February 5, 2004
Visit to Another Israel
It's time we stop kidding ourselves that Israel has survived well through the last three years. The country is unraveling at the seams.
My wife and three kids wanted to be in Israel for the winter break. We had a great time together as a family of adults, being with our Israeli friends, going places and touring. But from the moment we arrived at the hotel in Jerusalem on our first night, I noticed how things had changed even since my last business trip in June. At the hotel, we were slammed in the face with lobby pandemonium, a sense of nervousness, tension and the understandable hypersecurity precautions.
As our days went forward in Jerusalem, we felt as if the hotel pandemonium was a microcosm for what was happening all over the city. Jerusalem, which not so long ago felt like a blossoming, sensitive city of world culture that belonged to every Jew, now appeared as a city overrun by religious fundamentalists, squeezing out a creative, secular population. The city looked poor. Stores were closed down. Jaffa Road now resembled a third-world capital. Today, Jerusalem has the distinction of being the poorest city in Israel. Between terrorism, the economy and the increasing Charedi population living on donations and welfare, this does not bode well for the future of the city, Israel and the Jewish people everywhere.
Neither does the building of a wall through the country. We found out that whether Israelis are pro or con about the wall, it is creating a national nightmare, unnerving everyone. The reality is that while the world celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and the opening of borders everywhere, the Jews are walling themselves in. Whether it works or not, its existence is depressing. It has meaning and psychological gravity for us as a people, as well as for the entire Zionist effort, past and future. To see it doesn't make one feel secure, only sad. It points to the reality of why it has to be done. There is no victory or celebration in that reality. It is not a proud Jewish moment of ingenuity. How we look to the world from our side of this wall is not a good situation. We cannot ignore world opinion. We must be cultivating the world to support us.
As we traveled through the country, our friends expressed frustration, anger, resignation and a continual fear of slipping into unemployment. Conversations with their adult children all revolved around the possibilities of their leaving. Many claim to see no future for themselves in Israel if the situation continues.
The daily stories in the Israeli press about hungry and impoverished families, the growing percentage of children who are falling into the category of deprived, the increase in family violence, and the levels of corruption in government and business can destroy even the brightest winter mornings of warm Middle Eastern sun.
A friend of mine who lost a soldier son to a Hamas terrorist kidnapping invited me to meet with him and 10 other parents who have lost children to terrorism. They were extraordinary people and I enjoyed helping them. I left the meeting completely drained and depressed.
An Arab friend who lives in Beit Hanina section of East Jerusalem pointed to the checkpoint from his window and told me about his 14-year-old son walking to school and getting caught in the crossfire between Israeli soldiers and some Arab men jumping the checkpoint. My friend watched from the window, shouting to his son to stand still, which saved his life.
We shopped in Israel, spending money to help in whatever small ways we could. Our friends commented how encouraged they were by our presence as an entire family at this time. But I cannot kid myself. In comparison to the enormity of the problems, our actions are nearly insignificant. They will not solve anything.
Israel needs to pursue every avenue to find a way to get out of its compounding mess. I don't doubt that Israel will survive. But what kind of Israel survives is now of major concern.
We Jews have the creativity to find solutions to the world's biggest challenges -- in science, medicine, literature, music, arts, business and academia. Yet when it comes to this situation, the leaders have only displayed the thinking of a nation of victims. You don't think creatively when you only think like a victim.
We are the people who, after thousands of years, had an idea to recreate our country. Where is Jewish creativity and all our ideas when we need them so badly now?
Gary Wexler is the owner of the Los Angeles-based Passion Marketing for Issues and Causes.