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Israel Diary | The Nation

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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.

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