In 2012, Paris-based intellectual historian and policy analyst Diana Pinto attended a conference in Israel. Like many visitors, particularly from Europe, she came away with the urge to write about the experience. Pinto's strength as a writer is her penetrating understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the clichés. We have arrived at the point where most Europeans are not very interested in Israel; Palestine is what engages them. As Pinto explains, Israel is no longer preoccupied by Europe. Her surprising revelation is that it isn't even the US to which Israeli eyes are turned but China and India.
For centuries, Jews have been uprooted from space and instead have inhabited the dimension of time. Zionism restored an appreciation of place, but this has not exactly taken. Israel is not part of its own neighbourhood, the Middle East, but "thinks of itself as living in its own cyberspace at the very heart of a globalized world with increasingly Asian connotations," she writes. "It lives inside its own utopia, in the literal sense of non-place." Pinto describes a recognisable Israeli mindset which owes nothing to the discourse of post-colonial narratives but rather a unique viewpoint, developed out of centuries of statelessness.
As Pinto argues, no country or people can live in cyberspace; the territorial is the reality from which there is no escape. The weakness of Israel lies in its lack of any habits of spatial history; it has no accreted methods of interacting with neighbours, or other states. It is unable, she says, to "change grammatical syntax"; Israel sees itself as always acted on rather than acting. Even the huge number of hi-tech start-ups, its intellectual capital, have no desire to become large companies with big staffs. Once created, they are sold off to the new global technologies.
Pinto realises that such a state can't continue. It is founded on hubris; the most successful Israelis live inside an expanding bubble which insulates them from the territorial land-grabs enacted by citizens with whom they have little or no collection, the settlers. The Palestinians beyond the Green Line of 1967 are invisible, and so are those Palestinians who are citizens of Israel.
Pinto cannot solve the puzzle of the country's future. Like a land on top of the magic faraway tree in Enid Blyton's story, it seems to rotate in space, constantly in motion, but to where? She examines all the available options, and the only one that seems prophesiable is Israel at the airport: the flights of its more privileged citizens (those with EU passports, the Russians, the hi-tech gurus) as the situation becomes finally untenable, leaving behind a rump of ordinary joes.
I wish this book had been a lengthy article in a magazine like Foreign Policy, for Pinto's ability to think entirely trumps her capacity to describe and engage. She indulges in the same set-pieces as every other visitor – the Old City of Jerusalem, a restaurant in the German Colony. The last chapter consists, embarrassingly, of a lengthy tour of the duty-free shops at Ben Gurion airport. Pinto does not get any further than Jerusalem and, briefly, Tel Aviv. The dormitory towns of Bat Yam, the desert development towns of poor Israelis, mostly North African, the wealthy suburbs of Caesarea – with their villas owned by gangsters as well as the bourgeoisie – are not present. Nor are Acre and Haifa and the Arab towns of the Galilee.
Still, Pinto has written about the country rather than being drawn, as so many intellectuals are, to the seamline, the conflict. Knowing that the occupation is wrong, that Zionism was a category error, absolves them of the duty of giving Israel and Israelis any real thought. In China and India the opposite is the case; they're fascinated by how the place works, what exactly is the secret of its ability to live outside geography. Pinto is the writer to turn to, though her own head is as bashed against the wall of futility as everybody else's.
Linda Grant's books include 'The People on the Street: a writer's view of Israel' (Virago)Reuse content