A road trip around an isolated nation

Israel Has Moved, by Diana Pinto, (Harvard University Press, RRP£18.95, RRP$24.95)

One of the things that most conventional journalistic ac­counts of Israel fail to convey is the sheer physical strangeness of the place.

There are the settler highways that wend through the West Bank, sheltered by concrete lips designed to deflect rocks hurled by the Palestinians who live there. At the western approach to Jerusalem, there is a new, harp-like bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava that spans a massive traffic intersection – the city has no river – leading essentially nowhere. At the border with Gaza, there is a hulking terminal funnelling arrivals into Israel through a set of pens and scanners aimed at preventing them from blowing themselves up – or, if they do, containing the damage.

This book takes Israel’s built environment as a departure point to offer broader reflections on shifts in the nation’s psyche, sometimes to brilliant and startling effect.

Diana Pinto delineates the physical landscape of present-day Israel – its highways, restaurants and shopping malls – using it to describe the country as it is, not as the rest of the world would like it to be.

Israel, she says, has transcended its narrow geographical confines and abstract hopes for peace, bound for the limitless opportunities of cyberspace and a global economy where it can excel. Even as it erects ever-higher security fences on its increasingly lawless frontiers with Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, it is undergoing an economic and technological miracle, with more Nasdaq-listed companies, Pinto writes, than all of Europe put together. “The country,” she states, “has chosen to go forth alone.”

From the high rises of Tel Aviv, with apartments as pricey as any in Hong Kong and London, to the high-tech companies that cluster in the north around Haifa, Israel now locates itself “in its own cyberspace at the heart of a globalised world with increasingly Asian connotations”.

Even the Holocaust, a fundamental reason for the founding of the Jewish state, is fading into memory: say “Berlin” to a young, cosmopolitan Israeli, and their first association will be the vibrant club and artistic scene.

Pinto’s acute – and, in my view, apt – diagnosis of Israel’s defining ailment is that it is “autistic”: trapped inside its own increasingly comfortable, security-defended bubble, unable to connect with – much less identify with – its neighbours, starting with the Palestinians.

She expands on her thesis in a series of vignettes, beginning with the heterodox groups of people – the Russians, the ultra-Orthodox, foreign economic migrants – arriving at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv.

Pinto takes readers to Jerusalem down Route 443, which follows an old Ottoman road through occupied Palestinian lands. When she asks her driver for the name of the Arab villages that skirt the highway, “he gives them to me in a distracted manner, as if I were asking a boring question, such as the full geological name of nearby rocks”.

She also goes to secular, wealthy, cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, to which she and most Israelis these days refer to as “the bubble” – a world unto itself although it is just a few kilometres away from the conflict.

This book is no primer for restarting the peace process with the Palestinians – as US President Barack Obama urged the Israeli leadership to do on last week’s visit – and does not pretend to be. Nor will it take you into the West Bank which – for better or worse – forms an increasingly integral part of what, in the absence of peace, is becoming a single Israeli-Palestinian state.

Israel Has Moved is more travelogue and philosophical musing than reportage. Pinto is a French intellectual historian and policy analyst who is married to Dominique Moïsi, the foreign affairs analyst. She based her research on two academic trips to Israel.

In the afterword, the author invokes André Gide’s Return from the USSR, his reckoning with Stalinism. Pinto describes her work as a “non-linear postmodern reading” of Israel, and at its worst the writing degenerates into academese. Furthermore, she leaves her Israeli sources – described in rich psychological detail – unnamed. She says this is because she initially did not intend to write a book but, for this reader, the anonymity detracts from the book’s considerable rigour.

But, overall, the effect is of enjoying an engaging and trenchant dinner party conversation with an intelligent traveller brimming with impressions from a trip. After dwelling in the book mostly on the victors of Israel’s economic miracle, she closes with a thought for the less-privileged citizens, who she hopes will “bring Israel back to its earlier modesty and its humanistic values, before it is too late”.

The writer is the FT’s Jerusalem bureau chief

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