‘Even in Tel Aviv, they know that the words “no comment” are not in my vocabulary’
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.
Irene invited me to the Ethiopian embassy in London to discuss boosting tourism in the country. A red carpet was laid. Twenty-five people sat around the table. Suddenly, silently, the powerful then-president, Meles Zenawi, materialised. Irene smiled beatifically as only a woman who’s about to drop you in it can, and said, “Welcome, everyone. My friend, the actress Maureen Lipman, will begin with an account of her trip to Ethiopia.”
Never has my brain emptied and my bladder filled so rapidly. “Handwoven carpet, swallow me up,” I murmured. “The country is so unspoiled — ” I began, and then stopped. The room waited. “Well, actually it could do with a bit more spoiling. There’s almost no indigenous art or available culture to be seen and what there is has zero presentation. Lucy, the oldest female skeleton ever discovered, is laid out unprotected on a plastic trestle table. The Ark of the Covenant is shielded from the eyes of tourists.” On and on I burbled. Mr Meles watched me as a cobra watches his next meal.
Back in the ’90s, though, he became prime minister when his citizens were under threat from the end of the Mengistu regime. Jewish life was repressed and only one tiny mud-hut synagogue remained. The Falashas, descended from the Biblical tribe of Dan, were declared Jewish by the rabbinate and therefore had the right of return to the Promised Land. Operation Solomon, the airlift of more than 14,000 Jews, took place on May 24 and 25, 1991. Five babies were born in mid-air. When they landed in Israel, the Falasha Jews kissed the ground.
Now, nearly 25 years later, it appears they’re not wanted in certain residential areas and barred from giving blood. This generation of black Jews feels they are treated as second-class citizens — although, ironically, the Israeli Ethiopians are accused of looking down on Sudanese asylum seekers. “Everyone’s a little bit racist,” as they sing in Avenue Q.
Oh, but how easily the word apartheid springs to curled global lips. It implies that apartheid is official government policy in Israel: I don’t believe that to be the case. It always takes several generations for immigrants to be wholly accepted; after all, “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Jews,” was a notice displayed in British hotels well into the 1950s. It’s not right, but it was ever thus. The first generation keeps their heads down, accepts institutionalised prejudice, lives in ghettos, cooks traditionally and disapproves of inter-marriage. The next generation, hopefully, begins to feel at home.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s in again despite my vote. Fifty-six seats in Scotland went to the SNP based on remorse for a lost referendum, a flurry of nationalism and stirred-up mistrust of the English. Nearly four million voted for UKIP based entirely on fear of Europe and prejudice about foreigners. Nigel Farage has just rejected his own resignation — deemed unaccepted by the unacceptable face of his party. So soon, and at our peril, we forget our history.