Our third day in Israel and the second day of the three day ceasefire period. We decided to go into central Tel Aviv with our son to do a bit of tourism and take the opportunity for some shopping.
I thought I’d have little of any interest to write about, but in Israel, unless you spend your time hermetically sealed in a safe room, there is always a story.
Today was no exception.
I had never been to Beit Ha’Atzma’ut – Independence Hall, where Israel’s Declaration of Independence took place in 1948. So we decided to take a taxi to Rehov Rothschild and make our way there.
Outside, on the central pedestrian area, which divides this wide boulevard, stands a statue of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor of Tel Aviv. I wondered why his statue stands here and not on Tel Aviv’s most famous street, which is named after him. I was about to find out.
Meanwhile, about that central pedestrian area. Well, it’s not just for pedestrians. You share with cyclists who pedal like car drivers drive in Israel. The best policy is to just ignore them, stick to the marked pedestrian areas, and let them cycle round you. This can be unnerving as they all seem to be participants in the Tour de France who have taken a wrong turn and are desperate to rejoin the peleton.
The central area is clearly demarcated with symbols of bicycles and people. It makes little difference to either group who, with typical Israeli anarchy, choose whichever lane best suits their immediate inclination.
Another typical Israeli touch of humour uses, for the pedestrian ‘lane’, the silhouetted symbol of a clearly orthodox Jewish man, complete with shtreiml and peyot, holding a child’s hand. That reminder of the religious element in the country appears somewhat forlorn, as female cyclists, in skimpy shorts and revealing tops, run over those same symbols in a demonstration of the secular-religious divide.
Back at Beit Ha’Atzma’ut, we enter. I see a group of four elderly people seated on the right. On the left, the desk, with a young lady behind it, and to her right, slouched in a low chair, a young man in a kippah appears to be reading from a religious text.
The young lady takes our money and explains that a ‘seniors’ group is currently in the Hall, and the next guided tour is not for some time. She will first take us into another room and play us a short film. The room which can accommodate about 100 people is completely empty. We sit near the front on hard plastic chairs. Being British, we don’t sit on the front row.
The young lady explains that this building was the house of Dizengoff, first mayor of the city, which he built on the plot of land that was allocated to him in the lottery which established the new town of Tel Aviv in 1909. Hence, his statue outside. On the death of his wife, he converted it to an art gallery in her memory.
In 1948 the building was chosen, and prepared hastily for the Declaration.
The twelve minute film begins. It tells the history of the house, the city and its role in Israel’s independence. Not expecting to be moved, we nevertheless are. My wife is weeping buckets and I wipe away a covert tear and exit back into the entrance, where the young lady informs us that the seniors are almost done. We are ushered through the glass doors and stand respectfully at the top of the small flight of stairs waiting for the guide in the hall to complete his presentation.
Almost as soon as we arrive in position the Hatikvah begins to play, Israel’s poignant national anthem. We stand to attention looking down at the scene of the birth of the State of Israel, listening to Hatikvah. It is a very emotional moment. The tears are not so covert this time.
The seniors make their way out. We smile as they pass and replace them in the now empty hall. Before us the famous portrait of Theodor Herzl, who began the modern political Zionist movement. Either side, four meter high vertical flags of Israel, just as it was in ’48.
Brass plaques sit on the desk behind which the founding fathers sat. Each plaque with the name of those who sat there on that day, and in front of the desk, a set of wooden chairs, also with the names of that day’s participants.
We move around, take photographs and imagine the scene in this place, so familar from the black and white newsreel that we have watched countless times since our youth.
As we leave, the young lady enquires where we are from. She seems surprised. This is the peak season. So many bookings have been cancelled. She thanks us for coming. We should come again in better times, we say. She places her hand on her heart in agreement.
We exit, blinking, into the heat and light of the day. It’s about 30c and humidity is high.
After some shopping and a light snack in the Dizengoff Centre, it’s time to return ‘home’.
Hailing a taxi in Israel you often wonder who you will get. There is a wide range of characters. This time our driver is one of the more garrulous types. He has little English, but engages my son in conversation in Ivrit. I listen and try to understand.
He learns we are English. This precipitates a demonstration of his skills in mimicry as he performs a cockney accent which Dick van Dyke would be proud of:
‘Ooh yeah, Ars’nal, Chelsea, don’t you know…’ moving from the East End to Kensington as Mr Bean.
I tell him that, although I am from London, we are from Manchester. Undeterred he continues:
‘Manchester United, Man City, Liverpool, ooh yeah, don’t you know’.
I attempt to correct his rather poor grasp of Northern English accents and inform him that I am a follower of Tottenham Hotspur. I make several attempts to teach him how a Londoner would pronounce it as ‘Totn’m’. He gives it a go, but is more Ossie Ardiles than Glenn Hoddle.
In exasperation, and with a hint of mischief, I teach him to say ‘Come on you Spurs’ if ever he should find an Arsenal fan sitting in the back of his taxi.
The conversation soon shifts to the conflict in Gaza. We tell him the many places where our family lives, including those close to Gaza.
He tells us that he has a farm and rides horses. He is not far from Arik Sharon’s hacienda. He is from Netivot, a frequent target of rockets. Many people from the kibbutzim around Gaza come there to shop, he says.
As distracted drivers go, he is one of the most distracted. His hands frequently leave the wheel. with expansive gestures. He weaves in and out of the heavy rush hour traffic. He seems to notice the current status of traffic lights more my divination than observation, and the distance to the car in front is calculated by an uncanny sixth sense that operates even when his head is turned to me in the back.
He informs us, with gestures, that the Scots and their national culture bemuse him. He asks the English for ‘kilt’ and ‘bagpipes’. He suggests that anyone wearing a kilt in Israel would soon have an inquisitve local lifting it to see what lies below.
From comedy often comes tragedy. I am a little concerned that, as he drives at speeds which, to a Brit, would seem a little reckless, seeing that the stationary traffic ahead is only 10 metres away and the speedometer indicates 50. Added to this, he has produced a newspaper and is opening it, resting it on the steering-wheel, at the centrefold.
There, I can see pictures of the sixty-four Israeli soldiers who lost their lives in Operation Protective Edge. Our driver points to one of the boys:
‘I know his father. I went to the funeral. Twenty years old. From Netivot. My town.’
The mood has changed. He points to another native of his city. I know his story already as the driver informs us that his wife gave birth to their son two days after he was killed.
He rants about Gaza. We should never have left. Oslo, Shmoslo. Rabin. Sharon. You cannot trust foreigners to protect Israel. They stab you in the back as soon as look at you.
I am not comfortable with his xenophobia.
In the evening my wife’s second cousin comes to visit. She tells us that in the Soroka hospital in Beersheva there were 67 births this week, the highest since 1948: exactly the same number of Israelis killed in the conflict.