Broken Promise Land: What I Saw In Israel

03/09/2008 08:26 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Somebody shared an insightful parable during my just completed nine-day trip to Israel. To paraphrase, it's something like 'Come to Israel for a week and you think you can write a book. Stay for a year and you can barely write a newspaper article'. Replace newspaper with blog and it's completely true in my case. There are eight sides to every story, historical context and location. Still, after only my first trip, I'm going to go out on a limb and share some thoughts.

First things first, yes, I'm Jewish. Well, sort of. My mom, the woman who raised me, is white/Portuguese and Jewish by birth. But she's what I refer to as a lapsed Jew and hasn't outwardly practiced or visited a synagogue in years -- not that I have either. I am not religious -- in the God-fearing sense -- but I have developed a unique cultural, social and historical affinity for (my) Judaism. This late '30s development in my life -- the first interest in Jewish-ness since childhood -- sparked a first time interest in visiting Israel. So with a trip organized by the New Israel Fund, I traveled there over the past week.

The media would have you convinced that Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are free-fire zones, where rock-throwing kids are de rigueur and suicide belts are bought in corner stores like soda. The images I had as an American were that every inch of the nation was under constant siege. Anybody who's lived there or visited will tell you otherwise. Despite the consistent and morbid televised reporting, Israel is a community where you best assume that you know very little and let the people inform you. On my week-long trip, I found beautiful, smiling Palestinian kids, and welcoming ultra-orthodox Jews. From my Arab cabbie I rode with on the way to the airport, to the 60-year-old Turkish-Israeli fisherman who had visited, of all places, Tarzana, California -- I found people eager to share their vision of the country and its ongoing attempts at grace. Throughout my trip, I met Israeli civil and human rights organizers, who, against the predominant conservative slant of the country, push forward progressive and social agendas aimed at uplifting and protecting the rights of Arab citizens. This isn't the side of society that makes for good media coverage and most Israelis are probably unaware of this burgeoning social justice ecosystem. Israelis don't speak from one playbook -- many held more progressive views than I expected to hear given the daily and all-too-realities of living in that part of the world.

I also visited disturbing areas of oppression and arguably a system akin to apartheid (Hebron, and to a lesser extent, parts of East Jerusalem). On one hand, I stand by my opinion that Israel has earned its right to statehood, but I also saw its well-documented and systematic undermining of the Palestinian communities -- in the questionable name of security. The struggle of Arabs to be considered equal citizens also highlights the inherent dilemma a Israeli democracy must answer: How does Israel have what constitutes a religious theocracy, while aiming at true democratic values? Unfortunately, I would learn, many Arabs actually sit out of elections in protest, ceding control to the large orthodoxy that leads the country.

Cultural assimilation is also hard for minorities -- a growing batch of them emigrating to fill jobs created by Israel's rapid expansion and left vacant by Arabs sequestered behind the security barrier and with limited travel rights. According to my cabbie, Arabs have also been discouraged by Israeli society's refusal to incorporate them into the fabric of the nation. Inter-faith dating is taboo, and I didn't see any evidence of it. Even my new friend Ophir in Tel Aviv told me that seeing, for example, an Arab girl with an Israeli boy would be an anomaly. Ophir, who is a music promoter, is part of the Jewish secular and much more wired crowd in the hip beachside town.

Having already visited Tel Aviv, Haifa, Hebron, Nazareth and the Dead Sea earlier in the week, it's ultimately Jerusalem that I found easily the most compelling. Jerusalem's Old City is an ancient but simmering stew, and oftentimes flashpoint, for the world's three most divisive and prominent religions. I'll take a second to remind you that this isn't a history lesson at all, but some observations and perspective. The age-old saga of Arab, Christian and Jewish residents, rulers and settlers in the 'City of Gold' is, if anything, well documented. Before the end of my trip, tensions would rise again and the city would be under heavy guard.

On Thursday night, only hours before the holiest day of the Muslim week, a 25-year-old Palestinian man walked into a yeshiva study session and opened fire on a room full of teenage students. He killed 8 before an armed student -- not uncommon in the country -- shot him twice in the head. The details I only learned later on the CNN International newscast, but all I had as we were heading out on Thursday night was a news alert on my Blackberry. Seconds later, I remotely updated my Facebook status with the comment: 'Raymond is heading out into East Jerusalem, even though there was just a shooting'. All week, the Israel crisis in Gaza -- which left about 120 Palestinians dead and a handful of Israelis, mostly IDF soldiers -- had played in the background. If I had spoken Hebrew, I'm sure I would have caught conversations on the subject, but from my limited vantage, it was business as usual outside the major hot zone on the western coast. These current affairs came into sharp relief as we checked into our Jerusalem hotel, down the street from where U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was staying on her visit to calm nerves and jumpstart the peace talks. But if there's one thing you learn after visiting Israel is that peace, or even the comprehension of what it would look like, is but an illusion. And as Bob Marley said, 'to be pursued, but never attained'.

My flip but sobering Facebook post had attracted some concern from friends in several time zones and I received responses and posts appealing for my safety. But what was on my mind was not the potential street violence that could erupt tonight, over the weekend or a year from now, as vengeance for the murder of the yeshiva students. I couldn't help but think about the fortunate trip we'd had and our timing. Serendipitous might have been a better term, given that we had visited both the West Bank (Hebron) and the poorer Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem in the past few days, all of which would be either off limits or too potentially dangerous in the wake of the school shooting. Yet tonight, our itinerary had us -- a group of mostly stateside Jews and Israelis -- meeting for drinks at a Palestinian bar in East Jerusalem. No concierge would have suggested this destination tonight, but nothing in the vibe of our Arab bar hosts and the local patrons gave us cause for concern. We were all mingling, dancing to Arab and pop music, drinking and smoking a hookah. Inside our oasis -- even though it would be naïve to think the night's killings were far from the surface of our thoughts -- nothing from the day's horrible event seeped into the conversations.

Outside was a slightly different picture. I couldn't detect anything alarming, but there was no discounting the mood in the city. It was dark, quiet and there were distant flashing police lights dotting the landscape. I was told specifically, given my penchant for wandering off to take photos, to not let that temptation consume me tonight. Turns out that the shooter was from an area not too far from the bar we were at. At one point in the night, while I was outside getting some air, an undercover security officer approached me and, after questioning me quickly about my origins, asked me about a suspicious car parked in front of the bar. I had seen the guy park the car and go into the bar, so after surveying the scene, the security patrol took off. In Israel, it's routine to have a guard (not the most enviable job) posted outside of eateries and bars to wand or frisk customers, search bags and deflect any would-be suicide bombers or gunmen. Our bar had none of that, I could only assume because of its not being protected, given its Arab ownership.

Earlier that day, our group had taken a bus tour of the hillside neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. A maze of windy, narrow roads, the drive weaved in and out of Jewish settlements (called so mainly due to the international illegality of most of them, since they fall outside of the various peace borders established since 1967) and Arab enclaves. This part of Jerusalem is under tight control by the IDF, local police and private security. It's also where the security barrier (the 'wall') is most prominent. Cameras, the security wall, barbed wire and checkpoints are fairly routine sights and Palestinian/Arab Israelis need to carry the correct I.D. card to travel freely. Even with this tight control, by Friday, this area would be potentially too hot for 'sightseeing'.

Israel has a long memory. There are signs and memorials, especially in places like Hebron and presumably Gaza and the rest of the West Bank, that herald the victories and martyrdom of the past. If you ask people -- like the Bedouin woman I spoke to one afternoon -- you learn that the weight of history informs every perspective. Arguments on both sides are constantly off balance due to events that could have happened thousands of years ago, or last night. Both Israelis and Arabs simply pick the place in time that makes their argument unassailable. It's a disheartening and insurmountable debate. With all of this, and at this particular place in history, I can't think of a more incredible part of the world -- or a more amazing place to visit.