Jewish Journal

Israel and I: The first 60 years

by Tom Tugend

Posted on May. 15, 2008 at 6:00 pm

Tom Tugend during the War of Independence

By ship and plane, I've traveled to Israel 15 times over the last 60 years and, looking back, my relationship to the Jewish state has a certain Zelig-like quality.

Zelig, you remember, was the Woody Allen character who popped up whenever and wherever some historic event was unfolding.

Or maybe it's just that Israel is always facing either a devastating crisis or a miraculous triumph so, regardless of the timing, you're likely to witness history in the making.

So here's my anecdotal, completely subjective view of modern Israel's entire lifespan, glimpsed through the eyes of a soldier, reporter and member of my wife Rachel's vast Israeli mishpacha.


I was a junior at UC Berkeley when I decided to go to Israel and join the army of the newly created state. As a World War II combat infantryman, I thought I roughly knew what to expect, but after disembarking from the refugee ship Pan York at Haifa, I learned, not for the last time, that Israelis were a different breed and everything worked differently.

First, I wasn't assigned to any established unit. Instead, like a feudal baron offering inducements to the local peasants to fight under his banner, an American ex-major appeared at my holding camp one day.

He asked whether I would like to join an English-speaking "Anglo-Saxon" unit he was forming (by some special alchemy, Jew boys from Britain, South Africa, the United States, Canada and Australia were transformed into "Anglo-Saxim" upon stepping on the soil of the Holy Land).

His inducement was that the anti-tank unit in the making would be "democratic," i.e. no rank, no saluting and, except in combat, all decisions would be made by majority vote. It was an offer no ex-GI could refuse.

When I joined my fellow Anglo-Saxons, they were training on a wooden dummy gun. "Where are the weapons?" I asked. "We don't have any," responded our Israeli liaison. "But as soon as our infantry captures a gun from the Arabs, we'll be ready to go."

And that's what happened.

It was a great time to be in Israel. There were about 600,000 Jews in the country, roughly the same number as are now in the Los Angeles area. Everybody seemed to know everyone else, nobody was obscenely rich but nobody was starving, and even macho sabras allowed that it was nice of the foreign volunteers to come over and lend a hand.

By American Army standards, nothing worked right, except that the Israelis kept winning all the battles -- though at a cost of some 6,000 lives.


Rachel and I, 3-year-old Orlee and 9-month -old Alina took a ship from Marseilles to Haifa to meet my wife's mother and six married siblings for the first time.

The ship's Israeli crew had been drilled that it didn't necessarily violate the egalitarian spirit of the land to treat passengers with a modicum of courtesy.

It didn't always work. One afternoon, at "High Tea," the waiter brought a piece of cake, but no fork. When I mentioned the oversight, he looked at me in frank astonishment, and, genuinely puzzled, asked, "So why can't you use your fingers?"

Rachel's mother lived in a small house in Shaarey Hessed, an observant, but not black hat, quarter of Jerusalem, where chains blocked entrances to streets on Shabbat.

There my mother-in-law had raised seven children, without benefit of a gas range, washing machine or second bathroom. Neither she nor any of her children's families had a phone, and the idea of owning a car was beyond fantasy.

I used my one-month visit to write six articles for the Mirror, the afternoon sister paper of the Los Angeles Times. Fortunately, Rachel's five sisters and one brother, and their spouses, ranged politically from far left to far right, so I had an instant crash course on Israel's chaotic political scene.

The discussions were lively and emotional, something I sorely missed years later when I learned that the debates had stopped. By that time, opinions and frictions had hardened to the point where frank discussions had to be discontinued to preserve some semblance of family harmony.

Here is an anecdote to illustrate something basic about the Israeli character:

We had rented an apartment in the Rehavia quarter of Jerusalem, and a half a block from our place was a neighborhood grocery store.

One day I put Alina in a baby stroller to pick up some groceries. It was a hot day, so I took off her blanket and stowed it next to her.

I had walked but a few steps, when a middle-age woman peered into the baby carriage, clucked her tongue, looked at me disapprovingly and without a word took the blanket and covered Alina.

I immediately pushed the blanket aside and after a few more steps, another yenta appeared, and went through the same routine. Before I could reach the store, the minidrama was repeated for a third time.

At first, I was furious. What possessed these people, total strangers, to butt their noses into what was purely my business? Then I had a second thought. If I were in Los Angeles and decided to throw my baby in the gutter, it is doubtful that the passing cars would even slow down.

These thoughts led to my first rule on the Israeli personality: In normal times, Israelis can drive you up the wall. But when I'm in trouble and need help, it's the Israelis I want next to me.

There were a couple of happenings during our stay to spice up the narrative.

Jerusalem was all atwitter because a Hollywood star and film crew were in town to shoot a movie, which was released later in the year under the title, "Exodus."

Then, toward the end of our stay, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion rose in the Knesset for an announcement. Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust, had been captured in Argentina and brought to Israel for trial.1962-1963

When I met Rachel, she had just been sent over by the Foreign Ministry to work at the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, and when we married it was on the understanding that we would try to make aliyah and settle in Israel.

In my earlier visit to Israel I had written an article about the renowned Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, and about a year later I received a letter inviting me to join the institute staff as liaison with the resident foreign press.

Everybody assured me that the Weizmann Institute was a green island of civility and brilliant minds, and the proposed salary and conditions seemed equivalent to my job as a UCLA science writer.

Tom Tugend and family
So we accepted, took enough American appliances and bedsheets to last for the next two generations, bundled up our 6-year-old and 3-year-old daughters and off we went. Since we preferred to live off-campus, the Jewish Agency had arranged for us to move into a brand new shikun, a 12-unit apartment house in Holon near Tel Aviv, for immigrants from English-speaking countries.

I felt relatively well prepared for the move. After all, I had spent a year in the Israeli army, had visited two years earlier and, best of all, had an Israeli wife with a large, supportive family.

Lesson No. 2: It doesn't matter how many times you have visited a foreign country as a tourist, you know nothing about it until you settle there as an ordinary citizen, making a living, raising a family and coping with the indigenous bureaucracy.

Our first inkling came when we got a look at our 700-square-foot apartment and found it bereft of a single closet or shelf. Our front door was too narrow to squeeze our American refrigerator through. Getting gas or electricity connected required intricate bureaucratic maneuvering. We might get a phone in six months, maybe.

Of course, resident Israelis went through the same obstacle course, and worse, but they had been trained for it since childhood.

Let me illustrate the initial culture gap with a story. I had written a couple of articles for the Jerusalem Post on the adjustment problems of Western immigrants, when one day an official from David Ben-Gurion's office knocked at our front door.

He explained that the prime minister was very concerned by reports that some 80 percent to 90 percent of new immigrants from Western countries went back within a year of making aliyah. Would we mind discussing the problem with Ben-Gurion and bring along a couple of the other families?

A week later, we trooped into the office where Ben-Gurion, in a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt, got right to the point.

"What's the matter with you people?" he asked. "Why don't you stay in Israel?" There was an embarrassed silence, until a young woman from New Jersey, let's call her Ethel, spoke up.

"Mr. Prime Minister," she said, "we have a problem. All the people in our shikun are young families with small children. Our husbands are professionals, who leave for work in the morning and come home in the evening.

"Among our 12 families, no one can get a phone, and there's no store with a phone nearby. If there is an emergency, if a child gets sick, there is no way to reach our husbands or a doctor. We've never been in this situation before, and it's scary."

Ben-Gurion looked at Ethel with the baffled expression of a man confronted by an escapee from an insane asylum.

"Telephone?" he asked incredulously. "Telephone? Why, when Paula [his wife] and I came here, we lived in a tent."

It was a classic example of a dialogue in which both sides, by their own lights, were right, and neither comprehended the other.

We went back to fix up our apartments. It was October 1962, and suddenly everybody was glued to the radio as President Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis.

"Thank God, you're here where it's safe," said my mother-in-law in Jerusalem.

For a combination of personal and professional reasons, I returned to Los Angeles after one year, to the disappointment of my employer, family and friends.

I came back, no less devoted to and concerned about Israel, with a painful awareness of the tension of everyday life -- much of it self-inflicted. In one article from that time, I wrote, "Israelis spend about 20 percent of their total national energy fighting hostile neighbors, building a country and absorbing millions of immigrants, and 80 percent fighting each other."


What a glorious time to visit Israel, with the euphoria of the Six-Day War victory still lingering and a chance for claustrophobic Israelis to explore the newly won territories.

We flew across the Sinai Peninsula to Abu Rodeis on the Gulf of Suez, then took an "air-conditioned" bus ("Just open the windows on both sides," advised our exuberant guide, whom we nicknamed Zorba) and drove to a pristine Sharm Al-Sheikh for some snorkeling.

We shared hummus with Israeli soldiers, singing around a campfire at night, and stayed at St. Catherine's Monastery, constructed in the sixth century C.E. (as was the plumbing). We checked out Moses' burning bush and climbed Mount Sinai at dawn (Well, Rachel climbed. I had a bandaged toe and rode a camel).


Israel was entering the high-tech era in earnest and computer pioneer Gerald "Jerry" Estrin of UCLA, who was organizing the first International Jerusalem Conference on Information Technology, asked me to come along to handle press matters.

Prime Minister Golda Meir opened the conference, and Jerry wanted to present her with a then cutting-edge computer digitized photo of her face, which seemed to consist of a set of building blocks, but swam into focus when held at a distance.Golda's aide first nixed the idea.

"Mrs. Meir may be prime minister, but she is a woman, after all," he objected.

Jerry went ahead and publicly presented Golda with her "portrait," and she had a good laugh.

Israel was gradually changing and beginning to adopt American customs and institutions, so we were overjoyed when we spotted a Jerusalem restaurant advertising itself as Israel's first pizza outlet (in the olden days, there was nothing like travel abroad to induce a desperate longing for down-home dishes).

A group of computer mavens from UCLA entered and waited expectantly for the pizza. It finally arrived in the form of a pita drenched in tomato sauce.

We left in deep disappointment. Lenny Kleinrock, later to win fame as the father of the Internet, led the walkout, shouting at the top of his voice, "Don't eat the pizza, don't eat the pizza."


Another family trip and again our historic timing was on the mark. We arrived shortly after the hijacking of a plane full of Israelis to Uganda, followed by their spectacular rescue at Entebbe. The sense of relief and pride was still in the air.


Our friends, Dan and Ella Almagor, had made reservations for the four of us at a convent, built at a point overlooking Lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee, where, the nuns told us, Jesus had walked on water.

The accommodations were cheap, but the household rules were strict: Lockout after 8 p.m. and no alcohol on the premises. Nevertheless, we smuggled in a bottle of wine and sat on an outdoor patio, a full moon rising over Kinneret, sipping of the forbidden fruit of the vine. We were in the Holy Land and life was good.


We decided to combine this trip with an exploration of Egypt. Shortly before we arrived in Israel, four Palestinian terrorists had hijacked the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast and killed Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound American Jew.

International tourists cancelled their visits to Egypt in droves, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. We had booked a single room in a Cairo hotel, and instead were given the entire empty floor. Rachel and I walked through the Cairo slums, the only Westerners in sight, without feeling a moment's anxiety. We visited Luxor and floated down the Nile to Aswan.

On the way back, we boarded an El Al plane at Cairo airport, and Rachel got emotional.

"Never in my life did I expect to take an Israeli plane at an Egyptian airport," she said.


I had been on a press trip to Romania, recovering from the bloody overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and the plane from Bucharest to Ben-Gurion Airport was filled with Russian Jews, finally free to leave the Soviet Union. Their welcome to Israel was an emotional high.

We joined the Almagors on a trip to Cyprus and ran right into the Greek-Turkish confrontation on the divided island. Apparently, the Israeli-Palestinian standoff wasn't the only insoluble conflict in the region.


Family visits and a week in Prague on the way home.


I am invited to cover a two-day conference on the always-popular subject of Israel-Diaspora relations, at the official residence of President Ezer Weizman in Jerusalem.

Some 230 of the better minds in Israel and abroad attended. Weizman tirelessly talked up the crucial importance of aliyah, in much the same words Ben-Gurion had used 45 years earlier.

My article on the "dialogue" was headlined, "Talking past each other," which pretty well told the story.


The Histadrut, Israel's labor federation, invited a few reporters for a tour, though the timing was a bit baffling. Before independence, Histadrut had been practically a state-within-a-budding-state, but now it was divesting itself of its health services, youth villages and retirement centers.

The trip brought home Israel's transformation, for better or worse, from a semisocialist egalitarian society to a semicapitalist one, with a widening gap between the rich and poor.


Ben-Gurion University hosted a conference marking the 20th anniversary of the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, brokered by President Jimmy Carter.

Many of the key diplomats who took part in that momentous event reminisced how the personal chemistry between the participants had been at least as important in reaching agreement as boundary lines and timetables. I found the role of the human factor in historic decisions oddly reassuring.

As a bonus, we were caravanned to Hebron for a long morning meeting with an avuncular, though slightly shaky, Yasser Arafat, while on the same afternoon we had an even longer session with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

The main topic of conversation was the disintegrating Wye River accord, with each side blaming the other for its failure.


The second intifada was in full swing, tourism from America was all but dead, the economy was hurting badly, and the mood was depressed.

As a desperation measure, the government Tourist Office invited a group of Jewish reporters from America to show them that fun was still to be had -- at least in the Negev.

Except for the beaches of Eilat, the Negev had never been much of a tourist draw, but now the desert area emerged as the safest part of the country.

The Negev actually proved fascinating, even to a veteran visitor to Israel, but we wound up in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where we found hotels and stores empty, even after slashing prices 50 percent to 70 percent.

One man's misery is another man's gain, and our hosts put me up at the legendary King David Hotel in Jerusalem. I got a suite usually reserved for American presidents and large enough to house the next Zionist Congress.2006

The Middle East situation was relatively quiet, so Rachel and I decided to treat ourselves, our youngest daughter, her husband and their three small kids to a real fun vacation at a fancy Tel Aviv hotel, facing a wide beach and a stunning view of the Mediterranean and the curving bay all the way to Jaffa.

Sitting on our balcony, watching the energetic paddleball players on the beach and the sun reflecting on the rippling sea, I felt as peaceful and as close to heaven as I was likely to get in this or the next world.

A few days before our arrival, however, Hamas had kidnapped an Israeli soldier near the Gaza Strip; shooting broke out and tension escalated. Better said, tension escalated in media reports around the world, though in Tel Aviv, it felt as if the fighting was happening on another continent.

"We've learned to separate our personal lives from outside events, otherwise we'd go crazy," a young relative explained to me. "That's our abnormal normality."

My brother-in-law emphasized the point by organizing a surprise family reunion in a park across from the Jerusalem Zoo. Some 85 relatives welcomed us, three generations of self-assured, strapping Jews, all descended from Rachel's parents and born in Israel. It struck me as the fulfillment of Herzl's dream.

Three days before our scheduled departure, Hezbollah kidnapped two more Israeli soldiers near the Lebanon border, fighting started for real and rockets fell on northern Israel.


So much of my life has been bound up with Israel that it's hard to put the country into perspective on its 60th anniversary. It's like trying to evaluate one's own existence on this planet.

There have been moments of euphoria and anxiety, great pride and times of cynicism and disappointment.

Israel's accomplishments have been almost incredible, but the idealistic hope that it might become a light unto the nations has not been -- and might never be -- fulfilled in this world.

Yet, whether he may realize it or not, there isn't a Jew anywhere who does not walk taller, whose spine is not straighter, because the Jewish state exists and thrives, in defiance of all the odds.

Am Yisrael Chai.

Tom Tugend in 1949
Tom Tugend, out of uniform, sits on Egypt-Palestine border stone after his unit helped take what is now Eilat in early 1949 Tracker Pixel for Entry


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