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A Nation Divided

By March 29, 2021 April 20th, 2021 Interviews-Leeds

Roundhay-born broadcast journalist Paul Alster grapples with the reality of the Israeli Civil War in the political thriller Kin or Country, as a state divided by religion threatens to tear itself apart.

If you had to place a bet on the future career path of a young Paul Alster, you would have been given long odds on the racing broadcaster. The Leeds Morris Silman Middle School alumnus started learning clarinet when he was eight, gave his first public performance at the age of 10, before quickly gaining a prodigious reputation for his freestyle jazz abilities as he played his way from working men’s clubs to leading musical stages across the city.

At 14, Paul was crowned one of Britain’s top professional entertainers, beating 2,000 contestants to the prestigious Ben Truman Award of 1981. Yet with a cruel stroke of fate, the safe bet of a bright future as a career musician was dashed off the table: “Soon after I won that award, I quit the music circuit because I developed stage fright. I stopped doing regular concerts and put my head down at school in the hope of studying law.”

In the summer before he was due to begin his first term at the University of Manchester, a flight of youthful whimsy led Paul to answer an ad in The Yorkshire Post for the unlikely role of horse racing commentator: “I only applied as a joke – imagine the Jewish parent, with a son set to be a lawyer turning out to be a racing commentator!”

Needless to say, the enviably talented teen got the job, his university offer left in the dust as his career took off at breakneck speed. Hurtling from radio to television commentary, Paul became one of the youngest racing commentators on satellite TV at just 22 years of age: “I’ve always loved sports. I was never going to be good enough to compete at anything, and you know what they say if you can’t do it, talk about it. Horse racing was big in my family, I used to go with my grandpa to Pontefract, and because of my musical background, broadcasting seemed like a good blend of entertainment and sport.”

Paul stayed within the racing fold, working for The Press Association, Sky and The Sporting Life, but it wasn’t long before the overnight sensation fell at an age-old hurdle: “I had just returned from a holiday visiting my sister, and people asked if I’d been to the Costa del Sol. I replied I had been to Israel. When word got out I was Jewish, my career suddenly hit a glass ceiling.”

A major contract to establish himself on the UK-wide commentary racing rota was up for grabs and Paul was the front runner: “I went to London to meet these very aristocratic jockey club chaps in a very posh hotel in Portland Square. Very soon I realised that something was wrong, and rather than asking about my experience, they were asking about Morris Silman school – and I thought: ‘what does that have to do with my ability to commentate?’ As they showed me to the door, one of them offered a piece of advice: ‘with your background and experience, I think you’d be more suited to a career in bookmaking.’

“It was a thinly veiled suggestion that my kind wasn’t wanted at that level. When people found out what happened, I essentially lost my opportunity to work in the business. There were a number of my colleagues who were prepared to make a stand, but I thought: ‘sod it, I’m off.’”

Exiled from a high-flying media career, Paul pulled on a backpack and wandered the globe. In the years that followed, little fell right for him, until in winter of 1996 he decided to make Aaliyah: “I moved to Israel for two and a half years, becoming head of the state’s first all-English language radio station based in Jerusalem. That’s when I started to get a real taste for news because, other than London and New York, there are fewer cities better to be a reporter.”

That wasn’t all Paul got the taste for, surrendering himself to all the charms the country had to offer. No sooner had he taken the hand of an Israeli in marriage, the economic skies of the promised land turned grey as hardship swept the nation: “When we left Israel, we decided not to move back to North Leeds, but Collingham, which is where we happily brought up our two girls. But I was missing the buzz of Israel. Even though it’s the most frustrating place, it’s also the most remarkable and it’s certainly never dull. When we were trying to decide whether or not to come back to Israel, my mother-in-law told me: “Israel is the best country and the worst country in the world, and often on the same day. And if you’re prepared to put up with that, then you should come back.”

Heeding his mother-in-law’s advice (a rare occurrence, Paul admits) the family made Aaliyah once more. Upon his arrival, the Israeli government requested his help in establishing horse racing for the first time in the state’s history: “At that time the state betting board was licenced to bet on football and basketball. but they were very hopeful they’d receive a licence on horse racing. I was appointed to the advisory board of the Ministry of Agriculture with regard to equine affairs. We televised local horse races while I helped organise the Israeli Jockey Club. People said it would never work – there’s no tradition of horse racing here.”

Yet the first race meet Paul held in the Gilboa mountains overlooking the Jezreel Valley, saw 12,000 people, government ministers included, block the roads in every direction: “It looked like it was going to be big, but there were issues with the Israeli mafia, much of whose money is derived from illegal sports betting. Because sports betting in Israel was run through the state, you didn’t get very good odds, and so people went to backstreet bookmakers, rather like the way they did in Britain up until the 1960s.”

And so the dream never came to pass. Having invested heavily in importing broodmares and breeding programmes to get the industry underway, Paul was beside himself with frustration and rued the missed opportunities to help bridge historical division: “There was one particular occasion, where we jumped through hoops to host a joint race day with the Palestinians who brought their horses from Hebron, East Jerusalem and Jericho. From Israel we had Bedouins, kibbutzniks, Jews religious and secular, and everybody got together on a most wonderful day. There was a Palestinian horse ridden by an Israeli Jewish jockey, and when he won, the joint celebrations were absolutely amazing. It gave a lot of hope to the vision of developing relations through common interests.”

In 2013, there was renewed hope for the sport, as the Israeli government legalised betting on overseas racing. Paul was appointed head of broadcasting for betting services, and under his watch, 500 betting shops were established for horse racing: “All the money went back into Israeli charities and athletic sponsorships. It was hugely successful until it was stopped out of the blue by a government minister in 2017 when the state’s national lottery income was being challenged and the gambling profits of the Israeli mafia were being eaten into.”

As he turned his attention once again to hard-hitting investigative journalism, Paul was keen to share his insight into the state with friends and relatives abroad, so began writing a blog which came to the attention of a media acquaintance in New York: “Out of the blue I was approached to be the Fox News website correspondent in the region. What was good about the broadcaster, as far as Israel is concerned, is that unlike the BBC, CNN and many others, they were prepared to give Israel a fair shout.”

For the next four years, Paul covered major Israeli events, not least the 2014 Gaza War, as one of the first correspondents to rightly question the Hamas casualty statistics: “It was an incredible platform, Fox was one of the five biggest news portals in the world and the reading figures for my articles were massive. That opened the doors for good sources in the intelligence and political world across the region, it was fascinating.”

Before long, Paul was featured in The Daily Mail, Forbes and The Jerusalem Report, not only with investigative political features but interviews with high-profile personalities from the world of art, music and sport. Researching an interview for The Jerusalem Report in 2017, he found himself deep in the archives of The Central Bureau of Statistics: “It has an astounding array of information about where Israel has been and the direction it’s going, and its predictions have proven uncannily accurate.”

One prediction that caught his attention was that by the State of Israel’s 100th anniversary, the voting majority of Jews will be ultra-orthodox: “Israel currently has 9.2 million citizens. By 2048, there will be over 15 million. This country’s population is going up 66% in the next 27 years. How would Britain survive with another 40 million people, especially if that rise is among those who predominantly do not work, pay taxes or recognise the legitimacy of the state.”

As of 2019, the employment rate among Charedi men stands at just 53%. Families refuse to subscribe their children to the military, while representatives demand huge sums of government money to subsidise Yeshivas and child support. Where the average Charedi family has 7.1 children compared to the Israeli average of 3.1, this already places a disproportionate tax burden on those outside the community, let alone when the ultra-orthodox form the national majority: “The logical consequence would be that the secular among us will ask ourselves why as a minority should we be subsidising the ultra-orthodox not to work or serve in the army, when our views are not being taken into account?”

Paul believes this shift in the democratic nature of Israel could seriously plunge the state’s freedom of expression into a threat: “The Charedi community has a certain view of the world which simply doesn’t tally with the views of secular people like myself. For instance, they’ve recently objected to the recognition of Conservative and Reform Jews as Israeli citizens. Most people are either unaware or unprepared to countenance the real possibility that Israel could become a Jewish religious state within the next two decades.”

Despite holding platforms with major global publications, Paul believed the medium of print lacked the ability to capture this reality. So he began to create fictional characters to grapple with these issues in the world of a political thriller, which charts the run-up to a referendum deciding whether the country we should separate into two states, a religious state based in Jerusalem, and a secular state with Tel Aviv as its capital: “Once the religious become involved in the legislature, those that don’t wish to live that way have two choices: either bow down to that way of life or leave. There is a third alternative, which is to fight for what you’ve built over the last 100 years.

“We’re the only major religion that hasn’t had a civil war in the last 500 years, why should we be any different to the Christians and Muslims – we’re just as flawed and have huge differences. Though it sounds like a terrifying possibility, many people may find the thought of the country running in accordance with religious rules quite appealing. But we’ve seen in countries like Iran, that it often doesn’t work out well.”

Ultra-orthodox political parties wield huge political influence, due to their population increasing in number and coalition politics making it virtually impossible for any government to be formed without them: “Benjamin Netanyahu promised the Charedim everything they want ahead of the election in return for supporting his call for immunity from prosecution. A number of people that he’s chosen to take into the government, including the far-right wing group Otzma Yehudit, who until two years ago were considered Jewish terrorists, have agreed to support him in the Knesset. For many, that is just beyond the pale. Politics and religion are a dangerous mix, and as long as people are prepared to allow them to combine, we’re on a very slippery slope.”

The way the pandemic has deepened divides over the last 12 months, Paul believes his chilling fiction could become reality sooner rather than later: “Coronavirus has rushed these possibilities to the fore because many Charedim have not been willing to accept the restrictions placed upon them. They listened to their rabbis, not the government. This has caused much higher rates of infection, bringing huge tensions as they clash with police in the streets in the face of having their places of worship and learning closed.

“Continuing to host illegal gatherings has offended many who have been doing their best to help the country recover from the pandemic. However, some ultra-orthodox rabbis have spoken out against the direction their community is going. So, there are dissenting voices, which I’ve reflected within the book. They’re not one homogenous group, there are lots of differing opinions and that’s part of the tension of the novel.”

Paul has witnessed Israel becoming increasingly fragmented since he made Aaliyah 13 years ago, and while some may call it a negative spin, he maintains he is not in the business of propaganda: “There are many Jewish advocacy groups who do wonderful work, but you have to wonder whether their rose-tinted visions of life here are realistic. I think you have to show the whole picture in order to make a proper judgement – and that’s what I’ve tried to achieve in my book, in what I hope is entertaining fashion.”

True to his word, the opening pages draw the reader in with a gristly murder, which at first appears unconnected to the political debate, but soon transpires to be pivotal to the vote. As the clock ticks down to referendum day, there’s a race to discover who is responsible in old-fashioned murder mystery style as the ballot goes right to the wire: “As far as which side I come down on, I want Israel to be a pluralistic democratic state where you can be the kind of Jew you want to be. Whether you are religious, secular, or of a different faith entirely – after all 20% of the population are Muslim – for me, there is a delight in welcoming so many people from minority communities across the globe.”

Kin or Country by Paul Alster is available now on Amazon.