Saturday 28 February 2009

Israel Sweet Home

When I decided to move to live in Israel nearly 11 years ago, my reasons for wanting to do so were fairly clear. I wanted to live in an environment which was predominantly Jewish, and to raise my children in a way which allows them to be openly and proudly Jewish without any fear. Whilst there are some people who argue that there are more than a few places around the world where this is possible, for me there is no doubt that Israel is the one and only place that fits these requirements. After more than 10 years of living in Israel and having the benefit of the things that were my reason for wanting to be here, there is the danger of taking them for granted.

When coming to live in Israel, I found many wonderful things along with the cultural challenges that all new immigrants experience. The feeling of sharing Jewish events and experiences with others around who are all Jews is unparalleled. All events are scheduled around the Jewish calendar and festivals. The feeling of Shabbat arriving on Friday afternoon accompanied with the wonderful smells of chicken soup and cholent, and people walking in the streets heading to shul is surely my favourite weekly experience. The festivals are celebrated with such gusto and enthusiasm by all citizens. Purim, which we celebrate in another week will see all Israelis, young and old, dress up to get into the spirit of the holiday. We will walk in the streets and into shops in our Purim costumes, and be greeted with a smile and a Purim greeting. On Succot, we all try to build a Succah and to decorate it accordingly to invite friends and family to sit in it with us. Even those who are not religious make an effort not to drive their cars on Yom Kippur. Instead, we all walk together in the streets to greet friends and acquaintances in honour of the fast day. This is the Israel that I have come to know and love.

There is nothing like a short trip abroad to be reminded of how good the Jews of Israel have things. I took a work trip during the past week to the Austrian capital, Vienna and to Paris. I spent only just a very short time in each city, but they are both locations that I have previously visited. So, although I cannot pretend to be an expert on either city, there was certainly a sense of familiarity about both places that comes with having been there before. Each time I travel abroad, there is a process which requires me to become more conscious of my heritage as a Jew and my Israeli nationality. This is something that I need not devote a second thought to in Israel, but that I am forced to bring to the forefront of my consciousness when travelling abroad. This necessity is even greater against the backdrop of the recent war in Gaza and rising anti-Semitism in Europe.

Israelis travelling abroad are advised by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs to conceal the covers of their passports from public view by surrounding it by a passport cover. This is not to encourage people to feel ashamed or less proud of their nationality. It is a simple security precaution. There are currently active attempts to kidnap Israeli nationals in foreign cities to hold them as another Gilad Shalit, and for whom value can be extracted in exchange for their release. Concealing your passport from public view is just one precaution that we are advised to take.

It is noticeable upon landing at the foreign destination on a flight from Israel, that those religious Jews wearing kippot (skullcaps) ensure that they are removed or covered with ordinary caps and hats before disembarking the plane. Jewellery bearing Jewish symbols is subtly concealed by those wearing it for fear that it may provoke an unwelcome reaction. Some call this paranoia, others call it sensitivity to the realities of today's world. Although I regard myself as a proud Jew who is unashamed of my religion and my Israeli nationality, I am also sensitive to the fact that there are those who may react negatively to me because of this and may even wish to harm me.

The two countries that I travelled to are not well known for their tolerance of Jews and Israelis. Austria is the country that elected a right-wing extremist in the form of Jorg Haider to a senior
government position. Although he appeared to soften his position somewhat in the years before he died, there are many anti-Semitic comments attributed to Haider in praise of Nazi policies. These are the statements that preceded his rise to power, and are sufficient to indicate to me that there exists a substantial anti-Semitic element in Austria. Similarly in France, life for Jews has proven to be uncomfortable. The rising anti-Semitism has resulted in a large number of French Jews abandoning their comfortable lifestyle and social position to make a new home in Israel. If life is tough for the Jews who are native to France, it is a signal to me that I need to be cautious. The thing that makes it more difficult for me in foreign locations such as France and Austria, is the fact that I am not at all familiar with the country and what I should be looking out for. As such, I am forced to be ultra cautious to avoid becoming involved in anything unpleasant.

I was happy to visit both locations without incident, and to safely return to my home where I can relax and be a Jew in the most open way possible. I return from such trips with a new enthusiasm for living in Israel, and for being a Jew there. And this is with good reason. Israel gives me all that I need in this sense. For me as a Jew, there can be no home other than Israel.


Anonymous said...

The anti semitism currently experienced in France, Austria, Belgium and Western Europe in general is not the traditional European anti semitism that we all know. It is as a result of large scale immigration from Muslim countries over the last 30+ years. It is these immigrants and their children who are the new face of anti semitism in Europe.
That is not to say that the old latent anti semitism does not exist. It's there but does not at present present the same threat. It is sometimes exhibited by neo nazi skinhead thugs, but these anti semites would make strange bedfellows with the Islamic brand of hate. Indeed, the traditional right wing anti semites probably revile the Islamists even more than the Jews, although it is a close call.

Anthony Reich said...

Thanks for your input. I agree that Muslims represent a new face of anti-Semitism in Europe. I felt this particularly in France, but also in other countries. In places like Germany, Poland and Austria, I personally feel the Muslim threat less and the traditional right-wing threat more.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both of you but also here in London in the midst of the terrible credit crunch there is the suspicion that we 'Jews' are once again at the heart of it. It is a subtle but steady drip of suggestion from the press.

Also - more worryingly, is the kids at Uni are suffering with the onslaught of pro Palestinian groups on campus and their very public condemnation of all things Israeli. The CST is having to coach the kids on how to protect themselves from their fellow students. How sad is that?

Anthony Reich said...

Thanks for your comment Fi. My experience of anti-Semitism in England has been different than most other places. Although there are threats from both Muslims and traditional right-wingers, I always had the feeling that anti-Semitism in England is institutionalised. You simply have no idea where it will come from next, and often comes from formal institutions such as government, BBC and similar. Of course, it doesn't help when you have Jewish anti-Semites such as Gerald Kaufman and his ilk. They only serve to legitimise the criticisms of the Jew-haters. Good luck to you all, and take care.