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Jewish Journal

Living for Yesterday

by Amy Klein

February 19, 2004 | 7:00 pm

Tel Aviv -- There is barely a line at Counter 15 of Israeli passport control, but still an older guy manages to try and cut me, even though his wife clearly sees that I've been there first. He pretends his line was for my counter, although it's clearly diagonal, for the empty Counter 16.

"Excuse me," I say loudly in Hebrew. "The line?"

"What? I was waiting here," he protests weakly, busted.

I roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders and cut him off right back. Funny how your native personality returns when surrounded by savages. Kill or be killed, I say.

There is none of that old smelly pushing and jolting for luggage. Everyone has a spot at the carousel, as lonely luggage pieces slide down the black conveyor belt, searching for their parents.

Customs doesn't stop me. Do they ever stop Jews anymore? Once they were busting people for hidden stashes of electronic goods and other items that would get taxed up the wazoo, but nowadays, like at most airports, it's terror they're concerned with. (I feel as if I could travel with a kilo of an illegal substance, but all they'd confiscate is my nail clipper and tweezers.)

Non-Jews, especially Muslims and Arabs, are almost regularly pulled aside -- just this past Tuesday, they detained an Arab Yedioth Aharonot correspondent. For him it was the usual.

Walking past customs, up to the glass sliding doors is always somewhat magical. What surprise will be waiting behind door No. 2?

Tonight, a few-dozen people line the metal gate. Some are holding signs, some are holding balloons or flowers or both. But if there's a familiar face out there, you're not going to miss it these days.

But I don't expect otherwise. When the doors open, I don't really expect to find hundreds of people shouting at their loved ones, climbing over the gate to break through the crowds. I don't expect to have to sift through the faces nervously, one of many visitors to the place. I don't really.

This is just the way it is here. "Status Quo," as they say in peace negotiations. Tourists, for the most part, don't come here, especially Americans, especially the nonreligious. Yes it's the terror; yes it's hurting the economy. The streets are bereft, the people are depressed and things are not what they once were. Yadda yadda yadda. Everyone knows the problem, everyone can find fault, everyone can feel guilty, or accusatory, or both.

Will American Jews and Israeli Jews continue on in this endless cycle of blame forever? One side feeling abandoned, the other feeling the call of duty too great to bear? What does this pingpong idealistic argument do for anyone?

Perhaps it allows some to mourn what was: To remember how Americans would visit Israel in droves, helping to make tourism Israel's No. 1 industry; to remember how Israel would give American tourists an instant connection to their Judaism. To wail over the way that things have changed -- not to mention the lost lives and peace process -- is also to live in the past.

And it is the past. Even though it's only been three and a half years since the second intifada began, we have to face the reality that Israel is a different place than it was in the last decade of the last century. And American Jews' relationship to it is different, too -- whether we care to admit it or not.

Here in Israel, things are not really different. Things are returning to "normal," my friends say. The cafe I'm at tonight is pretty full, especially for midweek; it even takes a minute or two to wait online for the two guards checking bags at the sealed door. We stop for a moment when we hear a bang -- "It sounds like a purposeful explosion," my friend Shauli says, pantomiming the action of a robot blowing up a suspicious object. "No telltale sirens afterward," he adds, and resumes eating his tomato soup.

What can you do, except return to real life, even when real life has changed so drastically. People get used to anything. Even a breakup between Israel and the world. Maybe it's time to look back to the way things were before the first intifada began 16 years ago, even before the Six-Day War, when it first became popular to come here. In the '40s, '50s and '60s (when you had to take a boat to get to Israel), American visitors were far and few. But still we managed a connection.

And that's what we need to do now -- forge a connection despite everything. If we can't do it by bringing ourselves, we must find another way. The question is how.

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