PREPARING FOR her first visit to Israel, in 1978, read widely — politics and history —and bought a sand-coloured shirt from St Laurent and a blouse from M&S. Harold Pinter “concentrated his shopping for the trip on shoes.” And, instead of reading, “H, I sense, is just thinking…”
Thus begins Fraser’s diary of the couple’s trip to Israel in 1978 ( Our Israeli Diary, Oneworld, £9.99) a few years after they had left their spouses to be together, but before they married. (“We’re lovers!” Pinter tells an Israeli airport security officer. “I’m sorry…” she replies).
Nearly 40 years later, Fraser discovered the diary as she cleaned out a cupboard, and now it has been published, a little gem of a book that offers a snapshot of Israel 30 years after independence; sharp insights into a range of characters from Shimon Peres to Jackie Kennedy; and moments where reader’s hindsight throws Fraser’s 1978 reflections into focus. This is particularly acute when she talks about Menachem Begin, Prime Minister for a year and starting the policy of building settlements on the West bank.
“It’s as if an ex head of the Provo IRA becamePMof aUnitedIreland— acause in which we all believe, but how could one get over the past of violence and murder? One wouldn’t,” muses Fraser.
Driving past an Israeli settlement on the road to Jericho she notes its barbedwire and lookouts: “it is like a prison.” Lois Sieff, wife of M&S chairman and ardent Zionist Teddy, tells her: “They are really military post… b u t B e g i n ’ s aim would be to make them settlements.”
The couple do many of the usual touri s t things — the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Old City of Jerusalem, and Masada — a trial to Pinter, suffering from heat and vertigo and the loud voices of ordinary tourists: “in tiny hats, too tiny for their big heads, with ISRAEL on them and a funny face and plump women in short sun-dresses.”
Fraser sees Israel through the lens of her Christianity, Pinter considers his Jewish roots. “I definitely am Jewish, I know that now,” he tells her. “But of course that makes it more complicated. I am also English. And this is an Arab town.” And she replies: “I could live here in every way except one, and that’s not being Jewish.”
Some things haven’t changed. Fraser notes “the dreadful yo-yo of Israel’s existence. As if the World had decided that, really unique among states, Israel must be a moral state… something no other state is expected to be…” Antonia Fraser will be talking about ‘Our Israel Diary, 1978’ at Jewish Book Week on Sunday March 5