February 28, 2008
At peace with conflict
One of the bonuses of living in exile is that you can see Israeli society more clearly, one lunch, party, speech or cappuccino at a time. When I'm in the Holy Land, I lose myself in a noisy, beautiful, hectic, joyful and soulful blur.
It's as if I'm inside a boat in a stormy sea. Here in the Diaspora, Israel comes at you in neat little waves. Over the past month, I've had encounters with four passionate Israelis, and each, in their own way, has helped me make sense of the craziness of what it is to live the Zionist dream.
My first encounter was at Beth Jacob Congregation, where on a recent Shabbat morning I went to hear right-wing Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, who has developed a cult-like following among fellow right-wingers.
Here is this petite, gentle-looking brunette who doesn't look a day older than 30, but listen to her speak and you'll see they don't come any tougher. During three long sessions that continued through late Saturday night, Glick showed a mastery of the geopolitical dynamics that challenge Israel on a daily basis.
Glick doesn't apologize for her contention that military victory against an uncompromising enemy is the smartest policy. Because she brings so much knowledge to the table, she comes across not as an extremist, but as a reasonable and logical thinker.
Of the many words she spoke, one phrase stood out: "It's not about us." Israel can dismantle settlements and make concessions and have peace meetings until hell freezes over, but that won't change a thing, not least the nature of our enemy. This is an inconvenient truth, but as Glick passionately expressed it, it is a truth we must deal with if we are to survive.
My second encounter was with two wounded heroes of the Lebanon war, whose first names were Haran and Idan, and who were in town to help an organization called Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans.
Over egg rolls and sushi at Shanghai Gardens on Pico Boulevard, they bantered, laughed and playfully needled each other, before Idan began telling me his story. He was at the head of a platoon that had just finished an eight-hour operation to take over an enemy hill. At around 4 a.m., he noticed that two Israeli tanks were stuck in the valley below -- what they call in military lingo the "dead zone," because you're a sitting duck to enemy fire -- and he immediately commandeered towing and armored vehicles to rescue his comrades.
They got hit with a "bad-ass missile," as he called it, and a firefight ensued. Israeli tanks came to rescue the rescuers, and in the chaotic seven kilometer trek back to the safety of the Israeli border, Idan, who was nearly unconscious from the barrage of shrapnel that had pierced his body, could only remember hearing these words: "Yaffe, stay with us!"
Yaffe was his nickname, and his comrades were pleading with him to stay alive.
I asked Idan what went through his mind as he was fighting for his life, and he recalled the promise he had made to his girlfriend, Yael, that he would never leave her. When he saw that I was a little shaken by his story, he lightened things up a bit by telling me that Yael had recently broken up with him, and that he was now dating someone else.
I had no luck getting Idan to say anything negative about the Israeli army, or even all those corrupt Israeli politicians we so often complain about here. He and Haran looked like party animals who would rather spend their nights in a Tel Aviv disco than in a combat zone, but as they both said to me: "When our country calls, we go."
My third encounter was with a talent agent who represents two of the lead actors in the Israeli movie "Beaufort," which was nominated for an Academy Award. At a raucous reception in a private home in Beverly Hills, with Israeli television cameras and reporters covering the scene, the agent talked to me at length about how Israeli artists struggle to get their work produced, distributed and recognized internationally. Before we parted, she said in a wistful tone: "If Israel put the same amount of money into the arts that they put into weapons, we would be the most creative country in the world."
Finally, I met with political analyst and author Yossi Klein Halevi. In a little French cafe nestled in Topanga Canyon, my friend Halevi said that most Israelis were willing to pay a heavy price for real peace, but that there was a general consensus among the people today that since a real peace is not in the cards, they should "tough it out" until the circumstances become more favorable.
Halevi held the same passion to defend his country as Glick; the same love of life as the wounded warriors; and the same love of art and culture as the actors' agent. He seemed to carry within him the views and struggles of all Israelis.
Maybe that is to be expected from a spiritual seeker who struggles to make sense of the bigger picture. As we entered my car to drive through the canyon, he couldn't wait to play me this new CD of beautiful Yom Kippur melodies, as if to say: "This kind of beauty helps us all see the bigger picture."
As I reflected on my four encounters, it struck me that maybe the Jewish destiny is not to obsess over peace and to end conflict, but instead, to be at peace with conflict. We will never be a Buddhist-like nation that wallows in peace and serenity in a quiet mountain enclave. That's not our calling.
Our calling is the struggle. Whether we are struggling with war, peace, art, ideas or God, living with conflict is our story, our collective journey.
The Israelis who met me here in exile seemed to be at peace with that.