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Just Say What?

My wife moved to Israel from Melbourne at age 18, and planned to spend the rest of her days there. It was a defiant gesture on her part about where Jews should live. A put down to the vicious Nazi assault on the Jewish people only a small number of years before.

I had not developed any particular capacity for defiant gestures. To the contrary, all my post-Holocaust teaching was disposed against defiant gestures. After all, it would only take one defiant gesture in wartime, and you would be killed on the spot or carted away to die. Defiance was for the quick or the dead.

My mother and father survived the war in Poland essentially on a lot of luck, good judgment, and otherwise by keeping their heads down. They changed their identity, temporarily assuming the identity of Catholic Poles (possibly on the papers of some dead person or other illegal dealing) moved away from Warsaw, and lived in a country town as Christians – in relative peace, with the war being carried on in earshot down the road. They were saved by some heroic Poles who knew that they were really Jews, and who could have been taken away with them, never to be seen again, had the charade been revealed. Brave, brave people, dedicated to saving the world, starting with their very own doorstep. They assisted in placing my parents in the little village, and then would visit them on Catholic holidays, to reinforce that they were actually Poles (and not Jews).

When trouble was about, Jews had long and well-documented experience in waiting for the trouble to pass, and doing what was required in the meantime. Something would happen – Esther would intercede with the King or the waters of the Red Sea would miraculously part. The Maranos of Spain would live quietly in a Christian world, secretly keeping their Jewish practices alive, while waiting for however long it would take for a miracle to free them again. The brutality would pass. Someone would come up with something, and that is why after millennia of the worst assaults and repeated plans for our extermination (sometimes significantly implemented), Jews were still here, in itself an amazing thought.

For my parents, there were no heroics. Just calm, judgment and vast amounts of luck. Calm, patient, instinctive steps on the fringes of a terrible wildfire.

It was done with reserve, deep suspicion and patience, which I was taught were the ultimate survival skills. Keep your eye on the street. Keep still. Look around. Notice everything around you. Watch carefully. These were the skills to which they owed their lives. They were imparted to me from the first moment anything could be imparted.

The tension would have been ever-present as an unexpected knock at the door heralded who could imagine what. Would the Jewish couple inside be disowned? Had someone worked out the unspoken secret? There would no doubt be significant rewards for the betrayers. These were the most difficult of times and any rewards would be more than welcome. Would decency somehow hold firm? But this was more than decency. Honour plus risk would surely bring returns, but would they only be available in the "life to come"?

The door is answered. Hearts pound like base drums. It's the lady from across the way.

Surely their true identity was known by others.

There was a woman in the small country town outside of Warsaw, who was a relative of the friends who had helped get my parents out of Warsaw. Money changed hands. Being a quiet town, and away from trouble, she took them in. She had a retarded daughter, who became fond of my father, and through that fondness particular favour was won with the local family. This deeply human story repeated itself around Poland, amongst those who hated the German occupation and for whom the moral compass remained functioning. On Easter and Christmas, my parents' good knowledge of Polish and Catholic ways held them in good stead. This included the ability to recite Catholic religious prayers. Knowing Polish well was the difference between life and a quick death, and not all Jews did know the language as a first tongue though their families had lived in Poland for many generations. Jewish Poland was big enough to be self-sustaining (including the use of a stand-alone day-to-day Jewish language, Yiddish), and the idea of a Polish national identity (as distinct from Poland as the filling for a sandwich made up of Russia and German on either side) was new.

Take no chances, or as few as possible, and lie low - it would all be over eventually. No one was quite sure when the madness would end, but the insanity would surely pass in time. People could not go on engaged in mass exterminations and being completely and absolutely mad indefinently – could they? Such was the hope. No one could imagine the swatiska flying over the parliament at Westminster, but what was it doing above the Arc de Triomphe? How had Paris become a Nazi town, and without a bomb being dropped? What about Prague and Amsterdam? The insanity had to stop somewhere, surely.

The objective was to survive. They were the only two members of each of their families to do so, amongst parents, cousins, nephews, nieces and so on. The rest of their families were very likely taken away and killed in concentration camps, although their actual fate tragically remains unknown. For all I know, their children could be writing about us in Toronto or Los Angeles or Tel Aviv, not aware that my parents made it through and that their children are alive and dreaming constantly of cousins and uncles and aunties who were thought to have perished.

The last known communication of my mother's father has been recorded in a Red Cross auspiced communication to relatives in the United States. The note records as follows : "Abraim Fejgenbaum and family are all well. They live in Karmelicka Street, 4. What is now with Frances? Write to Garbarz. We ask for packages with clothing and provisions, also emigration papers. Composition of Family – Wife – Doba age 53 and 2 children – Josef age 24 and daughter Malgosz age 19 who are salespersons in stores and a daughter – Minnie age 13. Date and Place of Birth – 1879 – Poland. Nationality – Jewish. Religion – Hebrew. Profession – None. Object of Inquiry – Safety, welfare and location. Last Address – U1 Karmelicka 4/5 Warsaw, Poland. Inquiry Date – December 30, 1939. Comite Internationale de Croix Rouge."

It was their last address, and the last known communication from my mother's family.

My mother was Malgosz. She was newly married. The other members of the family passed without a trace.

If one had observed my parents, as a newly married couple in Warsaw (in 1940) - and with the knowledge of all the terrible things to befall the Jews in Warsaw in the immediate years to come, you would not have rated their chances of survival very highly, let alone having children. Only the very poorest of odds were available on the prospects of my arrival, and that of my brother – nothing short of an absolute miracle.

From all I could gather, my dearest was influenced by a different wartime than the one drilled into me. The war that her family experienced was being pursued to the conclusion of the children - and thus the family line - moving to the Jewish homeland - it was the ultimate put-down to those who had so ruthlessly sought our complete annihilation.

She was gone, and I was coming, albeit with some diffidence.

Israel was a very serious place. Big wars were fought over its existence, and every inch of it – though it was as tiny as a speck on the Australian map. Individuals in Australia owned properties larger than Israel in Western Australia or the Northern Territory, where a few cattle roamed and the horizon stretched out before the eye.

Israel had experienced one such big war only a few years before (in 1973), and it had left a deep scar of fragility and vulnerability with Jewish people everywhere. Israel had almost been consumed in the first days of the 1973 war, with thousands of young conscripts dying at the Suez Canal, as they were overrun by the emboldened and advancing Egyptian army.

The Israeli government had not prepared properly despite all the warnings. Having hammered the Arabs in 1967, an attitude of invincibility had set in. How could the Arabs hurt us? The potential for further disaster was very real. The Jewish people were being hammered. Whilst the 1973 war was won, this occurred at great cost, in terms of numbers of casualties as well as a cost to self-image and direction. It brought the Palestinian issue into focus, and raised the question of the need for a resolution with the Arabs other than by means of war, which it had been thought would provide the solution.

The Egyptian President - Anwar Sadat, in league with an unlikely Israeli Prime Minister (who had been weaned on anti-Arabism) – Menachem Begin - remarkably led the way. The Egyptians signed a peace agreement with their old and not so assured enemy, and in return were the beneficiaries of a kind of Marshall Plan solution, the future of which was uncertain though it was proclaimed as being as good as unbreakable – deep wounds were patched over with large amounts of money.

There was little doubt that these would be interesting days.

Our coming and going between Australia and Israel, ended up with me coming and staying.

Israel is a place of remarkable resilience and determination. It did though present some issues for me - language, armies, war and a tendency within elements of Israeli society to a fanatical disposition which needed to be quelled - and which reminded everyone that the area of the Middle East in which we were living, despite some longings otherwise, was not nestled by the beautiful Danube, with pretty old castles and churches next to cascading waterways. It was a land constituted essentially by a sparse desert, which the Jews were re-foresting and renewing - after centuries of land degradation - over a period of decades.

There was simply too much history in the immediate vicinity - both for memories short and long.

The area suffered from a lack of indifference. It must have something to do with trade routes between Africa, Europe and Asia, and the problem of being at the cross-roads - where passers-by would stop and misbehave and agitate the locals. Nothing like a confluence of strangers to get a party going, but could it be stopped?

The area was a breeding ground for fanaticism and anxiety on all sides. It was as if the fanatics were attracted to each other - only they could understand each other in love and hatred. Was it something in the Koran when matched by the Torah? There was a dangerous and inflammatory chemistry. It was all about who owned some tract of land because of some myth that had been passed down over many centuries, like a treasured family heirloom. It was not a good place for the indifferent and the vague. Everything was conducted with passion and determination, from the great encounters on the battlefield to shopping in supermarkets, where even attempts to wait in a line presented special challenges (mostly in the nature of no one else waiting in line).

I had grown up in a much quieter world of humble expectations, demands and desires. Couldn't the Jews have found a slightly more accommodating spot for a homeland? Like a part of Wales, or the northern tip of Norway (where the reindeers live).

It was the height of irresponsibility or a divine bad joke to set the bible stories in the worst of hotbeds like Jerusalem and surrounds, or even more disastrous still to draw the Jewish administration of Roman-occupied Levant into the hugely violent crucifixion murder of a Jewish sect leader, who would then, hundreds of years later, be widely declared as the son of God. This is what you call bad luck. The leader of an insurrection is killed, and many years later he is widely declared the son of God, and the scorn is turned on the ethnic group of the dummy leadership of the fake regime which put into effect the orders of the occupying power. And then it is the successors of the occupying power who become the predominant proponents of the leader of the insurrection who they kill. There is a great deal of bad luck and misfortune built into this most unlikely sequence of events.

And what was Mohammed doing at the very same site? Tell me this is not true. Was there no other spot for him to rise up to heaven – like Helsinki or Tuvalu? And don't forget Abraham being ready to kill his son Isaac at the same sacred spot where the prophet rose (and not far from the crucifixion of Jesus), on what he understood to be a divine decree whereby adherence to a bleak God was to outweigh parental love. Just how many religions, and events of cataclysmic proportions, was there actually space for on one tiny speck of land? And why involve the Jews in all of this?

Of course, the Vikings of Norway might not have proved a better match for the Jewish people trying to make a homeland in the northern tip of Norway. On the other hand, the Welsh would have promoted the virtues of community singing, and in harmony.

In the Middle East, religion only seemed to largely serve the cause of fanaticism, rather than enlighten or enrich anything. It had become a justification for land-grabs or the horrendous murder of innocent bus travellers, and I grew to become deeply mistrustful of belief-systems which started with the declaration of "what God wants".

It was one of the problematic steps in the development of Israel that religious interests were enfranchised politically, such that laws were passed to require closure of businesses and even entertainment venues and public transport on the Sabbath, and religious parties became part of the parliament. Just when everything needed calming down, a tie between religion and politics was enfranchised rather than banned.

It was religious interests which also actively promoted the attachment to captured lands following the 1967 war.

The Jewish people had somehow survived, and occasionally prospered, without occupation of the West Bank territories (or Judah and Samaria - as known in Jewish religious parlance) for thousands of years. Upon the rapid capture of these territories in June 1967, the hand of religious politics took hold, creating a rabid constituency, which had no concept of compromise. A dangerous cocktail of right wing and religious elements were insisting on retaining land substantially occupied by Palestinians on the pretext of references in the bible to settlement by forebears. Their rhetoric gave an added dimension to significant security concerns about the need to control this land, with rhetoric and security becoming completely intertwined in an irresolvable mix, which eventually would have to be unravelled, but no one was quite sure how.

Who were these forebears anyway? And since when was contemporary human advancement predicated on an investigation of what tribal societies thought and did some thousands of years ago (as recorded in the bible), especially societies which regarded themselves as being in day to day verbal communication with God? By what cause is divine wisdom founded on the alleged practices of tribal societies of thousands of years ago?

Common sense would tell you to give back lands you cannot administer democratically, or at least take steps to avoid a long occupation of a resentful, large rabidly anti-Israeli population. Instead, these lands were retained and embitterment grew and continues to grow. As embitterment simmers, chances are missed. The fanatical only got more fanatical, and at some point the rubicon is crossed.

These lands, which were previously subject to Jordanian sovereignty, and on which lived some million or so Palestinians, suddenly became a province of Israel (not just by reason of military capture - following the hopelessly mismanaged attempt by Jordan in 1967 to attack Israel from the west - but also – and this was the enduringly troubling part – according to people of political influence in Israel, by Jewish divine providence).

The religious parties of Israel, whose leaders featured in Israeli Cabinets, had one advantage over secular parties - they could claim divine right, in support of their political policies. The Islamists, in their societies, are also players in this incendiary game.

Like Islam, the strict practice of Jewish religion did not distinguish between secular and religious life, and the religious political leadership determined that it had a particular role of self-proclaimed superiority over secular Jews.

These religious parties had a way of driving State policy, which meant that decisions about State security were complicated or confounded by messages about God's will, and the divine entitlement of the Jewish people to occupy their God-given lands, their entitlement to which predated Islam by many centuries. This meant that it was proper to settle in these lands.

It was all very alarming.

Being Jewish in Melbourne involved a degree of relegation, to the second or third division of the immediate world in which we lived, which when the world is unwell is not so undesirable.

The Jews have a tiny but homogeneous community in Melbourne.

We had rye bread and herring at home. As a child growing up in Melbourne in the sixties, it was dangerous to bring someone home with white hair, particularly as word might spread in the playground next day – via the guest - about the funny looking bread and fish eaten in the secrecy of the family home and the parents who spoke faltering English and talked in a strange foreign language (in the case of my home, Polish). I was confident of facing a beating behind the toilets at playtime for bringing my evil cuisine and ways to school - and generally into the small "h" happy and drab land which existed before migration took hold (and resulted in the destruction of Australia's quasi-English village serenity or perceived serenity - but which at times was ugly and xenophobic, but politely so). This familiar "old" Australia has had a recent revival in response to the "invasion" of desperate Afghans and Iraqis on sinking boats. It also gets an outing with public expressions of racism, which are easily uttered and then sought sheepishly to be withdrawn with easily stated apologies upon complaint.

To my parents, who had survived the war in Poland, in hiding, living as Christians, being "discovered" as a Jew was a sure way to instant oblivion. It was all part of the same theme - "Do not tell them who you are! They don't need to know! They will wipe you out when they find out."

We knew who we were, and it was no one else's business. We did not need their approval.

Eventually, according to the stated, as well as unstated, lore of my parental home, anti-semitism would return. It was part of the natural order of the world, and with it the Jews had to be ready to move on. It was something about the vulnerability of the outsider, and the all too familiar human tendency of disassociating from those who were perceived not to fit in, with this tendency to disassociate building on itself over time like a poisonous curse – to the point of violence and worse. Everybody found a reason to hate the outsider Jews. For our part, our suitcases were not far from reach.

We especially liked our membership of our special Jewish fraternity. We felt special. It was, for us, the best club in town. We had real families, and we had history. That was something our obliging, but not overly friendly, waspy neighbours did not have. We had five thousand years of history! They had nothing. They thought they had everything – a few generations of English immigration, but we knew they had nothing. We felt sorry for them, but dared not tell them. We were bonded by a brotherhood which spanned millennia, and whose story was recorded in the greatest of books of stories. They were in oblivion. As much as the concept of a peaceful Australia was loved (even secretly worshipped), the terms "non-Jew" and "Australian" were synonymous in our family house.

But at its essence we were keeping a secret that meant there was danger in revealing who we truly were. Like the Maranos, we were outwardly of the world around us, but secretly in a private world of our own making, the rituals of which could not be disclosed for fear of untold terrors befalling our home and people. It was, in one sense, the ultimate state of victimhood (constantly trapped by fears of persecution – mostly completely unreal in the serene situation of Melbourne or Sydney), and yet the very essence of the story of our survival. The price of life and peace was higher than all other values, even if it meant living in a secret world or in hiding. It was the way Jews survived in the face of persecution for hundreds upon hundreds of years. They had crafted a way of living in totally hostile environments which allowed them to preserve and strengthen their culture and their lives, but which meant that the real business of a central part of their lives was conducted out of the gaze of the wider world – in secret burrows and in quiet whispers in public places (but with great exuberance in their own places).

And now here I was in Israel, meeting my Jewish people in our restored homeland, courtesy a woman I had met on an off-chance on the way to a soccer match in London, with no plan or explanation. Good going really.

We lived in a tiny apartment in the bustling, pasted together sandy, crumbling city of Tel Aviv – a city designed on a day when the town planners were away on holiday, but which had grown into a remarkable metropolis of chaos and great sophistication and good sense.

We were on the first floor of a ramshackle apartment building, just above the height of the vertical exhaust pipes on buses which roared down our street, one after the other every few moments. The survival of the leaves in the treetops in the street at the same level as our apartment was a miracle in itself, with acrid fumes bellowing from the upright exhaust pipes of the buses as they belched away below. It confirmed to me that God did in fact lived in the land of his people in the treetops at our level in our street (like the Qangle Wangle Qee in the story of Edward Lear) - pouring extra serves of goodness into the leaves which somehow remained green and healthy-looking despite the constant assault of deadly fumes. These were hardy and determined leaves, and lush and green despite everything! We had discovered the location of heaven – not far away in the clouds, but in the trees at the level of our apartment, just above the noise, fumes and bustle below.

It was not Melbourne, with its beautiful clipped lawns. It was dusty and dirty, and full of people in the streets, and partly collapsing though only about 70 years old (mainly for the reason of it having been built in such a rush on a most unwelcoming foundation – sand).

We breathed in the fumes, and became tough and hardy like the people around us. They were truly resourceful and hardy. They went to work, had families, had fun and fought in wars and battles with unbroken determination. They were relentless. The more people hated them, the more they fought. They were beyond intimidation. We pushed our way to the front of queues like they did, and crossed roads on red lights. We spat on the pavement and ate sunflower seeds. We stayed up all Friday night and lived on credit. The only thing we did not do was fight in their army. That was a bridge too far. There were limits. If only everybody else (on both sides) shared my reserve at being shot at or doing the shooting.

I followed the exploits of the Israelis (at a safe distance) working as a journalist, having edged my way into gainful employment with the American newsagency Associated Press. My job - which I was regularly assured by my overbearing South African-born bureau chief I was very lucky to have and which I did not in any way whatsoever deserve (because I was a slack-arse mummy's boy from fuckin' soft as a baby's bottom Oztralia) - was to report on events in Israel, during the Lebanon War period of the early 1980s. In part, the job involved translating the news as it was being reported in Hebrew, which I was learning in a hurry, and sometimes not fast enough.

Two nights each week, I worked the late shift, from 4pm to midnight. By about 8pm, I was left to my own devices in the Bureau - the rest of the staff having gone home - keeping an eagle eye on the progress of a miserable war that saw the Israelis gradually moving on an Arab capital - Beirut - for the first time. What they were going to do when they got there, no one was quite sure (as it turned out, the people who were least sure appeared to be those running the military campaign), but the story was interesting, often too interesting. Regularly, the national nine o'clock news would start with the list of the day's casualties - young boys from all over Israel, mostly younger than me - dead for not overwhelmingly apparent reason. Good kids being buried in hurriedly convened funerals. Families, neighbours and friends would never recover.

One thing I learned about war was that a lot of the best military moves happened at night, usually when the civilian population was asleep. At midnight, the military spokesman would announce a brilliant strike here or a disaster there. It all had to be reported (Israel was a major pre-occupation for AP's US east-coast customers), and no matter how late into the early morning hours the story dragged on - the only time that mattered for my bosses at AP was the deadline for a major AP client (such as The New York Times). If AP missed the story, and Reuters picked it up, I was going to be in a big fuckin' shitload of trouble next morning when the fascist Afrikaaner dickhead boss returned. I was feeling a lot of sympathy for South Africa's put-down black population.

Occasionally fatigue got the better of facts, and a slight crib by me (alone in the bureau on the evening shift) on the translation of a speech by the Israeli Prime Minister might occur. This always played on my conscience, as I had a vivid sense of everything we were writing from the AP bureau in Tel Aviv being poured over in the State Department in Washington, with the nuance of one of my mistranslations being reported to the United States President, who would be woken from his slumber such was the significance of what the Israeli Prime Minister was being reported as having said (by some journalist in Israel who was not very sure of his Hebrew). God only knew what disaster could stem from an "and" or "but" in the wrong place, or worse still whole passages of the Israeli Prime Minister's speech patched together from real and assumed words and phrases.

I was assisted in one key respect. At the time, Yitzhak Shamir was the Prime Minister (after Begin). His Hebrew was not wonderful, which was a big help for me, as I found it easier to follow bad Hebrew than the language well-spoken. This is mostly because bad Hebrew was more akin to what I knew. Very well spoken Hebrew involved the use of complex and often lyrical phrases (with sometimes a number of words in English packed into a single Hebrew word or phrase) and verbal imagery, mostly taken from the highly poetic, precise and closely studied language of the bible. This version of the language was spoken by the then State President Yitzhak Navon, a highly educated many-generational Israeli (Shamir was an immigrant from Poland). Navon's public speeches were full of talk about the cedars of Lebanon and other complicated biblical turns of phrase which went significantly beyond the language spoken in the street. Luckily, being a figurehead president, his speeches were not usually newsworthy, so the stress of translating what he was saying was limited.

On one occasion, the meteorologists of Israel went on strike. This meant that there was no weather forecasting from Israel. The AP was greatly troubled, as a good part of the readership of AP's main newspaper clients on the east coast of United States (ie. New York) were Jewish, and were interested in the weather in Israel, as in "looks sunny over there, why don't we go to Israel?"

To assist, the journalists at AP in Tel Aviv had guesses at the weather forecast - on a clandestine basis of course. This was not difficult, because the desert-based weather in Israel was either hot or cold, and mostly hot, and the real temperature was within a few degrees of what you would guess it to be.

These guesses of the AP journalists came to be reported in the weather columns of the great and authoritative newspapers on the east coast of the United States.

Because of the authority of the AP, the next we knew of all this was reports on the Israel news that the AP was reporting the weather in Israel as some temperature or other. We were capable of obliging with seven day forecasts, whatever was required. We could announce the weather for the next six months, if it would help. It was a very biblical thing to do (as, for example, God had given an insider's long-term weather forecast to Noah).

Notwithstanding the doubtfulness of this type of reporting, the employers of the meteorologists sent notes of encouragement, in the hope that it would contribute to the breaking of the strike. The highly trained scientists at the Israeli Bureau of Meteorology were ultimately no match for the crew at the AP.

Time was the key to understanding Israel.

On a day-to-day basis, no one had any time. Everyone was in a hurry.

On a long term basis, the Palestinians and the Arabs generally had all the time in the world, and still do.

Observing Yasser Arafat, then leader of the Palestinians, on the run (on this occasion on his way out of Beirut and headed for Tunis because no other Arab nation could cope with him), I thought that I had figured him out.

He and his people had time and population on their side.

With all the swagger of an investor for the long-term, he would never make peace with the Israelis. And with his passing in 2004, any successor who attempted to do otherwise would be living literally on a knife's edge.

For all the wisdom of the Norwegian Foreign Ministry, the Nobel Committee which decides the Peace Prize and the United States State Department, the obvious seemed to be beyond them. The Palestinians bore the Israelis no affection and never would.

The Israelis were, to the Palestinian eye, western interlopers - infidels interfering with the order of Islam. They were American lackeys serving the cause of making inroads into protecting the oil interests of western capitalism – strangers in a strange land. The Palestinian case showed no recognition of the great historical connection of the Jews with the land.

For the Palestinians, this was the last of the anti-colonial battles in the Middle East, except here the supposed colonialists considered themselves indigenous, and the supposed freedom fighters were battling in aid of a movement which was gradually in the sway of isolationist fanatics who were taking hold of the oppressed majorities within the Islamic world, and turning large numbers of ordinary people into terrorist supporters and sympathisers.

For the Palestinian leadership and their supporter, Israel was a form of western pestilence in the heartland of the Arab world. The Palestinians were an impoverished nation, who protected themselves with numbers. Such benefits as bestowed on the Palestinians by sympathetic western governments were too often stashed away in pillows or Swiss bank accounts, and mostly nowhere to be seen in the miserable streets and alley ways of Gaza or the West Bank.

Children, especially male children, were guarantors of the welfare of the deeply impoverished family. If the Palestinians do nothing but suffer on, they will, as the theory goes, eventually catch up with their Jewish foe with numbers (and assisted from time to time with the occasional menacing skirmish which would be less easy for the Israelis to contain each time, as the weapons of battle become more sophisticated and stone throwing turns into missile firing).

It may take 20 or 50 years, a blink in the timeline of Middle Eastern history. Meanwhile, the relentless population clock ticks on.

Allegiances would also be formed with the Arabs who stayed in Israel after the War of Independence of 1948, and who became Israeli citizens, and who would be drawn across even if reluctantly so (and against economic interest). Many of those Arabs would unavoidably move, or be pushed, to the Palestinian fold. They were also the population with the highest growth rate inside Israel, and they were voters in Israel's democratic elections – currently standing at about 20% and growing. By contrast, Jewish population growth rates were relatively small (expect for the politically disenfranchised ultra-orthodox sects), and the input of large numbers of Jews wishing to move to Israel from other countries has significantly diminished, especially with the ending of the large in-flow of Jews from Russia (bringing to a close, at least for the foreseeable future, the movement of large numbers of Jews wishing to migrate to Israel).

Whilst successive American presidents crave Middle East peace, I suspect peace is not possible without the water supply of Gaza, Nablus, Hebron (and probably Nazareth) and so on, being secretly treated with "forget pills". The Palestinian population would explode from their confines in time. The concentration of frustrated people will not be contained, particularly as the concentration factor increased, and the land and water resources available to them becomes still further degraded.

An alternative option to the water supply theory could be to build a vast expanse of new land jutting out into the Mediterranean (like a new Hong Kong airport). This has an advantage in addition to creating space, being that the new land would come with no history - no God coming down from the mountain top, no burning bushes, no white chargers raising the prophet to the heavens, no messiahs being persecuted by the Romans - just boring old, non-descript sandy land and of no consequence, and most importantly with no holy story attaching to it - and also hopefully with a big moat to keep everything bad at bay.

What was needed was land which could be occupied with no fretting or sense of disadvantage. Land that meant nothing to anybody, but rather space to be occupied. A place with no history (like a piece of Mars on Earth).

On one occasion as a journalist, I was sent to southern Lebanon to report on the remarkable decision of the colourful then mayor of New York, Ed Koch, to have a twin city arrangement between New York City (home to capitalism and many Jews) and Nabitiyeh (home to radical Islam sentiment, but temporarily then under highly resented Israeli occupation). This was a profoundly ridiculous decision on the part of the mayor, which would have currency of about one day in the media. Still, good stories can run for a day, and the mayor liked being in the papers. The AP needed a reporter on the spot to record every golden word spoken by the mayor on his intended lightning visit to his twinned city in the mire of Lebanon. It was pure fodder for the New York newspapers, much appreciated by the news agencies. I got the gig.

The mayor travelled by helicopter from Israel. I went by hired car, driven by myself, in a convoy headed by an armoured troop carrier. We could not have gone in and out more quickly. A quick glimpse. A few banal and completely unnecessary words from the mayor, and we were out of there, back towards the Israel border, crossing the Lebanese hills leading down to the Galilee, Israel's prime farming land set below (like a pristine valley in Switzerland compared with the chaos and aridness of southern Lebanon); an easy target for the rocket launchers who would take position as night fell, if they could get away with it (and at a later time, following the occupation, did so).

The Arabs of southern Lebanon, save for Israel's Christian allies, hate Israel with a passion. Men in Nabitiyeh walked in groups looking away from the soldiers. If a knife could be slipped into a Jewish back, it would be done in a flash. The soldiers knew it, and walked in pairs or more and in a constant rotation. It was a dirty business. Good people on both sides dying every day, for land, territory, prestige, face. I never encountered a good reason for the death of anyone in the Lebanon campaign, but still death and quick funerals occurred each day – endless processions of funerals of bright young boys (and this was on our side – what was happening on the other side was beyond comprehension). And despite it all, it is hard to remember from a distance and many years later that it even happened, or what exactly it was for or what had been achieved.

What misery had befallen the Jews and the Palestinians that their co-habitation had been so badly misjudged. With so much land on God's Earth, the two unforgiving combatants had to war over such a small and unwelcoming and, but for legend, such a desolate space. An event of collective amnesia might make them stop - where they could forget who they were and why they were there, and just stop and see the promise and potential they could offer each other.

Throughout the conduct of the war in Lebanon, which I observed and reported on, and which was being fought by a conscript and reservist army, in typical Jewish care-about-everything fashion, the theatre of Israel maintained a seditious critique on the point of it all, in particular the playwright Joshua Sobol. He would write plays about the end of Jewish morality – piercingly confronting plays which could only be written by a participant in the events (Sobol not least being a reservist soldier). I reported on these plays for the AP.

Opponents of Sobol would come to see his plays and argue with him (though he was not present), sometimes during a performance, and using the actors as proxies for the writer. Unhappy audience members would stand and insist that the play stop. Others would stand and insist that the play go on.

People would plead with the actors to stop declaiming their lines, as if the words were like daggers to the heart.

It was sometimes hard to decide where the more interesting drama was being conducted – in the audience or on stage.

The actors, used to these interventions, would take short breaks, and proceed when they were ready with the entertainment they were being paid to contribute. In the midst of a war, here finally were words that had a searing and sometimes devastating effect, being uttered by Jewish actors about the end of Jewish culture. It was to me the epitome of the strength of Jewish culture and the democracy of Israel that the people could be so self-reflective, in deeply honest, confronting and public ways, addressing a conflict which was being fought at one time or another by conscripted audience members and actors alike. As a pay off for having to fight the wars and battles of the state, every person had a special entitlement to say what they wished about policies of the state in a way which was as deeply invested as could possibly be imagined.

It was the unremitting presence of war and crisis that got to me in the end. While the physical battles were conducted far away from view (I never actually saw even a moment of violence), they were also in the hearts and minds of everyone in the immediate streets. The Jewish people were not given a moment's peace. It is a tragedy of great poignancy in its own right. From almost the very instant that the Holocaust had finished, the survival of the Jews in the Middle East was threatened, and little thereafter changed over many years of great development and advancement and enormous achievement, all of which was constantly under dire threat from enemy neighbours on all sides.

I had somewhere else to go. All that was required was to prevail over my reluctant partner to join me. She had committed to share the torment and the occasional triumph of the people of Israel.

Would expedience win over principle? Would she give up everything she held important because we were living in a madhouse?

Yes. Just say – what? She said yes.