Israel And Integration
A rock-hewn church at Lalibela, Ethiopia (photo: Wojtek Ogrodowczyk, via Flickr)
On election night, I was watching the proceedings on a large screen on the lawn of the British Embassy in Tel Aviv. Earlier, in my hotel, I’d been contacted by a researcher from an Israeli TV channel asking for my predictions for the outcome. Even in Tel Aviv, they seem to know that the words “no comment” are not in my vocabulary. I told her I thought the Tories would win by a comfortable majority. I wish I’d had a tenner on it.
She also quizzed me about my public rebuttal of the Labour party, which began in these very pages. A chance encounter with Ed Miliband had knocked at my funnybone, followed by his naïve decision (too soon and without defined borders) to back a back-bencher’s bill for a Palestinian state, and my response garnered me more unwanted PR than Russell Brand would get for leaving Katie Hopkins’s pad at dawn. I was viralled (take that and groan, my fellow pedants) into the online stratosphere with my article, based on single issue, after a lifetime’s support for Labour. Thank you Rupert Murdoch.
What I didn’t tell the researcher was that when the postal vote form arrived, I stared at it dumbly for days, knowing the Lib-Dems and Greens are even more anti-Israel than Ed. Given the Bedroom Tax and the Mansion Tax, the growing economy and the burgeoning deficit, the choice seemed to be between the Tories, UKIP and the Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol Party. In my neck of the diocese the Tories need no help from me; I’d rather be trepanned than vote UKIP; and the other lot don’t hand out free samples. It pains me to admit that I voted the same way I’ve voted for the last 50 years.
Now, as I watched a Dimbleby from the lawn in Tel Aviv and wondered if my Labour vote would count, a version of the Baltimore riots was exploding in Jerusalem. A policeman beat up a young Ethiopian soldier who was in his IDF uniform and the result was the same old-same old: a peaceful demo turned violent. Predictably, it all ended in tear gas.
I have visited Ethiopia, seen its beautiful artefacts, and witnessed its poverty. The rock churches of Lalibela are an unsung eighth wonder of the world. The Ethiopians were some of the gentlest, most hospitable people I have ever encountered. Our hosts were beautiful, with oval faces, soulful eyes and spotless white muslin clothes. The men greet each other by gracefully bumping alternate shoulders, left right left.
I was also aware of the lower echelons of their society. In the Semien Hills I was shocked at the endless lines of peasant women carrying branches the weight of a wardrobe on their doubled-over spines. Enchanting children crowded on to our bus, dazzling us with their smiles and calling in English not for pennies or food but stationery: “Pencil please, paper please?”
I was there to write a piece at the behest of my friend Irene Beard. On her own return from the country, Irene had set up a charity called Book-Link which for several years sent out half a million remaindered textbooks to Ethiopian schools from British publishing houses. I was accompanied by the distinguished photographer Fritz von der Schulenburg, and I still have a treasure trove of the most exceptional wine-gold photographs of a woman absorbing a country. The newspaper which commissioned my article used a single fuzzy black-and-white one, of me looking sheepish on a camel.