Panorama Road runs along the summit of Mount Carmel, in Haifa. Just below the crest, the golden dome of the Bahai temple catches the eye. Below that, down the steepest of gradients, is the harbour and then the great sweep of the coast stretching towards Acre. I spent most of 1962 at Number 30, and from there the view of that bay is as varied and spectacular as any. In every way it was a place in which to experience the reality of Israel.
Longmans had just published my first novel, Owls and Satyrs, and it sold to Penguin, a story of good fortune unlikely to be matched today. What are you going to do now? Longmans asked. Write a personal book about Israel, I told them. The first post brought the offer of a £50 advance. The next post withdrew that offer because, as they frankly explained, they had a large Arab market. Hearing of this, George — now Lord — Weidenfeld was willing to advance £250. I had also come to know Wim van Leer. A lifetime of amazing exploits began when the youthful Wim had disguised himself as a carpenter in order to enter Buchenwald and report on what was happening there. His father, a Dutch magnate, had received immense royalties from having patented the way to seal an oil drum, and Wim received royalties from something to do with the wiring of hand-grenades. A pilot, he flew some Americans into Tibet in search of the Dalai Lama's treasure. "Zionism is a winter sport," is a much-quoted remark, but Wim was the first to say it, on a day of sweltering hamsin (a dusty desert wind). A joker, a farceur, he liked word play, for instance singing to the tune of Tipperary, "It's a long way to Petah Tikvah". Somehow, Wim had acquired what had been his father's factory in Haifa and he and his wife Lia lived at 23 Panorama Road.
I had wanted to come and see Israel for myself because the novelist in me expected to hear stories. People who in the world war had lived in the shadow of death had taken a collective decision to come together in a nation of their own. It's not an exaggeration to say that pretty well everyone with any interest in political events admired this experiment, partly on grounds of conscience that something was owed to Jews after what they'd been through while the world stood by, and more widely because it was a triumph of democracy over totalitarianism and tyranny at a time when this was a rarity. Paradoxically, the Soviet Union had approved the creation of this new state, providing the requisite credentials for the Left. I happened to alight in Panorama Road while nation-building was still in progress but had already succeeded in giving form to the distinctive Israeli character as it exists today. In so small a population, the creativity, the scientific and medical research, the military skills, the revival of the language, all spoke to a unique affirmation of the human spirit.
There was another factor as well. Between 1948 and 1967, the neighbouring Arab states blockaded and boycotted Israel, and this had the unintended consequence of allowing, positively stimulating, Israel to get on with the business of defining itself. From the Arab point of view, was this really a productive way of resolving what at its origins was an issue of rival nationalisms, in the final resort a boundary dispute? A foreigner like me who wanted to go from Israel to the Arab world had to travel with two passports via Cyprus. In Jordanian-held Jerusalem, when my wife and I were tourists at the Western Wall, children emerged to throw stones at us. They were doing only what their elders had taught them to do, a whole population oblivious to the reality that their hostility was conditioning Israel's Golden Age.
Breathtaking: Mount Carmel and Haifa Bay seen from Panorama Road
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