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Last update - 04:49 25/10/2004

Julie impressed

By Charlotte Halle

As all her readers know, Julie Burchill despises hypocritical celebrities, bleeding heart liberals and one of her ex-husbands.

But if there's one thing the controversial British columnist loves, it's Israel. "I always thought I wanted to be Jewish," says Burchill, fluttering her eyelashes in the lobby of the

Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv yesterday. "But that would be too difficult - you have to be too nice and sensitive. What I really want to be is Israeli. I think I've got the temperament for it: scrappy, defiant and I don't care if people hate me."

Burchill, one of Britain's highest profile - and highest paid columnists - is coming to the end of her first trip to Israel. Currently employed by The Times, and here for a week as a guest of the Tourism Ministry, Burchill's passion for the place cannot be exaggerated. "I don't want to sound like I've had an epiphany or a spiritual awakening because if someone said that bullshit to me, I'd tell them where to stuff it, but it's just a feeling since I've been here of complete happiness. I know that [Israelis] are not saints, but I've just been feeling happy in a way that I've not done anywhere else." She pauses for the first time: "Is there any way you can write that without making it sound completely creepy?"

Burchill's fervent flag-waving for Jews and Israel is not new. Having long complained of anti-Israel bias in the media, the British Jewish community nearly jumped for joy a year ago when Burchill turned her famously acidic pen to the matter in one of her final weekly columns for The Guardian. "If there is one issue that has made me feel less loyal to my newspaper over the past year, it has been what I, as a non-Jew, perceive to be a quite striking bias against the State of Israel. Which, for all its faults, is the only country in that barren region that you or I, or any feminist, atheist, homosexual or trade unionist, could bear to live under," she wrote.

Burchill, who also used the piece to question the divide between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, said the newspaper's highly critical stance on Israel was a key reason behind her move. Plus The Times offered her double the money. "One moral reason, one mercenary," she giggles. "When you've got one of each you're usually onto a winner." The column, which bounced between Jewish e-mail lists at lightning speed, continued: "If you take into account the theory that Jews are responsible for everything nasty in the history of the world, and also the recent EU survey that found 60 percent of Europeans believe Israel is the biggest threat to peace in the world today (hmm, I must have missed all those rabbis telling their flocks to go out with bombs strapped to their bodies and blow up the nearest mosque), it's a short jump to reckoning that it was obviously a bloody good thing that the Nazis got rid of six million of the buggers."

`My kind of people'

Burchill admits to be quite overwhelmed by the response to the piece, which was followed by a column about anti-Semitism a week later under the headline "The hate that shames us." "I'm used to getting massive letters of complaint but not letters of niceness," says Burchill, whose voice is far squeakier than her polemic prose might suggest. "Usually I get 50 letters tops about any given thing. But then, I got 2,000 e-mails from Jews around the world. If I hadn't thought they were my kind of people before that, I certainly did then."

One of the letters was an admirer whose girlfriend worked for the Israeli Tourism Ministry. He put the two women in touch - and despite a last-minute panic about holidaying in a war zone - Burchill accepted the ministry's invitation to visit. "Now I've come here I feel so stupid [about hesitating]," she says. "I've never felt so safe and happy in a place my whole life. My only problem now is that I want to come and live out here, but my husband won't do it."

Disarmingly, Burchill actually seems to be entertaining the idea. "Is it easy to make friends here? How long would it take me to learn Hebrew?" she wants to know. She even has her eye on a particular property: one of the exclusive "Yoo" apartments being designed by Philippe Starck in Tel Aviv. Money will not be an issue, she proclaims: She is about to sell her home in Brighton to a developer for 2 million British pounds ($3.6 million dollars). "My accountant says if I don't put the money into property soon, I'll spend it all on drugs. But I don't think I'd take drugs if I lived here. I'd be too excited."

Outrageous fancy

Burchill's affinity with Jews and Israel is not simply a reflection of her fondness for irritating Britain's liberal middle classes, she insists. She traces her "philosemitism" to her working class upbringing in Bristol and fondly recalls being eight or nine around the time of the Six-Day War "when Israelis were very popular indeed." She remembers walking into the kitchen and announcing to her mother she was going to marry a Jew. "My mother turned around, flicked her tea towel at me with complete exasperation and said: `Where biss thee [are you] gonna find a bleedin' Jew round `ere?'" chortles Burchill, switching from her mild West Country accent into a thick drawl.

But the incident, she says soberly, illuminates how her innate desire "to cling to this people" was viewed by most of those around her as the "height of outrageous fancy." "It was as though I'd said, `Mother in two hours, a spaceship from Planet X is coming to pick me up and I'll be going away with the fairies," she says, adding an aside that her second marriage - to a Jew - was not the happy ending she had hoped for. "The gap between the gentiles and Jews in all but a few very middle class parts of England is so vast that the people I grew up with would not knowingly meet a Jewish person in their lifetime. I think it goes a long way to explaining why the minute there's an excuse to not understand Israel everyone jumps on it. It feels familiar and it feels like home."

Burchill, now 45, uses the story to try and explain the ecstasy she is experiencing in Israel. Wearing a brand new and not-very-discreet diamante studded star of David round her neck - "I bought three in case I lost one" - she recounts her travels this week to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Eilat and, best of all, Tel Aviv. The scene was set for her by Linda Grant's novel, "When I Lived in Modern Times," - whose heroine is a young British woman making her way in the White City in 1946 - which Burchill read on the plane on the way out.

Having spent 24 hours touring the city and walking its streets, she is feeling more than a little emotional: "I thought it would be a disappointment, but it is 100 times better than I thought it would be.

When I saw the picture [of the founders of Tel Aviv] on the beach in the Hall of Independence, I wept profoundly. Afterwards, I was in a such a state that every Bauhaus building made me cry too."

Burchill is traveling here with a friend - who is also her house cleaner and the only non-Jew she knows who is "more philosemitic" than she is. "I lost a lot of my friends because of the intifada - of course they were all on the side of the Palestinians," she says matter-of-factly. Burchill adds she is quite happy for her writings to be adopted by Jewish groups, including right-wing extremists. "They are very welcome to take my work because I happen to agree with them," she says. "They are only responding to what's been thrust upon by them by centuries of persecution and misunderstanding which goes on to this day. Now is not the time to be [left-wing in Israel], you should watch your backs. No one will thank you for being nice."

After a moment's reflection - and considering that an Israeli right-wing extremist has killed a prime minister here - Burchill retreats. "I'm too ignorant on Israeli politics to really comment on this," she says. But she plans to get more educated in time for her next trip - which she hopes will be in January, together with her husband - perhaps to be followed by a speaking tour in conjunction with the British Council. "You won't believe it but I've never spoken publicly before and you can imagine how many requests I get," she says. "I feel like I could do anything here." In the meantime, her [third] husband Daniel Raven - whom Burchill famously met while dating his sister - will have to make do with some gifts: A bottle of "Lion of Judah" aftershave and an Israel Defense Forces cap.

But her penchant for shocking is clearly still intact when Burchill admits she considered buying him a whole army uniform, but decided against it: "I thought it was wicked because so many Israeli boys have been killed so I thought it wasn't appropriate to use it as a sex aid."