Avi stares at the ceiling. He is thinking about the question I just asked him: Why do the Arab nations seem to hate Israel so much? What is the fundamental problem?
It's another hot, humid, lazy day in Tel Aviv. The curtains I brought from America move in the breeze a little bit and outside, the tops of green trees shift slightly in the wind.
Avi looks at me patiently and explains, as if to a child. It is a curse, he says. Esau and Jacob (only he says Esow and Yakov) -- remember them? The Jews are cursed.
I moved from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv about six weeks ago. I had been to Jerusalem many times but to Tel Aviv only once or twice. Jerusalem is a beautiful city, with an air of something very special about it. Ask anyone who has been. Literally there is something in the air in Jerusalem. It is stately, it is (usually) calm, it is quiet. And yet Jerusalem lives at the center of a huge conflict and on a daily basis the tension of the fervency of millions is a palpable thing.
In Tel Aviv, it is the party at the end of the world. That's how some people describe Burning Man, another great love of mine. Burning Man is a giant experiment -- what would happen if 50,000 people all decided to play at once, as if this desert lake bed is reality, as if this is all there were? What would happen? I can tell you what happens, from experience. Hedonism happens. Art happens. Kindness and community happen. Freedom, expression and letting go of who you thought you were happens. Burners know that the party will end in 10 days. It is an oasis in what can seem like a mundane world.
Nothing in Israel is mundane -- even the mundane. Ben Gurion said, "In Israel, to be a realist, you must believe in miracles." We all know that Israel has been pulled back from the brink of destruction more than once. By miracles? Or by a sheer determination to more than exist, to be accepted? And to flourish.
The question I get asked most often by friends back home in the U.S. almost always goes exactly like this: I was just watching CNN and are you SAFE? What is GOING ON there?! These concerns are come by honestly and I blame three sources: fear-fanning media coverage of the Middle East, real safety issues in the Middle East, and the cultural disconnect.
America, the home of my provenance, the blood in my veins, is indeed pretty far out of touch from the rest of the world. I don't mean that in the usual patronizing way, as if I am suddenly more in touch -- and I don't tolerate it when Israelis say America is out of touch as if it's a willfully stupid act. America is out of touch because it's geographically huge, thousands of miles from countries that imminently existential problems and is abutted by two friendlies -- Canada and Mexico. America knows from problems and challenges -- it is in the throes of redefining itself yet again right this very moment. But the challenges that face America are not existential. Just yet.
But America does not know the feeling of having countries, say, 90 minutes away from its border that often say things like America doesn't deserve to exist and brethren will unite to prove this! America does not know what is like to be attacked, routinely, by missiles. America does not know what it's like to be under attack in one form or another, 24/7.
Israelis are not jaded by the ongoing conflict. Far from it. Emotions run high on the topic. But they are worn out. They shrug their shoulders and continue about their business out of sheer exhaustion. Keep Arguing and Carry On. When there is an awful lot to worry about, there's really no use worrying at all. But that worry has to go somewhere. Jerusalem is a city of prayer. Tel Aviv, "the White City," is a city of forgetting.
Avi is 33. Like every Israeli, he served three years in the army. He was the equivalent of a U.S. Marine. After the army, he left for New York, where he partied six years away, trying to forget. He reveled in the freer, easier life in the U.S. But he missed home and when he found out his aging mother was ill, he returned.
Avi talks to me a lot. About Israel, Bibi, Iran, America, 9/11, Michael Moore, Egypt, Syria. There will be a war, he says. In three months. Israel cannot allow the threat of Iran to go on. I will be called up.
America, he says, they drop bombs from miles in the sky. They miss sometimes. Israel knows the world is watching us, so we sacrifice the lives of soldiers, we send in missions that are dangerous. I went on many missions, we left six and we came back four. Or three. He has a painful memory that he does not share. I think that I am a bad man. I have killed many people.
Avi, it was your job. Yes, it was my job. I kill them or they kill me. You don't have time to say the Kaddish. They struggle for a last breath, like it's the last bit of oxygen on earth, and then they shudder and they move no more. You don't think about it then but it stays with you.
So Avi, why are you a bad man? Because I can kill. If you can kill, you have a bad side. It makes you cruel.
For America, Avi went on, war is business. For Israelis, we have to fight or we will not exist. Twenty-four Muslim nations surround us. Not one wants us here. Why can we not have one little piece of land? If we do not act, we are weak. If we are weak, we die. If I was the prime minister of Israel, I would stop talking to America and only act for what is best for Israel. We should have attacked Iran two years ago. We have to cut off the head of the snake.
Why is the Israeli army, tiny as it is, compared to larger countries, one of the strongest in the world, I ask him. Because we don't have training situations, we have life. And we are not ordinary soldiers. We fight so we can exist.
Avi turns to me with a big grin. On April 26, there is a rave in Tel Aviv to celebrate Israeli independence day -- we should go!
There's a whole lot of sex and drugs going on in the Holy Land, in this party at the end of the world.
What am I doing here, I ask myself for the thousandth time. What do I have to add to this conversation other than my observation of it? I think of writers that have opened my eyes about Israel: Amos Oz, Thomas Friedman, David Grossman. I haven't the depth of their academic, artful or political observations.
I am humbled by the contradiction between my passion for Stories Without Borders and opening up the stories -- and minds of young girls in the Middle East and the reality of making that happen. A journey of a thousand steps and all that. I am teaching a class on screenwriting to a high school class in Tel Aviv in a month or so. That's good. And another class on screenwriting later this month, through Creativity for Peace, to some Palestinian teenaged girls in the West Bank. That is excellent. I don't have to change the world all at once -- I don't have to change the world at all. I don't have to do anything. I get to be here in Israel. I get to try to make a difference.
I have read volumes of books about Israel and about the Middle East (Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem is a must read) and yet I know absolutely nothing except the stories Israelis share with me. It is these personal stories that interest me; it is the imperfect, intimately shared and deeply felt truths of individuals that I find more richly rewarding -- and telling -- when one tries to make sense of a place that really makes no sense. This is the land of milk and honey, the land of suicide bombers, the land of miracles and discontent.
No, bullets are not whizzing by on Dizengoff Street as I write this. Stuff is not aflame and smoking all over the countryside. That could happen. But not today. Today is another day in Tel Aviv and in Israel.
I am here in part, to take it in, to write about it, to let you know that what you think about Israel -- whether that be grand, religious, noble or whether you believe Israel is an interloper and bully -- whatever you think, you are wrong. But if you think that people are people, wherever you go, if you think that constant conflict does something irreparable to people, you are right. If you have the ability to travel the world for no other reason than to observe the differences and contradictions of a place, the least you can do is to write home about it.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead