June 19, 2008
The way to see Israel, I finally learned after two years of living there and umpteen visits, is by helicopter. We were five journalists whizzing south from Hertzliya, several-hundred feet in the air. Our guide was Marcus Sheff, a former journalist who now runs something called The Israel Project in, um, Israel. The organization regularly takes foreign journalists on these airborne "Intellicopter" tours of the country, to get a better understanding of Israel's security concerns.
It's the way to go. From up there, everything hard about Israel disappears: the traffic, the tension, the fear of bombs and rockets, the rising shekel and weakening dollar, the take-no-prisoners approach to every human interaction.
What you get instead is a God's eye view of the Holy Land: close enough to see day-to-day life, far enough not to get involved -- just like God.
The message Sheff wanted to get across was simple: Israel is trying to deal with its many security threats in as humane and effective a way as possible, given its precarious geography. Out the left window, he pointed to where the fence becomes a 28-foot wall, separating the West Bank Palestinian town of Kalkilya from Israel's Highway 6 and the Israeli town of Kfar Saba.
"Look," said Sheff, a former writer for The Nation, "Nobody likes walls. The wall in fact is ugly, and it does cut into people's livelihood. It does impede them."
Since the wall went up, Sheff explained, terror attacks have declined precipitously.
"If there is an agreement, you can remove walls, you can move fences," he continued. "But you can't bring back the 220 people killed by terrorists in 2002."
We circled over Jerusalem. It was midday -- "bad light," groused the photographer from Stern -- and the Holy City looked beautiful and small, the gold dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque a gem set into a circular jewel. The lines between Arab east and Jewish west, the compact Arab villages encircled by modern Jewish neighborhoods -- it was all ancient, modern, intertwined, a GoogleMaps Rubik's Cube. We cut west toward Sderot.
As Sheff explained how a rain of Hamas rockets followed Israel's unilateral pullout from Gaza, we flew over a huge factory campus in Kiryat Gat.
"Intel," Sheff pointed out. "They built their first factory outside of the United States right here."
We landed just across from a large ranch house. It looked more like JR's ranch in "Dallas" than the Negev.
"That's Sharon's house," Sheff explained. "We're using his pad."
"Is that OK?" I asked.
"He's in a coma, Lilly's in the next world, and his son's in jail," someone said. "Who's gonna complain?"
Ah, back on the ground in Israel.
We toured Sderot behind a tour bus of police chiefs from Georgia. Sderot, which has suffered some 7,000 rocket attacks since 2001, has become a kind of twisted attraction for outside security officials and pro-Israel tourists. ("Sderot is the new Yad Vashem," The New York Times' Ethan Bronner told me.) During the three days I spent there -- with the Israel Project and then with a United Jewish Communities trip -- no rockets fell on the city.
"Maybe we should arrange for some explosions," an Israeli diplomat joked with me later. "So visitors aren't disappointed."
I was actually fine with it.
A few days after coming to earth, I drove up to Tel Aviv and attended a conference at the David InterContinental Hotel hosted by the Re'ut Institute. Re'ut founder Gidi Grinstein gathered many of Israel's best and brightest entrepreneurs, high-tech innovators, thinkers and leaders to brainstorm a path for Israel to become one of the 15 leading countries in the world in terms of quality of life of its citizens. (The Jewish Journal was a co-sponsor.)
The speakers offered a "new Zionism," a vision of an Israel that integrated all its citizens -- Charedi, Arab, Bedouin -- into a productive economy, that broke down trade and development barriers with the rest of the world, that offered all its citizens a world-class education, high-speed transit, green tech, etc.
"Israel is hardwired for globalization," said the conference's keynote speaker Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist. Friedman, of course, is the author of "The World Is Flat," about adapting to an international, borderless high-tech economy. Israel, he pointed out, has three assets that will help it in a flat world: it values individual initiative, it is linked to a "cyber tribe" -- the global network of Diaspora Jewry -- and it values innovation. In that Asian wonder Singapore, Friedman pointed out, rote-taught students have to take courses on how to be creative. "One thing Israel doesn't have to teach is courses on innovation," he said.
I ran Friedman's optimism by Tal Samuel-Azran, a young professor of new media at Ben Gurion University.
"I teach them what Tom Friedman says," Samuel-Azran said, "and they say, 'But what about Sderot?' If the world is flat, why do we need these walls to protect us from our neighbors?"
That, of course, is Israel's conundrum and curse. To be a 21st-century country fighting battles fueled by Iron Age beliefs. To boast of Intel while taking tourists to see holes left by Islamic Jihad mortars. To fly over an Israeli Bedouin village like Hashem Zaneh, whose 2,300 residents have no electricity and a single gas generator-powered laptop, and land in Tel Aviv, where there seem to be as many iPhones as semi-nude sun-worshippers. To be in Israel is to be whipsawed between optimism and pessimism.
And now, just as Iran's president reaffirms his commitment to nuclear development, news comes that Israel and Hamas may be signing an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire, Hezbollah and Israel may exchange prisoners and Syria and Israel are closer than ever to a Turkey-brokered agreement.
Israel: It all looks so much simpler from the air.