I meet them in the park, at the store, at my kids’ school, at family gatherings, on the university campus, at synagogue. People who want to ask those simple-sounding questions that actually require a full dissertation, or perhaps a session on a therapist’s couch. What’s it like there? Do you miss it? Is it the way it looks on the news? And the worst: Are you glad you’re not there now?
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When you come back to America after being away for nearly 20 years, 16 of which were spent in Israel, people are naturally curious to know what you left behind and how wonderful or terrible it all really is.
When I lived there, I was practiced in condensing my answers into 1,000-word articles or giving a snappy, soundbitey shpiel on what was happening in Israel. But when it comes to giving the “elevator pitch” version of what I think, I find myself at a loss for words. Instead, I find myself sizing the questioner up for interest and experience. Is this a person who really wants to know what’s happening in Israel – and Palestine? Is this someone who has ever been for a visit, or even someone who is considering going for a visit – and who might be either persuaded or dissuaded based on what I have to say?
Sometimes I want to give them the full slam about the dismal situation on so many fronts – politics, security and economics. But another part of me – an older part of me that I’m somehow surprised has survived – wants to play Israel tourist board and tell them how incredible and beautiful it all is. And in my eyes, both of these are true. The situation really is that bad, and it’s still one of the most beautiful and inspiring places on Earth.
As I can’t narrow that down into the 30-second version that the average person is looking for, I usually offer up platitudes (“We love it, but things are really difficult now”) and then dig around for the outlook of the person asking the question. After all, we journalists are usually better at asking questions than answering them. Furthermore, I think it’s the job of any journalist to disabuse people of their preconceived notions.
So when I found myself standing around a Christmas tree at a party last week with a cocktail in my hand, the gentleman I was chatting with began telling me how, from his one and only visit to the country, he knows that Israel must never ever give up the West Bank, because it will become too narrow a country and thus indefensible. “Israel can’t survive without it,” he said. Sizing him up as someone who can handle a bit of disagreement, I threw out the dreaded “O” word. “Well,” I offered, “you also have to ask if Israel can survive permanently occupying another people. I don’t see how that’s sustainable or acceptable.”
The conversation folded soon afterward, and I was left with a feeling of relief for having spoken my truth, and the less-rosy feeling of having spoiled the holiday chitchat. But neither did I feel completely satisfied. I wanted the man who thought he had the answers to go home and read and think some more. And yet I wanted his wife, who had never been to Israel and was curious to go, to hear about the wonders of the place and to hear me say that it’s perfectly (ok, largely) safe to go there on vacation.
This dilemma reminds me of the discussions I used to have with a like-minded friend who led Birthright trips. She wished that she could take young people on the standard trip, meant to build up their sense of awe and connection with Israel, and then directly afterward, take them to the West Bank on a trip to the Bethlehem area with Encounter or to Hebron with Breaking the Silence. I have a similar feeling about various relatives who have yet to make a trip to Israel. I want them to come and fall in love with it, and then see Israel’s ugly underside and fall a bit out of love with it – or at least share the frustration.
We’re talking, after all, about a country whose prime minister said on Election Day in 2015 that the Arabs were “going to the polls in droves, bused in by the left” – and managed to shrug off the criticism unscathed. A country where NGOs for that left could be forced to wear distinctive badges in the Knesset to identify them as a hostile element. A country where a politician can go to jail for corruption and then come out to be appointed to his old job as interior minister. A country with a settler fringe so smacked out on extremist ideology that they dance with weapons at weddings and hoist up a photograph of the Palestinian baby they burned to death last summer.
With every person who asks about Israel, I’m temped to acknowledge these realities and still more: There are no current efforts at conflict resolution – just conflict management; prices of homes and consumer goods are out of whack; and people look over their shoulder, worried about the next knifing or car-ramming attack.
But I also want to acknowledge that everything that made me fall in love with Israel is still true and real. The landscape is stunning, as are the peoples who inhabit it. You’ll find people who are honest, real and warm – people who are more interested in ideas and goals than in acquiring things. You’ll find people who know how to survive, people who care about family and community, people who have decided that every citizen should have health care. You’ll find rich history, architecture, art, innovation and food like nowhere else on Earth. You’ll find people who hope for more. And holding onto that hope is what makes me sure that someday, despite all of the above, I’ll be back again.