'Israelis Made Me Feel Like Family. Germans Are Much More Distant'

Arrivals / Departures: A German studying radical Islam travels to Israel to see what the fuss is all about; an Israeli returning from Budapest says his army experience helped him cope with cancer.

Assaf al-Yagon, Marie Roeder and Guy Mydani at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

From left, Assaf al-Yagon, 23, lives in Tel Aviv; Marie Roeder, 23, from Berlin; Guy Mydani, 23, lives in Tel Aviv; Marie is flying to Berlin

Hello, can I ask what you did here in Israel?

Marie: I was here for six months as an exchange student at Tel Aviv University, taking Middle East studies and politics. Assaf and Guy were my roommates.

Wow, your Hebrew sounds good.

Marie: We also studied Arabic and Hebrew reading and writing, and now, after my stay in Israel, I can really speak the language. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here for my undergraduate degree – to learn languages.

What were the other reasons?

Marie: Three years ago, I lived for a year in Jerusalem and did volunteer work at a center for people with autism. I really loved the city and wanted to come back to Israel. I love Israel. I would like to live here for a while. I hope to come back next year, even though it’s a bit tough in terms of visas just now.

Guy: Give her a ring and in another six months she’s here. (They laugh)

Marie: There’s a solution for everything and I will find it.

What made you visit Israel the first time?

Marie: My father was in Israel in the 1970s as a volunteer on a kibbutz. He was only here for a few months but he always talked about that period, and I wanted to check it out myself.

Assaf: Marie had – remember how we taught you how to say it in Hebrew?

Marie: Tarbitz hashmal [Let the electricity flow].

Assaf (laughing): Tasbich ashma – a guilt complex.

Is that true?

Marie: Definitely not! Those are not the feelings this place awakens in me. I met many people here, and deep relations were formed. When you learn about a place and you’re actually there and speak with people who live there, you understand a lot better. But even so, it’s never enough, you can always learn more.

What did you focus on in your studies?

Marie: As an undergraduate, I studied radical Islamic movements, and for my master’s, I hope to study diplomacy or conflict resolution or security studies, which they have at Tel Aviv University. 

Did living in Israel change your perspective on the Middle East?

Marie: My opinions did not shift from point A to point B. Before coming to Israel, I focused more on the Israel-Palestine conflict and thought I would deal with that. But being here, next to all these countries that surround Israel, draws you closer to other subjects. I actually developed an interest in Syria and did a research study on women in the Syrian secular opposition. Their role is interesting, I think it signifies the key to change. The fact that women are taking an active part in the Syrian struggle allows them to be a central force that draws attention. They make a lot more noise than men in the Arab world, even though there aren’t that many women involved and at the moment they are fighting for basic things – not for issues related to women’s empowerment.

Where are the opposition women concentrated?

At the moment, mainly in Turkey. They can’t operate freely in Syria, where people are kidnapped as a means to silence secular voices. Women are the most frequent victims of these kidnappings, for which no ransom is asked – these acts are not perpetrated for economic gain, but to silence people. No one knows what happens to the kidnapped women or whether they will return, there is no way to look for them and no one knows whether they are alive or dead. 

How do you research these subjects?

I read articles in the papers and on websites, there is no other way. I have another year left in my studies and I hope to come back to Israel next year as a student.

Even though it’s a lot cheaper in Berlin and so many Israelis are moving there?

Economically, it’s harder in Israel but it’s worth the effort. There’s something in the Israeli mentality that draws me here, something I feel comfortable with. For me it was a wonderful experience, living with Israelis. Germans are a lot more distant. My roommates took me to their families for Shabbat dinners and holidays, which was very unusual. They made me feel like part of their family, and that was special. We got along really well. Only the apartment was a little messier than what you find in Germany, that’s for sure.

Barr Levi Lev-Ari at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Tomer Appelbaum

Barr Levi Lev-Ari, 23, lives in Herzliya, arriving from Budapest

Hello, can I ask you where you were and what you did?

I’m in the midst of a period of exams, I had a break and I looked for the cheapest flight, which turned out to be to Hungary. That suited me. It’s another checkmark on my bucket list.

Say again?

Bucket list – a list of all the things you have to do in your life. I wanted to go to Hungary because my grandfather is from there.

How was it?

Very nice. I also went to Belgrade to meet a friend, and from there I went on to Novi Sad. I was favorably surprised by the Serbian food, lots of meat with cheeses – really tasty. I returned to Budapest and slept over in the apartment of someone I met the day I landed. I also met two people who took me for a tour of the palace there.

Sounds like you make friends easily.

You smile a lot, listen to what people have to say, and most people are ready to share.

Weren’t you afraid to sleep in the home of a man you’d just met?

It all depends on the gut feeling, on how much you trust the person. In time you become more and more good at figuring it out. I have experience.

Have you done a lot of traveling?

I was born in Israel and left when I was about a year old, because my father works in high-tech. We moved to Ireland, then Holland and California. At 17, I moved to Switzerland alone, to go to school, and from there I went to Israel to volunteer for the army. In the meantime, my father returned to Israel, and I decided to stay on to complete my studies here. After that I will continue on my way. I haven’t yet reached the point in life at which I am ready to lay down roots. 

Why didn’t you stay in Switzerland to attend school?

It was hard for me and it didn’t work out. I stopped after a year, because I wasn’t ready to continue my studies. But now I am completing my undergraduate degree in psychology.

Why did you choose to volunteer for the army?

I did abridged service in the Armored Corps. It was important because I thought that I would be able to acquire life skills that I lacked. I came to the conclusion that I would be able to achieve them in the shortest time there. And I did.

What did you achieve, for example?

Psychological stamina, mental strength and self-discipline. I thought that in this way I would be able to “calibrate” myself, and I was right. After the army I fell ill with cancer and it didn’t affect me. That’s something the army helped me with. The time in the army helped me cope with the diagnosis. The disease did not knock me for a loop.

I wish you a full recovery. What’s happening with you now?

All is well. I had a form of cancer that resembles lymphoma, a tumor in the arm, which was bigger than it looked at first. It was removed and then I had radiation and now I’m in remission. I even have a scholarship for outstanding scholastic achievement at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.

You have my respect. Did your psychology studies help you cope with the disease?

No, not especially. The only thing my studies helped with was that I developed a better understanding of the medical terms in my conversations with doctors. The doctors in Israel are indifferent, even antipathetic.

Still, something must have helped, because you sound so calm, even when you say that.

In order to get through it, I would ask myself three things: What is the worst thing that can happen? How likely is it that it will happen? And if it happens, how can I cope with it? But most of the time I didn’t think about it, and everything was good.

So what’s left on your bucket list?

A free-fall parachuting permit, a diving permit, a race-car license, traveling in different countries and getting to know other cultures, tasting different types of food, establishing a family, having a career, meeting as many people as possible. I have one more semester and then I want to do a master’s. And between one thing and the next I want to do the post-army trip. My ambition is to backpack in Europe, but if I’m persuaded to go to India, that will be fine, too. The truth is that I’m always adding things to my list.