How a Trip to Israel Healed a South African Professor's Soul

Arrivals / Departures: A South African recalls how Israelis gave her the motivation to go on with her life; an Israeli says Americans know how to live, while the Japanese don't.

Elizabeth (Elisheva) Smit leans on a neat stack of colorful suitcases at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Elizabeth (Elisheva) Smit, 65, lives in Plettenberg Bay, South Africa; flying to Johannesburg

Excuse me, can I ask what your earrings represent?

Certainly. On one ear is Stuart Little, whom I’m sure you’re familiar with, and the other is just some mouse that says “Hi!” I think they’re better than diamonds. In Israel, young people always stop me on the street to ask about them.

Do you visit here often?

Yes. Since 2005, I’ve come here two or three times a year. This time I stayed seven weeks – one week in beautiful Eilat, and then at a rental apartment in Jaffa, near the Noga complex. I worked for 42 years at the University of South Africa, and now I am free, retired, and I can come and go as I please.

How did your love affair with Israel begin?

It’s an amazing story, I think. It was a time of great difficulty in my personal life. I was married for 32 years, and we didn’t have children, and then my husband died. At that stage I had a prior commitment to attend a conference at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. At first I didn’t want to go, but in the end I came and stayed on. After my business in Jerusalem ended, I went to Tel Aviv and was at the beach every day. I felt overcome by self-pity, but the trip healed my soul. Since then I’ve come back over and over to rejuvenate myself. This place is great for me.

How do you heal yourself?

It’s thanks to the support I get from Israelis, people I’d never met before whose support has continued since then. That’s what I find so amazing. Maybe it’s the local culture, which holds that one has to care for others who are in need of help – and I am not talking about physical or economic needs, but about emotional support. I met these people completely by chance, four people, and I’ve been in touch with them ever since. Without them, I don’t know what would have happened. They gave me the motivation to go on with my life, and that’s what always brings me back here. 

When I’m here I collect stones at the beach, and put them in my suitcase and go back with them. The airport people always get upset with me, especially in Addis Ababa; they don’t understand why anyone would want to carry something so heavy with them. My friends in Israel always laugh at me. Oy, people here don’t understand what they have in terms of human quality. That’s what I think. You know, academics always say, “I think,” not “I feel,” but to feel is from the gut – it’s more important.

What did you do in the university?

I am a professor emeritus. Besides my academic duties, I also directed an educational center for peace, whose goal was to bring people closer together and create a bridge between different cultures. We mediated between groups in conflict around the world.

Where, for example?

In the United States, for example, between African-Americans and other Americans. Students we trained taught 11th-graders how to deal with one another, how to change their perspective and be more receptive to the “Other.”

Did it work?

It’s very difficult to assess, but if it worked for even one person who found inner peace, that is already a contribution and an achievement. There’s a kind of motto that goes: There’s no peace in the world without peace in the home, no peace in the home without peace in the family, no peace in the family without peace in the heart. If you do not have peace within you, nothing will help. Perhaps this is the peace I was able to find here in Israel, the most difficult peace to achieve.

So you found peace in a place of no peace. Do you have any professional advice for us?

To cope, to be more open, to understand that it makes no different what you believe in – the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, each religion has its own norms – everyone can make a place for God in their heart, that’s the way to peace. The conflict here is extremely difficult, and I can’t really talk about the solution. This is a land of contrasts, there are no gray zones. It’s black or white, desert or sea, old or new.

Roee Lahat, a man dressed in black, holds on to a black suitcase at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Roee Lahat, 42, lives in Kiryat Ono; arriving from Denver, Colorado

Hello, can I ask where you’re coming from?

From Denver. I work at Intel, and five of us from the company went there to get a product off the ground.

Working trip? Sounds like fun.

It’s not as much fun as people think. There was a heavy snowfall, so I have great photos, and one day we went skiing, but basically we were shut in a cave for two weeks, working from 8 A.M. to 11 P.M. The Americans know how to live; with them, five o’clock is five o’clock. So after five, we were alone with an authorized escort; we could only be in the laboratory with him. He begged us not to come in the snow and not to come on Sunday – he was on the verge of tears – but there was no choice.

Now it doesn’t sound like fun.

I’ve been abroad for two weeks in each of the past four months, and I don’t like it. First of all, I have two small children. The baby is a year old and she started to walk when I wasn’t there. The older one is 3, a boy. The first week is somehow alright, but in the second week, the long-distance crying starts. My son says: “Dad, come back, come back today.” It’s so sad that I prefer not to have the conversation at all. And besides that, I don’t like flying.

You’re afraid to fly?

I’m anxious already a day before, and during the flight I’m uptight about being in a closed plane.

Are you into Doomsday scenarios?

I can’t sleep, I check every noise to see whether it’s reasonable. 

Excuse the nitpicking, but how do you know whether it’s a reasonable noise?

You look out the window and you see: Ah, it’s the wing flaps being lowered, or the landing gear. I especially don’t like flying via New York. I prefer flights that stop, like in Frankfurt.

Tomer (the photographer): But that only increases the risk.

Yes, that’s true. Don’t think I haven’t thought of that. The takeoffs are the most dangerous part. Just now, for example, we were in Denver and had to make a connection via Frankfurt. Then we were told that the flight from Denver was eight hours late. We were all stressed out. In the end we flew from Denver to Washington and then to Frankfurt, so we had three flights instead of two. And the statistics definitely went through my head.

So what did you do?

I drank wine, I drank beer, something to make me sleep a little, dull the senses. When you have to do it, you say: “There’s no alternative. This is my livelihood.” My consolation is that before this, I worked a lot in Japan, and the flights were longer and more exhausting.

Did you work hard there, too?

The Japanese are crazy. I would not want to be a Japanese person from the work point of view. They’re kept on a short leash. One of them explained to me that at a very young age they’re treated like nails – they’re all pounded in the head with a hammer to make sure everything comes out straight. Those who don’t come out straight get hammered some more. But that was in my previous job. I switched from a startup of 20 people to Intel. Intel is a good place to work. In both cases I worked in the field of cables for television.

Are there still improvements to be made in that field?

In the United States, they’re waiting eagerly for this technology. It’s a new standard, there’s action and there’s competition. You need a broader band. Once everyone watched the same channels, now everyone wants video on demand.

Don’t people just download what they want?

Here there’s the Kodi app, for example, which is for Israelis who want to download content without paying for cable TV. You buy a small chip that looks like a USB and install the app and download movies. But it’s an effort. It’s inconvenient. Their user interface isn’t nice. People claim that this way they can control what they see; it’s intended for people who have a thing for technology. You have to connect and download the subtitles, but what people want is to just come home and click “play.”

I thought the whole cable thing was dying out.

It’s only in Tel Aviv that cable isn’t in fashion.