There used to be an odd sign at a particularly straight stretch of the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It said “experiments in paint ahead” and after the sign there were indeed two sets of long bright white stripes painted on the road, like a giant’s zebra-crossing. I remember being mystified by the “experiments” and why they seemed to be going for so long on the busiest road in the country. Until one day on a journey to Tel Aviv, a young kid in the car said to me, “Don’t you know this is where they can land fighter-planes on the road at a time of war?”
The stripes are no longer there, though I now know that the kid was right. He had pulled rank on me, a newcomer at the time, because in Israel it’s not what or even who you know, it’s the secrets you know; the stuff you know that others don’t and your proximity to others who know even more.
Israel’s real state religion isn’t Judaism, it’s being in the know. And every Israeli is initiated in to the faith at a young age through parents, uncles or elder siblings who have served, through conscription, in places that they can only hint at. Of course most Israelis who serve in the army are not actually involved in intelligence work or special operations and have no need for security clearance, but you always know something. The country is simply too small and crowded and filled with bases and secret units and weapons for you not to know. And the longer you live and work in Israel and the more Israelis you know, you yourself become part of the secret kingdom. Israelis collect and squirrel away these little bits of information and only give them away to those who are also part of the charmed circle.
In a country of immigrants, it’s also a sign of how long you, or your family, have been around. Just how many relatives of yours have “been there” and “seen things”. It’s not actually necessary to know what those “things” are or where “there” exactly is, it could just be a patch of haze on the horizon. It’s enough that a cousin once served “there” to give you the right to a knowing smile. Like the wife of a friend who one night at a dinner party, when we were sampling some wine from an obscure winery, had to tell me that 30 years ago, she had been to that base, you know the one, the base with the missiles, near the vineyard. A unique Israeli terroir. Or the factory manager who once donated 30 lightweight aluminium plates to his son’s commando unit and tells every visitor proudly, “I can’t tell you what they needed them for, they’re still in use”.
Like freemasons’ handshakes it’s enough to say just a number, an acronym or an abbreviation, or to use some innocuous lingo or someone’s first name, to let each other know you’re in the know. Sometimes just using the right intonation is sufficient. Then you get a look of familiarity and are treated with deference. It isn’t just a matter of prestige: sometimes dropping the right number of a non-existent or “transparent” unit can clinch a job interview or a business deal. A journalist will receive much more information if, when meeting a military or government official, he can make it seem that he knows enough of those numbers. Because if you know what that number means, then enough said. The names and numbers convey things that cannot be said between friends, fathers and sons, lovers – “I can’t tell you what I’m working on, but you’ll understand.”
Jews are not a particularly secretive group. The articles of their faith and history are open for all to read and research. There are no forbidden texts tucked away in a cave in the Judean desert. The addiction to secrets is a modern-Israeli thing, perhaps a result of the fact that after 2,000 years of exile, the Jews finally have their own secret services and underground hidden weapons, and that the country is surrounded by nations dedicated to its destruction. Even for those who have no professional need to know of these matters, there’s a sense of security in knowing some secret, and pride in telling the neighbours that your son is doing things in his national service “that he can’t even tell me about”. Everyone wants those secrets to remain secrets but everyone wants to be seen to be knowing something about them. Your net worth as an Israeli is measured by your secrets, but of course, secrets are the most volatile currency on the market, so keep them secret. But then what’s the point of having secrets if people don’t know you do?
One evening in early summer, the top prize for secrets is awarded. Hundreds of serious-faced men and women, some in uniform, but many from organisations and institutions which don’t have uniform, mill around the gardens of the president’s residence in Jerusalem, eating cold canapés and drinking cheap wine. In small groups they are presented to the president who awards them the Israel Defence Prize with a framed certificate and a tiny pin. No one says what the award is for, or when or where or how the nation’s defence was enhanced. The president certainly doesn’t know, but he pretends he does. There are reporters and photographers at the prize-giving, but only trusted ones. The next morning the papers have pictures of the prize-winners, without names and their faces obscured by pixels. But it doesn’t matter having your face pixellated, as long as your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues know it’s you.