I’m writing this from the plane on our way to New York. It’s an 11 hour flight and we have about 3 hours to go. It’s dark, quiet and just about everyone is asleep. It’s 2 a.m. in New York, 9 a.m. Israel time and, for me, I’m on ‘Discombobulated Time’. Not quite sure what day or time it is. But at the moment I don’t care about any of that.
Right now, my thoughts are about Israel.
I don’t see how any Jew could spend 12 days in Israel, get as immersed in it as we did, and not have your brain swirling with issues, questions, concerns, worries. It’s like visiting the home you love, yet knowing it’s in turmoil. You love it, but you’re worried sick. And then you love it some more, and again you’re worried sick. Again, and again and again.
Last night we said goodbye to Israel in dramatic fashion. After dinner we went to a park on the Mediterranean Sea in Tel Aviv. The sun was setting. It was the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day (not Yom HaShoah which occurred last week and commemorates the Holocaust). We stand in a circle and the rabbi’s and cantor and then a few others spoke to the group. The words and songs were the perfect exclamation point to a deeply moving Israel experience.
At 8 p.m., a two-minute siren goes off all across Israel and everyone stands in silence. Rabbi Loss and Rabbi Yedwab tells us about how practically every Israeli knows someone or knows of someone who was killed for this land. Parents, grandparents, soldiers, civilians, children.
One of our guides is sadly looking down – it’s obvious he too has been personally touched by something horrible.
But yet Israeli’s don’t live their lives walking around being depressed. Just the opposite, I think. They grab life, they celebrate, love, hug, shout, push, smoke, drink, swim, dance, sing. Parks are filled with families having picnics, playing music, skateboarding, playing soccer, volleyball – just being regular people, which of course is the whole point.
But ‘normal’ here is not like an American ‘normal’, or anywhere else in the world. You want to believe it is, but your eyes see another story. Young (so young) soldiers, boys and girls, are everywhere, carrying guns and rifles that sometime seem bigger than they are. Many look like babies, our babies. And police are everywhere, also fully armed. You pass by checkpoints, walls, barbed wire, all randomly interspersed.
Security is everything here. Sadly, it must be the top priority. But how can they live like this? How do you raise a child in this place? Aren’t the kids terrified? What does that do to their psyche? And the adults? Is this life even sustainable??
I grabbed a Jerusalem Post yesterday. The headline was a story about some big-shot Iranian general who says that Iran has now “set a date for Israel’s destruction.” That’s the news of the day that everyone is reading. And it’s not abnormal at all. Israel’s enemies always talk about Israel’s destruction. It’s literally taught in many schools. Families of suicide bombers (‘martyrs’) get paid a fortune for life – and that’s according to the Palestinian reporter for TIME Magazine who was very critical of Israel AND the Palestinian leadership.
So there is this ominous cloud over the land. Peace is still the ultimate and elusive dream. I was walking on the beach yesterday in Eilat, just a few miles from the Jordanian border. Saudi Arabia is actually not far from that spot. I came across a simple sign in Hebrew and Arabic: “Go In Peace”. So simple and so impossible.
Israel makes mistakes, just like any other country. It doesn’t bother me a bit when it gets criticized. That’s normal, and often justified. So as long as people recognize Israel’s right to exist and no one’s being violent, criticize away.
But remember that this country is only 70 years old. And remember that America at 70 still had slaves and women couldn’t even vote. But yet Israel is held to an impossible standard. It’s supposed to be the moral gold standard for all the world. I believe it wants to be and that it could be – if only it didn’t constantly have a dagger at its throat.
When you’re a tiny country surrounded by people who casually talk about your destruction, when hundreds of thousands of missiles are pointing at your cities (and sometimes being launched), when terror tunnels are constantly being built and discovered, when Hamas children go to summer camp and learn how to commit jihad against Israel, when Russia says it will have to supply Assad of Syria with rockets that can destroy Jerusalem from a range that can’t be deterred, and when you can count your ‘friends’ on just a couple of fingers….then it’s a bit tough to not be obsessed with the safety and security of your people.
As our guide said about the security wall, “Sure, it’s ugly and embarrassing. We hate it, but the fact is that since it went up we’ve had zero deaths from suicide bombs and before that 1,000 in five years.”
But, yet, I come back from Israel feeling hopeful. I have to be. Golda Meier said, “A Jew can’t afford the luxury of being a pessimist.” She’s so right. We HAVE to have hope. It’s the only choice we have. It’s even the name of the national anthem.
So, after 12 days in Israel, what’s the case for hope? Is it real or just a fantasy?
I’m convinced it’s real, and here’s a few reasons why:
These are extraordinary people. I’m not even sure they know their own strength, but it’s amazing. They’re hugely resourceful, determined, patriotic, unselfish, focused, undaunted, resilient.
Many American Jews are trivial and spoiled. We’re soft. We live a cushy life in America. With rare exception, we don’t become soldiers, fighter pilots, undercover intelligence officers, or policemen. We rarely even get our hands dirty. But Israeli’s bear no resemblance to that. They may physically look like American Jews, but that’s where the similarities end. They’re tough as steel. They’re formidable, and they’ve got the brains, courage and moxie to do whatever they must do in order to preserve their nation. Mess with them at your own peril.
In 1948, 1967 and 1973, Egypt and Jordan were bitter enemies of Israel. Now we have peace with them. It’s a ‘cold peace’, and of course things can always change, but for now those countries are doing commerce with each other, collaborating on fighting common enemies and no one is launching rockets at each other. I’ll take it.
The U.S. is vital to Israel’s existence, and it’s most reliable alliance. Besides partnering in intelligence gathering, Israel receives almost $4B a year from America, most of which is then spent in the U.S. to buy weapons and employ thousands of American workers. The U.S. has always had Israel’s back, and just as importantly, the world knows it. As kids we all learn the lesson about not messing with a kid with an older, tough brother, and I think that simple analogy applies to Israel and the U.S.
American aid to Jordan and Egypt has also played a critical role in securing Israel. Jordan, who shares Israel’s longest border, gets about $1.5B a year from the U.S. and Egypt gets about $3B. And for that, we get a ‘quiet peace’ on those two critical borders – sounds like a bargain to me! (Total U.S foreign aid to the entire world, by the way, constitutes under 1% of the U.S.’ total budget.)
Saudi Arabia, also a former bitter enemy, showing encouraging signs of warmer relations. Israel and Saudi Arabia have a common enemy (Iran) and the Saudi’s are working with Israel in sharing intelligence and allowing use of Saudi airspace for Israeli aircraft. And just a few weeks ago the Crown Prince acknowledged Israel’s right to “its own land” – a mind-boggling historical statement.
So geographically, to the immediate east and south of Israel, things are quiet for now. We can’t take that for granted. That’s huge.
The Arab World:
The Arab world is vast and diverse. I saw many acts of individual kindness and interchange that reaffirm what I’ve always believed – people are people. We saw it at the border at Lebanon, where Rabbi Loss and I were high-fiving happy Arab kids. We saw it in Jerusalem, asking Arabs for directions and they kindly and patiently did all they could to help us. And we saw it with the young Israeli Arab who hopes to be an officer in the IDF. His Facebook page has a picture of him with the Israeli flag, with the words “Education is the road to peace.”
Those and other encounters – just simple human touches – were special one-on-one moments of kindness. No political agenda, no ulterior motive. Just Arab and Jew co-existing normally, proving once again that people are people and thus peace is indeed possible.
In Jaffa, the ancient port city, there is a little tree that is suspended in mid-air, held up by a few wires. It’s roots aren’t in the ground and it looks like it shouldn’t be able to survive, but it does. Our guide pointed it out and we all took pictures.
He then made a comparison about that tree and Israel: “Sometimes when you are uprooted you can still survive.”
Israel is that little tree. Uprooted, surviving, beating the odds. How it exists in the face of such odds is a bit of a mystery, but yet somehow it does.
I will forever keep that tree and Israel in my prayers.