Sunday, March 26, 2006

The State Of Israel

Israel is a splendid country that quite confounded my expectations.

It's not a desert dotted with kibbutzes

Much of the countryside is green and pleasant - not unlike Oxfordshire, Umbria or Virginia. There are deserts at the extreme east and the Negev, but everywhere else rainfall is same as London - 20 inches - but follows the Southern Med pattern of concentrating in the winter months.

It's not wall-to-wall condos

Outside Tel Aviv (like LA) and Jerusalem (unequaled), it's small towns and villages set in fields and orchards. Land that would be heavily cultivated in Greece and Italy is left to reforest with native oak.

As a result of the above, it's crawling with wildlife

Even the desert regions have plenty of birds and in the greener parts there was a kingfisher - very rare in the UK. Plus foxes, ibex, mongoose and a distant relative of the elephant that looks like a small but irritable groundhog.

Although there's plenty of security, it's not intrusive

It's not much different to London or Chicago - the occasional police roadblock and armed patrols strolling the streets. Many stores and restaurants have a security guard out front, but nothing like the gated downtown areas the Brits had in Northern Ireland when the IRA was bombing shopping malls. Vulnerable groups, usually of kids, will be accompanied by a young guard with a rifle slung.

There place is swarming with kids

That's because Israeli women have 2.44 kids each, compared with 1.66 in the UK and 2.08 in the US.

Some Israelis are black

These are Ethiopian Jews, fine men and gorgeous women.

It's not militaristic

Israeli soldiers wear simple khaki overalls, whatever their rank, and don't strut, stamp, or (as far as I could see) march. They're competent though.

And Israelis in general aren't inclined to take orders, so running their army must be akin to herding cats. That individualism gave them great advantages in warfare - in 1973 for example, Sharon decided to attack across the Suez canal against explicit orders, and minced up the enormous Egyptian offensive. He wasn't fired.

Israeli Arabs are poor but hospitable

They're a typical low-trust community. Very strong family ties, so all their businesses stay family-sized. Many of them are emigrants, and they have their own parties. I liked their cuisine and preferred their traditional style architecture to that of non-Arab Israelis.

The Druze community, which is non-Muslim Arab, seems more prosperous. Unlike Muslim Arabs young Druze get to serve in the IDF, where they're regarded as fearless fighters.

Another Arab community, the Bedouin, is also respected in the army - they make great trackers, and you see them leading patrols along the anti-infiltration fences.

Israelis are reluctant warriors

They aren't a martial people, they prefer to disagree with eachother rather than march in lockstep. But they are smart realists, and know their survival depends entirely on their own competence and prowess.

Most Israelis have friends and family killed by Arabs in war or terrorism. The second Intifada, which ran between 2000 and 2005, killed 1,000 Israelis. Scaled for population (Israel is just 6 million people), that's the equivalent of 10,000 Brits or 50,000 Americans, so 9/11 and 7/7 are small compared to Israeli losses.

The Arab hatred of Israel has no easy fixes. It's like the ethnic enmity in the former Yugoslavia, the alienation of much of the US black population, or the hatred of the Roman Catholic minority in Northern Ireland for the Brits.

Israelis bear many costs to stay constantly on guard. The upside is that this pressure has produced a tough, industrious and creative people, and it's impossible to see them succumbing to either internal decay or external assault.