British Jewish journalist Arthur Neslen doesn't feel comfortable being in Israel - and not because of the stifling heat. Rather, his discomfort stems from political and ideological reasons. It wasn't easy, he says, to follow a path that led to a situation where he is in effect living here and "accepting benefits as a Jew over an indigenous population that has very few rights."
Neslen, 38, was the London correspondent for Al Jazeera.net, the only Jew on staff, and for the last five years was the international editor of the leftist magazine Red Pepper. He is currently in Tel Aviv writing for The Economist's Web site and for several other international publications, and is also promoting his new book, "Occupied Minds: A Journey Through the Israeli Psyche," published by Pluto Press in March.
Before embarking on writing the book, Neslen had never set foot in Israel, but it had always been a fixture in his life, he says, from early childhood, through university and into his professional life. "I couldn't ignore the impact Israel and the politics of Zionism were having on my life and on the life of Jews in the Diaspora" - a Diaspora, he adds, whose identity is rapidly disintegrating and which is clinging desperately to Israel for survival.
"Diaspora identity is eroding," Neslen says matter-of-factly. "Both because of Zionist politics and because of demographic reality." With the increase in assimilation and decrease in anti-Semitism, Israel has become the totem around which all Jews gather. "After all," he continues, "apart from religion and a beautiful but atrophying culture, what else is there? The one thing people can always revert back to, especially in the media age, is Israel. The way of playing out the psychodrama, not just in communal terms but even family terms, is Israel."
But talking critically about Israel in the Diaspora has become impossible, he feels. The terms of the debate have become so emotive, so visceral, so "completely out of control" that one of the leading motives behind writing his book was to turn the spotlight back on Israel, back to those who were creating the context within which he, his family, his history and culture were being understood. "The only way I felt I could provide a critique," he says, "was to hold up a mirror of Israeli society to the Diaspora.?
Settlers and sex workers
That mirror is "Occupied Minds," a collection of some 50 interviews with Israelis, conducted between 2003 and 2005. Neslen chose his subjects carefully and fairly to represent a broad cross-section of Jewish Israeli society, from settlers to sex workers, soldiers to social workers.
He spoke with Labor politicians such as Amram Mitzna, right-wing rabbis such as Safed Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, and teenage anarchists; even Larissa Trembobler (wife of Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin?) has her say. ("I think she's misunderstood," Neslen admits, hastening to add, "very confused, but misunderstood.")
His journey took him from talks with Holocaust survivors, displaced immigrants, typecast Mizrahi actors, depoliticized DJs to parents such as Daniella Kitain, whose son was killed in the Lebanon helicopter tragedy, and Arnold Roth, whose daughter was murdered in the Sbarro
pizzeria bombing in Jerusalem.
The result makes for compelling reading.
Moving, passionate, sometimes desperate, but always deeply personal accounts. Some are in-depth, others just one-page vignettes; stories of loss, stories of faith, stories of suffering, all clearly presented alongside black-and-white pictures of the interview subjects, as if the reader can almost hear them speaking. That is exactly the impression Neslen was aiming for.
"I wanted to make the book as unmediated as possible," he explains. "I wanted to allow a direct relation between the reader and the person being interviewed. And in that sense I think [the book is] as objective as it can be, even when it was dealing with people whose views I utterly detest."
Of which, he admits when pushed, it seems there are quite a few.
But the book is definitely not a leftist rant against Israel and what emerges is not a crass statement against the country's politics, but rather a very real picture of the human complexity that clamors for attention on this small piece of land.
"I tried to humanize people," says Neslen, "and I did want to humanize Zionism. If you can't humanize your enemy, you become the enemy. And I do see political Zionism that starkly - as an enemy."
There are no Israeli Arabs interviewed in the book. Why is that?
"It's a book specifically about Israeli Jewish identity. If you start talking about Israeli identity, I think you have a problem. Many Palestinian citizens of Israel would not define themselves as Israelis; they would call themselves Palestinians. Some wouldn't; they would call themselves Israeli Arabs, but for me to take that position and say you are Israelis is making a statement I wasn't prepared to make."
Neslen's original intention had been to end the book with an interview with "some stoned Israeli on a beach in India," someone who had lost any connection with Jewish identity. "That would be the coup de grace of Bundist polemic," he explains, "Zionism as a modern-day Golem that has destroyed the very people it was created to protect." However, he dropped the idea as it was "too overt." Anyway, he says, "I couldn't afford the plane ticket."
Instead the book closes with comments by Yaron Pe'er, a musician and Sephardic Jew, who plays on the beaches of Ras a-Satan in Sinai with fellow artists from Cairo and Lebanon, who have gathered to "drop their used skins and learn from each other." It is an interview of wistful optimism for a future without discrimination, divisions and the drive for material things.
"I wanted to end the book on an optimistic note," says Neslen. "I am anti-Zionist, but I'm pro-Israeli and I would like to see a situation where Israeli Jews were able to live here in peace, freedom and security."
Neslen, who is single, was born in Ilford and has lived all his life in or around London. His father is Canadian and his mother is from South Africa, a place he never wanted to visit "for the same reasons" he never wanted to visit Israel - "that I would be benefiting from someone else's misfortune and participating in their oppression."
He studied sociology at Manchester University and after graduation went on to become the London correspondent for AlJazeera.net.
What was it like being the only Jew working at the Al Jazeera Internet site?
"I enjoyed working there. They treated me very well and I never personally experienced any anti-Semitic comments. There were a couple of times when I felt other writers were going too far and I complained to the editors about them and their stories were removed."
"One writer would refer to the separation wall as the 'Holocaust wall,' which is obviously just preposterous, and also tended to go out of his way to get quotes from everyone he interviewed comparing Israelis to Nazis. My complaints almost always resulted in his reports being cut, taken down or otherwise amended.
"My editors at Al Jazeera were always fair and in fact interfered less with my copy than at other places I have worked - and were very understanding about my taking Jewish holidays off."