence and ingratitude. But we are unlikely to see a US president any time soon who has the courage to follow Goldmann’s simple advice.

Avi Shlaim is an emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford and the author of “Israel and Palestine: Reappraisals, Revisions, Refutations” (Verso, £10.99)

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W is for Wall

An opening in the concret barrier near Abu Dis on the West Bank. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Platt writes: The idea of constructing a barrier or wall that would divide Israel from the West Bank had been under consideration for years before it was initiated in March 2002 in response to the suicide attacks that had become a feature of the second intifada. The barrier – variously known as the “security fence” and the “apartheid wall” – was intended to control Palestinian access to Israel and prevent further terrorist attacks, yet few Palestinians today regard it as solely a security measure: much of its looping course runs east of the Green Line marking the boundary between Israel and the West Bank, so they see it as a means of appropriating yet more land.

For most of its length, it consists of a 60- metre-wide strip of dirt paths, barbed-wire fencing and trenches flanking an electric fence, but in places such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and other urban and suburban areas, it is an immense concrete wall, six to eight metres high, which often runs through established neighbourhoods and cuts them in half.

By July 2012, nearly two-thirds of its proposed route had been built and it had annexed 3 per cent of the territory of the West Bank. The total will rise to 9.5 per cent if it is completed as planned. In theory, farmers divided from their fields may apply for a permit to allow them to continue working their land, but the number issued between 2006 and 2009 fell by 83 per cent, while the area sequestered increased by 30 per cent. Even those granted permits often find themselves forced to travel distances that render farming unsustainable.

Yet many settlers, too, despise the barrier because they live east of its projected course and fear being excluded from the country it appears to define. It stands as a totem of Israel’s unresolved attitude to the West Bank: as one Israeli once said to me, the country cannot swallow the territory it captured from Jordan in 1967 because absorbing the Palestinian population of the West Bank would lead to the end of the Zionist dream of a state with a Jewish majority, and yet it cannot spit it out, either. It wants the land, but not the people – “The dowry pleases you but the bride does not,” as Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said to Foreign Minister Golda Meir after the Six Day War. Naftali Bennett, the leader of the nationalist Jewish Home party (see U for Ultranationalists), which is likely to become part of the coalition government after this month’s election, has proposed one way of resolving the confusion: he suggests that Israel should annex Area C, the part of the West Bank that is under Israeli military control.

Given that Area C covers 60 per cent of the West Bank and contains all the Israeli settlements, some of which lie far to the east of the barrier, the Wall would no longer be a border of any kind but an internal barrier within the “Greater Israel” that is even now coming into being, an expensive and unloved relic of the days when the idea of partitioning the country was still considered seriously.

Ed Platt is the author of “The City of Abraham” (Picador, £18.99)

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X is for X-band radar

On Mount Keren, in the Negev Desert, US sol diers watch over a portable radar capable of scanning 1,000 miles into Iranian airspace for signs of a missile launch. The “X-band radar array”, which emits so much radiation that technicians have to wear protective suits, is operated exclusively by US personnel and points north-east, in the direction of Tehran.

When the system was first deployed in 2008, a Pentagon spokesman, Geoff Morrell, said: “This is and will remain a US radar system.” More than four years later, despite tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme (see N for Nuclear weapons), Israel still has no direct access to data collected by the radar and gets intelligence on a need-to-know basis only. The importance of the system lies in this imbalance of information between the allies. On several occasions, Binyamin Netanyahu has suggested that Israel is ready to attack Iran without US approval. Yet such a strike would strain Israel’s relationship with the US, its principal protector, and attract counterattacks from Iran and its allies. Without the strategic advantage of the radar, Netanyahu would be risking countless Israeli lives unnecessarily.

Despite all the sabre-rattling, this scen ario is unlikely to emerge. The X-band radar does not only monitor Iranian airspace – it monitors all activity at Israeli bases, too. So the chances that the US will be caught off-guard by an Israeli attack on Tehran are remote.

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Y is for Yad Vashem

On the slopes of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem stands Yad Vashem, the state of Israel’s “living memorial” to the victims of the Holocaust. Yad Vashem was founded in 1953 with the intention of establishing an “eternal remembrance” of the six million murdered Jews of Europe.

The memorial was the idea of Mordechai Shenhavi, a member of a kibbutz in northern Israel that was used as an army training camp by the British during the Second World War. It was Shenhavi who, in 1942, when the Final Solution was in full spate, suggested that it be called Yad Vashem. These Hebrew words come from the Book of Isaiah: “And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name [a yad vashem] . . . . an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

When Yad Vashem was founded, the Holocaust did not have the centrality in Israel’s national conversation that it does today. On the contrary, the destruction of the European Jews was often passed over in silence. And when it was discussed, the “Sabras” – the “new Jews”, natives of Israel who saw themselves as a hardy and martial desert people – wondered why the Jews of the diaspora had allowed themselves to be led like “sheep” to the slaughter. That began to change with the trial of the Nazi functionary Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961. A new openness about the Holocaust was abroad in Israel, and Yad Vashem did much to foster it.

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Z is for Zoabi, Haneen Haneen

Zoabi made history in 2009 when she became the first Arab woman to be elected to the Knesset on the ticket of an Arab party. She is a member of Balad (also known as the National Democratic Assembly), which opposes the idea of Israel as a solely Jewish state and which has frequently opposed state budgetary measures on the grounds that they discriminate in some way against the country’s Arab population.

In an interview with the New Statesman in 2010, she explained: “The reality of Israel’s actions shows us that it’s unrealistic to have a real sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza with Jerusalem as the capital. The more realistic solution is one state with full national equality for both national groups.”

There are 1.6 million Arab Israelis – non- Jewish citizens of Israel whose ethnic or cultural heritage is Arab – living in the country, or 20.6 per cent of the population. Roughly 80 per cent of these are Muslim, and many identify themselves as Palestinian by nationality and Israeli by citizenship.

Zoabi was on board the MV Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in a flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010, when IDF commandos boarded the vessel, killing nine Turkish activists. She later described the raid as a “pirate military operation” during a speech in the Knesset.

Right-wing politicians in Israel have made multiple attempts to exclude Zoabi and her party from the Knesset – most recently, a member of the ruling Likud party requested that she be disqualified from future elections, claiming that she “has constantly undermined the State of Israel and has openly incited against the government”. The Central Elections Commission passed the ban, but it was overturned at the end of December by the country’s high court.

Zoabi has repeatedly faced such attempts to silence her but she continues to fight for her belief in a binational, democratic Israel. As she told the NS: “I was not elected in order to keep silent or to sit at the table and clap.”

Research by Jon Bernstein, Caroline Crampton, George Eaton, Martha Gill, Alex Hern, Daniel Trilling and Yo Zushi


This article first appeared in the 21 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The A-Z of Israel

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What lies beneath: how Europe succumbed to toxic ideology and violence

A review of Ian Kershaw and Heinrich August Winkler’s accounts of Europe’s “age of catastrophe”, 1914-49.

In the current climate of apprehension about what an influx of Muslim immigrants might mean for European values, we should remember what those have included in the past: slavery, serfdom and tyranny, as well as religious wars, violent revolution and rapacious imperialism. And the horrors of earlier centuries pale beside what Europeans did in the 20th century to their own continent and the rest of the world. The titles of two new histories sum up that miserable story, with its ethnic conflicts, industrial-scale warfare, totalitarianism and genocide: “hell”, in the case of Ian Kershaw, and “catastrophe” for Heinrich August Winkler.

Twentieth-century Europe remains such a puzzle for us all. How could a civilisation that produced Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kant, which generated the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, or which formulated and promulgated ideas such as constitutional government and human rights, also have produced such appalling cruelties?

These two vast histories aim to explain why Europe went through such a very bad period between the start of the First World War and the end of the Second World War. Both authors try to find that difficult balance between looking at Europe as a whole and as a set of separate countries. For all that it is admirably researched, Winkler’s is the less satisfying, in part because he fails to define his terms. He talks of something called the west (which at various points seems to include the United States and Japan and at others seems to be only Europe) without ever clearly stating what he means by either definition: is it a set of ideas and values, a collection of nation states, or perhaps a typology of political, economic and social organisation? In this, the second in a projected three-volume history of the west, he starts out by saying that he will examine Europe’s “normative project”, which he defines, very briefly, as putting into effect the ideas and ideals of the American and French Revolutions. But which ones? The Rights of Man or the Terror? In any case, the “normative project” largely vanishes in what is nevertheless a useful and thorough history of Europe. If you want to know about the politics of Luxembourg as well as those of bigger states you will find that here.

Kershaw inevitably goes over much of the same ground but provides the more sustained analysis. In his view, several forces came together in the 20th century to produce a toxic brew of suspicion and hatred among Europe’s people. A new kind of nationalism emerged, driven by the assumption that nations are based on not only shared ethnicity, but blood – inhabitants of another nation were often described as being another “race”. Given the mix of peoples in Europe, demands for territory often led to nations claiming lands inhabited by those of other, supposedly lesser “races”. Class conflict often overlapped with ethnic conflict, so that, for example, Slavic peasants and Polish landowners found even more reason to hate each other. The long crisis of capitalism was undermining the legitimacy of the existing regimes, some of them weak enough to begin with. And caught up in the midst were Europe’s Jews, the unjustified focus for ethnic and class hatreds, blamed for the problems created by capitalism.

Both writers take some pains to look at ideas (fascism, communism, liberalism) or trends, from economic growth to changes in the position of women, that transcended borders. They also point out that Europe contained very different levels of development that were not necessarily coterminous with national borders. Such measures as literacy, standards of living or urbanisation were generally higher in the western parts of Europe. In terms of constitutional and democratic government, the east lagged behind. And while the likes of France and Britain had long since taken diverse peoples and instilled in them a strong sense of shared nationhood (though Britain failed with the Irish, who persisted in seeing themselves as a separate people), the old empires of Russia and Austria-Hungary had failed to do so before the First World War. Indeed, the gradual introduction of representative institutions and a broader franchise in ethnically diverse areas led to an unedifying search for spoils. After 1918 the dominant elites in the successor states often lacked the will to respect their own substantial ethnic minorities. Political leaders all too frequently used demagogic and ethnic appeals to their masses to keep themselves in power.

While there are clearly continuities between the worlds before and after the First World War, that prolonged and costly conflict served to shatter much of the old order and to speed the introduction of certain ideas, attitudes and practices. As Kershaw rightly says of 1914, armies with values belonging to the 19th century or earlier found themselves fighting a 20th-century war as Europe’s organised, industrialised mass societies hurled themselves against each other. In its course, European nations threw away the lives and talents of millions of their men and exhausted their resources. The French coined a new term: total war. For this was not like the wars of the previous century, fought for clear and limited aims, but rather a struggle between peoples for dominance and survival. In the course of the war, racial and national stereotyping entered the public discourse. For Germans it was the barbaric Asiatics; for the French and the British, the brutal Huns. Conflict broadened to include civilians: men, women, children were all part of the war effort. And in the mixed regions of the east and southern Europe and the Ottoman empire the first ethnic cleansings and genocides occurred, though they were not yet called by these names.

Towards the end of the war the US president Woodrow Wilson’s public support for self-determination, inspired by noble sentiments about the rights of peoples to govern themselves, spurred demands in the heart of Europe for ethnically based nations to be established in defined territories. New nations, which might have worked and traded with each other, too often fell out over competing claims to the same pieces of land. And because ethnic nationalisms are generally intolerant of multiple and overlapping identities, those who refused (or were perceived to refuse) to accept a single identity became useful scapegoats. Older traditions of anti-Semitism were now reinforced by the pseudo-sciences of racism and social Darwinism. The pre-war pogroms against Jews expanded with renewed vigour into the war and the postwar years. In Russia’s revolutionary civil war, for instance, up to 60,000 Jews were killed in the Ukraine.

The war made violence normal as a way of settling disputes and carrying out politics. Fighting on a large scale carried on for several years after 1918. In the Russian civil war, which finally ended in 1922, some seven million people died of various causes. In many countries, Italy and Germany among them, politics often took the form of violent street theatre, with opposing factions beating and killing each other. Mussolini rode to power in Italy in 1922 partly because his Fascists intimidated and cowed their opponents, and partly because conservative elites hoped that he could restore order. In Germany, adherents of the right committed 352 political murders between 1919 and 1922. And war retained its glamour and fascination. Despite what we might think, given the popularity of anti-war literature such as All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), many veterans joined paramilitary organisations after the First World War ended, 400,000 of them signing up for the German Freikorps, which fought in the Baltic and along Germany’s eastern borders.

The war also left large numbers of Europeans deracinated: what Winkler describes as “personal shock”. What had seemed solid – whether empires, regimes, their position in society, even their pensions and savings – vanished overnight. Not surprisingly, Oswald Spengler’s deeply pessimistic The Decline of the West (published in German between 1918 and 1922 and in English in 1926), which posited that European civilisation was reaching its end, was very influential and sold thousands of copies, especially in Germany. Many Europeans retreated from engagement in the compromise-heavy sphere of democratic politics because it seemed to provide few solutions in the present and little hope for the future. Outsiders, such as the self-serving Italian poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, who attacked conventional society and expressed nothing but contempt for elected politicians, were dangerously attractive because they somehow sounded more “authentic”. As we look, today, at the antics of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, that seems uncomfortably familiar.

Europe presented unpromising soil for the new democracies in Poland and Yugoslavia, or older, shaky ones in Italy or Spain. The widespread adoption of proportional representation only led to further political fragmentation and made it increasingly difficult to form stable coalitions. While democracy struggled in parts of Europe, its enemies mobilised, often using its own institutions against it. Challenged by new forces from below, the old elites, especially in eastern and southern Europe, drifted into counter-revolution and threw their support behind conservative parties advocating authoritarian governments. On the left, the new communist parties, modelled on Bolshevik lines, appeared to present a credible alternative both to authoritarianism and to “bourgeois” democracy. Under the strict rule of the Communist International, itself a tool of Soviet policy by the late 1920s, communists across Europe obeyed orders to attack and disrupt democracy. In the streets of Germany communists and Nazis sometimes fought together to ­destroy the Weimar Republic.

On the right, fascism in all its varieties was equally appealing to those who had given up on democracy. Across Europe, fascist leaders attacked what they saw as an outmoded and corrupt system, promising national renewal and a bright and bustling future. Here is how Mussolini described fascism in his 1932 article for the Enciclopedia Italiana: “The Fascist state, the synthesis and unity of all values, interprets, develops and gives strength to the whole life of the people.” It is hard today to understand how even intellectuals could take such vacuous rubbish seriously as a coherent doctrine but many did. When Winston Churchill visited Italy in 1927, he wrote approvingly, “this country gives the impression of discipline, order, good will, smiling faces”. Although the impetus behind fascism differed from that behind Soviet-style communism – one was nationalist and racist, the other promised a classless utopia – in method and style both were totalitarian, another new word that had to be coined to describe the 20th century. Unlike older types of authoritarianism (of which there were still many examples), totalitarian regimes, whether in the Soviet Union or in Nazi Germany, sought to possess the souls and innermost thoughts of their subjects. Both types of totalitarianism used modern media and propaganda to mobilise and sway the masses; both had cults of the all-wise, omni-competent leader; both dealt with any dissent by means of intimidation, imprisonment or murder; and both needed enemies, internal or external, to justify their existence.

The First World War helped to create the conditions that made Europe’s descent into the second war and barbarism possible – yet it did not have to end like that. “But we do dance on volcanoes and sometimes the fires below subside,” said Gustav Stresemann, the German statesman. By the mid-1920s there were grounds to hope that he was right. The world had recovered, certainly in economic terms, from the war. Although the United States had failed to join the new League of Nations, it did not disengage itself entirely from Europe. American observers came to League meetings and American diplomats and bankers took the lead in trying to negotiate a more workable set of reparations demands for Germany, first in the Dawes Plan of 1924 and then the Young of 1929. Under Stresemann’s wise leadership, briefly as chancellor and then as foreign minister, Germany became an international player again, settling its outstanding border disputes with its neighbours in the east, joining the League, and working reasonably amicably with its former enemies.

In 1928 Germany, France and the United States signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, a solemn agreement to renounce war as an instrument of national policy. Ultimately, 63 nations, including Britain, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union, added their signatures. Three years later Japan invaded Manchuria; in October 1935 Italy invaded Ethiopia; five months later Hitler marched his troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarised under the Treaty of Versailles; and in 1939 Europe was at war again. What went wrong can be summed up in two words: “depression” and “Germany”. Without the collapse of much of the world’s economy and the consequent misery and mass unemployment, democracy and capitalism would not have been seen as bankrupt, failed systems. The extremes of fascism and communism would never have gained the traction they did. If the Weimar Republic had managed to survive beyond its first decade it might have struck deeper roots gradually in Germany.

For both Kershaw and Winkler, what happened in Germany was of critical importance to the fate of Europe, given that country’s location at the heart of the continent, its large population, strong economy and powerful military traditions. The Depression had a disastrous impact on an already polarised and resentful nation. The Weimar Republic was tolerated but not loved, even by many of its own supporters. Key elites, whether the military, the civil service or business, had never accepted it.

Weimar also bore the burden of having signed the Treaty of Versailles. Germans had never really absorbed Germany’s military defeat in 1918, a refusal to recognise reality which was endorsed enthusiastically by the High Command, with its irresponsible talk of German forces having been “stabbed in the back” by defeatists at home. As a result, in Germany, the treaty’s terms were widely seen as illegitimate and punitive, a national humiliation. Hitler and the Nazis offered simple solutions for the country’s complex economic and political problems. They promised a prosperous and dynamic nation, restored to its rightful dominance of Europe. Still, Hitler would never have got into power without the folly and blindness of those who should have known better – from the conservatives around the ageing President Hindenburg to the socialists who, at a vital stage, withdrew their support from the last workable coalition of democratic parties.

Not surprisingly, given that both are primarily historians of Germany, Kershaw and Winkler are at their best analysing the Nazi seizure of power and the steps by which Hitler moved inexorably towards war. Their accounts are less satisfactory when it comes to other players such as Britain and France and, later, the United States. It is hard to disagree with the conclusion, however, that Hitler was not to be appeased, no matter how far the democracies were prepared to go. His vision was of a Germany dominating Europe, if not the world, and of the expansion of the German race into territories that were to be cleared of their inhabitants through expulsion, starvation or murder. Europe as a whole was to be cleansed of Jews. For Hitler, genocide was not a by-product of the war but an integral part. And as both accounts make clear, he found many willing accomplices across Europe.

If Europe had been badly shaken by the First World War, it was all but destroyed by the Second. By 1945 millions of its people were dead or barely surviving. The great European empires were crumbling fast, and European nations lay at the mercy of the two new superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union. In eastern Europe the Soviet Union was building its own empire. Yet within four years, Europe, especially the western part, had started to recover; more than that, the foundations for what turned out to be an enduring peace had been laid. Kershaw rightly describes it as “astonishing”, although his account of how it happened is regrettably brief.

We face the danger today of forgetting what Europe did to itself in the 20th century and how that came about. The passage of time has made us complacent and we assure ourselves that we would never make the same mistakes as our forebears did decades ago. Yet not all Europe’s demons have been killed for ever. Intolerant nationalisms are growing again. Let us hope that the fulminations of, say, the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, against the dangers to European society from “outsiders” – whether gypsies or Syrians – are passing froth on the political scene and not signs of something deeper and more sinister happening below the surface.

To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 by Ian Kershaw is published  by Allen Lane (593pp, £30). The Age of Catastrophe: A History of the West 1914–1945 by Heinrich August Winkler, translated
by Stewart Spencer, is published by Yale University Press (998pp, £35). Margaret MacMillan is Professor of International History at the University of Oxford and Warden of St Antony’s College. Her books include “The War that Ended Peace” (Profile)

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide