The Diary

April 11, 2014 6:30 pm

The Diary: John Thornhill

On a trip to Israel, the FT’s deputy editor encounters high-tech, tradition and a former Soviet dissident
©James Ferguson

Standing on an office roof overlooking Tel Aviv’s old port, Avishai Abrahami points through the afternoon haze towards Jaffa. “That is one of the oldest cities in the world, dating back 7,000 years. It’s where Andromeda was chained to a rock until Perseus came along with the Gorgon’s head, killed the sea monster and married her,” he says.

History and myth have long been intertwined in Israel. But Abrahami, 42, is far too busy looking to the future to dwell long on the past. As co-founder and chief executive of Wix.com, one of the country’s hottest start-ups, he is focused on expanding his Nasdaq-listed internet company, which already boasts 46m users in 190 countries.

Dressed in the techie’s uniform of black T-shirt and jeans, Abrahami talks fast and dreams big. He reckons his company, which helps people design and build their own websites, has only a tiny share of a vast market. He is a perfect representative of Israel’s fabled “Start-Up Nation”, which I have come here to learn more about.

Like many tech entrepreneurs, Abrahami served in the Israel Defense Forces’ elite 8200 intelligence unit. This gave him a scary amount of responsibility at a young age, he says. As much as he enthuses about the brilliance of Israel’s engineers and its unique entrepreneurial culture, however, he rails against its restrictive immigration rules. “You cannot build an international company without international people.”

It is a theme echoed by many in Israel’s high-tech industry. Economically, Israel must look forward and outward, they say, not backward and inward. Israel can only succeed as a hub, not a fort. The country’s 350m Arab neighbours should be viewed as potential customers rather than potential enemies. It is an enticing vision. But for a country that has been at war seven times in the first 66 years of its existence, that still requires a giant leap of faith.

. . .

As we head back into Jerusalem that evening, we drive through an ultra-Orthodox area of the city that is celebrating the Purim festival, which gives thanks to Queen Esther of Persia for foiling a plot by the evil courtier Haman to exterminate the Jews.

The festival involves a lot of riotous celebration. Children run around the streets dressed as pirates or comic book heroes. Tipsy Haredim, dressed in traditional fur hats and black suits, are singing and dancing in the streets. One vomits out of the window of the car in front of us. History and myth are still weighing heavily.

. . .

It is sometimes disarming, and often disappointing, to meet public figures you have long admired. But the former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky is, at 66, just as impish, pugnacious, and uncompromising as I had hoped he would be. In the 1970s, he was one of the most courageous activists in the human rights movement inspired by the nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov. For his efforts, Sharansky spent nine years in the Perm 35 prison camp, memorably described in his book, Fear No Evil (1988).

Sharansky was finally allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1986, rapidly emerging as a leading rightwing politician, who supported the expansion of settlements in the occupied West Bank. Today, he heads the Jewish Agency that, over the years, has enabled 3.5m Jews to emigrate to Israel. In homage to his past, his office in Jerusalem contains a striking portrait of Sakharov.

The good news is that, according to Sharansky, the Jewish diaspora has rarely been more secure. “Altogether, 94 per cent of the Jewish diaspora live in the free world,” he says. The Jewish Agency has evolved from an international rescue organisation into a marketing outfit, selling the attractions of living in Israel. “I feel life here is more meaningful and more deep,” he says.

The biggest inflows of Jews in recent years have come from the former Soviet Union, the US, France, Britain and South America. The agency’s job is to help diaspora Jews maintain their identity and to offer them the option of living in a Jewish state. “Maybe because I am from Soviet Union, I do not believe that you can convince people by words or propaganda to make such an important decision,” he says. “God says to his people, ‘Go to Israel.’ My representatives cannot shout louder than God.”

Our talk turns to the turmoil in Ukraine, where Sharansky was born. He seems reluctant publicly to condemn Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, who has acted positively towards the Jewish community, according to Sharansky. But he is more damning of the equivocation of western leaders. “There are no clear moral borders in this world,” he says. “Russian dissidents [during the Soviet era] knew that, even though we were behind the Iron Curtain, there was a free world that was with us. Now look at what the democratic dissidents in Egypt or Iran think about the free world. They feel they have been abandoned.”

. . .

“The Jews are the most tenacious people in history. Hebron is there to prove it.” So begins Paul Johnson’s monumental A History of the Jews (1987). Visiting Hebron today, it is easy to understand Johnson’s contention. Deep in the West Bank seized by the Israel Defense Forces in 1967, a small community of about 850 Jewish settlers, heavily protected by a much larger contingent of IDF troops, ekes out a precarious existence in the heart of the Palestinian city of 300,000. The historic significance of every stone in this ancient place appears to be contested.

The most visible scene of struggle is the Cave of the Patriarchs, which, according to tradition, contains the remains of Abraham. Over the millennia, as Johnson notes, this site has served as a Hebrew shrine, a synagogue, a Byzantine basilica, a mosque, a crusader church, and then a mosque again. Today, it is shared between Muslims and Jews. A metal barrier cuts the building in two with both Muslims and Jews able to peer at Abraham’s tomb through different windows.

Just up the road, David Wilder, a New Jersey-born spokesman for the Hebron Jewish community, explains what the city means to his people. “Jews have lived here for thousands of years,” he says. “It is part of our essence. It is part of our national religious being.”

When I point out that the international community regards the Jewish settlements in Hebron as illegal, he explodes. “I don’t give a damn what the international community thinks. Where was the international community when Jews were being shovelled into gas chambers at Auschwitz?”

Ten minutes’ walk uphill, past a graffitied concrete wall that seems to have emigrated from cold war Berlin, lives Hashem Azzeh, a 51-year-old Palestinian. His house clings to the edge of a hillside, below a row of settlers’ houses.

In an attempt to force him out, says Azzeh, his neighbours have blocked access to his house from the road, assaulted him and his family, cut off his water, and poisoned his vines. Around the corner, the IDF has even built a sentry post on top of his brother’s house. A gaggle of Israeli troops laughs and jokes as we approach. In spite of the humiliations, Azzeh quietly insists: “I will live here until I die.”

I am reminded of a line from another book, Ari Shavit’s recently published My Promised Land: “Israel will end its occupation or the occupation will end Israel”.

John Thornhill is deputy editor of the FT

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