A bad case of Society Envy

A bad case of Society Envy

Column for JN July 15 2016

I am just back from Israel with a severe case of SE, or Society Envy. It is not a comfortable feeling — but perhaps it gives me a better insight into how Israelis view other countries, through their particular prism.

You know you have SE when you can’t afford the really nice stuff in the shops — and there is a lot of really nice stuff in some very nice shops — because your currency is suddenly weak. You know you have SE when all the waitpersons in the restaurants speak nearly as good English as you do, or when there is such a vast array of [kosher] food choice in said restaurants.

You know you have SE when you go to a kibbutz dining room on a Friday morning to find what appears to be the whole of Tel Aviv and Paris ardently picking over the best of Ashkenazi and Sephardi foodie delights. This is how the neo-observant Israeli middle classes make Shabbat, by buying in from the kibbutzniks.

SE makes its appearance on the vast new network of roads in Israel, or in the astonishing numbers of hi-tech buildings that stride over the country’s coastline.

And — possibly most importantly — you have SE when Israelis are laughing at you and your cracked political system, at the volatility and incompetence of those who are supposed to be your country’s leaders, at the impermanence of those allegedly in power, at the inability of the Opposition to do what the job description says.

The only bright spot in the whole firmament of Society Envy is that Israel does not — yet — have an equivalent to British champion Andy Murray. But give them time.

Of course, this being a column, SE is a condition which I have exaggerated for just such a purpose, to be mildly provocative. And, of course, I do not seriously seek to downplay the severe shortages and needs in Israel, where not just pockets of the country but whole swathes live below the poverty line and struggle to keep their heads above water.

And, in the same spirit, some of Israel’s politicians leave a great deal to be desired when it comes to ethical behaviour. They have Bibi and Sara — ‘nuff said — the idiocies of the NGO bill going through the Knesset — Miri Regev, a thesis all on her own — and the always reliably bad Naftali Bennett. Besides them Stephen Crabbe and his sexting and Andrea Leadsom bidding to become Mummy to Britain’s nursery look positively normal.

But an all-too brief long weekend in Israel — and the beauty of the UK is its accessibility, making a long weekend a realistic proposition — was an opportunity to view the country in a different light.

in some parts of the monied neighbourhoods of Tel Aviv and the upper coastal resorts, it was hard to believe that Israel was only 68 years old. Huge areas of Tel Aviv are almost unrecognisable as buildings are cleared to make way for the ambitious light railway, sister to the one now operating in Jerusalem. Mentally I compared the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem projects to the endless rows about the Edinburgh light railway scheme, or, for that matter, London’s Crossrail. Let’s just say Israel seems to have got on with it in a way the UK has not yet managed.

Whatever the Israeli equivalent of Yummy Mummies is, they appeared to have colonised every restaurant in town, often drifting up straight from the beach and turning each eatery into Fashion Central. The Israeli women are upping their game in response to the French invasion — and even the most macho of men are joining in.

We Brits, I am sorry to report, come a rather miserable low number in the panoply of the Beautiful People melting pot that Israel is today. Our embrace of Crocs and Marks & Spencer separates, teamed with decrepit worn-out beachwear, marks us out as objects of pity.

Even if they don’t look at us with lightly disguised horror, Israelis now cannot believe the suicide note which Britain appears to be keen on sending to the world. Over and over again, people asked me: Your politicians did what? Did they know what they were doing?

It is, sadly, just the kind of question which we in our smug diaspora fastness have raised time and time again, when Israel does something extraordinarily stupid and indefensible. But the time to revel in our smugness is over. Now only Society Envy remains.

  • 17 July, 2016