Between Jerusalem and Bondi Beach
Greg Sheridan has an interesting road story in the Australian where he describes his trip to Israel. Three of his observations struck an immediate chord with me. The smallness of Israel; the daily intermingling of Jewish and Islamic life -- with the Islamic life protected; and the casual and universal possession of arms. The miniature size of Israel is almost laughable to those accustomed to the vast, often vacant Australian landscape.
For an Australian it is almost impossible to imagine the smallness of the distances involved. Gilot was routinely fired on by snipers in Bethlehem several years ago, and so, well before the security fence was put up, Gilot had its own system of walls and shields, especially for children's playgrounds. For Gilot to be fired on from Bethlehem is like Sydney's Surry Hills being fired on from Redfern, or Richmond being fired on from the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The distance from Redfern to Surry Hills is so short you'd walk between them to buy a sandwich. Sheridan was also struck by the sight of Bedouins encamped in Israel. Bedouins! Some of them probably serve in the IDF, too, along with other Israeli Muslims. One of the more interesting sounds of early morning Jerusalem is the sound of the call to prayer from the Al-Aqsa mosque that floats over the capital of Israel. Finally, Sheridan describes the omnipresence of firearms. "On the day I visit, a group of American Jewish teenagers are there as part of a program to acquaint diaspora Jewish youth with their cultural heritage. They are the normal loud-mouthed, good natured, overbearing American kids. The only odd thing about them is that they are accompanied by two security guards, in this case Israeli girls who look barely older than the teenagers they are guarding and carry rifles as tall as themselves."
Halfway through the article I realized that without meaning to, Sheridan was talking about Australia as much as he was about a distant Middle Eastern country: from the gum trees which Israel imported from Down Under to flourish in their swamps, and which give parts of it the aspect of the Aussie countryside to the a description residents of Gush Etzion who have come "even from Australia, even from Bondi Beach." That last reference contains a bit of inside baseball. Bondi is the site of one of the larger Jewish communities in Sydney. Sheridan was talking about the connections between the vast antipodean continent and the cradle of civilization.
The direct extent of that connection is surprisingly small. Census figures suggest that between one and two percent of the Australian population was born in the Middle East. And surprisingly, most of the Arabs who migrated to Australia were non-Muslims:
While the great majority of Arabs in the world are Muslims, most immigrants from the Middle East in Australia are Christians (most Muslim immigrants come from other parts of the world) ... many Arabic speakers in Australia who have migrated from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria belong to various Christian denominations and may describe themselves as, for example, Copts, Maronites, Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Chaldeans and Nestorians.
But the Middle East has been on the frontline of Australian foreign policy for more than century. The 10th Australian Light Horse were the first troops to enter Jerusalem during the Great War. And while the rest of the world may worry about Armageddon, Australia behind its dreamy beaches, doesn't fret much. Australians already fought there -- literally -- in 1918.
For Sheridan, the talismanic connection is the gum tree. "In a land of stark, powerful and sometimes bizarre images, as Israel is, perhaps the most ghostly for an Australian are the countless gum trees that populate Israel, the north especially. Israelis brought in the gum trees to drain the swamps. Now they are not so sure whether the fast-growing and thirsty trees are an ecological plus or not. But these exotic Australian settlers in the land of the Bible are now too numerous to eradicate, and too beautiful. Their presence is almost surreal in the much bombed and fought over land of Israel. But the gum trees are friendly, especially to an Australian visitor. It's as if a single ghost gum represents every Australian soldier who ever fell in the Middle East, through all the many decades that Australian soldiers have been fighting and dying there."
It's a long way from Bondi Beach, but maybe not as far as we think.