Sunday, July 09, 2006

In Israel

I've been in Israel since June 8, but obviously have not been posting to the blog, undecided whether in fact I wanted to continue writing a blog. But since I'm about to leave Israel to return to the U.S., and I don't really feel like leaving Israel, I thought I'd at least post some thoughts about my trip.

Going to Istanbul was being on vacation - a learning vacation, but a vacation nonetheless. I got to see some fabulous places I had never been to before (including the Blue Mosque, pictured here inside and out), I learned quite a bit about Ottoman history, I was fortunate to be able to get a glimpse of some of the dilemmas of modern Turkey - but this was a vacation in a foreign country.

Coming to Israel, however, felt like I was coming home, in a sense, even though I am an American citizen, not an Israeli. I've lived a total of four years in Israel, and have visited many times in addition to that. My first trip to Israel was in 1983, on a trip organized by New Jewish Agenda. I returned in 1987 for two years to study at the Hebrew University as part of my graduate studies in religion. I came back again in the 1992-93 academic year to do dissertation research. And then in 1998-99 I received another grant to do research at the Hebrew University. But that sounds like my only attachment to Israel is intellectual or academic.

It's much stronger than that, however. In 1990, I had been planning to visit Israel for part of the spring semester of 1991. But then, of course, Iraq invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990, and it slowly became clear through the autumn that the U.S., in coalition with many other nations, would attack the Iraqis in Kuwait and force them back. Thus, I did not visit Israel in January of 1991, even though I wanted to. Throughout the Gulf War, I was constantly watching CNN, calling friends in Israel to make sure they were all right (racking up quite a phone bill in those days before real competition for international calling!), and wondering if I should go visit, nonetheless. I finally decided to go - to stay for six weeks, from Purim to Pesach. I flew to Israel on Purim, 1991 - which, as it happens, was the day the ceasefire was declared. When I landed at the airport, they were still giving people gas masks, but fortunately there was no need for them. I took the shared taxi to Jerusalem, and went to the reading of the book of Esther. People were wearing costumes that related to the Gulf War - one person had torn down the plastic sheeting from his windows and wrapped it all around himself, and stuck photos of Yasser Arafat (remember him? He supported Saddam Hussein) and Saddam Hussein on himself. What was he coming as? As the Gulf War!

Since then I've visited many more times, inbetween my year-long stays. I was here for a visit in the summer of 2001 - after the second intifada had broken out. It was unnerving to hear the gunfire on Gilo and the Israeli tank fire in reply. Since then, I visited several times in the winter, during the break between semesters, but this is the first time since then that I've come in the summer, and it's been quite lovely. I've been going to the National Library at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University and doing research, which has gone very well - I've sent off one article and another one is close to being finished. I've seen lots of friends and even had dinner with some third cousins - of whose existence I didn't even know until my brother, the family genealogist, found them in his researches.

Some people might find that surprising, given the current political/military events - the attack on the Israeli military post near Gaza, in which two soldiers were killed and a third - Gilad Shalit - was abducted by the Hamas military wing; the murder of Eliyahu Asheri, a resident of Ithamar on the West Bank, killed right after his kidnapping; of the continuing rocket fire on Sederot and now on Ashkelon, from Gaza; and the Israeli military response, entering Gaza for the first time since the disengagement last summer. It's all certainly on my mind, but it's not the only part of my experience. I feel ambivalent about what Israel is doing. On the one hand, how can any government refuse to act when its cities are being attacked by random rocket fire that is aimed at civilians? On the other hand, why punish all the residents of Gaza by destroying the electrical station (insured by an American company), and depriving hundreds of thousands of people of electricity in the middle of the punishing heat of summer? Why warn the civilian residents of Beit Hanun (the region in Gaza from which Hamas and the other terror groups have been launching rockets at Sederot and Ashkelon) that they should leave when Israeli tanks and troops enter to chase those launching the rockets? Are they to blame? No.

But I think the Israeli government is really in a hard place - I can't say what I think they should do. How can they really negotiate with the Hamas government, as some are demanding, when even they don't seem to have any control over the Hamas military wing? And should they negotiate with kidnappers at all - won't it just encourage more kidnappings? But then, when I hear the remarks of Noam Shalit, the father of Gilad, pleading with the government to negotiate for the safe return of his son - how can Israel close off the avenue of negotiation completely?

I find myself really torn here - I listen to left-wing friends, and I agree with them that the Israeli government is being entirely unjust with the Palestinians, and that the separation fence/wall is an injustice and a disaster to innocent Palestinian civilians. But then, I listen to other friends, more centrist in their politics, who say that the wall is protecting innocent Israeli civilians from suicide bombings. Back in the U.S., I have other friends who are so certain that whatever Israeli does is absolutely wrong, and others who think that whatever Israel does is absolutely correct. From here, things seem so complicated - my own moral sense pulls me back and forth, I'm not sure how to judge.

But as I just wrote above, most of the time I've simply enjoyed myself here. In Jerusalem, it's generally pretty hot during the day, but then it cools off at night. Cool breezes start to blow in the late afternoon, and then as the sun sets it becomes comfortable. Tonight it's a lovely temperative, and I'm listening to the automatic sprinklers watering the garden of the apartment complex where I'm staying. When I go out on the mirpeset (porch) there is the scent of sweet flowers wafting upward. The photo on the left is a view from my garden.


  1. Hi, I'm new to this blogging thing, but I came across your site (ironically, while I was searching for my own haha) and read this post. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed what you wrote. It was thoughtful and inspirational. And beautiful pictures!