Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Eleven Days in Israel: Reflections and Observations

Old City Jerusalem
For the first 20 years of my life, Israel was but a biblical reference, a land of ancient history, of equal importance to Christians and Jews for events recorded long-ago by scribes and scholars in the books that now constitute the Holy Bible – the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. I knew little of Israel’s modern history or the circumstances of its founding in 1948. I was only eight years old during the Six-Day War in 1967 and only slightly more attentive to the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It would be another decade before I contemplated the historic causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not until the 1980’s did these events become significant to me, when I developed an interest in this fascinating land of stark contrasts, of beaches and deserts, crowded cities and wide-open spaces, the secular and the religious, peace and conflict.

A small country the size of New Jersey that sits along the coast of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, Israel is a land of antiquity and modernity, beauty and creativity, pulsating energy and nervous tension. There is a rich vibrancy to life here, where every square inch is seemingly embroiled in history, politics, religion and philosophy. Is it any wonder the world is disproportionately attentive to Israel?

Andrea and I arrived at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on a Friday in late March. For the next eleven days, our lives were transformed. We felt a little like the fictional Yael in A Damaged Mirror: “The wonder of it touched everything around her, casting a golden glow over even the most mundane events. Nothing seemed impossible, and nothing seemed entirely real.”

We rented a car and drove to Haifa, catching our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea, a vast ocean of brilliant blue stretched to the horizon. That evening, we drove across town to the University of Haifa, where daughter Hannah resides this semester. The university’s campus sits along a ridge high atop Carmel Mountain, with panoramic views of the urban landscape and its surroundings. A diverse city with a healthy mix of Jews, Arabs, and Druze, Haifa felt to us a little like San Francisco, with its steep hills and winding roads bordering a vast ocean. It was a quiet, peaceful place that took advantage of its natural beauty.

View of Haifa from the Baha'i Gardens
For the next eleven days, we traveled through northern Israel and spent time in Israel’s three major cities – Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem – each with distinct characters and histories. We explored the rugged beauty of the northern coast, the rock formations at Rosh ha-Nikra near the Lebanese border, and the ancient Crusader cities and fortresses of Akko and Caesarea. We visited major Christian sites near the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee and took a jeep tour of the Golan Heights, where we rode along the River Jordan, stopped for lunch at an Israeli winery, and gazed at the mountains of Syria and Lebanon in the distance. And we walked around the mystical city of Tzfat, with its narrow alleyways, steep inclines, artist colonies, and historic architecture.

Tzfat (Sefad)
Tradition, culture, and history are everywhere in Israel, with three major world religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – deeply imbedded into the Israeli landscape. While wandering the streets of Tzfat, and in portions of Haifa and Jerusalem, we saw Hasidic men and boys dressed in black as Orthodox women pushed baby carriages, often followed minutes later by women dressed in hijab, or traditional Muslim garb. In Jerusalem, we stood and prayed at the Western Wall, where I inserted a written prayer for peace into a crevice of the Wall, between rocks dating back more than 2,000 years. I wandered into the sheltered portion beneath the Temple Mount and observed a group of deeply religious, ultra-Orthodox men davening as they rocked their bodies back and forth with copies of Torah in hand, a touching display of spiritual conviction.

On Good Friday, we entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and observed emotional scenes of Christian pilgrims paying their respects to the crucified Christ. I watched silently as a group of women succumbed to their knees and bowed in prayer, their faces touching the Stone of the Anointing, where tradition holds Jesus was prepared for burial. This particular Friday was also the first day of Pesach (Passover), a national holiday in Israel celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery. As we walked outside, we were met with the Muslim call to prayer at a nearby mosque. Oh, the sights and sounds of Jerusalem, so vibrant and full of life; it is here one feels at the center of the world and of history.

Stone of the Anointing in Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Israel is a land of many paradoxes; an ancient land in a modern country, a land of friendly people, of peace and tranquility, in a region filled with conflict; a vibrant, multi-ethnic democracy in a Jewish state. Although everyday life here is not much different from life in the United States or Europe, reminders of Israel’s uniqueness abound in the occasional military checkpoints, which we passed after driving through portions of the West Bank on our way to Jerusalem from the Golan Heights and, three days later, Masada and the Dead Sea. Security is visible but not overbearing, and I was struck by how young were the IDF soldiers we observed gathered at bus stops or patrolling the streets of the Old City with Uzis and M16’s slung over their shoulders.

International travel helps broaden one’s perspective, for it helps you see the world through different lenses. While traveling through Italy two years ago, and again in Israel last month, it becomes apparent that the United States is just another country; a respected country, and an important one, but not the center of the universe that most Americans imagine. In talking with our tour guides – Oded in the Golan Heights and Gil for two days in Jerusalem – we were surprised at the lack of indebtedness and trust Israelis (or at least these two particular Israelis) express for the United States. The Iranian nuclear negotiations were particularly on the minds of Israelis when we were there, and we heard much talk from Oded and Gil of how the United States and Europe do not sufficiently appreciate the risks posed by a nuclear Iran, which they viewed as a far greater threat to Israel than ISIS and other strands of Islamic extremism.

“ISIS does not have the tools to threaten us,” explained Gil, a former sniper for the IDF who is now among the most sought after tour guides in Israel, having led tours in the past for the King of Jordan, Mikhail Gorbachev, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush. Gil and Oded expressed little concern over ISIS and the complex alignment of conflicting interests in the Middle East. To them, Iran was the only force with which Israel was concerned, because Iran is the only country at present that poses a legitimate threat. When I pointed out that the United States had a multitude of interests, long-term and short-term, military and diplomatic, that were far broader than those of Israel, they acknowledged my point and appreciated my challenge to their more narrowly-focused lenses. But their perspectives were understandably shaped by a sense of immediate history and existential fear that does not easily dissipate, and assurances of U.S. support do not satisfy them, whether such assurances come from an American visitor or a U.S. Secretary of State.

Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery - Jerusalem
I must confess I was less prepared for Gil’s and Oded’s skepticism of American resolve and whether the United States could be relied upon to watch Israel’s back. Having never remembered a time when the United States was not strongly allied with Israel – at least in domestic U.S. politics, to be perceived as anything less than a die-hard supporter of Israel is a good way to lose an election – it was interesting to hear these two Israelis, one a secular Jew from the Golan Heights, the other an observant Jew from Jerusalem, express lingering resentment over official U.S. neutrality in the region during Israel’s early years, and the State Department’s policy tilt in favor of the surrounding Arab countries and American oil interests. They reminded us that the French were more reliable allies than America until after the Six Day War in 1967, and that American military and financial support only developed when Israel was finally perceived as a useful ally in the Cold War in the early 1970’s. It explains in part Israel’s fierce independence on matters of security.

Tel Aviv coastline as viewed from Jaffa
On the Palestinian conflict, the Israeli elections (Benjamin Netanyahu had just won re-election a few days before our arrival), and the Orthodox-secular divide in Israeli society, it was apparent that neither Gil nor Oded nor Israelis generally are of one mind on these topics. In reading the English editions of Haaretz while in Tel Aviv, I was impressed by the vibrancy of the country’s political discourse, and at how sharp-edged were the published opinion pieces in criticizing the current Israeli government over its willingness to alienate the U.S. administration, its refusal to pursue a two-state solution and to meaningfully modify the policy of expanded settlements in the West Bank. Oded had described Israel as divided between “secular Ashkenazi elites from Tel Aviv” on the one hand, and a combination of Sephardic, religious, and Russian Jews on the other. When I told the owner of a Jerusalem restaurant at dinner one evening that we were eventually heading to Tel Aviv, he joked, “Yes, when I wish to leave the country, I head to Tel Aviv.”

“We must think differently, look at things in a different way,” said Yitzhak Rabin. “Peace requires a world of new concepts, new definitions.” In north Tel Aviv, we visited the Israeli Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center, which had an impressive multi-media exhibit documenting modern Israeli history and highlighting the life and death of the late Israeli Prime Minister. I was inspired and saddened by this exhibit, for rarely in history does one find a leader with the vision and intelligence of Yitzhak Rabin. A military hero, the first Israeli Prime Minister to have been born in Israel, a man of toughness and tenderness, Rabin understood that, for Israel to thrive as a Jewish state and a democracy, it must find a peaceful solution – a two-state solution – to the conflict. He understood as well, that to achieve peace requires a willingness to negotiate with your enemies, not your friends; and that a “diplomatic peace is not yet the real peace,” but “an essential step in the peace process leading towards a real peace.”

Rabin knew that for Israel to remain a Jewish state, the homeland of the Jewish people, a place of refuge for the Jewish diaspora, it was essential that it not annex over 4 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. To do so would risk making Israel a bi-national state deprived of its Jewish character – essentially the end of Zionism – or it would violate Israel’s democratic traditions and require the permanent oppression of an entire people based on ethnicity and nationality. Rabin rightly refused to accept either option. I am afraid that, ever since his assassination in 1995 at the hands of an ultra-Orthodox extremist, Israel has not had a leader of Rabin’s stature, respect, and backbone. I do not know how or when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will end, but as long as Hamas controls Gaza and Netanyahu remains Prime Minister of Israel, a peaceful solution appears impossible.

Arab East Jerusalem as viewed from Old City
On matters of security, Israelis are of one mind, for the security issues in Israel are substantial. When one sees first-hand how little physical distance exists between the western borders of the West Bank and the cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa, a narrow strip of land that contains a great portion of Israel’s population, infrastructure, and technological capability, it is easy to understand why preventing the Palestinians from obtaining any offensive military capability in the West Bank is an issue for which there is no compromise. But there are many other issues for which compromise is possible, and the continued expansion of West Bank settlements by the current Israeli government is a roadblock to any attempt at peace.

It is a shame that the Palestinians have not had a leader of high-stature who could build a non-violent movement for Palestinian statehood; for it is clear that most Israelis want peace and that the region is fatigued from the endless conflict. Polls consistently show that a majority of Israelis support a two-state solution, as do a majority of Palestinians according to a Hebrew University study in 2013, and many Israelis perceive and are discomfited by the injustices and inequalities of the Israeli occupation. But when your life and the lives of your family are at stake, it is understandable that theories of justice and idealistic visions of peace take a back seat to immediate security.

The closer one looks at and studies the region and its history, the less black-and-white the issues become. Driving through the West Bank on our way from the Golan Heights, we observed Palestinian slums unlike any I have seen – rundown shacks with no electricity or running water, one after another forming small enclaves of despair. Although the Israelis must accept responsibility for the gross inequalities and injustices as long as they are the “occupying” power, the Palestinian Authority is also to blame (Hamas in Gaza is another matter still) for its long-standing corruption and failures to accept past negotiated solutions.

Politics and history were naturally on my mind in Israel, but there is so much more about this place that it is easy to forget at times that any conflict exists or has ever existed. Israelis go about their daily business much like the rest of us, more concerned with the economy and the stock market, their children’s schooling, and issues of work-life balance.

Old Jaffa
Saturday in Tel Aviv allowed us to rest and relax on the beach and soak in the sun and fresh ocean air. We walked around Old Jaffa that evening, watched an outdoor display of Israeli-couples dancing to various waltzes, stepped inside St. Peter’s Church, which was built in 1654 and was once visited by Napoleon, and ate at one of the many seafood restaurants along the center city coastline. The next day, following our tour of the Rabin Center, we ate lunch at a Tel Aviv mall and then walked around Carmel Market, experiencing a slice of everyday Israeli life.

And we loved the food. Israeli breakfasts in particular are quite impressive, with salads, fruits and nuts, several types of eggs and fish, and breads (except during Pesach). The food in Israel is fresh and locally produced, with plenty of vegetables, fish from the Mediterranean, and standard Middle Eastern fare everywhere you go. And the service was almost always friendly and helpful.

Although I was warned that Israeli drivers are “crazy” and aggressive, I found driving in Israel far less stressful than my many travels along the I-95 corridor in the United States (or God forbid, the Schuylkill Expressway in Philadelphia). Roads are well maintained – again, unlike in the United States, where potholes and poor construction frequently abound. I sensed that Israel prioritizes the quality of its public infrastructure and accommodations, something we Americans could learn from. The public restrooms in Israel were impressively clean and equipped everywhere we went, even in Old City Jerusalem on a crowded Friday. Compared to New York’s Penn Station, or most public restrooms in densely-populated American cities, Israel had its act together.

The River Jordan in the Golan Heights
Eleven days was not enough time to have seen and done everything we desired, but it was enough to discover that Israel is an intoxicating country. To have touched the Sea of Galilee, stood next to the River Jordan, prayed at the Western Wall, and inhaled the salty air by the Dead Sea, are experiences I will remember for a lifetime. To have walked the narrow alleyways of Tzfat and the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; to have driven and walked through and around this fascinating country, in which every inch of ground is full of history and tradition, was exhilarating. Yes, I will return to this land and its people. I will continue to contemplate its future, study its past, and hope for peace. I will watch with interest as Israel continues to balance the competing demands of its Zionist ideals, democratic traditions, and growing influence of the Orthodox establishment over Israeli religious life. Will Israel make room for a more modern, liberal expression of Judaism in this country of history and tradition? Can it find a way to accommodate the desire for peace with the need for security? Can it remain true to its Jewish and democratic values as it searches for a solution to its regional conflicts?

Israel will forever be a land worth protecting and preserving. And it will remain a living symbol of the hope for peace among nations, and tranquility between the world’s religions, peoples, and cultures. Shalom, my friends. Shalom.

Near the Western Wall, Old City Jerusalem

No comments:

Post a Comment