Part 1 of a 4 part Traveling With History series on Israel .
Story and pictures © Allan Seiden, 2012
Israel is a place that evokes diverse emotions. If it is not the “light unto the nations” that is its biblical imperative, Israel incorporates Jewish standards of justice and morality to guide national policy, an ambitious undertaking that must also take into consideration the safety of its citizens and the dilemmas faced by democracies in reconciling divergent perspectives about how things should be. If politics followed mainstream thinking, the Israeli government would be actively seeking ways to facilitate a peace treaty with the Palestinians,
however problematic its sustainability. But the fractious nature of Israeli politics means collation governments beholden to ideological minority parties that make substantive compromise politically impossible.
As a functioning democracy on a war footing, Israel is closer to the democratic ideal than it is to image of the country that critics demonize with illusory and alarming comparisons to Nazi Germany and South African apartheid. Israel, established to restore the Jews as a nation as all others, finds itself internationally the odd-man-out in terms of assuring a safe haven in a world where Jews were frequently made to pay with their lives for their “differentness.”
`“Let us then have nothing in common with the detestable Jewish crowd,” proclaimed Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of the Roman empire in 325. And that would be the attitude toward Jews in Christendom for the next two millennia.
This historic vulnerability adds cruel irony in the failure to recognize the existential threats that Jews and Israel have always faced, with Israel’s very existence delegitimatized by enemies who make no secret of their goal of wiping it off the map. Israel plays to such sentiments by the government’s unwillingness to deal with the growth of Jewish settlements on the West Bank, where more than 350,000 Israelis now live.
The Israelis have many reasons to be cautious. Their distrust is validated by the violence resulting from the withdrawal from Gaza, where Hamas now rules, espousing a no compromises ideology focused on the destruction of Israel, an objective shared with Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which now dominates the government of Lebanon on Israel’s northern border. In Egypt the Islamic component of the Arab Spring threatens unilateral abrogation of the peace
treaty in force since 1979. And on a somewhat more distant horizon Iran threatens to destroy Israel by subsidizing rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah, and the potential threat of a nuclear arsenal.
“Israel? Why are you going there,” I was asked by friends, the sense of safety topmost in their minds. I did not have such concerns, nor do most Israelis. It’s been more than five years since the suicide bombings of the Second Intifada made civilian casualties commonplace. Since that surge of violence ended in 2005, in part thanks to the concrete wall built to separate Israel and the West Bank territories,
the sense of immediacy has been replaced by a more existential sense of vulnerability and the need to restore balance to the body politic, where a religious minority holds sway, determining many aspects of public policy resented by the secular majority.
Israel is not a place gripped by terror, not that verbal and military threats of extermination are taken lightly. The nation is vigilant. The majority of young people serve three years in the military upon graduating high school. It’s only after that they start their university studies. Young men and women in uniform, many armed, are part of the human landscape, whether patrolling sensitive areas or heading home on leave. It’s not a threatening presence, not aggressive or intrusive, but a reminder that the country is always on alert. In spite of it all, the economy prospers, putting Israel on a per-capita par with much of Europe, benefiting from Israel’s emergence as a world leader in high tech innovation in medicine, agriculture, aquaculture, and nano-technology.
I first visited Israel in the summer of 1965, with follow- up visits in the ‘80s and ‘90s. On my first visit the historic Old City of Jerusalem and its holy sites were controlled by Jordan and were off limits to all Israelis and Jews. The city was divided, separated from Israeli Jerusalem by a wide, fortified no-man’s land, with a precarious truce intermittently in place.
By my second visit, the Old City and the West Bank had been captured by Israel, victorious in the 1967 war that pitted it against Syria and Egypt (then federated as the United Arab Republic), and Jordan. By my third visit the Sinai Peninsula, also captured in 1967, had been returned to Egypt following the Camp David Accords and the signing of a peace treaty. Soon after a peace treat was signed with Jordan. While the West Bank territories, the ancient Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria in biblical times, have been administered independently, the Old City and the rest of east Jerusalem were annexed by Israel, an action not recognized by the U.N.
In the 64 years since Israel’s founding in 1948, the country has dramatically evolved, absorbing wave after wave of Jewish immigrants, an ingathering of a people in exile ever since the Romans defeated the Jews in an uprising against Roman rule that began in 66 CE and ended in death and
exile for hundreds of thousands.
It was a fourth time of Jewish exile, in fact. The first having been in Egypt sometime around 1,400 BC, followed by Moses leading the Israelites back the “promised land,” a place occupied by numerous small tribal peoples, most prominently the Philistines, who contributed their name to the land that would later be called Palestine.
The second time of exile came in 722 BCE with Assyria’s (today north central Iraq) rise to power and its conquest of the Jewish kingdom of Israel, when 10 of the 12 Jewish tribes were sent into exile, never to return. The two surviving tribes remained in the adjacent kingdom of Judah. Their turn at exile would follow in 597 BCE
when Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, in whose cities (Babylon, Sura, Pumbeditha, today central Iraq) the Jews were forced to resettle. Even after the Persians defeated the Babylonians and the Persian King, Cyrus, allowed the Jews to return to their homeland, a large community remained in Babylon, which evolved over the centuries, as a center of Jewish learning.
The final time of exile followed a Jewish rebellion against Roman domination that began in 66 and ended in 70 with the destruction of the Second Temple. That dispersal, or diaspora, proved widespread, with exiled Jews settling throughout the Roman Empire. Small communities of Jews
remained in their homeland for the next two millennia, with the majority of Jews Jews dispersed in communities in Europe, Asia and North Africa. Surviving forced conversion, expulsion, and death as an abused minority under both Christian and Muslim overlords, periods of freedom and prosperity were invariably followed by renewed persecution, death, and exile.
Arab settlement had begun in the three centuries before Christ, as Nabatean Arabs settled in Jordan and the Negev. Later waves of settlement would follow the 7th century Muslim Arab conquests of north Africa and west Asia. The process has continued into recent times, with the Hashemite kings of Jordan originating on the Arabian peninsula.
European Crusaders restored Christian control of the Holy Land during the 12th century, with the last Crusader kingdom defeated by the Muslim warrior Saladin in 1187, after which Palestine became part of different Muslim empires, with the Ottoman Turks taking charge at the start of the 17th century, adding another ethnic component to the Palestinian population.
Creating a Jewish homeland, Zionism, began as a populist movement by European Jews toward the end of the 19thcentury. Their efforts were given political backing in 1917 when the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. That position was made policy after the British gained control of Palestine following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WWI.
The Holocaust cemented support for a Jewish homeland, and in 1948, the United Nations voted for the creation of Israel, a fait accompli not willingly accepted in the Arab world, itself exiting from colonial rule and not accepting the U.N.’s role in declaring a Jewish state as home to Palestine’s 500,000 Jews. A pan-Arab force attacked Israel in a 10-month-long war that ended with an Israeli victory. One of the consequences of the war was the abuse and expulsion of Jewish communities throughout the Arab and Muslim world. Ancient Jewish communities, some rooted for millennia, were forced to flee, leaving all they owned behind. By the mid-1950s, an estimated 800,000 Jewish emigrants from Muslim lands had settled in Israel as refugees, adding a significant new component to the Israeli melting pot.
Numerous other waves of aliya, the
Hebrew word for ascent that also defines these migrations, followed, including Israeli airlifts of nearly 50,000 thousand Jews from Yemen, 15,000 from Ethiopia (linked to the times of Solomon and Sheba, around 1000 BCE), Mountain Jews from the Caucasus, Persian Jews, and the fragmentary remnant of post-WWII Europe. When the Soviet Union allowed its Jews the right to emigrate, nearly one-million resettled in Israel, again helping redefine Israel’s cultural and political complexity.
Today’s Israel bears witness to this national diversity, with significant progress made integrating this diversity, creating a distinctive Israeli identity that also includes the 20% of Israel’s 7.5 million people who are Muslim Arab, Druze, Bahai, Samaritan and Christian, with rights fully protected by law. And while implementation of equality is imperfect and contentious, as it is in all heterogeneous democracies, the rights of the individual and of religious and ethnic minorities are protected under law and by an independent judiciary.
The faces of Israel’s people, like the history that precedes them, tells the story of a still-blending melting pot not unlike America in its diversity and ideals, a place where time and circumstance continue to redefine what is real and what is possible.
The souk in Jerusalem, a winding maze of shops, homes, and religious sites, proves the
point, with Jews, Muslims, and Chritians of various sects rubbing shoulder without hostility or tension. I was wandering in the souk one rainy afternoon, when I stopped by a small shop. Inside two young men with long curls where their sideburns begin, dressed
in the medieval Polish garb that identifies them as members of an Orthodox Hasidic sect, are bargaining with the merchant. Noting my interest, the owner of the shop stepped forward, addressing me with a big smile.
“See, they are Jews, I am Arab. That is no problem. There is no trouble. Look!” No trouble. That’s also what you’re likely to find as a visitor to Israel.
Q & A
Q Getting Around: The national rail system is great for day trips out of Tel Aviv. On certain routes, like Tel Aviv – Jerusalem, bus service is the faster option. Taxis can be expensive.Make sure the meter starts when you get in the taxi. Rental cars are readily available at daily rates of $45 and higher. Gas is expensive at close to $7/gallon. Freeways connect key cities in the north and south, with two-lane roads otherwise the norm.
Q When to Go?
A I went in January. Weather was cool to cold, with sunny skies alternating with overcast weather and rain.
Summers are very hot, which makes shoulder season travel (September/October, April/ May) the recommend. The climate varies considerably, with desert conditions in the south and more temperate weather in the north.
For cultural relevance, it might be worth booking during a holiday period (Passover, Purim, Sukkoth) to see how Israeli’s incorporate Judaism into their
largely secular lives. On the other hand hotels will be pricier and transportation services more limited. Tel Aviv’s tourist beach culture hits its stride in the summer. The Negev is best in the spring (mid-April to early June), before summer heat makes the Negev too extreme, aside from Eilat, Israel’s resort town where the Negev meets the Red Sea.
Getting There El Al, Israel’s national carrier offers non-stop service from Los Angeles, Toronto and New York. In Europe direct flights are available from Vienna, Berlin, Frankfort and Zurich.
Useful Contacts: Israel Ministry of Tourism: www.goisrael.com/ El Al Airlines: www.elal.com
Next: Jerusalem to Tel Aviv:
36 Miles & Light Years Apart.