Monday, August 12, 2002
Having returned yesterday from my visit to Israel, and having partly gotten over jetlag, I'm going to take a first stab at my impressions of the country.
First of all, I should mention that I spent most of the time with a UJA solidarity mission. That meant travelling on a chartered bus, with mostly older folks, with a security guy on the bus and another security guy scouting ahead of us. That extra security, plus the opportunity to hear from various officials and various organizations involved in responding to terror in various ways was the primary reason why I chose to travel this way. I've been to Israel five times before, and I've been with the UJA once before, and normally I'd rather travel around the country on my own and see things a little more off the beaten track. But given the situation, I felt safer travelling this way, and given the situation, I felt it was actually more valuable to show the flag in a visible group than to travel on my own and be less visible.
Our home base was in Jerusalem. From there, we took some day trips to other areas, but mostly we stayed in Jerusalem. The city is, unfortunately, empty. Tourism to the country has collapsed, and even Israelis are reluctant to go to Jerusalem. (It's funny: everyone has their own rules about where is safe to go. People outside of Israel are avoiding Israel. People in Tel Aviv and Haifa avoid going to Jerusalem. People in Jerusalem avoid going to Gilo, a southern neighborhood that has come under fire from nearby Bethlehem suburbs. And people in Gilo avoid the southernmost streets of their neighborhood. Meanwhile, bombs can still go off - and have - in Haifa and planes fly into buildings in New York. But we all have our rules for staying safe.) One night, we went out to Ben Yehuda street, which used to be a major commercial thoroughfare. The city has been organizing street fairs on Wednesday and Thursday nights, to try to get people out, and to provide security barricades are set up at every entrance to the street, manned with soldiers on both sides of the barricades. Inside, the scene was somewhat lackluster. Most of the shops were closed, many apparently permanently or semi-permanently. It was good to see people out and about, and interesting to hear "Sweet Home Alabama" rendered in Hebrew by a lousy local rock band, but there was something forced about it all, people trying to seem like they could still have fun but not really having their hearts in it.
The economic situation is more dire than I realized. Unemployment is reaching alarming levels, and you can sense the tension people feel as their budgets get stretched further and further. The situation imposes a whole host of taxes on the people, in terms of new government expenditures and in terms of business and individual expenditures. If you're afraid to take the bus, and take a taxi, that costs money - or you travel less, and that ultimately means missed opportunities for business. If you run a restaurant, or a movie theater, or a mall, you'll probably want to hire armed security. That costs money - money you have less of since tourism is down. If you run a retail outfit that caters to tourists, you probably need to get on the web and advertise abroad to get customers who won't be coming to your store. That costs money. I was surprised at the number of people I met who are commuting to the United States for work - including a friend of mine who just made aliyah (immigrated to Israel). We visited Shaare Tzedek hospital, the second biggest hospital in Jerusalem, and one of our group asked the hospital spokesperson if there was any shortage of doctors. She replied that they could use more hands, but that there were many unemployed or underemployed doctors in Israel; the problem wasn't people, but lack of money.
Our visit to Shaare Tzedek was eye-opening in a number of ways. We sat through a fairly harrowing presentation on the hospital's trauma center and how busy it has been, and heard a number of terrible stories from the attacks. We heard about a hospital orderly who, in the course of removing incoming patients from ambulances, pulled his daughter off of one of the ambulances returning from the Hebrew University bombing. We heard about a bombing in Jerusalem that took place several months ago that the presenting hospital spokesperson was present at. Before becoming a spokesperson, she had been a nurse, and she was also a police officer. When she heard the bomb went off, she hesitated, unsure whether to run towards the attack and do her job as a police officer or run to the hospital to do her job as a nurse. After a few seconds, she ran towards the hospital. A second bomb went off seconds later, timed to kill as many rescue workers as possible. But what was most affecting was not these stories, or the pictures of the maimed and wounded - though it is useful to be reminded of how many thousands have been grievously wounded in these attacks - but to see how the hospital was built from the beginning to handle urban warfare and mass-terror attacks. The hospital has a whole parkinglot outfitted with hoses to wash down victims of a chemical weapons attack. The hospital has three underground floors, so they can move the entire patient population of the hospital (in normal times - they are over-full just now) underground in case the city is being bombed. These are the kinds of precautions that Israel considers in normal times, because the hospital building was constructed years ago, before the start of the Oslo war. I knew all of this, but it's bracing to see it.
One of our day trips took us to Kfar Saba, a mid-sized city (about 80,000 people) north and east of Tel Aviv in the Sharon region, the narrowest area of pre-1967 Israel. Kfar Saba directly borders Qalqilyeh, an Arab town under Palestinian Authority administration of about 45,000 people. There have been two bombings in Kfar Saba since the Oslo War began. We met with the mayor of the city, a middle-aged gentleman who appears to have been in office forever, a classic Labor Party type. He told us that he personally had had excellent relations with the mayor of Qalqilyeh before 2000, and that the two towns had cooperated on a number of matters, sometimes publicly and sometimes quietly. But now it's all over. The media once came to visit him and ask him about this, and he told them that after a bombing several months ago he had waited for a condolence call from the Arab mayor, but one never came. When the reporters then travelled to Qalqilyeh to ask the mayor of that town about it, he said first that he'd been out of the country at the time and didn't get a chance to call, and then that he'd heard from his sources that the Mossad was responsible for the bombings. It's unlikely that this fellow believed any such thing, but how can one cooperate in any way with a man who, even from fear if not from conviction, could say such a thing? What is to be gained? We toured the area around the Green Line (the pre-1967 border between Israel and Jordan) near Qalqilyeh where a fence is being built to wall that town off from Kfar Saba. No one's expecting it to prevent all attacks, but the hope is that it will at least do some good. From the checkpoint on the Green Line, you can see other Arab and Jewish towns that abut one another, as Kfar Saba abuts Qalqilyeh, and the walls going up between them.
The enthusiasm for unilateralism, for separation, is obviously growing on the right and the left. We heard a presentation from a professor at Hebrew U. who self-identifies as a man of the "center-left" about the position of the left in Israeli politics. (He was added to the itinerary, actually, because a couple of members of our group felt that the previous speakers had been too uniformly right-wing.) And he began his presentation by saying: what left is left? Even Labor-ites like himself, he said, were increasingly uncomfortable identifying as in any way part of the same ideological group that includes Gush Shalom or even Meretz and Peace Now. In his own view, the only solution is unilateral separation. Israel should annex the defensible areas where the bulk of the settlers live, abandon the more difficult to defend settlements and evacuate their people, and build a big, high wall between Israel and everything else, and let the Palestinians fend for themselves on their side of the wall. In another generation, if they want to talk peace, we'll talk. And this is a man from the left talking. Meanwhile, on the right end of the spectrum, we met with a number of residents of Efrat, a settlement in Gush Etzion, which is just 10 minutes south of Jerusalem near Bethlehem, a settlement that has always been part of the "consensus" and that was slated to be annexed to Israel in all of the peace plans proposed at Camp David and Taba. Efrat had always been known as relatively moderate; they had excellent relations with their Arab neighbors, were involved in a number of development projects with them, and so forth. One can be skeptical of this kind of outreach, criticize it for being "colonial" in tenor, but I would argue that both the desire for good relations and the investment of time and personal energy in fostering them was genuine on the part of the Efratans. That's all gone now. The people we met with were as right-wing as they come; several openly supported the idea of "transfer" - forcible expulsion of the Arabs of the territories - and all felt that the army had been far too timid in its responses to terror. These people all knew people in their communities who had been gunned down; they made a regular practice of walking down to the main road to show their faces at funeral processions. When they sat down to lunch with us, they were all smiles, talking about how strong their community was, how happy they were to live their, how great their kids are, and so forth - they reminded me of the LDS-ers in Temple Square in Salt Lake, the kind of folks you have to out-friendly to hold your own. But it didn't take long for the fury to come through.
In general, I think people outside underestimate how angry Israelis are. They have a great deal of respect and appreciation for the United States, the only country that has stood by them at all. Towards Europe, there's nothing but contempt. I had a wonderful conversation with a young British volunteer at Magen David Adom, who was there on her summer break from college doing EMT work, and she was biting enough towards the British press, to say nothing of the Continent. But even towards America there is a kind of jealousy, a feeling that we can get away with things that they can't, that we can defend ourselves while they can't, that they are being asked to hold the line while America debates whether it can stomach putting its own soldiers in danger to defend itself. I wasn't there, obviously, but I expect the mood in Israel can be compared in some ways to that of Britain under the blitz. In 1940, it was manifestly unclear that Britain could possibly win the war she was engaged in, whatever Churchill might have said about "give us the tools and we'll finish the job." The citizenry was nonetheless committed and determined - to holding the line until the Americans got their act together and joined the fight in earnest. That's the feeling in Israel, too. Not that they are waiting for the Americans to win their war for them; they can handle the situation on their own. But they know they are fighting a war of attrition. I heard several times from people - especially family - that I must be crazy to come there and they must be crazy to live there. But they aren't planning to leave. The mood of one of the people who presented to us, Minister Dan Meridor, formerly of Likud and for the moment of the Center Party, and that of an IDF spokesperson who also presented to us, seemed most consonant with the mood of the country. Neither was optimistic. Neither felt that there was a purely military solution. Both understood that Israel was in a war of attrition, and that wars of attrition can go on for some time. But while they had nothing to offer but blood, sweat and tears, they and their countrymen seemed eminently ready to spend it.
When the situation is over, as eventually it will be, even if it is only for a multi-year pause in the fighting and not for peace, I think that anger will be more openly expressed. I think Israelis in general will forgive their Arab neighbors more readily than they will forgive those of us in the West, Jews and non-Jews, who do not stand with them now. Even right-wing Israelis (mostly) know that the Arabs have a grievance. They feel (rightly) that their "legitimate aspirations" as they are called are rendered rather less legitimate by their enthusiasm for murdering innocent civilians in an effort to achieve those aspirations. But they know there is a real grievance, and they know that it is a dangerous thing to speak out against the murderers if you are a Palestinian Arab - or even an Israeli Arab. They are afraid of and troubled by their neighbors, and determined to fight them to defend their homeland, but they are less angry with them, I think, than with Westerners who equivocate or worse on the morality of murdering Jews.
The most affecting part of the trip, though, was not the visit to the hospital, or to my family, or hearing from terror victims or their families or going to the Green Line or to Gilo and seeing the walls going up and the sandbags piled against sniper fire - fire aimed, of course, at ordinary people, not soldiers. The most moving experience of the trip was being at the Kotel (the Western Wall) on Friday night to welcome the Sabbath. We were there the first Shabbat that the students at Yeshivat Ha-Kotel returned from vacation, and as is their practiced they emerged from their yeshivah as the sun went down and began to slowly dance and sing their way across the plaza towards the wall. To see hundreds of young, strong, Jews singing and dancing with joy at the Kotel on the eve of the Sabbath, to dance and sing and pray with them under the darkening sky - the words Am Yisrael Chai ("the People of Israel Lives") never felt so true to me before. And this was not a political rally, some ceremony of forced emotion; this was not a gathering to make a point; this is what Jews are supposed to do every Friday night, and to do it with such evident joy, in such numbers, in the most important place on earth for Jews to do it and at a time when Jews in numbers would normally be thinking little else but aren't we a big fat target standing here together like this - it took me completely out of myself.
I encourage anyone considering going to go. It's not the most relaxing vacation, but there are other rewards. I did not visit anywhere that made me feel unsafe; the presence of security personnel is obvious everywhere. I would recommend going in some organized fashion, whether as a volunteer through Volunteers for Israel or Magen David Adom, or whether on an organized mission or something. I'm not sure I'd be comfortable going and having to make my own way around. The one time I had a twinge of concern was in a taxi coming home from Kfar Saba; as we passed Mod'in the driver sped up and called the police to report a car with Israeli plates with five Arabs inside driving very fast towards Jerusalem. We followed that car all the way to Jerusalem, and never saw the police; presumably, they checked the plates and the car wasn't stolen, and that ended my little experience with racial profiling. But other than that, I never really felt concerned for my safety, even in south Gilo looking out over Beit Jalla and Bethlehem. I'm already trying to figure out how to get back for another visit.
I'll have more thoughts I expect over the next few days; that's all for now.