Talk of an existential threat to Israel from the Iranian nuclear programme echoed around Washington last week. Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, described the world’s failure to prevent the Holocaust and Barack Obama spoke of the country’s sovereign right to defend its people. But what is the nature of the state that has become central to global diplomacy? Harriet Sherwood listens to Israelis across this diverse nation
NAME: Sigal Shoshany
OCCUPATION: college administrator
LIVES: Degania Alef kibbutz, Galilee
FAMILY: married, four children
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: secular
Sigal Shoshany was born on Israel’s oldest kibbutz, Degania – now 101 years old – and has lived all her life among its banana and avocado trees on the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Degania has changed since she was a child and there is now more individual freedom. “The kibbutz doesn’t tell you how to live your life any more,” she says. It’s a good thing, she adds; the world has changed and Degania has changed with it. “You can’t stay still.”
She and her non-kibbutznik husband, Shay, decided to stay at Degania to raise their family amid the security of kibbutz life. “The community holds you together,” says Sigal.
The kibbutz movement “symbolises what is best about Israel,” says Shay. The family watched last year’s nationwide demonstrations demanding social justice, knowing that “it already exists here”. Both say that national security is the most important issue facing Israel. At the start of the Arab spring, they welcomed the calls for freedom and democracy but now fear the rise of the “fundamental Islamism” in the region – which they describe as a “crazy neighbourhood”.
The Syrian border is not far from Degania, and they are worried about the outcome of the uprising there. But Iran is the biggest threat, says Shay. “[Ahmadinejad] is not a crazy guy – he is very clear about his intention, and very soon he will get the tools to make practical his ideology. The issue of survival should belong to the era of the Holocaust, but now Israel is again talking about it,” he says, adding that the issue is “not only for Israel but for the entire democratic world”.
The couple have four boys, aged from 23 years to 21 months. “Four sons – four soldiers,” Sigal says ruefully. The eldest, Shahaf, has completed his three-year military service; Snir, 20, will start his this month. “It’s not easy for me to send my boys to the army, but it’s something we must do to defend our country,” says Sigal. “It’s not something you want as a mother, that your son will fight, but it has to be done.”
“This is the meaning and the reality of being Israeli,” adds Shay. He points out that 90% of young people living on kibbutzim serve in the army, compared to only 50% living in Tel Aviv. “It’s part of our sense of public duty.”
Snir, who has been accepted into an elite combat unit, says: “I grew up in an environment that gives me the feeling it is an honour to go to the army. My parents and grandparents served their country. I’m very proud to be Israeli, it’s a special country. People outside only see the bad things, but there are many more good things.”
Both he and his older brother insist the Israeli army has strong humanitarian principles, but its first duty is to protect Israeli citizens.
The Shoshanys have encouraged their children and their community to have contact with Palestinians to overcome mutual suspicions and stereotypes. “It’s possible to live here without being connected to the issue of the Palestinians – apart from through the army,” says Sigal. They are in favour of a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.
The couple are proud of what Israel has achieved in almost 64 years. “It’s a kind of miracle – what we have done in the fields of medicine, agriculture and the economy,” says Shay. “If we could be at peace, it could be a paradise.”
NAME Moshe Weiss
FAMILY: married, 10 children, seven grandchildren
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: ultra-orthodox Jewish
Rabbi Moshe Weiss, born in New York to Holocaust survivors from Hungary, came to Israel at the age of 18. “I grew up in a home which was haredi [ultra-orthodox] but my father was a passionate Zionist. For us, the state of Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people after thousands of years of exile and a place where Jewish people with all their dimensions finally have a home.”
Weiss originally came to study for a year in a yeshiva, a religious school. “I was going to become a corporate lawyer or an architect, but I fell in love with the country. I wanted to be part of Jewish history.” Now he runs a hi-tech company, Netspark, which filters internet content.
The most important issue facing Israel is, he says, the security threat, especially from Iran which is “threatening to wipe us off the map”. He hopes for peace with the Palestinians, but fears “the extremists among them are fighting against compromise. Nevertheless, our leaders are patiently trying to work things out.”
But he speaks mainly of divisions within Israeli society. In the past, he says, Israelis were too busy building and protecting their new state to focus on internal differences. In recent months the Israeli haredi community has come under particular scrutiny following calls by some of its more extreme sects for greater gender segregation and female modesty. The ultra-orthodox have also attracted criticism because many men choose religious study over paid work, relying on state benefits and evading compulsory military service.
Weiss is scathing of the extremists within the community. “The vast majority of haredi people are tolerant, respectful, and totally abhor the behaviour of – I wouldn’t call them zealots or fanatics – they are criminals.” But he says the attention given to the minority has been damaging to the community.
“It comes at a time when we see great effort by the new generation of ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel to integrate, to contribute, so that the secular part of society considers the haredi community as an equal partner.” The current hostility to the ultra-orthodox was counter-productive to that effort, he says, encouraging the community to withdraw.
Ultra-orthodox women are not second-class citizens, he insists. Religious women have a different lifestyle to secular women, but it is chosen by them, not forced on them.
Israel is becoming a more religious society, he says, citing a survey showing 80% of respondents believe in God. But he hopes the country will find a “common denominator” both within its own society and with the Palestinians. “But each part of this multi-dimensional nation and people needs to look inward to see how they relate to other parts of society with more appreciation and respect.”
NAME: Alex Yamnitzky
OCCUPATION: mechanical engineer
FAMILY: married, one child
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: secular Jewish
Alex Yamnitzky came to Israel at the age of 28 from Ukraine. “It wasn’t anything ideological or religious. There was antisemitism, but it wasn’t a major factor. Once the borders began to open, people around us started moving in search of a better life.”
The Jewish National Fund paid for tickets and helped support the new beginnings of Alex and a group of Jewish friends who made aliyah [immigrated to Israel] together. Alex worked in construction while learning Hebrew for a year, before finding a job as a mechanical engineer.
He has lived in Sderot for more than 20 years, a town in southern Israel, close to the border with Gaza, which has a big community of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. “We tend to stick together,” he says.
“Now I think of myself as Israeli, not Ukrainian. Being Israeli is not a religious identity for me but a national one – the fact that I’m in my own country. Religion is not part of our daily lives.”
Alex says his economic hopes have been fulfilled, but that the cost of living in Israel is high. “The economy worries me more than the political situation,” he says, meaning the conflict with the Palestinians. “The economy has to do with our everyday lives, whereas the political situation is much further away.”
This is despite living within the target range of rockets and missiles fired into Israel from Gaza. “Of course the qassams [rockets] are part of our lives, but what can you do about it?” He says things have eased in Sderot as the reach of the missiles has extended – “the rockets fly further now”.
He dismisses the Palestinians’ claim to the land, saying “they didn’t really take care of it, and it only started to develop when the Jews came”.
His 18-year-old daughter, Vika, is about to start her two-year military service, which Alex feels is an important process in helping to cement national identity. “The army is a page in every Israeli’s life and it makes you stronger,” he says.
The family is disillusioned with elected politicians. Alex’s wife, Inessa, says they expected more of Avigdor Lieberman, the hardline rightwing leader of Yisrael Beiteinu, a party which has a strong Russian base, “but he does nothing now”.
“The time when Russians would vote for someone because he is Russian is over,” says Alex. “We’ve been here too long.”
NAME: Natalie Hershkowitz
OCCUPATION: settlement secretary
FAMILY: married, six children
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: ‘connected to God’ but not traditionally observant
Natalie Hershkowitz moved from Tel Aviv to Barkan 15 years ago because she needed a big house to raise her family in and wanted to live in a “good community”. “The fact that it was across the Green Line [in the West Bank] was a benefit. We come from the right side of the political map, so it was our duty to come here. It was the right thing to do according to our beliefs,” she says.
But the distance – 25 minutes in the car – from Tel Aviv, and the “quality of the air”, helped the decision to move from the city in which she was born and raised. The price of land and property in West Bank settlements was cheap then, she says; now Barkan – which was founded in 1981 – “is very exclusive”.
She describes it as a “village” not a settlement – “although we are not ashamed of the word settlement. But the connotation today of ‘settler’ is someone who came to conquer a foreign land. This is our land. We are not colonialists. God gave us this land.”
Natalie and her husband, Itzhak, say they have a strong connection to and belief in God, but are not conventionally observant Jews. “We go to the synagogue regularly but not every week. We celebrate holy days. We don’t keep a kosher kitchen, but we don’t eat ham or oysters.”
Barkan is a mainly secular settlement. “It’s very important to say that,” says Natalie, “because people think once you cross the Green Line everyone is a religious fanatic. People don’t know that a third of the [Jewish] population across the Green Line is secular.”
The essence of being Israeli, she says, is “to be here on the biblical land of Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]”. The Palestinians who were born on the land should have the right to live there, “but to live in peace with us. They can’t make us disappear, we can’t make them disappear.” She points out that 3,000 Palestinians – or “local Arabs” – work in the settlement’s industrial zone. “We are working together, living together. It’s impossible to divide us.”
She believes a separate Palestinian state is not possible “even if the whole world recognises one. You can never draw a border because it’s all too mixed up now. This land has to be one Israeli Jewish state, but with an Arab minority with human rights. This is meant to be ours, we were here before. I don’t want to drive them away, but I want to live with them in peace.”
She includes Iran among the most important issues facing Israel, but says “it’s not only our problem, it’s a problem of the whole western world”.
The settlement movement is getting stronger, she says. “This situation will be for ever. No politician will ever be able to make a peace [with the Palestinians] without leaving us here.”
NAME: Youssef Asfour
OCCUPATION: history teacher
FAMILY: married, one child, triplets due in May
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: Muslim
Youssef Asfour’s relatives were displaced in the 1948 war, with some scattering to Lebanon and Gaza and his mother and father ending up in Ajami, an area of Jaffa he describes as a ghetto.
“On both sides, the families lost property and land,” he says. “My grandfather used to be a journalist. He finished his life cleaning at a butcher’s shop in Carmel [the main Tel Aviv market].”
Despite his Israeli citizenship, Youssef does not consider himself as Israeli, but a Palestinian who lives in Israel. He shows his Israeli identity card. Until 2005, it used to categorise him as an “Arab”, but after many court battles ID cards now show a row of asterisks for all Israeli citizens. However, Jews are identified as such by their date of birth, shown according to the Hebrew as well as Gregorian calendar.
“I don’t feel part of Israel,” he says. “I’m a native here. Why is it OK for someone who comes from America or Morocco or Russia to be here, but not me?”
He points to laws passed in the Israeli parliament, including one permitting communities to bar individuals who don’t “fit the social fabric” from buying property and another outlawing the commemoration by public bodies of the Nakba, or catastrophe, suffered by the Palestinians in 1948. “Look at these laws, and you will find the discrimination we suffer,” says Youssef.
As a history teacher, he says he is expected to teach a version of events which is disputed by Palestinians. “I think it’s a duty to teach both [Israeli and Palestinian] narratives. We need to teach that the Palestinians were here [before 1948], and that the Jews were victims of persecution in Europe. It is a mistake for both sides to ignore the other.”
Reaching a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the most important issue, he says. “Then all the money that now goes on weapons could be spent on education. If you want real democracy, start by building schools and teaching people how to read and write. This is the real revolution. Violence is never a solution; the solution is in education.”
NAME: Omer Gershon
OCCUPATION: marketing consultant and events producer
LIVES: Tel Aviv
RELIGIOUS IDENTITY: none
Omer Gershon is “a true Tel Avivian”, born and raised in the city, unlike many of its transient residents, and is a standard-bearer for its hedonistic, nihilistic, gay-friendly reputation.
He is, he admits, “the epitome of the bubble boy”, referring to the city’s insulation from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and dedication to partying. As a professional party-thrower, networker and partner in several clubs and bars, he says he is known as the king of nightlife.
Tel Aviv, he says, is “a country within a country – it’s so separate from the rest of Israel. Everyone expects Israel to be a country in conflict, and then they come to Tel Aviv and everyone is partying or sitting in cafes and bars. We have a heightened sense of escapism because we’re aware of life’s fragility. The sense of carpe diem is very strong here.”
Gershon says his Jewishness is part of who he is and part of his family history, but not a big deal. He laughs when asked if he considers himself a Zionist. But he concedes he is a patriot, which he defines as loving his country while hating those who run it.
“I’m proud of my heritage and proud to be Israeli, despite its infamous reputation. But I do realise every now and again that Israel is not so good if you’re not Jewish – and if you’re Arab, it’s one of the worst places to be.”
Tel Aviv “divides between activists who give a shit about everything and the rest of us who don’t give a shit about anything”.
As a gay man, he says, Tel Aviv is a “paradise”. “There is no feeling of ghettoisation. The gay scene is very integrated with the straight scene. There are very few gay bars because there are gay people in every bar.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has little relevance to his life, but he insists “the majority of people – both us and them – want peace. There’s no reason for hate. But somehow the government fucks it up. That’s how it feels.”
from Harriet Sherwood