A week ago yesterday my wife Celia and I got back from a week’s stay in Israel. It was a great trip. Israel is a wondrous country: for the antiquities it holds, for its uniqueness as host to some of the holiest places of three world religions, and for the impressive, hi-tech, post-modern economy it has built, among other reasons. Israelis can well be proud of what they’ve accomplished in barely more than a century, not much more than half of that time as an independent nation.
We stayed in Tel Aviv the whole time, taking day tours to the various tourist attractions around the country (Jerusalem of course, Masada and the Dead Sea, Acre, etc.) I also did one “alternative” day tour to West Bank sites in and around Bethlehem and Hebron, including a Palestinian refugee camp.
If you’re an urban person, you can’t help but like Tel Aviv. It’s a great city for young people–filled with cafes and bars that look like they could be in the East Village or Williamsburg, Brooklyn–but there are plenty of places in the café life where older folk can feel comfortable. Tel aviv has an ideal berth along the Mediterranean, with a number of nice sandy beaches. A wonderful waterfront promenade runs practically the length of the city and is filled with activity—joggers, playgrounds, volleyball and exercise courts, cafes, etc.–well into even weekday evenings. (You do have to be careful of speeding bicyclists.) It’s a very walkable city—if you’re in a central enough location, you can go on foot to almost anywhere you would want.
Of course, this is a blog about politics, so you’re not going to get much of a travelogue from me. I was interested in going to Israel for most of the reasons tourists go there, but I was also hoping that the trip would help me gain some insights into the Israel/Palestine conflict, a subject of longstanding interest to me. I wasn’t unrealistic: clearly there is relatively little that you can learn about a country in just one week. (As a young Ph.D. student, I spent a year in Italy, which was about enough for a decent start toward understanding that diverse country.)
But even a week can help in myriad small ways. There’s nothing like seeing, which provides context and makes more vivid stuff that you already knew, more or less. I knew about Israel’s high-tech economy, but knowing isn’t quite the same as seeing evidence of it on both sides of the highway going north to Haifa. Or talking to the Haifa native who sat next to me on the plane, who works for Intel. (Celia sat next to a man from Tel Aviv who works for Microsoft.) And, while I’d viewed a video depicting the friction between settlers and Palestinians in Hebron, it was another thing to actually go to the Hebron market and see the locus of conflict. It helps, too, to actually see the holy sites in Jerusalem that are at the center of so much contention.
I also knew that Israel had long ago taken over complete control of water—a scarce resource—on the West Bank, and that Israeli settlers’ per capita water consumption was several times greater than the Palestinians’. But that reality was demonstrated in operation by my Palestinian guide* in Bethlehem, who from a hill pointed to two communities within sight of each other: one, a Palestinian village; the other, an Israeli settlement. The Palestinian homes almost all had large water storage tanks on their roofs; none of the Israeli did. The explanation: the Palestinians have to constantly hoard water, since they never know when the Israelis will cut off their supply. The Israelis have no such worries.
So, if you start from a half-decent knowledge base, actually going to a place can be an illuminating experience. My knowledge base had come mostly from written sources, including several books by Israeli historians (Benny Morris, Avi Schlaim, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe.) I welcomed the planned trip as a prod to read two recent books on Israel that I’d seen reviewed and discussed on-line: Ari Shavit’s My Promised Land, and Max Blumenthal’s Goliath. I’ll talk about both in an upcoming post.
* This would be the place for me to plug Green Olive Tours, a joint Israeli-Palestinian outfit whose tours to the West Bank come with political commentary. If you’re traveling to Israel and are looking for something beyond the usual tourist shtick, you should definitely check out Green Olive. (http://www.toursinenglish.com) Fred Schlomka, Green Olive’s director (featured in the video on their website), graciously invited Celia and me to Shabat dinner with his family. The food and the conversation were equally excellent.