5:30 am, our last few hours in Israel.
All I can say about it is Wow. It’s certainly been a trip and a half. We’ve seen the country at its best and, unfortunately also at its worst. We’ve had the good fortune of having some of the most popular tourist sites in the world almost completely to ourselves. We were active participants in the events here, we like so many people here it the south, had to make 30 second dash to the shelters, and in one heard the explosion of rocket hitting the ground a few hundred meters from where we were hunkered down. We saw the Iron Dome, positioned in the fields around the nearby community of Kiryat Gat.
And, like many people here we after a few sirens and a few explosions in the distance we become sort of nonchalant about war and our own safety, instead of dashing the 50 meters uphill to the shelters we justified not going because they ever hit anything anyway. Thinking about it, when was the last time I went into the basement for a storm siren in Minnesota? I’m thinking about 1997.
We were close enough to Gaza that we could hear the shelling from Israel. There was an artillery battery about a mile or so away from us, the frequency and intensity of its low frequency but very substantial booming was our own indicator of the intensity of the fighting in Gaza. We guessed correctly that Israel was sending troops in last Friday by the intensity of our 3:00am wakeup call. And we were new exactly when the ceasefires were in place on Saturday morning, the silence was deafening.
We did a great deal of our travelling via public transportation. We tool local busses to Jerusalem and trains to Tel Aviv and home from Haifa. That in itself gave us a few into Israeli society that you’re not going to get from an air conditioned tour bus. We travelled to Jerusalem on Sunday mornings for no good reason other than that’s when it worked out. Sunday is the start of the work week in Israel, it’s when kids in the military go back to their bases after weekend leaves with their families. Our bus was the opposite of an “express” bus, we stopped more times that I can count on that trip. At every stop we picked up kids the same ages as mine in their uniforms. At one stop the three kids who got on the bus were kids of Ethiopian immigrants, two boys and a girl. The two boys were religious, they were wearing kippas. The girl was carrying a riot helmet and a baton with her, in addition to her automatic weapon. Also on the bus a few of the Heardi, the ultra-orthodox in their black suits and white shirts with ubiquitous giant black hats. The juxtaposition of these two groups of Jews really struck me.
It seems more than fitting that our last day of touring was in Tel Aviv. In my past trips here Tel Aviv wasn’t on the itinerary. There’s not a ton of sightseeing in Tel Aviv. It’s a place to go if you want to sit on the beach, go to a mall or experience some great restaurants. Tel Aviv is ground zero of Secular Israel. My cousin kept referring to it as a “free” city. It’s the only place in the country where the grocery stores are open and the busses run on Saturday. It’s the one place in the country where there was a protest last week against the actions in Gaza. When we walked the streets, especially a day after Jerusalem, I was struck by lack of Heradi on the streets. “They aren’t welcome here” was my cousins comment. Tel Aviv is, when there aren’t siren going off, a travel destination for Gay and Lesbians. It’s an open progressive city, it’s outrageously expensive and according to my son, it’s the goal of every young secular Israeli to live there.
While there we visited Rabin Square and saw the spot where Yitzak Rabin was assassinated. There’s modest memorial at the corner of the City Hall building that the place. As Mickey explained the events of that evening it was painfully obvious that he was deeply affected by them. To set the stage, the square is a city block that has a small pond on one side, a single olive tree in planter in the middle, the rest of paved. At the north end is a raised area and behind that is City Hall. Around the square are the 4 story apartment buildings that sort of define the city.
We really had the feeling at that time the peace was at hand. The country was very optimistic. We were very close to an agreement with the Palestinians that everyone could sense was going to bring a genuine peace to Israel. Rabin came here to this square to participate in a peace demonstration. Almost the entire country it felt like, was packed into this block. He spoke, and sang a song about peace and really we thought it had arrived. But, (and he pointed to the buildings around the square) up there were the counter protesters, the religious and the right wing. The religious parties were furious with Rabin. There were Rabbi’s leading prayers for his death, it was crazy. But, it’s a free country and anyone can say whatever they want, and they. No one thought much about it.
After the speech he descended from the platform and went to get into his car. Security was tight they were looking for terrorists, Arab terrorists specifically no one ever thought to look for Jews. And right here a Religious kid, wearing a Kippah, from Bar Ilan University, the Ultra-Orthodox school near here, came behind him and shot him three times in the back.
After that day Shimon Peres became Prime Minister but he lost the next election and Netanyahu and Likud came to power. The government took a hard right turn, settlements increased, and relations with the Arabs got worse, we really felt collectively that a light was snuffed out that night.
On the memorial it was supposed to be written that Rabin was killed by “an assassin wearing a kippa”, it was going to be our way (the secular Israeli left) of reminding people that this was not an act of Arab terrorism, this was Jewish terrorism. But, there was a massive outcry from the right and it never happened.
Then the really profound statement
Most countries in the development go through some kind of Civil War. There’ some battle, ideological or political for the soul of the country. In Israel we haven’t had that war yet, probably because we too busy fighting to defend ourselves. But as the country has grown in prosperity and strength, it’s my sense that this event is a small battle in that war between the ultraorthodox, the settlers and the far right, and the secular left.
This a country wrestling with a lot of problems. But a lot of her strengths get lost in the discussion, especially in the international press. This is still a democracy. Everyone in Israel has the right to vote and speak their mind.
Interestingly on the city buses in Jerusalem there are signs that say “By law anyone is entitled to sit anywhere they choose. It is against to law to force people to move.” This sign BTW, directed to the Ultraorthodox men who would object to having sit next to a woman, especially a secular woman, because they might accidently touch or worse, she would corrupt his thoughts or his ritual purity because she may be “unclean”. Apparently there’s been a problem of women getting harassed by these guys.
It’s one country around here where issues like equality for 20% of the Israeli population who are Palestinian, or settlements and politics are openly debated. Israel doesn’t have it right but they talk about it and the vote on it.
This country has a booming economy at the moment. 2000 years of stressing education and learning is finally paying off as around the world power shifts to the geeks, there’s a high tech boom here fueled by Israeli and Russian mathematics and innovation. And there’s a growing disparity between the wealthy and middle classes as the price of housing goes through the roof. We saw Intel, all over the country (facilities were protected by Iron Dome) SAP, etc in Tel Aviv and Haifa. Skyscrapers and development town tenements.
No issue here in Israel is easy. Everyone single one is like an onion, layers on layers on layers of complexity. A great metaphor can be found in Jerusalem, at the church of the Holy Seplecure. In the 1800’s a repairman left a ladder up there as he was installing some windows for the Ethiopian Orthodox chapel. None of the other groups in the Church, the Greeks, the Latins, the Armenians etc could agree on the work and no one could come to agreement on who should go up there and take down the ladder after the work was completed. They argued about it, any move to do something would indicated the supremacy of one group over another simply because they had given approval without consulting the others.
150 years later, the ladder… it’s still there.
Agreements here require enormous strength, and have to come from strength, a strength that at the moment, is a little hard to find. People like Rabin come along once in a while, but they do come along, I just hope everyone can recognize them when they do and have the courage to act.