"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Between River and Sea: Encounters in Israel and Palestine

Journeys into Israel and Palestine
Dervla Murphy
Eland Publishing


From “Mixed Company in Jaffa and Tel Aviv”

On the evening of 4 November 2008, I boarded my night flight to Tel Aviv as Barack Obama was being elected - the first mixed-race President of the United States. All around me sat vocally Democratic young Americans, too excited to sleep, on their way to work with West Bank Palestinians. Such volunteers, known collectively as 'Internationals', may be of any age and are unpopular in Israel. Some undertake to protect schoolchildren from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or illegal settlers; and over the years a few have been killed and several seriously injured.

When we landed at 3.40 a.m., squeals of frustration filled the cabin; the Internationals' cell phones, so eagerly switched on, had failed to connect. But they didn't have long to wait; as we trooped into the vast Immigration Hall elevated TV screens were showing Barack Obama in victory mode. His devotees cheered and laughed and hugged each other: some even wept for joy. Most of the other passengers remained resolutely uninterested.

It's said that Israeli officials are inconsistent when interpreting rules and regulations. Before choosing an immigration queue I studied the four women officers in their bullet-proof kiosks. Two were young, attractive and apparently amiable, their colleagues were dourly middle-aged with an evident penchant for complications. In the queue on my left stood six Haredim - long bushy beards matching long ear-locks, wide-brimmed black hats and long black coats mentally anchoring them in some nineteenth-century shtetl. All carried the maximum of hand-luggage yet their clothes and shoes were shabby. Behind me a young Californian whispered, 'See how poor they are? They won't work. You'll notice some begging at traffic lights!' These government-subsidised ultra-Orthodox exasperate their tax-paying fellow-citizens. I wondered how the sextet would deal with female officials. Their Halacha (collected religious rules) forbids them to listen to women singing and their sacred literature, closely studied by every Haredi male, proclaims - among other things - that 'A woman is a sack full of excrement' (Tractate Shabbat, page 152). As they neared a kiosk one 'sack' was replaced by a man and the group at once exchanged their advantageous position for the end of his long queue.

Israel craves tourists but prefers them to arrive tidily packaged with pious or frivolous destinations: the Holy Places or beaches and discos. Solitary foreigners arouse suspicion and when my turn came the dialogue went like this:

Why you visit Israel? For a holiday. Which your group? I'm travelling alone. Who meet you outside? No one. You know who in Israel? No one. Tonight you stay where? In Jaffa. Where else you go? I don't know yet, I don't plan ahead. You have occupation, job, work? I write books. Books what about? About travels in different countries.

Suddenly a friendly smile replaced the officer's professionally stern expression. 'Now I understand your travel method! I hope Israel for you is exciting! I have no good English or I would like to read your books.'

So much for all those warnings about Israeli authorities being automatically hostile to foreign writers.

A ludicrously spacious Arrivals Hall, its ceiling almost out of sight, stretches beyond the customs barrier. This glittering new airport, self-described as 'ultra-modern', cost US$1 billion - though the Haredim are but one among Israel's several impoverished communities. In the far distance a brown-robed Franciscan was shepherding Spanish pilgrims to their coach. Then the Jerusalem-bound Internationals found their minibus taxi, leaving me alone.

Surprisingly, the Cambio office was open, staffed by a balding man with grey stubble, pale blue eyes, heavy jowls and a Russian accent. As my euros became shekels (at a rate of about 5 shekels to the euro) I asked about the US vote - by what percentage had Obama won? Frowning, the clerk consulted his computer but failed to find the figures. Then abruptly and vehemently he said, 'We don't like him, he'll make trouble for the whole world!' When I lingered, hoping to prolong our conversation, he pointedly picked up his newspaper.

I sat amidst the cafeteria's scores of plastic tables and chairs feeling slightly like a piece of statuary. Two teenagers - he tall and thin, she small and fat - were slumped behind the counter. Towards sunrise, when I asked them about train times, they shrugged and turned away.

At the adjacent railway station a down-at-heel young couple, pimply and pallid, were the only people in sight. They, too, seemed to resent being addressed in English, as did the elderly woman who had just unlocked the ticket booth.

That thirty-minute ride into Tel Aviv, through industrial estates and rubble-strewn wasteland, gives the newcomer a dreary first impression of Israel. We halted thrice to pick up workers and neatly uniformed schoolchildren - a glum lot, the juniors plugged into their iPods, the seniors yawning and eye-rubbing. On this early morning suburban service the majority must know one another yet no greetings or smiles were exchanged.

Tel Aviv dates from 1909, when the Jewish National Fund bought an expanse of low sand dunes three miles north of Jaffa; around the central station, overlooked by high-risery, one might be in any twentieth-century city. The few pedestrians ignored my 'Jaffa bus?' query and I remembered a London friend's warning. She had remarked that as a septuagenarian, bowed and white-haired, loaded with a dingy rucksack and carrying a few plastic bags, I was likely to be mistaken for a beggar. Happily bus signs are bilingual on tourist routes and quite soon I chanced upon the relevant stop. The No. 10 appears infrequently, the stop is unshaded and by 7.30 sweat was gently trickling down my face; even in November, Israel's coastal climate challenges me.

Of the five waiting passengers two were dark-skinned and crinkly-haired, sharing a cigarette and carrying tool-boxes. The others were teenage conscripts, each armed with a long weighty weapon. The slim blue-eyed girl, not much older than my eldest granddaughter, wore a flaxen waist-length pigtail and seemed at ease with her formidable gun. The gum-chewing youths sported those crocheted skullcaps that mark 'observant' Jews (or those wishing to seem so). Most Israeli males must do three years military training, their sisters two. The Haredim minority are exempted from this duty, as are Israel's Palestinian citizens (one-fifth of the population) 'for security reasons'.