Some thoughts on my trip to Israel

24 Jul

I just returned from a 12-day trip to Israel provided to me by a conclave of Zionist masterminds Birthright Israel which hands out free trips to the Holy Land for Jews aged 18-26. On the whole, it was a pretty positive experience. This particular trip was for people 22 and over, so it generally screened out the people who planned to use the trip mostly as an excuse to party and drink in a country whose drinking age is 18. Our group, fortunately, consisted mostly of pretty smart folks who had a more or less sincere interest in seeing Israel for what it was and trying to understand what our relationship to it as American Jews ought to be.
One of the most obvious differences between American and Israeli society is their intense focus on security. It is understandable, I suppose, when your country is roughly the size of New Jersey and you live with the very real prospect of being attacked at any time from any direction by a pack of rogue nations who believe the entire Jewish population of your country (about 75%) should be removed immediately and by whatever means necessary. It is not a strange sight at all in Israel to see soldiers in or out of uniform carrying large assault rifles in malls, at religious sites, on the street in downtown Tel Aviv, etc. Many of the these soldiers (who are mostly my age) probably aren't even on duty. In any of these situations in the U.S., this would cause a huge commotion. In Israel, no one looks twice.

One notable experience with the Israeli fixation on security took place at JFK Airport on the way out. While waiting in line to get my ticket and check my bags, an airline employee (we flew on an Israeli airline) approached me, looked at my passport, conferred in rapid Hebrew with her associate. I made out the Hebrew word shem (name) which I took to mean they found my last name a little too goyische and wanted to make sure I wasn't up to any funny business. They proceeded to ask me a barrage of questions, including what my Hebrew name was, what synagogues I'd attended, what my rabbi's name was, what holidays I celebrated, the name of the Torah portion I'd read for my bar mitzvah, whether I could read/speak Hebrew, and a quite extensive series of questions about how Passover is celebrated. I wondered what questions the many Christian tourists who visit Israel to see the Jesus-related historical sites there are asked.

Natanya coastline looking south towards Tel AvivNatanya coastline looking south towards Tel AvivAfter the 10+ hour flight to Tel Aviv and some preliminary activities, we were deposited at a hotel in the town of Natanya, about 30 minutes north of Tel Aviv. The beach across the street from the hotel was magnificent; the water was warmer than any I'd swam in in the Atlantic (or Caribbean), and a perfect clear greenish-blue color. It quickly became clear that Netanya was a major hot spot for French tourists. Local shops and restaurants generally serviced anyone who spoke Hebrew, French or English.

For three days, we used Netanya as a base to travel around the central part of the country (except Saturday, when the program deferred to Jewish law which prohibits traveling on Shabbat). One of the more notable activities here was when we were taken to meet with an Israeli professor who is an expert on the Israel/Palestinian conflict and speaks the Palestinian dialect of Arabic fluently. He, like most Israelis I met, was intensely concerned with the conflict, but also had a far more nuanced and moderate position on it than most Americans who are interested in it. Perhaps it is because our opinions on the conflict are generally informed by the alarmist media coverage we receive on it here in the U.S. On the other hand, Israelis live near and interact with Palestinians (mostly those who are residents of Israel rather than the West Bank area) and probably have a clearer sense of who the suicide bombers are versus who the average people who just want to have normal lives ares.

Barta'a, the Palestinian town divided by the Green Line. The mosque is in the West Bank, as seen from a few hundred yards over the border into Israel.Barta'a, the Palestinian town divided by the Green Line. The mosque is in the West Bank, as seen from a few hundred yards over the border into Israel.Anyway, David (the professor) led a fairly interesting discussion on the plight of the Israeli Arabs (counterparts to the Israeli Jews) who are for the most part active citizens of the State of Israel. Most of them express a lack of interest in moving to a Palestinian state in the West Bank were one to be established; most assume they would have better economic opportunities in Israel and are willing to live as a minority in the Jewish state to keep them. After the discussion, we went to a town called Barta'a which was bisected by the 1949 armistice line (the “green line”). Israel has since erected a border fence with the West Bank, but kept a sliver of West Bank territory on the Israeli side of the fence to allow a few Jewish settlements there to access the Israeli easily. Barta'a is partially in this sliver. Residents of the West Bank side are not Israeli citizens and not allowed to be in Israel without permission, but there's nothing physically stopping them from just walking or driving over there. On the other hand, they can't get into the West Bank area due to the fence. Both David and our Israeli tour guide were clear on how this and a number of other issues were serious political missteps on the part of Israel.

In general, the presentation of the presentation of the conflict was far more comprehensive and unbiased than I had expected from Birthright, which has a reputation in the U.S. for being somewhat dogmatic and uncompromisingly pro-Israel. I think the fact that my trip wasn't this way was due to the political views of our tour guide, who was (in additional to being totally awesome) a reserve officer in the army and a loyal citizen of Israel, but very critical of how the government handles itself — not unlike how American liberals are loyal citizens while being harsh critics of the current government. It was refreshing to hear, anyway, and it gave me a clearer idea of where I stand with regards to Israel politically. The take-home message they seemed to be giving us was that Israel has its problems and they are numerous, but they generally try to act in good faith with their neighbors. Hezbollah, Hamas, et al. do not. It seemed reasonable, especially being there during the Hezbollah prisoner exchange situation.

One area of the trip that I was a little disappointed by was how secular it was. I'm not really that religious, but I think a lot of Jewish traditions and rituals are very beautiful and meaningful and I participate when and how I feel I can. I was looking forward to seeing what Judaism was like in Israel, the country where Jews are not a religious minority.

The Kotel (wall), but not on Shabbat of course. The Dome of the Rock rises above it.The Kotel (wall), but not on Shabbat of course. The Dome of the Rock rises above it.The most religious activity I did on the trip was not technically part of the trip at all. Three friends and I broke basically every rule of Birthright by ditching the group on Friday night in Jerusalem and hiking down to the Western Wall (the holiest site in Judaism). One of my friends was aware of a common practice of Orthodox families in the area inviting travelers over for Shabbat dinner, so we inteded to garner such an invitation. The wall itself on Friday night is a scene I doubt happens anywhere else in the world (at least for Jews). Imagine the concourse of Grand Central Terminal in New York, but instead of catching a train, everyone is singing, praying and dancing (often the same time). Prayerbooks, and various Jewish ritual items are left out on tables for anyone in the area to use. It was a pretty awesome scene to behold, although I was conscious of the fact that the women's section (since Orthodox Judaism requires a separation of the sexes during prayer) was much less active, and that I was only seeing all of this due to my privilege as a male.

Ultimately, we were invited to the home of a Orthodox family who lived in a nearby English-speaking neighborhood of Jerusalem populated mostly by Americans and Canadian who had made aliyah. The husband and wife were from Toronto and Baltimore respectively. We and about 6 others joined them for dinner, including all the Shabbat rituals (songs, handwishing, kiddush, etc). There was a veritable ton of food and discussion of the Talmud and more singing. Given that the rest of the trip was basically totally secular, and that my life in America is pretty secular except on the High Holidays and Passover, this was a really great chance to see and experience how the very religious live their lives. The hospitality and openness people like this show never ceases to amaze me; it was really touching.

Another interesting aspect of the trip was that seven Israeli soldiers joined the group for half the time. In America, the term “soldier” has a lot of baggage. We have certain assumptions derived from the all-volunteer nature of the U.S. military about who would sign up to join the army and what they must be like to do so. In Israel, military service is compulsory, so everyone my age is a solider for 2-3 years. We all took a quick liking to the Israelis (it turned out that the privilege of getting 5 days off from the army to join an American birthright trip was a reward given for good behavior of performance, so the soldiers who we met were among the better ones anyway). In a lot of ways the army for them is what college is for us — the first time living away for home, in close quarters with peers. As expected, there is drinking and hookups and gossip in the army, and a sense of shared purpose, although it is fighting for the future of the country rather than studying. In the U.S. college is more and more pre-requisite to any significant job. The army is also a pre-requisite for a lot of jobs in Israel. Anyone who goes to a university there does so after the army, so all college students are in their mid-twenties or later.

The Israelis don't have a clear distinction between “Jewish” and “Israeli”. For them, “Jew” is to “Israel” as “French” is to “France.” American Jews often feel some compulsion to be at least somewhat religious or acknowledge certain traditions (like fasting on Yom Kippur) that secular Israelis don't care as much about. After all, if we don't do anything Jewish we feel like we might drown in the sea of nominally-Christian American culture. For Israelis, the Orthodox do what they do for whatever reason they do it, but the secular people don't feel like they have to do anything religious, and that doesn't threaten their Jewish identity or pride at all. Interestingly, they also find it sort of strange that English speakers say “Oh my God!” when something surprising happens. There is no Hebrew equivalent that isn't extremely jarring to hear outside of a religious ritual.

Biblical quotation of confusing provenance at Eretz Israel Museum in Tel AvivBiblical quotation of confusing provenance at Eretz Israel Museum in Tel AvivStill, though, Israel has a much more blurry line between synagogue and state than the U.S. does. Jewish Israelis can't get married without applying to the Chief Rabbinate for a marriage license (not to mention the fact that there is a government-sponsored rabbinate in the first place). Such a license will not be granted without sufficient proof that both parties are actually Jewish — something that is not so easy to establish for Americans who make aliyah and have no paper trail to prove their Jewish bona fides.

We went to Yad Vashem (“hand and name”, Israel's holocaust museum). Stirring though it was, many of the exterior decorations had pertinent verses from the Bible written on them. The same was true of the Israeli independence museum in Tel Aviv (an otherwise quite secular city). The verses spoke of Jeremiah and Isaiah predicting the gathering of the exiles. Pretty jarring to see, when the founding history of the State of Israel had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the political and economic Zionist movement. Theodore Herzl, the founder of Zionism, was not religious at all. He merely favored the Land of Israel as a location for the Jewish state because of the Jews' historical association with it. It often seemed like the history of modern Israel was being bent or re-outfitted to mesh with the religious ideas about the redemption and re-creation of the ancient Jewish monarchy. Kind of weird. The Bible says this will happen when the Messiah comes — is that what they're suggesting has happened? I doubt it.

All in all, though, a pretty successful and eye-opening trip. I don't think I'd ever really want to live in Israel, but I imagine I'd like to go back on my own at some point to explore it more.