Sunday, August 14, 2011

Land of Hope and Glory vs. Land of Milk and Honey

The riots in the UK came at a very poignant time of the year for me as they started almost 32 years to the day of my arrival in Israel. Although I was more or less sure at the time that I was going to end up living in the country, I had no intention in the summer of 1979 of staying. Circumstances, however, (which I am not going to go into now) created the opportunity for me to start thinking about changing my plans and, at the tender age of 18, I decided to make my life here. This decision entailed my joining the army the next year, something to which I had never given any thought up till then.

I’ve never thought that the reason for my decision was due to my dissatisfaction with England. On the contrary, after over three decades in Israel, I do still feel very English although my Englishness is probably stuck in a time warp in the 1982, the last time I spent any significant amount of time there. I just simply wanted to come and live in Israel for reasons that I will list in another blog posting.

Over the years, I have to admit, I have rather idealised Blighty. Even though I have never regretted my decision to live in Israel, England for me always seemed to be a tranquil haven; a place where people queue up patiently, where one gets proper service in shops and government offices, where guns are not seen on streets and where military service is optional. Watching the news of the riots reminded me somewhat that things were far from ideal when I left the country.

My adolescent years were spent in the England of the 1970’s. This was a period punctuated by industrial strife (I remember the Three-day Week and the power blackouts caused by strikes) and the “Troubles” in Ireland which spread to mainland Britain in the form of bombings in the inner-cities. It was a time when racism was rife. There were few inter-racial couples and black players were non-existent in top-level football for most of the 70’s and the first few were only given the chance to prove themselves at the end of the decade as coaches genuinely believed that footballers of colour would not be able to make it in the professional game.

It was this atmosphere that spawned the Punk and New Wave music that we all listened to. For me the artist that provided much of the soundtrack to this era was Tom Robinson. The Tom Robinson Band came out with songs whose lyrics protested against the lack of equality in society and predicted/called for social upheaval and unrest. Tom Robinson himself was one of the few people in the public eye to openly declare his homosexuality. At that time, kiddies, there were no gay politicians, actors, sportsmen or singers. And at a time when gay people were being portrayed on TV as camp and effeminate, for instance, Mr. Humphries on the sit-com, “Are You Being Served?”, Tom Robinson came over as a normal bloke who just happened to be homosexual. 

TRB’s song “Winter of ‘79” seemed to me then to be an accurate prediction of the way Britain was headed.

All you kids that just sit and whine
You should have been there back in '79
You say we're giving you a real hard time
You boys are really breaking my heart
Spurs beat Arsenal, what a game
The blood was running in the drains
Intercity took the trains
And really took the place apart
That was the year Nan Harris died
And Charlie Jones committed suicide
The world we knew busted open wide
In the winter of '79

I'd been working on and off
A pint of beer was still ten bob
My brand new Bonneville got ripped off
I more or less give up trying
They stopped the Social in the spring
And quite a few communists got run in
And National Service come back in
In the winter of '79
When Marco's caff went up in flames
The Vambo boys took the blame
The SAS come and took our names
In the winter of '79

It was us poor bastards took the chop
When the tubes gone up and the buses stopped
The top people still come out on top
The government never resigned
The Carib Club got petrol bombed
The National Front was getting awful strong
They done in Dave and Dagenham Ron
In the winter of '79
When all the gay geezers got put inside
And coloured kids was getting crucified
A few fought back and a few folks died
In the winter of '79

Yes a few of us fought
And a few of us died
In the winter of '79

Reading the lyrics of this song without hearing the music doesn’t do it justice and I suggest that if you have never heard the song you go to YouTube and listen to it.

Ironically enough, the winter of 1979 would find me in yeshiva in Kiryat Arba which is near Hebron, one of the biggest lunatic asylums in the Middle East. These were three formative months of my life that would shape the way I looked at the conflict in the Mid-East and caused me, for the first time, to question my adherence to Religious Zionism as it was being preached to us then. One of my friends had a TRB album on cassette and I think that listening to it helped me maintain my sanity in that hotbed of religious and nationalist fanaticism.

Perhaps as time passed, my memories of the ‘70’s became blurred. Britain did not descend into lawlessness. It weathered the Thatcher years which brought some type of economic stability at a price and progressed on to the “Cool Britannia” period of the ‘90’s and noughties presided over by Tony Blair and the Spice Girls. And from afar, I viewed the country with even more envy as my occasional visits and television programmes gave the impression that a calm, multi-cultural society was thriving over there.

Back in 2002, the wife and I took the kids for a holiday to England. This was our last family holiday there. The Second Intifada was in full swing. Terrorist attacks were a common occurrence and, like many Israelis, we were hesitant about going places as a family in the country. This trip was a welcome break from the troubles we were facing at home. As we sat on a bus in London, I remember discussing with my wife, the possibility of moving to England. I could find a job in Jewish education with little difficulty, we would be near my parents and the kids would be able to grow up in safety. I had been sucked in by the calm of a society that wasn’t facing the existential threats that we were facing every day in Israel at that time. It was a flight of fancy and didn’t last long. We both came to the conclusion that it wasn’t practical and wasn’t the right thing to do.

But the thought stuck in my head. As a parent, wasn’t I duty-bound to do everything I could to ensure the safety and well-being of my children? Was staying in Israel really the best idea? It would take three years and the terrorist bombings of the London transport system to prove that nowhere would ever be safe.

And now the riots there have shown that society is not as stable as it was previously assumed. It has taken thirty odd years for Tom Robinson’s visions of social upheaval to actually happen. Perhaps, it’s a touch ironic that the causes that he stood for then were not the impetus for the riots. What seems to have been the spark for them was greed. That’s all.

You could argue that Israelis aren’t much better. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of them are out on the streets demanding more. Yet their way is to pitch up tents in the centres of major cities in protest against the rise in the cost of living. Young people have found that they simply cannot afford the amenities of modern living with the rise in the cost of housing, higher education and basic food products. No one, as far as I know has complained that they cannot afford a plasma TV or a pair of designer sports shoes. Social justice has become the slogan of this protest which has crossed religious and ethnic lines. 

I have a feeling that Tom Robinson  would approve of this.


  1. one of my all-time favourite songs.

  2. Who hasn't done that 'shall we move back?' soul-search. And here we all are :)