Israel may loom large, but not in territory
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 20 July 2002)

JERUSALEM - In a way that will always be hard to imagine from a distance, Jews and Palestinians live in each other's pockets. Whether they like it or not (and mostly they do not), they are intimate enemies, still existing, after 54 years, in terrifying proximity, their communities flowing together in ways that make borders imperceptible.

This may be the hardest aspect of life in Israel for a foreigner to comprehend, and the hardest to remember.

Israel's discordant narratives and irreconcilable passions make it difficult to grasp on any level, but the question of space creates special difficulties. Israeli space differs from North American space.

In 1976, in his wonderful little book, To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow noted: "Because people think so hard here, and so much, and because of the length and depth of their history, this sliver of a country sometimes seems quite large. Some dimension of mind seems to extend into space." He suggested that while the actual Israel may be territorially insignificant, the Israel we carry in our minds (and depict on our TV screens) seems "immense, a country inestimably important, as broad as all history." Our knowledge of Israel's past, stretching back four millennia and more, also expands it in our minds. Time magnifies space. So many dramas have been enacted here, so much said and so much written over so many centuries, that it occupies an immense space in human consciousness.

In a literal sense, everything is much smaller, which is often the first fact we encounter when we read about the country. We discover, early on, that all Israel is smaller than New Jersey, that it contains only about 1% of the land in the Middle East, that the longest distance in Israel, north to south, is shorter than the distance from Montreal to Toronto. One rule: everywhere in Israel is closer to everywhere else than you expect. In peaceful times you can walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, two different worlds, in an hour. The main cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, are strikingly distinct, each with its unique form of urban culture. They differ far more than Halifax and Calgary. Yet only a one-hour drive separates them.

But so much happens in Israel that we are almost forced to think of it as a large territory. The daily news we receive only confuses our sense of geographic reality, because TV expands whatever it covers. The Israel of our imagination becomes huge. (Whereas Egypt, a big country, feels in the media like a footnote because so little seems to happen there.) We often construct false mental pictures of places in the news; with Israel, our imaginings are likely to stray especially far from reality.

An ordinary journalistic phrase like "the West Bank town of Ramallah" can unintentionally mislead us. When used often enough, without context, it makes us imagine (I have caught myself imagining) that "the West Bank" of the Jordan River is some kind of distant region, separate from other places we hear about. We may also imagine that the "town of Ramallah" is literally a distinct town, which it really isn't. And after we see scores of TV reports on Israeli forces occupying Ramallah and imprisoning Yasser Arafat in his headquarters, we may unconsciously acquire the idea that we are looking at somewhere distant, isolated, out in the wilderness. Chairman Arafat seems a desert chieftain cut off from his community, as false an idea as any we could install in our heads.

Reporters rarely have time to add the geographic data that might bring spatial reality into a news story. In the case of the Palestinian Authority headquarters, a couple of facts improve our notion of what's going on. One fact is that Ramallah (pop. 40,000) is a suburb of Jerusalem. On the most-used road from central Jerusalem to central Ramallah, you don't encounter as much open country as you see when commuting from Burlington to downtown Toronto. And in the worst traffic, with checkpoints along the way, it takes only 40 minutes to drive from the Knesset in Jerusalem to Arafat HQ in Ramallah.

This also means that the West Bank begins more or less on the doorstep of Jerusalem. All those "camps" (some of them resemble suburbs), where refugee status passes down the generations like a curse or an heirloom, and where poets lovingly enhance the narrative of displacement and write songs of yearning for lost Jaffa -- those places are just down the road from Jerusalem. We should remember that when politicians speak of Jerusalem handing back the West Bank to the (proposed) new Palestinian state, it's much like Ottawa handing over the Hull region to a violent enemy. Geography gives the politics of Israel a gravity that foreigners rarely appreciate. All this is the awkward legacy of the 1967 war, when Gamal Abdel Nasser, the dictator of Egypt, tried to push the Jews into the Mediterranean and instead was calamitously defeated along with his allies, leaving astonished Israel with its territory tripled overnight and 1.2-million Palestinians unexpectedly under its control.

Arabs and Jews live on top of each other, so close that they barely leave breathing space for each other. In ideal circumstances that might produce affection, but instead it produces the opposite. Claustrophobia, induced physically and culturally, is the subtext of Israeli life, the enduring condition that colours every thought and feeling.

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