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Israel Diary

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This spring, for the first time in more than a decade, Nation contributor Micah L. Sifry visited Israel with his family. Following are excerpts from his journal.
     --The Editors

About the Author

Micah L. Sifry
Micah L. Sifry, a former Nation associate editor, is co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum, editor of its...

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For a healthy democracy, transparency is the best medicine.

Stranded in Europe, I don't feel like a displaced person. I'm buoyed by an invisible network of friends and strangers all connected by social media.

March 28: SECURITY (I)

At moments, I wonder whether we've left America. Between my cousins in Givat Tal, twelve miles east of Tel Aviv, and in Moshav Achituv, eleven miles northeast of the coastal city of Netanya, for our first few days here we've been ensconced in two very suburban environments, watching as our kids get to know their kids. Yesterday, for example, we hopped into my cousin Nurit's Dodge minivan--it seats eight--and drove to the local shopping center to have lunch at the Burger Ranch. At the same time, everything is built from Jerusalem stone, the hills are covered with wildflowers and if the wind is right, the air fills with the perfume of blossoming orange trees. This is still the Israel I remember from a childhood of summer visits to my mother's family and from teenage sojourns on various kibbutzim. And while Nurit, a first-generation sabra born of a Belgian father (my mother's brother) and a Yemenite mother, lives with her family in a very nice split-level villa with a large backyard, this is not suburbia, American-style. Nearly every house in Givat Tal has a security gate and stone walls or fencing around it. During the Gulf War, Nurit tells me, the last Iraqi Scud missile to hit Israel landed right next to her old apartment building, and she was alone, pregnant, with no time to get to their sealed room. No one was hurt, but, Nurit says, "That war was the worst, because you didn't know what to fear." My cousin Tamar's house in Achituv has a security room--required in all new homes--with a reinforced metal door and walls and rubber seals on the door and window. For the next war.

Tamar and Yossi moved from their apartment in Netanya to find a better school for their daughter. They now live a few kilometers from the old "Green Line" marking Israel's pre-1967 border with the West Bank, and while we visit they take us on a short drive to a hill with a commanding view. To the east, we see the Arab city of Tul Karem. "Here is Palestine," Yossi says with a shrug. In the 1948 war Yossi's father fought for this hill. Now, Tamar says, there are plans to turn it and the surrounding area into a national park, complete with an artificial lake. "It will be very nice, and maybe it will help our property values," she says with a laugh.

Tamar and Yossi's seeming comfort with the coming reality of a neighboring Palestine is not atypical. Sixty-nine percent of the Israeli public "believe that the peace process will eventually lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state," and nearly the same percentage "believe that any government formed after the elections will reach a final-status agreement including recognition of such a state and withdrawal from more territory," reports the daily paper Ha'aretz on the latest poll on Israeli attitudes toward the peace process.

More surprising, "56 percent believe that the Palestinians' demand for an independent state of their own is justified." (Will someone please inform US Jewish leaders?) One out of ten Israelis appears to have changed his or her mind about this issue in the past six months. The pollsters explain this shift by noting how Israelis have altered their view of Palestinians. "The assertion that 'most Palestinians have yet to accept the existence of the state of Israel and would destroy it if they could, despite the fact that the PLO leadership is holding peace talks with Israel,' was said to be correct by 70 percent of those surveyed in January 1995, by 63 percent in January 1996, and by 60 percent in February 1998, but by only 48 percent in March 1999."

When my wife and I were last here eleven years ago, the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, had just begun [see Sifry, "After the 'Iron Fist'--What?" February 13, 1988]. Israelis, who had claimed their own place on the world stage at great cost and sacrifice, were finally beginning to realize that there was another people living beneath them who also had rights and who also demanded dignity. Still, it took time for the Israeli center to move. After all, it was then-Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin--now lionized as a martyr for peace--who called for a policy of "force, might, and beatings" as his first, gut response to the intifida. Only later, reluctantly, after many broken bones and shootings of children, did he move toward talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization. His grand achievement, the Oslo Accords, is laced with the assumption of Israeli power and Palestinian subservience, even if it concedes significant autonomy to the Palestinian Authority in parts of the occupied territories.

There haven't been any major terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians in the past six months. But even if there is a renewal of Hamas bombings, maybe, maybe, the new equilibrium point among Israelis will remain one of acceptance of Palestinian nationhood. (At the same time, frustrated by Israeli intransigence and corruption in the Palestinian Authority, more and more Palestinians want their state governed by Islamic law, another poll finds.) We are holding our breath.

March 31: BELIEFS (I)

It was interesting to listen to our good friend David, a schoolteacher from New York, explain his adjustment to marrying an observant woman and his moving to her religious--albeit heterodox--kibbutz in the Negev Desert. Our visit coincided with the advent of Passover, and he and Aliza were dutifully scouring their apartment of every trace of hametz, or leavened bread, in observance of the commandment to eat only unleavened bread (the traditional matzoh) during the holiday. When I asked him how religious the kibbutz was, he pointed to his bare head and said, "See, no kippah!"

But David admitted that he was making adjustments in his life and that he enjoyed the chance to experiment with his spirituality without the pressure, as he put it, of being seen as "switching from the Yankees to the Red Sox." Most Saturday mornings he goes to the service on the kibbutz, particularly because he enjoys listening to the reading of the Torah and the discussion of the passage's meaning.

David also says he listens to the prayers and that "some work for me, some don't." He asks, "Does that make me religious or not?" There is too much vinegar in David's skeptical leftist outlook for me to say yes, but he is clearly not an atheist. "In the development town up north where I lived before moving here, I couldn't have done this. Had I gone once to the synagogue, the neighbors would all have been gossiping: 'Oh, he's becoming a Hasid. He's a baal tshuva [born-again Jew].'" David smacks his head in distaste. Unfortunately, his kibbutz is an oasis. The rest of Israel is divided, Orthodox versus secular, with few signs of compromise.

April 3: SECURITY (II)

Entering Jericho, the most tranquil of the cities under Palestinian Authority control, is easier than I expected. We drove through a simple Israeli checkpoint north of the Dead Sea, just past a turnoff for the Allenby Bridge, which crosses to Jordan. No one stops us to ask for anything. We pass a few fields, goats, barefoot kids and satellite dishes atop new cinder-block villas. A sign at one intersection reads "Jericho Resort Village," but there's hardly a village, let alone a resort. The center of town is more bustling, filled with little shops and taxicabs with green license plates marked with a capital P.

We've come to have dinner in the old part of the city. Earlier in the day, while we were floating in the salt waters of the Dead Sea, Baruch, Nurit's husband, suggested a restaurant he remembered from a visit fifteen years ago. "I'm just not sure if I will need a passport," he jokes. It's not dangerous, he adds. Indeed, a good friend later says, "In Tul Karem during the intifada they would slash your tires and throw rocks; in Jericho they would fix your flat and build rock gardens." Baruch's politics are indicative of the Israeli center. He tells me that he votes Likud by tradition but that in the separate vote for prime minister that was instituted in the last election, he voted for Labor's Shimon Peres. This time, he says, "I will probably vote for [Labor's Ehud] Barak, because Bibi [Netanyahu] has no international goodwill and Barak is fresh." On the back of his van Baruch has a bumper sticker that reads "the people are with the golan," supporting Israel's annexation of that Syrian territory. Yet he agrees that peace is essential for Israel's economy; he works in overseas marketing for a major high-tech company. I can't tell if this jaunt to Jericho is his way of showing me that he endorses the new order or if he is just being macho.

As we leave, we drive past the new casino that a group of Palestinian and European businessmen built on the outskirts of town. Like the Native Americans back home, these Palestinians are shrewdly sucking cash out of the pockets of their oppressors. But there's no sign that this money is being reinvested in the Palestinian community. Someone with a sense of the ironic has placed a solitary road sign with an arrow pointing the way to Gaza, the other half of the Palestinian Authority, which is eighty-four miles away. It's a battered gray sign, and black paint has been splattered over some of the lettering. A few hundred meters down the road we see a conventional green Israeli sign reading "dead sea 14" (eight miles), "jerusalem 27" (seventeen miles), "tel aviv 88" (fifty-five miles). So small, this land.

One might think that in an age of missile technology, the fight over every square meter has become absurd. But the argument over security has become less about threats to Israel's very existence, with the exception of Syria and what to do about the Golan. Most Israelis understand that they are the dominant power in the region. Instead, the issue now is more about day-to-day personal security. Who bumps into whom, and on whose terms. Judging by all the bypass roads and zones segmenting the Palestinian Authority into little pieces, Israel is winning this struggle too. However, it's hard to see how this Pa-le-st-ine can possibly be economically viable. That fact may come back to haunt Israel.

April 3 (later that night): POLITICS

Everywhere I look the country has grown. Something like 700,000 new immigrants have been absorbed since 1989--more than 10 percent of the population. New roads and housing are everywhere, not just in the West Bank settlements and around Jerusalem. Most striking, a row of corporate pillboxes has spread along the coastal road north of Tel Aviv around Herzliyya, named for the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl. With company names like Cellcom, Scitex, Optibase, Intel, Sony and Compaq, this is Israel's Silicon Valley and the country's most important economic engine. Thus the comments of Scitex founder Efi Arazi in Yediot Ahronot suggest one reason that Netanyahu just might lose the coming election: "It isn't enough that there isn't a war. The tension of war stays in the air, and it doesn't matter if it's our ayatollahs or their ayatollahs; the world smells it, the economy smells it. We'll never know why Microsoft didn't shift its whole Internet section to Israel, but the fact is that they don't feel secure enough to do so. High-tech doesn't go with long-term occupation and oppression. If they see a crown jewel, they'll buy it, but only peace will bring more investment."

Bibi is in trouble. Three years ago, he was the fresh option--a tough guy for tough times. Even though Shimon Peres--already a weaker candidate than the assassinated Rabin--was undermined by Hamas's bombings and his own stupid and murderous sally into Lebanon, Netanyahu triumphed by only 29,000 votes. Now, Bibi has presided over the souring of the economy, which has gone from a 6 percent annual growth rate under Rabin to just 2 percent today. Unemployment is around 10 percent. Three times as many jobs were created under the Rabin/Peres government as under Netanyahu. As Netanyahu's standing has fallen, Rabin's aura has grown. By far the most popular bumper sticker we saw read "shalom, chaver," an echo of President Clinton's comments at Rabin's funeral. Some cars carry a whole series of Rabin tributes: "Goodbye, my friend," "You are missed, my friend," "Time has passed, but you are not forgotten, my friend."

But Bibi, a media master, has Arthur Finkelstein, of Jesse Helms and Al D'Amato fame, again running his campaign. The negative themes that worked in 1996--terror, attacking the media and "peace with security"--are being retrod. Thus Bibi keeps suggesting that "Arafat wants Barak" and that Barak, like Peres before him, will divide Jerusalem in the final-status talks with the Palestinians. As of now, Bibi is trailing in the polls, though not by as much as he trailed Peres at this point in 1996.

For political theorists, the big news is the fragmentation of the Israeli party system. A record thirty-three parties are running for seats in the Knesset, Israel's 120-member Parliament. Only 1.5 percent of the vote is needed to get a seat; even in the country's biggest parties--Labor and Likud--no one expects to win more than thirty-five seats each. Even more startling, twenty-nine members of the current Knesset have left the party that brought them to office three years ago to run on a different ticket. The reason: Now that Israelis elect their prime minister directly, without relation to party strength in the Knesset, ticket-splitting is rampant and support for narrow-interest parties is rising.

The biggest splinter from the big parties is the Center Party, led by Netanyahu's former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai and other ex-Likudniks who are simply sick of Bibi's autocratic style. Like Barak, Mordechai says he is open to a Palestinian state coming out of a permanent settlement that maintains Israel's security. As a candidate for prime minister, his main attribute is that he is of Sephardic origin, thus defusing some of the harsh communal tension between Ashkenazi Jews (who traditionally vote for Labor) and Sephardim (who usually vote Likud). But he's run a mostly lackluster campaign so far--his big slogan translates as "Positioning the Country in the Center"--and every day the newspapers carry reports speculating about the Center Party's collapse and the possibility of Mordechai throwing his support to Barak. The Likud has also broken on the right, in the personage of Benny Begin (Menachem Begin's son), who is running for prime minister as the head of a new nationalist coalition. Backed by former Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and settlers opposed to any further withdrawal from the West Bank, Begin's breakaway has contributed to a real decline in morale among Likud activists. What remains to be seen is whether this division will depress support for Netanyahu in the second-round runoff vote for prime minister--or if Begin's supporters will rally around Bibi in the final days.

Barak's "One Israel" list is presenting a broader and more unified face to the voters. He has wooed to his side top leaders from the Sephardic and religious camps, most notably former Likud Foreign Minister David Levy, and he is making a smart bid for the Russian swing vote [see Hillel Schenker, page 18] by criticizing the treatment of new immigrants by Netanyahu's ultra-Orthodox Interior Minister, Eli Suissa. Barak's buzzwords--peace, security, high-tech, Jerusalem: Israel's "eternal capital"--are as generic as Bibi's, and he says he is as much a proponent of privatization as the incumbent. But his main message, that "Netanyahu caves in to extremists, which is why the peace process and the economy are stuck," is well targeted. He reminds me of Clinton running against the Christian right while co-opting the GOP's other themes and harping on the need for "change."

Would Barak bring change? The former chief of staff is as much a warrior as the other two candidates, having taken part in elite commando raids in the past, assassinating Palestinian leaders. He says he favors spending money on education rather than on new West Bank settlements, and it's possible that he would rein in their rapid growth (20 percent under Netanyahu). But he also tells settlers that he wants to keep most of their lands as part of Israel in the final settlement with the Palestinians. Barak is only a shade more conciliatory than Bibi. Perhaps that is why Nurit's husband, Baruch, supports him.

April 4: BELIEFS (II)

Of every ten Jewish children entering kindergarten in Jerusalem, five are ultra-Orthodox, three are Orthodox and two are secular. My wife's cousin Sara, a midwife who lives in a secular Jerusalem neighborhood near the Hebrew University, reinforces this sense of demographic pressure as we chat over breakfast. Suddenly, she blurts out that the only politician with any integrity is Benny Begin. "He's the only one who's refused to have anything to do with the religious," she says. "Not that I would ever vote for him." Sara says that ever since a religious majority took over the City Council, "they've bankrupted Jerusalem." Most of the ultra-Orthodox are very poor, live in subsidized housing, lack jobs or live off of subsidized religious institutions, while "people who work, like us," she says, are forced to pay higher and higher property taxes. Secular Jews in Jerusalem won a small but real victory when a judge ruled that local restaurants can stay open on the Sabbath. One restaurant across from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim was picketed after it opened. Sara and her husband made a point of eating there the next Friday night in solidarity. The restaurant has remained open.

Leaving Sara's, we drove past a park near Israel's Supreme Court where men in black suits and ties, women in long skirts and headscarves, and children were streaming out of a large gathering. I learned later that this had been the annual picnic of a nonprofit, state-funded organization close to the Shas Party of Aryeh Deri. Shas, the movement of religious Sephardic Jews, made its first big splash in the last elections, winning ten seats as the voice of Sephardic assertiveness and religious fundamentalism. At the same time, it was a partner in Rabin's coalition and a supporter of the Oslo Accords. For its leaders, the sanctity of Jewish behavior is more important than land--even biblical sites.

Shas is now at the center of Israel's struggle between secular and religious authority. In fact, all through our trip we heard far more about people's fears of this conflict than about the Israeli-Palestinian question. A few weeks ago, after a nine-year trial, Deri was convicted of massive bribetaking. The judges issued their ruling on live TV. In response, Shas's spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef--formerly one of the country's two chief rabbis--said that the court's ruling is illegitimate, and Deri has refused to leave politics. Politicians from across the spectrum are saying that Deri should be expelled from the Knesset and that no party should agree to form a coalition with Shas as long as he is at its head. This may be a real flash point in the wake of the election.

More culture shock followed. We drove south on the new Begin Highway, which links the northern and southern Jewish suburbs of Jerusalem (huge "facts on the ground," as Moshe Dayan used to say), past a new soccer stadium and biotech research park, to the Jerusalem Mall. "The largest mall in the Middle East," my wife's cousins Jenny and Isaac say, and they may well be right. After a cursory security check, we hustle to find a parking spot, and then we are in a mall that would make a Valley Girl proud. Another piece of the United States imported whole.

After an expensive dinner in the center of the mall, with a Nike store on one side and a video warehouse behind us blaring away, I ask Jenny what she thinks of the coming elections. "I don't think it will make any difference, whoever wins." Her 16-year-old son agrees: "Left, right, center--they'll all mess up," he says. I'm surprised to hear this from him, a longhair into mild rebellion who is thrilled with the Sony Discman we brought him from the States. It is either a measure of how meager the current crop of candidates is or a sign of Rabin's assassination killing youthful idealism. Or evidence that Israel has also begun to import US-style voter alienation.

April 6: THE FUTURE (I)

A group of old friends from our kibbutz days has driven north to join us for a picnic in a forest high above the Jezreel Valley, some 12 miles southeast of Haifa. The talk gravitates to politics. Why do Israelis seem less engaged by this election? Danny, who used to edit a youth movement magazine and now works as a fundraiser for one of the country's big universities, says, "It's not that people are disillusioned about the leading candidates. Israelis have gotten less ideological--except for maybe the 5 percent at the fringe--and more materialistic. We've become a full-blown consumer society."

Has Rabin's assassination dampened people's involvement in politics? "Not at all. Something worse: It broke an important taboo against Jews killing other Jews for political reasons. And after lying low for a year or two, some religious nationalists formed support groups for Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin. What is really obscene is that the authorities have allowed the settlers to build a memorial to Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer who walked into a Hebron mosque and opened fire, killing twenty-nine worshipers. Even the politicians in the National Religious Party--supposedly the more moderate of the religious parties--haven't spoken out against this. That man embodied pure hate, and there are others here who admire him, as they do Amir."

My friends speak of their fear that the country is splitting apart. It's as if Rabbi Ovadia Yosef of Shas communicates in a language that Westernized people like them can't comprehend but that others listen to and obey. Yes, they say, there is a lot of intermixing among Sephardim and Ashkenazim, especially in the educated middle class. Danny himself is married to a Sephardic woman. But, to go back to the Deri case, they say, there are many Shas followers now saying he was framed, even though the evidence is indisputable.

At the same time, our friends haven't withdrawn from their sense of social responsibility or political engagement. Danny volunteers with a local group that has adopted a number of poor families and helps provide them with food, clothing and services. Lee sets up and conducts dialogue groups for Israeli and Palestinian adults. Yehoshua, a kibbutznik, gives talks to high school students and adult groups on Jewish identity and politics, and is building a relationship with the College of Pluralistic Judaism, a new organization that is engaging the cultural struggle head on by drawing on the humanistic and pluralistic roots of Jewish civilization.

Israel is still in transition, Yehoshua says. The country still hasn't decided which version of the Jewish liberation story it wants to celebrate on Independence Day. This is the theme of one of the talks he's developed. There is Passover, the celebration of a people breaking the bonds of slavery. They wandered the desert, following Moses on an introspective search for a new beginning. After decades of risk, infighting, idolatrous backsliding, purges and decisive battles with other nations, this struggle eventually led to the creation of a self-determining society. There is also Hanukkah, which commemorates a very different tale of liberation: The Maccabean revolt was also a civil war led by Jewish zealots against Jewish Hellenists. It began when a priest from the temple assassinated another Jew for religious digression. The fundamentalists of the priestly dynasty who led the liberation struggle went on to become cruel oppressors of their own people. Independence was soon lost.

"In fifty-one years of Israeli independence, we've had our own battles, struggles for leadership, religious tensions, infighting--even our own zealous political assassination," Yehoshua points out. "Most of us lead deceivingly comfortable lives. But these are turbulent times. On the one hand, we cannot be sure that the cultural war will not turn into a civil war. On the other hand, peace may be within reach, and our democratic institutions may yet help us achieve a more tolerant, multicultural and multi-ethnic society."

April 9: THE FUTURE (II)

I've been trying to figure out how people afford to live here, and today, our last day here, I finally glimpsed the answer. Everywhere we've been, prices have surprised me. A simple omelet and salad at the Jerusalem Mall topped 40 shekels, or $10. A good pair of kids' sandals was 180 shekels. A four-bedroom, three-bath house in Givat Tal, $350,000. "Don't forget, we're paid in shekels, not in dollars," a friend told me. The average salaried worker makes around 4,000 shekels a month ($1,000). Yet everywhere we went, we saw Israelis, not just tourists, shopping and eating in the restaurants. One answer is the overdraft: People simply write checks they can't cover. The bank charges them 19 percent interest, and people live on credit. A second answer is tax avoidance, whether by having a cash job or by buying duty-free. But today I finally saw how the average person gets by. Nurit took us to the Jewish open-air market, or shuk, in an older town near Givat Tal. In hundreds of tiny stalls, we saw for sale fruits, nuts, raisins, figs, breads, videos, CDs, craft supplies, toys, shoes, shirts, suits, jewelry, perfume. Kids' pants for as little as 5 shekels ($1.25), shirts for 15. We loaded up on fresh dates, pita bread, strawberries and sandals that were just $18.

I saw something else at the shuk. Most of the people were Sephardim, the sellers as well as the buyers. But there was almost no presence of religious fundamentalism. Girls in tube tops mixed with boys with earrings and stylish haircuts. Pop music blared. Outside in the parking lot the battle of the bumper stickers was at a draw. This was obviously not a Labor stronghold, but it wasn't a Likud bastion either. Is it possible that the same way Israel has been muddling through the Palestinian question toward some kind of accommodation, a balance will be found in its internal cultural wars? That if the right terms can be set, the secular majority and religious minority will choose to live and let live? Not everyone here is on track to owning a three-bedroom villa with a sunny backyard, and while the Sony Discman has more fans than the Talmud, the Talmudists still have more concentrated political power. But maybe, if peace really comes, the economic benefits will soften and mute the interreligious/ethnic war.

Visiting after such a long absence has surprisingly renewed my optimism about this country. It's a feeling I almost can't justify as I scan the day-to-day headlines--the news of Israeli troops occupying more villages in Lebanon, for example, or the hints that Netanyahu may eke out another divisive election victory. But eleven years ago I couldn't have forecast the sea change in Israeli attitudes toward a Palestinian state. Enormous changes are possible, in the blink of history's eye. Whether Israelis will choose the path of Passover or Hanukkah, I don't know. Both paths are still open.

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