June 20, 2002
Where Are You?
Jerusalem -- "Do you have a bomb?" a security guard jokes as he rifles through my Le Sportsac at the Arlozorov train station in Tel Aviv. I'm on my way to Zichron Ya'acov, and have found this irreverently morbid humor creeping into a few interactions with Israelis here. It's been quiet in Israel -- i.e. no bus/cafe/club has been blown up, in, oh, two days -- though that was before the coming week of horror in Jerusalem, which killed more than 25, shattering more than two months of quiet.
"Most of the time you don't blow up," Saul Kleiman, a 31-year-old film producer told me half-jokingly. Kleiman, one of four students coming to USC film school this summer courtesy of The Jewish Federation's Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership Master Class program for filmmakers, was trying impress upon us that Israel was not a war zone. Last year, his film seminar began a day after the Dolphinarium bombing, which killed 23. Still, the seminar went on. "It was a very bad time, but the Americans got to see a different part than was portrayed on the news."
And that's the problem. Not the media -- because it's their job to report on trouble spots -- but the fact that we, the American Jews, perceive Israel only as a dusty war zone, like Kabul or Kashmir, too dangerous to visit.
I should know. I thought so, too, sort of, before I came. Though I'm not one to shrink in the face of danger, the security issues got to me as well, and the thought that I could be killed -- or worse, maimed -- at any time while here, that at any second I could be one of those faces on the news kept me from visiting for a while.
But now that I'm here, I've assumed the Israeli perspective. I can't explain this paradigm shift; I can't bridge the gap from believing the claim, "You're crazy to go to Israel now," to boarding the El Al flight with anticipation, and from agreeing with the warning of, "Don't take any buses," to sitting here on a the direct fast train to Haifa via Zichron, past the rolling hills with yellowing dried grass of the Central region.
It's true, you probably won't be blown up. You are still more likely to get hit by a car, though that's a cold comfort. But life reaffirms itself, and it's pulsing through, like the 95-degree heat.
Many things are different here: soldiers are called up, fences are being built, cafes are watched by armed guards (though they're not like the U.S. national guardsmen we see at American airports, just unemployed guys wearing teal security shirts), people think twice before going for a coffee; things have changed here in 1,000 ways, all of which we see nightly on the news.
From afar, we see what is different, but we forget what is the same. The watermelon sold on the street is still seedless and sweet, men make fun of my accent and then ask for my number. Cell phones ring more often during a movie here than in a West Hollywood cafe, the Old City Walls still sparkle ethereally and Tel Aviv lifeguards use their megaphones like it was their own personal walkie-talkie ("Hey darling, you want I should bring you some hot water into the ocean to make you go in faster?" one calls to a reluctant bather). Cab drivers are striking, the dollar is climbing, the education/postal/garbage/government system is still bassa (awful) and this week's sharav (heat wave) is so hot that my Pesek Zman candy bar is a naked wafer with melted chocolate on the red and beige wrapper.
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. So many things have changed here, surely, but many things have stayed the same. (See our special Israel Today section on page 25.) Watching the news, the political situation, most of us have forgotten the Israel we've loved, forgotten what we've loved about Israel, and given in to our own fears.
The biggest change here in Israel -- perhaps even including the Oslo failure -- is us. We no longer travel here on our way to Greece, on a hopover from Europe or on a summer abroad. We no longer send our synagogues, our children, our parents, ourselves.
And why should we? From our armchairs in America, it all seems so reasonable not to go. "It's too dangerous," we tell ourselves. So we rally in Washington, send pizza to soldiers, write letters to schoolchildren. It seems like a lot from our side, but I think now that those gestures mean more to us than to the people here.
Here, Israel is paying the price of our choices.
In Jerusalem, the King David Hotel stands cavernous. Kentucky Fried Chicken has closed down. The Fine discotheque is sad and lonely with only a sprinkling of children, and our tour guide talks for hours on the bus to Jerusalem pointing out each leaf, because who knows when he'll finally get another "brave" group to come?
Before I came here, I was tired of hearing the shrill voices from Israel that told American Jews of their obligation to come. But now that I'm here, I see the devastation wrought by our neglect, and I feel ashamed. There was a time that we believed we were supposed to live here, and now we need to be begged just to visit.
So send a check if you want. But think about coming here for a week, or two, instead. Now. Not when the situation clears up, not when you have a guarantee. You don't have to ride the buses, sit at cafes, shop at the mall -- though once you're here, you probably will.
But whatever you do in Israel is irrelevant: sit in your hotel room; watch a video with friends; scuba dive in Eilat; flower gaze in Haifa. Because going to Israel, for once, is not about you. It's about them, and it's about time.