‘There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor/ I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm/ Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/ That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground!’ How I used to enjoy singing these ominous lyrics to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Promised Land’ as I got ready to go to Israel! But when you’re going there on easyJet, the words lose their self-dramatising sting somewhat.
After decades of having to schlep all the way to Heathrow and undergo a somewhat shamefully enjoyable grilling from the sexy El Al staff who moved along the line making you step into a corner with them and answer questions, you can now check in online with the friendly orange airline and waltz through security with no more bother than if you were going to Marbs.
When I first came to Israel more than a decade ago, my atheist Jewish ex-mother-in-law cried and told me she would pray every day for my safe return, and my friends mostly gasped ‘But WHY?’ Now she is dead, and they express the earnest desire to accompany me next time. It’s pretty safe to say that the demonisation of the tiny Jewish state has been a failure, despite the zeal of the anti-Semites in anti-Zionists’ clothing.
The first thing that strikes one upon first visiting Israel is that these people appear to bear no relation whatsoever to the bookish, anxious stereotype of the Jew which initially attracted me to the breed. They are athletic beyond belief. At 11.30 at night, as K and I sit drinking in the LaLaLand beach bar, they’re still jogging along the esplanade and playing volleyball on the court. All along the seafront from the Old Port to Jaffa, there are outdoor gyms, their equipment painted in the primary colours of the playground. No matter how sweltering the weather, they are always in use.
To say that Israelis are ‘confident’ is like saying Rihanna (who played Tel Aviv last year, along with Madonna and Lady Gaga, thus making the ‘boycott’ look somewhat silly: as I leave this time, Tel Aviv is gearing up for the Rolling Stones) is attractive. And this has grown over the years I’ve been coming here. Perhaps the Arab Spring and its subsequent messy afterbirth have made them feel that the pressure is off them while the Muslim world continues to tear itself apart. Or maybe they were just made this way; the early Zionist poet Jabotinsky did warn us, ‘From the pit of decay and dust/ Through blood and sweat/ A generation will arise to us/ Proud, generous and fierce.’ About right, but he forgot ‘fit’.
I’m sitting on the Hilton Beach, knee deep in my gay brothers, when I catch a beautiful blonde woman looking at me. My hopes are dashed when she says, ‘Excuse me, you’re English. Do you have a Nurofen on you?’ I offer her prescription codeine. ‘Bingo!’ she laughs.
My new friend is Dina, a teacher from London, but long ago married to an Israeli. I ask her what she thinks of the recent change in the law which will require Orthodox men to serve in the army; Ben-Gurion, in order to get support from religious Jews (many of whom are, ironically, anti-Zionist), did a deal with them in the run-up to the re-creation of Israel allowing the Orthodox community to opt out.
‘About time! I’ve got a son doing his army duty now; my other son and my daughter will follow him when they’re old enough. So I’ve got three children who may have to fight and die for a country their mother wasn’t even born in, while the Orthodox have children like there’s no tomorrow and don’t have to give up any of them? Like I say, about time.’ She points down the beach to our right. ‘See that — that’s the religious beach here in Tel Aviv — right next to the official gay beach. Don’t tell me this in an accident. There’s so much resentment in this country towards the religious. Hopefully the new law will bring us closer together. We couldn’t be further apart.’
In the Eretz Museum, at an exhibition of wildlife photography, I get talking to Call-Me-Boris. ‘Not my real name, but a good English name, no?’ he twinkles. Call-Me-Boris came here as a child from the disintegrating Soviet Union — he’s not even sure he’s Jewish, but that nice Mr Gorbachev’s glasnost policy brought him here: ‘My father said that it was the first time any people in the Soviet Union pretended to be a Jew to get better treatment from the government! So we don’t ask him too many questions.’
When I first came here, you couldn’t get a bacon sandwich to save your life; now Tel Aviv has more hams than Equity, thanks to the ambiguous Jewish immigration from the Eastern bloc.
What does he think of the former Soviet Union’s relationship with Israel? ‘Is there one? The Russians don’t need Arab oil any more and they’re more interested in, as you might say in England, ‘Keeping a tin lid on it’ in their own country with all the separatists, rather than interfering in this region. They have their own Islamist problem now, so maybe less inclination to come after Israel.’
On the last morning, two Israeli soldiers walk into Benedict’s — ‘All About Breakfast!’ — ahead of us; a tiny, exquisite Chinese girl, a tall and beautiful black man, they seem to exemplify the magnificent melting pot that is this tiny nation. Holding hands, huge rifles over their backs, they peruse the menu. I get tearful; also, I figure, I’ve saved literally thousands of pounds this trip by staying at a housetrip.com flat rather than an eye-wateringly pricey Tel Aviv hotel. When K and I get the bill, I ask ‘May I please pay for the soldiers?’ Our waitress smiles: ‘The soldiers are gone. But Israel thanks you.’