'When I Visited Israel in My Youth, Italy Was the Advanced Country. Now It's the Opposite'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: A Roman family who weathered the coronavirus storm in Israel, and a young Coloradan who fell in love with Mideast conflict resolution

Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein
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The Guetta family, from left: Lisa, Rachel and her boyfriend Sean, Sharon and Roberto.
The Guetta family, from left: Lisa, Rachel and her boyfriend Sean, Sharon and Roberto.
Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein

The Guetta family, from left: Lisa, 49; Rachel, 26 (and her boyfriend, Sean, 30); Sharon, 16; and Roberto, 52; live in Rome and flying there

Where is this lovely family going?

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Lisa: Back to Rome. We fled the coronavirus in March. Besides the girls, who are here with us, we have two other grown children in Tel Aviv, and Roberto has two sisters here. So now we’re headed back, together with Rachel’s boyfriend, Sean. They were supposed to get married in June, but we postponed. We enjoyed being here together.

Roberto: Things are tough in Italy – even in Rome, which was much less affected. We have friends who became ill, but happily they all recovered.

You’re a big family.

Lisa: Yes, in the Jewish community of Italy, each family has at least three children. It’s different from the rest of Italy. People aren’t having children anymore there. They’re afraid, because the situation isn’t clear. Things are a little easier in the Jewish community, because there is more support and there is always the thought that Israel is there.

Where is your excellent Hebrew from?

Roberto: From school, from visiting Israel and from watching TV series. We’ve seen “Fauda,” “The Arbitrator,” “Dead for a Moment,” everything. Since the children were small, I have been saying to them, ‘Look at the universities in Israel,’ ‘Look how things have developed there.’ I always emphasized the advantages. And the truth is that all the children want to live in Israel.

What’s so great about living here?

Roberto: When I visited Israel when I was young, I was the one who came from an advanced country: European, sophisticated. It was clear that Italy was where the important things were taking place. Now it’s almost the opposite. Italy is terrific, and it’s impossible not to love it: the sea, the wonderful mountains, amazing landscape, Rome – the most beautiful city in the world – and the great natural resources, tremendous history and culture, the weather. It’s one of a kind. But politics ruined it all. So much potential, so few results. People have to choose between one corrupt leader and another.

Isn’t Israel like that, too?

There are similarities, but people here rise up, take to the streets, try to correct things. In Italy everyone is in despair; they are resigned to the situation. And there is also the end result: Israel has high-tech and Italy is just losing assets. The younger generation is fleeing, because they see no future there. The coronavirus is just one more powerful blow to a wounded country.

Were you born in Rome?

Yes. My parents immigrated from Libya in 1967 and I was born in 1968, the youngest of seven siblings. The Jewish community in Rome was still recovering from the Holocaust and was very closed; there was a ghetto mentality. The immigrants from Libya were different – they opened up the community, because they arrived with less baggage. But they were also simple and had to become acquainted with the rich Italian culture. I remember it was very difficult for my parents as older immigrants.

How did you sense that?

Mainly in connection with their friends’ families. The other parents would meet and go to restaurants, cafés, the opera. My parents weren’t familiar with the culture. I only felt that I was integrating successfully when my sisters married Italian men. These days I see a lot of Libya in the Jewish community of Rome.

So we’re going to have a family aliyah here?

Lisa: If only! After all, we have parents and there is work in Rome, but if all the children end up here – we will be here, too. The younger children still have to have their experiences and adventures. You can’t make plans. I grew up in a conservative family, and when I was young, it was clear that I would do exactly what my parents did. Things are very different today, and it’s wonderful for me to see that there so many options available to them. We hope to end up in Israel.

Sharon: I’ll probably be back in September, in an exchange program for high-school students. I wanted London, but it didn’t work out, so I’ll probably pick Tel Aviv.

Rachel?

I lived here since I was 18. I met Sean a year ago in Israel, but we went back to Rome. I work here for a startup and I’m dying to come back, but it depends on him, too. He’s 30 already, and it’s not easy.

Sean, do you want to?

Sean: Why not?

Rachel: Aha, now we have it on tape.

Aliza Gold.
Aliza Gold.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Aliza Gold, 24; moving to Jerusalem, arriving from New York

Where are you coming from?

From Colorado. I was visiting family. I was supposed to be there for three weeks, but I was stuck there for two months because of the coronavirus.

Where were you before that?

I was in Nepal for five months, and before that I lived at Benjy’s House in Ra’anana, a place for lone soldiers who serve in combat units, especially those from abroad. Now I’m going back to do a master’s in conflict resolution, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

How does a girl from Colorado come to be resolving conflicts in Israel?

I’ve felt close to Israel all my life, but my parents wanted me to go to college in America first – I supposed they hoped I would stay, after all. Originally I wanted to be an actress in musical theater, but I didn’t get enough scholarships, so I went to the University of Colorado. Because I took German in high school, I continued with it and added Hebrew and Israel studies. I needed to add something else, too, so I chose a course on conflict resolution.

And that was that?

I fell in love. I’d wanted to move to Israel since I was a child, and I’d always been interested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Suddenly it all came together, because even though I grew up in a Reform congregation, religion doesn’t interest me – my whole connection to Jewishness was through Zionism. I remember sitting in front of the TV in 2012, watching the news about Operation Pillar of Defense, and feeling bad for not being able to do anything, for not really being involved. I told myself that first I would do military service and then I would help with conflict issues and in building peace. As far as I am concerned, I will live this conflict most of my life.

Is there some clear plan?

The whole diplomatic and political side doesn’t interest me. I am a great believer in improving relations at the personal level; it’s much more important for me to work in NGOs with projects that operated at the personal level, whether it’s dialogue groups or summer camps for Palestinian and Israeli children. When people meet personally, it’s hard not to see the human on the other side. I believe in aiming at youth instead of leaders, whose opinions are very hard to change.

What’s your ambition?

I don’t have any in mind now. I have applied to all kinds of places, but because of the coronavirus all those programs were canceled. I need to get a foot in the door. The same way I got to the army, I’ll get into this, too.

How was it to enter a foreign place and serve as a combat soldier?

It wasn’t completely foreign, because I was here with a group when I was 16 and after that via Birthright, when I was 20. On those visits I realized that this is my place; that’s where I’m aiming. I came with plenty of motivation, like most lone soldiers from abroad, and I had good assignments. Today I have very close friends from the army, but there were some pretty hard times. I came with an open mind. Above all, I threw myself straight into the army. Another tough thing is the bureaucracy in Israel. I didn’t think it would be such a nightmare, having to fight all the time with the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the Interior Ministry, the banks.

Was there a post-army trip?

I completed my service in July and wanted to go on a big trip, like everyone, but also wanted something else. I looked for volunteer programs and found [Israeli NGO] Tevel B’Tzedek, and through them did five months of volunteer work in Nepal. It was absolutely fascinating. I was in all kinds of remote villages that no hiker gets to. In each of the villages we slept in a local home. Most of the houses are made of mud, with a cooking fire inside. It’s all very rural and simple. The group did all kinds of social projects, including some promoting the advancement of women. My job was to check the situation after the project had concluded, and look for places for future projects. The gap between men and women there is very sad, but there has been some progress; in the past few years they’ve started to send girls to school, which is a serious step.

From here you go into quarantine in a hotel.

Right. I guess now I’ll have time for karate classes on Zoom. I did karate for 13 years, I have a black belt, 2nd Dan rank, but stopped because of the army. Every time I visit my family I go back to training a little. After I get settled in Jerusalem, I’ll find a way to get back to karate.

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