Late afternoon in Jerusalem. Though the sun had not yet touched the horizon, a full moon hung brightly in the sky, prematurely asserting its dominance: a coup d'état of the heavens.
Below, things were no less unsettled. A Palestinian terrorist visited death upon a Rishon LeZion pool hall the day after I arrived in Jerusalem; later the same week, another paradise-seeking human missile killed a grandmother and her 2-year-old granddaughter who were buying ice cream in Petach Tikva.
These vicious acts would have paled in comparison, however, to the sabotage at the Pi Glilot fuel depot, had the latter attack been successful. Located amidst high-rise apartment buildings, in one of the most densely populated areas of Israel's coastal plain, the Pi Glilot depot is both an eyesore and a target. As a fuel truck pulled into the depot to unload, a remote-controlled mine attached beneath the truck was detonated. Only an automatic sprinkler system and the quick action of the workers prevented a Sept. 11-sized tragedy.
It was into this nerve-racking environment that I and 100 fellow travelers arrived from the United States to take part in the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) Undaunted We Stand With Israel mission. College students, professionals, retirees, moms, dads, grandmas and grandpas overcame resistance at home and horror on the TV to come to Israel at the time of its greatest need.
Orange County made a substantial showing on the mission, sending nine. Marriage and family therapist Tessa Kershnar-Hirson made the trip with her son, Ron Hirson, an executive at a Bay Area Internet firm.
"Going to Israel at this time was the smartest and most important thing I have ever done as a Jew," she explained.
But what she found there concerned her. "I am fighting despair and a deeply pessimistic view. I fear for the continued existence of the state of Israel as we know it today. Israel is a tiny country, under siege from enemies within its borders, and dealing with the world's criticism of its attempts to defend itself and stay in existence." Nonetheless, she nurses a small ember of optimism. "There is another voice in me that believes in miracles and the unexpected."
Tessa and the other mission participants were treated to a series of meaningful and intimate sessions with Israeli political and military leaders. The undisputed highlight was the 75-minute, up-close-and-personal opportunity to visit with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon, wryly observing that the group was probably hearing enough speeches, declined to deliver a prepared address, instead spending the entire time answering questions from individual participants. Tessa found him to be "thoughtful, approachable, [and] frank." So did I.
Our AJC hosts skillfully arranged for the group to be joined at most mealtimes by Israelis of all stripes, from 18-year-old Air Force cadets hoping to earn their wings to major political figures. One night, I shared a dinner table with Dr. Hezi Levi, the IDF colonel who led Israel's humanitarian mission to Albanian refugee camps during the Kosovo conflict. On another occasion, I was seated next to Ruti Yaron, an intelligent, articulate and generally fascinating dinner companion. Yaron, who at the time was the chief instructor at the IDF National Defense College, has since been named head of the IDF spokesperson's office and now holds the rank of brigadier general.
The group spent nearly every waking minute meeting and interacting with Israelis: the commander of the Hazerim Air Force Base; newly arrived teenage olim (immigrants to Israel), coming to Israel alone, accompanied only by their enthusiasm for the Jewish nation; a former justice of the Israeli Supreme Court; security guards in their early 20s; generals; taxi drivers and politicians. They were from different backgrounds, at different stages of their lives, but they all shared a sense of determination. They were determined not to surrender to fear; determined to make their homes in the Jewish state; determined to survive the latest evil threat to the Jewish people and the Zionist dream.
In a rare free moment, I watched as the moon assumed its place in the still-bright sky. The Tower of David cast a lengthening shadow toward the porch of the hotel where I sat, languidly dipping triangles of pita into a creamy humus. The air was incredibly still, with the clear, yellow cast of a Jerusalem spring afternoon. In a land beset by war and hatred, I felt, at that moment, nothing but peace. And a touch of determination of my own.