Interview with Walter Bingham

Originally published in In Jerusalem 

Walter Bingham has one goal at present – “to hold up a mirror to Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.” His radio show, which airs weekly on Arutz Sheva, has been going strong for seven years. “I am never out of the top three in terms of listeners or website hits,” he asserts.Bingham is a strong-willed, well-spoken man with an English accent. He resides in the center of Jerusalem in a finely furnished apartment. In one room is the radio studio, where he conducts interviews and creates his show.

How did you get involved in radio here?

When I visited Israel, I visited Arutz Sheva, for instance. They knew about me and my work in England. There was an aliya show. They said to me, “Look, Walter, you said you are making aliya, so why don’t you do a 10-minute spot every week for the aliya show?” So for several months, I told listeners about what I did to prepare for my aliya – about the apartment, packing, shipping.

But at the time I was 80 years old, and they were intrigued.

Here is this 80-year-old man making aliya. They only half believed that I was coming. They were pleasantly surprised when I actually arrived. I continued the program for three weeks doing commentary about the process of aliya once I had arrived.

How did you find all the bureaucracy and the society?

For me it was quite simple. I remember being in and out of those offices in 30 minutes. I could only find good things about Israel. I only spoke minimal Hebrew, but people were very helpful. I’d heard that Israelis are abrasive, but that wasn’t my initial experience.

How did you get your own radio show?

After that, Arutz Sheva said, “Have your own show.” I made it a condition that the show should be called Walter’s World. I am reporting on my world and how I see it, and the name rolls off the tongue. I had been in broadcasting in England for many years. This was in 2004. So then I started doing my show once a week. The program was a kind of magazine program. I hold up a mirror to Israel and the rest of the Jewish world.

Unless they are straight interviews; if they are reports, I try to paint pictures in sound. Last year, before Rosh Hashana, I went to a place where they make honey and I recorded the sounds of making honey – the machinery, the workers. That was fitting.

Up to now I’ve done more than 300 programs. I did the opening of Ben-Gurion Airport. I went into the tower to do that. I went to the place where they train guide dogs for the blind. I spoke to the man in charge of the MDA blood bank. I spent time in an MDA ambulance. I went to the Hula Valley to be with the migrating birds. I did a program in the cockpit of an El Al plane.

How did you get permission to do things like go into an El Al cockpit?

It took me five years to get into an El Al plane. I called them and sent them e-mails. I told them who I am and what I do, and I had the credentials.

You seem to try to strike a balance and not do the obvious thing on your show all the time, which is to talk about politics.

In the program I talk about politics, but not in every program. I’m interested in this Libyan conflict and how it affects the Middle East. I interviewed the Arab MK Ibrahim Sarsour and the late Anglican bishop of Jerusalem, Riah Abu Asal.

Where do you go from here?

I am not retiring. I interviewed a man last year who was 106. He came on a 10-day holiday from the US. I went down to Tel Aviv and interviewed him. I was 87 in January. When people ask why I’m so alert and fit, the first thing I tell them is that I don’t eat garlic. I prefer cinnamon. In the end, I think it comes down to genes.

What about the first half of your life?

I was born in Germany, Karlsruhe, in January 1924. I was on a Kindertransport. I left for England in July 1939. I was 15 and a half when I left. This is one of the subjects I like to talk about to young audiences. Everyone knows about the Shoah, but few people talk about what happened before. I saw Kristallnacht. I saw the book-burning. I came with a Polish passport with my original name, Wolfgang Billig. The interesting thing is that they had two types of aliens – friendly aliens and enemy aliens.

Those with stateless passports and Germans and Italians became enemy aliens. I was a Pole. My parents had come from Poland. There was a great chasm between Ostjuden and German Jews. I never even ventured into the German Jewish areas. We were the poorer element.

Most of our parents came from Poland after the pogroms. We were aware of who we were and, of course, we were religious. We were aware of our heritage. The German Jews were more German than Jew. It was much harder for them than for us when the crunch came.

I understand that you were also at Normandy in the Second World War.

I came just after the invasion. I served in World War II driving an ambulance. I was highly decorated by the king. I am entitled to have two letters after my name, MM – military medal. The commendation notes that “During the period 10-13 July 1944 Driver Bingham was driving an ambulance car in the forward areas frequently under mortar fire… his ambulance car was hit… Bingham crawled away while mortar bombs were falling and procured another car… with which he succeeded in evacuating the wounded.”

Bingham still has the original maps of France that he used while driving his ambulance. His heroism was mentioned in a snippet in The Jewish Chronicle in 1944. During the postwar period, he was employed by the army doing counter-intelligence work in Germany.

“I had these letters that allowed me to do anything and go anywhere.

I could wear civilian clothes to carry out my work.” The commendation he received includes a letter from the king that says, “I greatly regret that I am unable personally to give you the award.”

So what did you think of the film The King’s Speech?

I didn’t see it; I heard him in real life.

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