Whenever I discuss Israel with anyone, the first thing I say is, “Politics aside, it’s the most dynamic country on Earth.” Israel invented WAZE, and drip irrigation, and molten salt solar power plants, and Soda Stream, and your telephone voice mail, and the world’s first electric passenger airplane (it debuted in June at the Paris Air Show – it carries nine passengers, and has a 600 mile range). I also think they’ve got the best ice cream and bourekahs and falafel and shwarma and café granita in the world.
So I was looking forward to eating well, and to seeing Eddie’s relatives again, and to learning what’s new with the people, the politics and the economy. I see Israel as Nature Under Pressure – it survives by spewing out new genetic combinations all the time.
Eddie and I flew to Israel before the tour started, to visit her cousins. We took a commuter train from Ben Gurion Airport, then drove on freeways past towns, housing developments and malls, to reach Eddie’s cousin’s house, in a new housing development. It all looked like southern California to me. And it seemed incongruous: with all we hear about the tensions in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Iran, and the Palestinian situation and Israeli elections, things seemed so peaceful. We had to ask: Why do you stay here with all the political craziness around you? And her cousin Yuval said, “This is the first time in 2000 years we’ve had a Jewish country. If you’ve got the chance to live here, take advantage of it.”
Eddie and I toured the fabulous Baha’i Temple gardens in Haifa – with the Russian language group. We missed the English one by five minutes. But that was OK. With a population of nearly nine million, mostly immigrants from every corner of the earth, Israel gets nearly four million tourists a year. So on any street you walk, you’ll hear at least half a dozen different languages being spoken. The gardens amazed us. And they run tours in Spanish, French, German, Japanese and Chinese, too.
We learned about the Baha’i sect of Islam, and I noted the irony of Israel protecting that religion’s temple, and the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem (despite historic Christian antipathy toward Jews), and the Dome of the Rock (despite the Palestinian situation and current Muslim antipathy toward Jews). And Israel protects all those tourists, too, which makes Israel one of the safest countries in the world to visit.
We joined our KHN tour in Jerusalem, staying at a hotel across from the Old City. We did the standard tourist hikes through the old city and Arab market, and celebrated Shabbat at the Wall with hundreds of energetic progressive Jews from all over the world. And we walked through 100,000 years of archeology and anthropology at the Israel Museum. Then we jumped onto our huge pink bus for the grand tour. And that’s when this tour left the beaten track for me.
In the Galilee, we cooked dinner with a Druze family in their home. The Druze believe they get reincarnated seven times, always as the same sex – man or woman, never different. The wife catered, her husband works as a border policeman, their son is a champion bicycle racer. In Jaffa, we enjoyed the improv comedy of a 60-year old Arab-Israeli woman who cooked us dinner at her home. She wears a head scarf, and can trace her family back to the 1600s in Jaffa. And yet random local Israelis sometimes tell her, “Go back where you came from.”
We had espresso and popcorn with Eritrean women immigrants – that’s how Eritreans serve espresso – who are stuck in the Israeli asylum process. They weave and sell colorful, heavy-duty cloth baskets to make income for their families. We lunched with Ethiopian families who risked death in a long march through northeastern Africa to reach Israel. They practiced a pre-rabbinic form of Judaism, but their exodus was delayed for a year by Israel’s Orthodox rabbinate, which had to decide if they were really Jewish enough to be granted entry into Israel. Many died during the wait and the march. This same Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t consider the Reform or progressive Jews that Jewish, either.
In the West Bank, we met settlers sorting out peaceful ways forward with Palestinians at the Roots Tent; in the Golan Heights, settlers explained the Arab tribal and political dynamics they face from Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Iran. Then down the road, we sat down at the Assaf Wintery for a one of the most civilized lunches I’ve ever eaten, on white linen tablecloths with award winning wines. Nearby in Safed, we tasted Israel’s award winning whiskey – luck of the Jewish.
With the New Israel Fund, we discussed politics and ways forward. Israeli politics are like ours in the U.S., and right wing groups there are funded by many of the same people and organizations that fund right-wing groups here. In Jaffa we met a charismatic Arab-Israeli man and his wife who founded Arab Israeli preschools, on the way to making peace for a new generation. At Bethlehem, we met the Israeli Colonel who managed construction of the separation barrier, and then we met a Palestinian activist living on the other side of it. Both said, “We expect this wall to come down.” “When?” is the question I always ask.
On a kibbutz south of Beersheva, in Bedouin country, we met a young Chinese man who moved to Israel with his wife from a small Jewish community in China. “You’ve probably never heard of us,” he said, and we replied of course we have. One of our rabbis, Anson Laytner, works with your community in China. The young man’s kibbutz exports bumble bees to pollinate hydroponic gardens throughout Europe, and predator insects & birds to help the world’s farmers fight pests that eat their crops.
We shared another Shabbat service with a huge, energetic congregation on the beach in Tel Aviv. We ate too much, burned it off hiking Masada, swimming in the Sea of Galilee, and walking everywhere. By the way, the best bourekas are on the street in Jaffa, the best falafel is in the Jaffa Flea Market (shouk ha pish-pisheem), and you can find the best cheese Danish and café granita in the Jerusalem market – Machanay Yehuda.
So, will the grassroots movements gather enough supporters to change Israeli politics? Will moderates win the next Israeli election? Will progressives beat back ultra-religious and right wing forces? We’ll see. Israeli or Palestinian, they’re all people just like us. Most of their problems are like ours – from national existential threats, to internal problems with economics, politics and religion. I’ve got the feeling that if they can ever sort things out, it will create a ripple effect throughout the planet that could bring world peace, and the coming of the messiah. But until then, if you get the chance to visit Israel, go.
Shana tova u’metuka – a good and sweet year to all.