Much has happened since I left Israel in June.

First, the feared Gaza flotilla redux fizzled just outside the Greek harbor. Thanks to Israeli diplomacy, Greece sent its Navy out to turn the boats back as they set out to sea. Apparently, struggling Greece now needs Israel more than it needs left-wing sentimentalists who think they are helping the Gazan people but are mainly helping Hamas.

Or perhaps it’s Turkey’s anti-Israel animus that is pushing Greece toward Israel. The prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, years ago began a determined, deliberate weakening of relations with the Jewish state. Among other things, he publicly insulted Shimon Peres by walking out on him at Davos before a large, distinguished audience, to protest Israel’s 2009 war in Gaza.

Things worsened after Israeli commandos killed nine activists, mostly Turkish, after boarding a ship in the last flotilla approaching Gaza. The Israelis defended themselves with guns against an attack with clubs and other crude weapons. Turkey (where the flotilla was partly organized) demanded an apology and reparations, and Israel tried to negotiate a compromise.

But last month the UN’s Palmer Report on the incident was leaked. It criticized Israel for excessive use of force, but it also declared the Israeli blockade of Gaza legal and confirmed that the commandos had been attacked. The outraged Turks stretched their demands: apologize, compensate, and by the way, end the Gaza blockade. Israel now understood that Erdogan could not be satisfied.

Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador and downscaled the two countries’ ties to the lowest level. Erdogan is playing not only to his country’s anti-Zionist crowd, but also to the Arab street, in a bid for regional leadership that, since he isn’t Arab, seems almost as improbable as Iran’s bid, now lost in Syrian turmoil.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian Spring has become a long, hot summer. Gazan terrorists infiltrated through Sinai—supposedly under Egyptian control—and murdered Israelis in three different places near the resort town of Eilat. Israel responded of course, but in the resulting exchange of fire Egyptian soldiers were killed, angering many of their countrymen. Caught between undesirable outcomes, Israel accepted the presence of scores of thousands of Egyptian troops in Sinai for the first time in decades.

With confusion about Egypt’s future, this result confirmed what many predicted as soon as Mubarak left: Israel would have to prepare to defend its Southern border, which it has not had to do for many years. This does not necessarily mean war, it means uncertainty, but it also means diversion of resources. And in the last few days, Cairo mobs have torn down the wall around the Israeli embassy and, for their own protection, the ambassador and his family were whisked away in a military jet.

All this time, hundreds of thousands of protestors in Israel—Jewish and Arab citizens alike—have been marching and pitching tent cities, decrying extreme inequality in a country considered socialist a couple of decades ago. By avoiding foreign policy, these protests rallied a wide swath of Israeli society. They have now waned with little result, but the discontent they revealed beneath the economic miracle, with wealth concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, will not go away.

Nor will the foreign threats. Egypt’s army does not want war with Israel, but what if the Muslim Brotherhood, the only well-organized group outside the army, gains power in the elections? Turkey now vows to send its gunboats to protect the next Gaza flotilla. What does Israel do then? Drop the blockade? Hope they are bluffing? Take on the Turkish navy?

Syria is in turmoil, its government slaughtering its own protesting people. Will this end badly for Israel? Nobody can say. Will Iraq be stable after America withdraws? We have to hope so. The Palestinians press on with their bid for unilateral statehood through a vote in the UN General Assembly, which should be taken soon. The result on the ground? Probably not much, but who knows? Settlement expansion continues in the West Bank, making peace talks less plausible with each new apartment.

And Iran’s nuclear centrifuges spin.

Palestinian Realities 2

We crossed the Green Line—the pre-1967 borders—but we did not immediately see the border fence; or as Susan puts it, “the ever creeping separation barrier, snaking through lands that have, for generations, been Palestinian owned.” In some places it’s a huge ugly concrete wall, in others just an impassable barbed-wire fence, but either way it is a formidable barrier.

It separates people from their land, their olive trees, their relatives, jobs, homes.

It restricts people’s movements, and it was meant to do that, after the number of Israelis murdered in bombings and other terrorist acts mounted intolerably through half of the last decade. Perpetrators came from the West Bank as well as Gaza, and the barrier has greatly reduced those fatalities.

But that does not explain its placement. It is always on the Palestinian side of the Green Line, and it always takes up what used to be Palestinian land—in some places meters, in many places kilometers. Since the barrier is still under construction, it is still changing lives. (Even

Jewish ones; far from where we were, at a friend’s home near the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, I would later see a huge gash in the view from their front window—a bulldozed hillside ready to hold a new piece of the wall.)

We stopped at the Habla Gate first, not far from the village of that name and south of the town of Qalqiliya. But between these two is a a large thumb of land about ten kilometers long that the barrier surrounds, to protect the Jewish settlement of Alfe Menashe.

We missed some traffic at Habla, an agricultural checkpoint, but there were still some people passing. Susan wrote, “A beautiful horse appears, together with a frisky and skittish young foal not far behind, but otherwise few people, just one tractor and one horse drawn cartful of

fruit.” A soldier told Susan he would rather be at the beach. Another told us to step back farther, behind the gate. Another trained his binoculars on Habla village.

We stopped at a well-kept nursery and admired the flowers while Susan talked with the vendor. Then we went to lunch in a small village called An-Nabi Elyas, Arabic for the Prophet Elijah. We had delicious shishkebab, falafel, chopped salad, olives, and a colorful array of pickled beets, yellow peppers and other vegetables. Everywhere Susan was greeted as a friend. She asked about families, about how business was going. She and Alix truly do show Palestinians a different Jewish face.

We drove more deeply into the West Bank, passing the villages of Deir Sharaf, Anabta, Jubarra. We drove by signs warning Israelis they are not allowed to pass. In one place, soldiers in a Hummer had pulled a car with Israeli plates to the side of the highway. At Irta, the last checkpoint we visited, at the end of the day, Palestinian agricultural workers were streaming back toward home without being stopped at all—a policy begun there that day. A staff member (this was a privately run checkpoint) did not know why, nor whether it would last. The tired, dusty working men took the change literally in stride.

Earlier, what used to be a checkpoint called Beit Iba was now a road allowing free passage, and we stopped at a small Palestinian factory where fine woodwork and stained glass are made by brothers Susan knows; they export their hand-crafted furniture and doors, even to China now. We shopped at a grocery owned by another friend of Susan’s, next door to his family’s home, a large and pretty house made of Jerusalem stone.

But these were oases in a rather desolate, dusty, poverty-burdened landscape. True, this is the Arab world, and its residents are better off than their cousins in, say, Syria, or Egypt. But they are next door to Israel and under Israel’s thumb, and that makes their lives an Israeli and Jewish responsibility. Dotted around what used to be their land alone are new and growing Jewish communities that are obviously wealthier by far than they, but which have zero contact with them, economic or otherwise.

Ann, visiting Israel and Palestine for the first time, would later say she was stunned by the size of those communities; reading of “settlers” and “settlements” on the West Bank, she had pictured collections of trailers. Then, on the way to Bethlehem, and later, on this remarkable trip, she would see that “settlements” means vibrant, well-established towns, always on the high places, looking down on ancient, proud, but poor Palestinian villages, the people in them practicing the discipline of sumud—steadfast patience and forbearance—but not, surely not without anger.

Just after the Six-Day War, the Israeli religious philosopher Yeshayahu Leibovitz warned his fellow Jews that becoming occupiers would threaten the soul of the country. Now, four decades later, it threatens the country’s democratic future, and diminishes day by day its

standing among nations. Except for a right-wing fringe, the whole political spectrum in Israel now accepts the need for a Palestinian state.

Israel’s genius has extended to so many domains, accomplished so many and such varied things. Surely in this domain so vital to its future, it can think of some way to end the stagnation and move forward. V’im lo achshav, aymatai? And if not now, when?

To contribute to MachsomWatch, click here.

Palestinian Realities 1

One day in May, our old friend Susan—a retired professor of social psychology and college administrator, now a full-time activist—British-born, elegant and pretty—took us on a tour of some places in the West Bank that few Israelis ever see.

Susan is a member—and has been for many years—of MachsomWatch, an organization of Jewish women in Israel, originally mainly grandmothers, who began hanging out at checkpoints at the borders of and within the Palestinian territories. Since 2001, as the Second Intifada led to an expansion of the network of checkpoints, they have kept up these visits, each going once a week or so with one or more other members, and they do what their name says: Watch.

And they talk to the young soldiers, often very young, in something like the way a grandma (bubbe in Yiddish, safta in Hebrew) might—if a grandchild she cared about was doing something that seemed wrong. I spent a long morning with Susan and one of her colleagues at a checkpoint near Tulkarm in 2004. Hundreds of Palestinians were lined up in the hot sun to have their bags and i.d.s checked by IDF soldiers.

Slowly, very slowly, they moved through the line. If one of the MachsomWatch women saw a soldier speaking harshly to someone or holding them up in a way that seemed gratuitous, they would go over and ask why. Occasionally a young man was set aside to sit and wait under a currogated plastic roof. By the end of the morning there were three or four of them. The Machsom Watchers asked about them too.

But it seemed to me the main thing they did was to bear witness—stand there and, as their name says, watch—to make it less likely that a young soldier, frustrated, worn down by the task and the thickening heat of the day, would do something harmful or just humiliating, beyond what had become routine, necessary or not. Something that the soldier or even the State of Israel might later regret.

Susan said I could take pictures, and I did, then and now. Nothing out of the ordinary happened that day or this—just the usual humbling of people going to work or school, visiting relatives, or trying to tend their olive orchards or agricultural land. Just the usual interference with everyday life.

But Susan had another purpose that she describes with passion and backs up with her life: to show the Palestinians a different Israeli face from the one they almost always see and have learned to fear and hate, and ultimately to adapt to, for what they see as a limited time.

Susan uses the word “sumud,” Arabic for patience or steadfastness, although from the way she uses it its deeper meaning must be something like forbearance. The Crusaders, after all, were in the Levant for two centuries, but the desert swallowed many of them and Sala’adin’s Arab armies drove the rest away. Sumud, the harsh landscape almost seems to say. Not even the first century of Jewish rule has run its course.

In 2004 Susan had not been doing this for very long, but she was very good at it, and it evolved into a life devoted to opposing the occupation, to observing systematically in many different ways, to raising grant money to keep her work and that of others—including those, like many Palestinians, who would not be able to raise that money on their own behalf, but who are working, peacefully, to set some limit on their own unjust experience.

So Ann and I asked Susan to take us both along on one of her weekly expeditions in 2011—seven years of occupation later. Susan’s official report (with which I am supplementing my notes and my memory) gave us the honor of including us: “Ann K.” and “Mel K.” And she named her colleague, “Alix W.” Both of them have done this work for many years now.

We arrived at the appointed place in Israel proper and got into Susan’s car. As she drove, she gave Ann the basic narrative of the occupation: 44 years now of domination punctuated by violence, a relentless appropriation of Palestinian land for Jewish settlements, and since the Second Intifada this network of checkpoints around and within the territories. Finally, beginning in 2006, the separation fence and wall went up, often within what was supposed to become Palestine, appropriating still more land for Israeli security and convenience.

Driving east, we crossed the Green Line, the place where Israel ended before ‘67, and a little while later we saw the separation fence.

More on this visit next time.

Next Month in Jerusalem: Basketball

When did I first understand that basketball is a universal language?

Certainly not as a boy in Brooklyn, when I was lamely missing baskets in my own backyard, opposing the much more athletic kids next door. Our netless excuse for a basketball hoop, tacked onto our doorless excuse for a garage (shared with the neighbors, hostile at every level from sports to paternal fistfights), certainly did not inspire me.

Maybe it was when I happened to have to be in New York on a certain Sunday when I also had to take (as a superannuated applicant who had already been an anthropology professor) the Medical College Admission Test. It so happened I was assigned to take it at Yeshiva University (in those days it was routinely given on Saturdays, but for reasons other than religion I was not available that Saturday).

So I took the test with a bunch of knit-kippahed (though they weren’t called that then) strapping young men who did what during the lunch break? You guessed it, they played basketball.

Now, it must say something uncomplimentary about me that I was astounded. Every cliché that a Jewish boy from Brooklyn could have in the 1970s about Yeshiva University-bochers (boys), I had. Let’s not go into it. But seeing these handsome, lithe, strong young men glide across the basketball court deftly dribbling and passing what to me had been a very unwieldy ball—as a break from, probably, trouncing me on the MCAT—well, I apologize, but I was astounded.

Fast forward to May 2011. I and my wife, who is on her first visit to Israel, have hired a high-class academic historian to tour us around the Old City (he was perfect: a German convert to Judaism in his teens who had later made aliya and was trying to become as fluent in Arabic as he was in Hebrew and English). We were walking around on the walls of the Old City, starting in the section overlooking the Christian Quarter.

And what do I remember most from that bird’s-eye view of the Christian Quarter? Basketball courts, attached to a high school I think. At that moment nobody was playing, but the courts were clearly well-kept and well-used. Okay, I thought. Basketball in the Old City of Jerusalem. In the Christian Quarter. Ancient churches, medieval churches, sacred space, basketball.

We had to walk briskly to keep up with our guide, but we next came to the Muslim Quarter. Looking down, what did I see? Or at least, what do I remember? Basketball. Not just courts this time, but two ongoing games, one played by boys, one by girls, including some girls covered in hijab, traditional headscarves. You could have knocked me off the wall of the Old City with a feather.

Okay, so I underestimated basketball. And I underestimated people. But I was getting the idea. So now all I needed was to see basketball in the Jewish Quarter. I didn’t, which is not to say it wasn’t there. But now something better has turned up. It’s called “The Rabbi and the Basketball Player,” and it goes like this.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, once known as Lew Alcindor, was in his time a legendary L.A. Lakers center, and perhaps the greatest basketball star of his era. In the 1970s he was a young African-American who became a convert to Islam and changed his name as a sign both of his religious commitment and his independence from white America. (I remember being chewed out, quite properly, one day, by a pro-Palestinian Jewish colleague for getting Abdul-Jabbar’s new name wrong.)

Fast forward again, to this coming July, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar plans to fulfill a late-life charge given him by his father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Sr.: to make contact with someone the dad, as a member of the 761st Tank Battalion, had liberated from Buchenwald. This was, at the time, a seven-year-old boy.

Sixty-six years later the boy, now an elderly man, recalls how the dark-skinned American soldier took him to meet the German citizens of Weimar. "Look at this sweet kid,” the soldier said to them, “he isn't even eight yet. This was your enemy, he threatened the Third Reich. He is the one against whom you waged war, and murdered millions like him."

Who is the boy now?

Yisrael Meir Lau, the former Chief Rabbi of Israel and present Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, the scion of a rabbinic dynasty and a legendary figure in the Jewish world.

So next month, the famed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, bright star of American basketball, and the legendary Rabbi Lau, shining star in the Israeli rabbinic firmament, will join forces at the Jerusalem Film Festival to premier a movie about their strangely and beautifully intertwined lives, and to build a bridge between two religions, two races, and two nations.

I think I can be forgiven now if I say that the arc of the bridge resembles the arc of a ball approaching a basket, sinking without touching the rim.


Nakba, Naksa, and Yom Yerushalayim

Shavuot: Late last night I walked around this peaceful neighborhood under a bright crescent moon, watching moderately religious strolling couples holding hands or pushing strollers, groups of boys and girls talking animatedly in Hebrew or English (earlier, stepping into the supermarket for last-minute shopping, I’d heard Italian and French in the crowded isles as well). These young people were coming home from shul, but I knew that others, mostly older men, were beginning the traditional Shavuot all-night study, to end with davening at dawn.

I was tempted, but I am tired, having had an intense month of travels, lectures, and meetings around the country and beyond. Much has happened while I’ve been here. At the moment former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is on trial for various corruption charges while the present one, Bibi Netanyahu, is gleaning the glory (clear in the polls in both countries) of having embarrassed and defeated an American president on his own territory, while Obama was away.

This could be a Pyrrhic victory if Obi is re-elected. Mitt Romney just entered the race, the only one so far who might beat the Osama-Slayer, but he is least likely to win the Republican primaries. The president’s chances are not sure, but good. What will he have to lose in the four years between ’12 and ’16? He can oppose Netanyahu in a strong sense, not just in the weak way he has tried out so far.

So when Bibi comes up for re-election in ‘13, strained White House relations may not be such a plus. But he and his government are very pleased with themselves. Israel’s economic and technology engine is running at full steam and without sign of running down. European and American criticism is muted. Israeli liberals and even the centrist opposition are in thorough disarray.

But the clock is running down toward a UN vote to recognize and admit a Palestinian state, within the ’67 borders. On Nakba, or “Catastrophe” Day, which was May 15, some hundreds or thousands of people living in Syria and Lebanon surprised the IDF by massing on the Northern Border fence in certain places, claiming to be Palestinian refugees returning to their homeland. They broke through in one, and some infiltrated deeply into Israel before all (authorities say) were apprehended.

On Naksa, or “Setback” Day, marking the first day of the 1967 war, three days ago, another like attempt was made; it was well prepared for and repulsed. Syria accused the IDF of killing 20 demonstrators by opening live fire (after repeated warnings) when the crowd reached the remade fence. Some of those deaths occurred when Molotov cocktails thrown by demonstrators touched off land mines protecting Israel. Some were caused by errant rifle fire aimed at legs.

The IDF was satisfied with its response, and international criticism was muted. The next day, Monday, there was no activity at the border. Why? Because Syrian guards, instead of encouraging the demonstrators, stopped their buses before they got to the fence, as Lebanon and Jordan had done in the first place.

On June 1, between Nakba and Naksa, a march of 40,000 Jewish Jerusalemites through Arab streets on Yom Yerushalayim provoked understandable protests, but the police only had to arrest 24, mostly Jews. Watch the video of Jewish marchers in Muslim and Christian streets joyously singing, “Death to the Arabs, Death to the leftists,” and “Muhamad met, Muhamad met”—”Mohamed is dead”—to get a glimpse of the people most likely to undermine and destroy Israel. See a pretty young woman say in a thoroughly American voice, of the Arab neighborhood she’s waking up at 4 AM, “Because it’s ours, so we’re happy.”

Meanwhile, the larger neighborhood continued in turmoil. In Yemen, where some of my Palestinian friends are working, the revolution is ongoing, the president wounded in a successful attack on the capital and apparently driven out; in Libya, Qaddafi holds on amid much bloodshed; and in Syria, more protesting citizens have been killed by their own troops every day for weeks than were allegedly killed by Israel on the the two days that crowds tried to breach its border.

My life, however, is normal, or rather, abnormal in a nonviolent way. I have given four lectures and seminars to the medical and public health faculties of the Hebrew University (Hadassah/En Kerem), two lectures (hospital-wide rounds and pediatric rounds) at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, hospital-wide rounds and a seminar for midwives at Bnai Zion (also in Haifa), a seminar (together with Ann) for developmental psychology students at the Univesity of Haifa, and a seminar for anthropologists and anthropologists at Hebrew University at Mount Scopus.

In the midst of all this, I gave a lecture at St. John’s College, Cambridge University, at a conference on the origins of violence, and was asked, with little notice, to comment on parallels between the conflict in Northern Ireland and the one between Israel and the Palestinians. As my friend the Rav says, I’ve been a busy bee.

I also had tours and meetings at all these places, learned a great deal, and was immensely impressed with the quality of the people and the facilities, much of which, in terms of research, training, and clinical care, is on a par with leading institutions in the U.S. and Britain—not surprisingly, since many of the Israelis were trained in those institutions. I’ll be giving a seminar to Palestinian midwives and nurses in East Jerusalem next Monday. Perhaps I can show them a different Jewish face from those of the fanatics who threatened them and their families on Jerusalem Day.

On Shavuot, Jews read the story of Ruth, a righteous Moabite woman, a member of a tribe hated as persecutors of Jews. Yet she is embraced, marries a second Jewish man after she is widowed, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David and thus the ultimate great-great-…grandmother of the Jewish Messiah, according to the faith of religious Jews. If only they took Ruth’s story to heart.

Israel Realities 3: Lag BaOmer, and a Home in Palestine

Erev Lag BaOmer. It was after ten last night and we had had a long day but I said, “The anthropologist has to see if there are bonfires.” So I went out and soon heard the happy shouts and smelled the smoke before I saw them: One on the abandoned railroad track, three larger ones across the street, and three much larger ones on the empty field on Reuven, the narrow street divided by huge old eucalyptus trees.

So even a few steps from Emek Refaim, the hippest avenue in Jerusalem, there were  happy

celebrations of this holiday. There are at least two interpretations: one invokes the campfires of Bar Kochba’s rebel army during the Second Jewish Revolt; the other is mystical and both sad and happy.

The great Rabbi Akiva, who in a rare lapse named Bar Kochba the Messiah, also (according to the Talmud) had 24,000 of his students die—from plague or at Roman swordpoints—during the counting of the Omer, the seven weeks from the second day of Passover to Shavuot. The deaths are said to have stopped on the 33rd day, or “Lag” (lamed-gimel) in Hebrew letters. The bonfires cheer the slaughter’s end.

Also, one of Akiva’s few remaining students, the illustrious Shimon bar Yochai, is said to have died on this day years later, and to have dictated the essence of the Zohar—the core work of Kaballah—on that last day. Some say he postponed the sunset to light the last of his teaching. So the biggest bonfires of all are lit around and atop Rabbi Shimon’s tomb near Tsfat. Shimon was a spark of the soul of Moses, so it is fitting that he would have the Zohar’s essential vision: infinite sparks of divine light emanating at the creation, making all things in this world.

But Jewish children today follow their rabbis and teachers out to light the bonfires while holding toy bows and arrows. So the celebration is seen by the Israeli left as a toxic mixture of nationalism and mysticism, militarism and ancestor-worship. Some see Lag BaOmer as inapt praise for exactly the cocktail of martial fantasy and messianic fanaticism that brought to a tragic end not only that Jewish revolt but also the first, which ended in the razing of the Temple, Jerusalem, and Masada, that double-edged sword of fierce courage and suicidal slaughter.

In this neighborhood the celebrations were not at all fanatical, and mostly not religious, but more like the Independence Day fireworks and barbecues. A man yelled at me for taking a photo, which did not much seem in the spirit of the holiday, but it was his fault for stumbling into my frame when I was just shooting the line of fires.

We had spent the day in Ramallah with the wife of a friend who is himself at the moment in Yemen with an NGO. Both are brave and good young people who go where there is a crisis others are fleeing. In the decade they’ve been together, that has taken them to Iraq (for a year after the three-week U.S. war toppling Sadam), Darfur, Gaza, and now Yemen. She was soon to leave again.

The day before we had met our friend—let’s call her Yasmeen—for a light lunch in the beautiful garden of the American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, which is either elegant neutral territory or a hangout for anti-Semitic Western diplomats, depending on your viewpoint. She agreed to meet us there again in the morning and take us up to Ramallah. I had been there but Ann hadn’t, and we jumped at the chance.

We passed through the checkpoint with ease going into the West Bank. After a detour through some dusty back streets to pick up Yasmeen’s sister—an articulate young woman about to defend her doctoral thesis at a British university—we soon were sitting in the offices of one of their cousins, a thirty-something pharmacist who has a small chain of drugstores. Within a minute we were looking at a slideshow on his computer of his beautiful daughter and son at play and soon sipping ambrosial tea brewed from fresh herbs. I mentioned half-jokingly that we were running out of Claritin and after a few words from the boss another young man left and reappeared with a box of the Palestinian generic, Claristine. It turned out that another of Yasmeen’s cousins, Maryam—a stylish, lithe, young mother fluent in English, French and Hebrew as well as Arabic—is a daughter of the generic manufacturer.

By chance, the women, another cousin, and a couple of their aunts (the latter wearing hijab) were scheduled to stop by a dressmaker’s shop for a fitting, and they invited us along. The shop was a third floor walkup in a mall in the center of Ramallah, where the unthreatening press of people, the fresh food and fruit for sale, and the bright colors of the clothes, the signs, and the wares in store windows were almost dazzling. The women were each designing their own dresses, varied modern cuts embellished with intricate, beautiful traditional embroidery.

Ann said that except for the language was just like what you would see at an American dressmaker, but it was wondrous for me—“A man can come too?!” I had asked—to watch the women consult, laugh, handle cloth and patterns, and even stand (fully clothed of course) for measurements, a process I and others could easily see through the glass storefront from the hallway of the mall. In the street most women wore headscarves but had an air of determination as they swirled around the famous lions fountain, mingling with men without touching them.

We went to lunch at a Palestinian-style pizza place, with with some of the men of the family. Everyone spoke English, the food was good, the warmth and hospitality embracing. Yasmeen, a filmmaker, had to go off to work with her editor, but her family continued to make us feel like friends. The conversation: a project to market poor women’s embroidery; our kids little and big; their family; and marriage: I said women civilize us, first our mothers, then our wives. Nobody disagreed.

Back in the pharmacy offices, the talk turned to airport security, always unpleasant for Palestinians. Maryam, recently returned from a State-Department sponsored trip to the U.S. for outstanding entrepreneurs, said calmly that she saw no point in getting angry about the security measures, but then did, recalling the time they insisted on searching her two-year-old son. “What is he learning from this?” she asked the guard, a woman. “You’re just sowing more hatred for the future.” The woman replied that there had been attempts to stash explosives on small children’s bodies.

This was the closest we got to political, despite Obama’s big speech all over the headlines. Predictably, Ha’aretz editorials attacked him for killing the unborn September UN initiative for Palestinian independence, and The Jerusalem Post attacked him for mentioning the 1967 borders—although he promptly said, “with mutually agreed-upon swaps.” Yasmeen favors a one-state solution in which everyone gets along, but even she considers that unlikely.

Returning to Jerusalem, we followed an SUV full of women, some covered, some not, driven by Yasmeen’s lively and funny “Auntie”—“Like a mother to me,” Yasmeen had said—who took care to make sure we were following her, puling over several times to wait. We stopped to pick up the pharmacist’s wife and small son, and got to see their horses. Auntie took us around by way of the higway past Jericho and both cars were waived through the checkpoint returning to Jerusalem.

I thanked Yasmeen for their marvelous hospitality, copying five of her family for whom I now had email addresses. She replied, “You always have a second home in Palestine.”

These are gifted, brilliant, creative, ambitious, well-educated, hard-working, good people who are building Palestine from the ground up. They are knowledgeable about the world and open to it. They may still be the minority, but they are the future.

Israel Realities 2: Memorials, and Memorials

But of course, the conflict is always here. Friday the 13th brought some bad luck; there were demonstrations with rock-throwing and an Arab youth was killed, possibly shot by a Jewish settler. But we were having our last hours on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee—the Kineret—and drove back down to Jerusalem in a light intermittent rain. Today, however, is Sunday the 15th, the day Palestinians and Arab Israelis have chosen to mark as their day of mourning—Nakba—for what the Jews celebrate: the creation of the State of Israel. This declaration by David Ben

Gurion came on May 15, 1948, and the ensuing war resulted in the expulsion or flight of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians Arabs from their land.(Before and after that, vicious pogroms in Arab countries also drove hundreds of thousands of Jews from their millennial homes, without compensation or right of return, but that’s another story.)

It is the first day of the working week for Israelis, and it may be disrupted by marches and demonstrations, some of which could turn violent. No one expects that exactly—although it has been rumored. With the Israeli Prime Minister in Washington begging Obama and the Congress to see things his way, it’s no time for Palestinians to give him backhanded support for his claim that they are not partners for peace. And with the recent pact between Fatah and Hamas and the approaching day in September when the UN General Assembly will likely vote to recognize a Palestinian state, local Arabs, whether citizens of Israel or residents of the occupied territories, don’t want to queer that process with a display of old-fashioned intifada-like violence.

Israel’s day of mourning began at sunset last Sunday, and we were witnesses to a solemn and stunning national ceremony at the Kotel—the Western Wall. It was also Mother’s Day in the States—Yom Ha’Em in Hebrew, I learned, although it’s not observed here—and I had gone out in the morning to buy flowers and I gift for Ann. Emek Refaim was bustling with the equivalent of what would be Monday morning business at home. When I walked into the flower shop, the radio was playing Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, the song composed by Naomi Shemer just after the Six-Day War, and which has since become a kind of second national anthem, a sweet and melodic celebration of  the results of that war—the ability to go freely to pray at the Western Wall, to live and build in the Old City and outside its walls, to drive down to the Dead Sea—Yam Hamelach or Salt Sea in Hebrew—for the first time in almost twenty years of statehood.

To the Israeli Left and of course to the Palestinians, the same song is a sappy, chauvinistic reminder of 1967 Jewish triumphalism, which, as the wisest predicted even then, would result in more than four decades of divisive occupation, Palestinian resistance, four more wars and two long violent rebellions, and growing worldwide opprobrium of Israel. 

But Monday evening was not a time for politics. People crowded around us on the stone steps of the viewing area overlooking the Kotel. The wall was brightly lit with its ancient rough stone, tufts of dangling green plants that somehow survive in the crevices, and the unseen folded bits of paper by the thousands stuck into the spaces between the rocks every day. The plaza in front of the wall was cleared and then occupied by soldiers, sailors, and air force members in full dress uniforms snapping to full attention and shouldering arms sharply on command. A group of dignitaries marched in as the band played.

After the presentation of the colors, the flag was lowered to half mast and the speeches were delivered, including one by President Shimon Peres and one by Benny Gantz, the new Chief of Staff of the IDF—the Tzahal. I couldn’t understand much, but the words for fallen, remember, war, and State of Israel—Medinat Yisroel—were intoned over and over again, and the words for sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, fathers,. mothers, and friends were comprehensible enough. So were phrases like all corners of the country, cities and villages, kibbutzim and moshavim, Druze, Bedouin, and Christian as well as Jews. Then Kaddish was said, as we stood and gave the responses as a congregation, and a chazan with a fine tenor voice sang El Molei Rachamim, God Full of Mercy, another traditional prayer for the dead.

After the ceremony ended we were part of a large crowd trying to leave, but police and soldiers blocked the exit until Peres and Gantz were well away from the Old City. We had experience a similar wait after President Obama spoke at the University of Michigan for two of our kids’ graduation ceremony last year. Eventually we heard helicopters and the soldiers pulled back gate into a street in  the Old City, but not before some tension arose in the crowd, and two angry young men in separate incidents were arrested and quickly taken away for making trouble, or just for saying something provocative. That too is Israel.

Yesterday we were with friends in Jaffa for lunch—a march in advance of Nakba day was going on in the city and the police presence was impressive, but there was no violence. The guests included an intermarried couple—she Jewish, he Muslim, as is usually the case. Both were psychologists and had met when they taught in the same school thirty-seven years ago. Each had found acceptance with the other’s family in time, and with ten brothers and sisters his family produced a lot of acceptance—although their neighbors in Jaffa said hurtful things to and about her when she opened her home to them. Their daughters were taught about both religions but leaned Jewish.

The conversation turned, as it sooner or later does, to the conflict. She—let’s call her Michal—became tearful as she listed her losses: two cousins, five friends from high school, one from college. Her voice broke when she talked about the memorial day ceremonies all over the country where countless thousands gathered to mourn their dead in more than six decades of war. “Nothing has changed,” she said very sadly.

Last Sunday I had the big bouquet of lilies in my arms as I went into the bookstore to pick up the newspapers. “O, shoshanim!” the woman behind the counter exclaimed, melting at the sight of them. But these of course were not the lilies of the Song of Songs, or the lilies of the field in the Gospel. Those were much more modest, although still arrayed in splendor, The big, almost arrogant blooms of these cultivated lilies are close by me now, still gorgeous, still open to the morning.

Israel Realities: 1

In trying to write about Israel, from Israel, it’s often difficult to know where to start. So much seems to happen in such a short time, so many impressions rush into and past you.

It’s Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Independence Day, and I just walked out on to Emek Refaim, the trendy main street of the so-called German Colony in Jerusalem, to get a cappuccino and a newspaper. But no papers today, all stores being closed except a few restaurants and coffee shops. A few people were quietly enjoying the dazzling sun and slightly chilly morning breeze. People appreciate the rare day off from work that doesn’t involve religious restrictions or pressures.

Last night, it could have been July Fourth: fireworks over the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in the city center, people barbecuing and even tenting in the parks, teens roaming around with ice cream cones in nonthreatening packs, profligate bright lights, children brandishing balloons shaped like hammers or even caveman clubs in the patriotic blue and white with the Star of David, flags everywhere—on cars, houses, and businesses. Some people literally wrapped themselves in it, but it was a very mellow, celebratory atmosphere.

The fireworks were an hour late—just JST, Jewish Standard Time, I think—but rumors flew among the American expats gathered to watch from nearby Zarfat Square at the busy intersection of King George and Ramban (just like Israel to have an English king meet a medieval rabbi at the corner), with a new fountain presented in 2008 by the mayor of Paris to the mayor of Jerusalem (Hey, that fountain looks French, I had thought, before reading the plaque).

The rumors? firefighters were refusing to give permission to start because they were angry that three of their colleagues killed while putting out a recent fire had not been properly honored; Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader, had gotten herself arrested along with Gilad Shalit’s family, in protest over that young man’s five years of captivity in Gaza, and the present government’s inaction; or the breeze was just too strong to shoot off the fireworks safely. Explanations, circuitous and otherwise, are never far from people’s minds.

We arrived last Thursday evening (it’s now Tuesday) after a long flight surrounded strangely by a mixture of ultra-Orthodox and hippie-looking Jews speaking animated Spanish, including a distinguished looking rebbe from Argentina in a blue silk robe, and a sweet, fat young man from Mexico City next to me who prayed fiercely during take-off and landing while his shaking legs slapped into mine.

He also slept with his tuches taking up half my seat, his tzitzis (ritual fringes) dangling over me—I had to swap with my wife Ann so he wouldn’t have to touch her—but I didn’t have the heart to give him the elbow. It was his first trip to Israel, and when we landed and his legs stopped their tremor, he looked out at the bleak runway-scape of Ben Gurion Airport and pronounced it “muy bonito”—very pretty.

It was my first time in the new arrivals building—I’m ashamed to say my last trip was in 2004, just before it was built—and it really is bonito. It reminded me of any number of European airports. I was immediately struck by the absence of uniforms and automatic rifles, which I had grown accustomed to seeing in all public places on my previous eight trips. Finally we saw a uniform: a young Ethiopian sitting on a bench in the arrivals area; in his hand not a gun, but a bouquet of flowers. (In the Atlanta airport before boarding, we ‘d seen a tall, muscular, uniformed, armed, African-American security officer with a huge automatic rifle and a German shepherd to match, and I’d been glad to see them.)

Late that night after dropping off our suitcases at the apartment, we had quite good pizza and salad on an Italian restaurant patio under an old eucalyptus. On Friday we woke up late shopped—fast, since Shabbat was coming—and Ann got her first lesson in Israeli pushing and shoving. The narrow aisles in the grocery can barely pass two people, much less two carts or strollers (they are everywhere), and when the closing hour approached people got very serious about getting what they needed. Nevertheless, I heard the word “S’licha”—“excuse me,” or “sorry”—several times in the course of twenty minutes. We had a private little Shabbat dinner in our new place and tried to sleep off some of our jet lag.

Saturday we went up to Binyamina (near Haifa) to visit some old, dear friends of mine, both born here but fluent in English, both combat veterans, both loyal Israelis who don’t like their country’s direction, and we spent five or six hours talking about everything. When we got tired of politics we talked about family, and Ann and they got along very well (both women are devoted mothers and psychologists with banker fathers and a love for gardens). After a rich meal among their citrus and bougainvillea, we took a short drive to Caesarea and walked the beach and the Roman-Byzantine ruins at sunset. As we watched it, I reminded my friend of the time she had looked out at that same seascape and said wistfully, “What a great country this would be if it weren’t for the conflict.”

More later.

Can the Real Israel Survive Its Imagined Versions?

Israel, goes the title of a book by Rich Cohen, Is Real. This message is coming home to me as I get ready for a six-week stay there—a blip in time to many, but a longish stay for me. What else could it be except real?

Well, it could be the Zionist dream of salvation I had at age twelve, dropping tears on a page of my well-worn paperback Exodus in my bed in Brooklyn. I was twelve, Israel was ten, the Shoah burned vividly in my mind, and Israelis were superheroes, the men and women who saved my people and their history from the humiliation and devastation of genocide.

It could be Yerushalayim, the vision of a spiritual world apart, beyond history and humanity, imbued in me as an Orthodox boy for whom God and Torah were close companions and the return to Zion something like the very first Hebrew crossing of the Jordan, or like every Jewish dream of heaven.

It could be the other-world of Theodor Herzl’s Altneuland, in which the Jewish state of his own great original vision somehow morphs into a transethnic nation where Arab and Jew coexist without enmity or strife.

        Or it could be a historical fiction in which Israel was in effect a terra nullius—an empty land—when the Jews returned, so that they could reestablish their nation in its greatest ancient extent, with nobody else to bother them between the Jordan River and the sea.

But it isn’t any of those, although it could have elements of some of them. It’s the people in Yerushalayim (not “Yerushalayim”) who post apartments for rent on the web for transients like my wife and me, and appear to be doing well at it, thank you very much.

It’s my host at Hebrew University, a physician and global health expert, who brings a polylingual collection of students from all over the developing world, to learn what he and his colleagues know about how to improve health in their home countries.

It’s my friend the former helicopter pilot and current Yoga Master, whose high-tech day job is one of many thousands that helped make his country the world’s leading start-up nation.

It’s my friend the former Orthodox rabbi from Atlanta who has lived in Jerusalem now for twenty years and writes vivid essays about, for instance, a man who remained rude after the rabbi helped him, or a woman who lost her faith and fears her husband with find out.

It’s my friend the former stone-thrower from the first intifada who is married, owns a café in Ramallah and still dreams of independence for his people.

It’s my friend the grandmother who travels once a week with others like herself to a checkpoint in the West Bank to make sure that the scrutiny and harassment of Palestinians does not go too far.

And it’s also my old friends in Beit El in the West Bank—educated, dedicated, problematic “pioneers” whose final answer to the conundrum they and others have set up is that, failing all else, “Moshiach will come.”

Swirling around them all is an “Arab Spring” that may or may not bring summer weather to Israel, but will surely require dramatic adaptations; a worldwide weakening of support for Israel as the Jews, not the Palestinians, are increasingly seen as obstacles to peace; an insidious infusion of classical anti-Semitism into strident critiques of Israel; an Iranian nuclear threat that may not be stoppable either by Israeli power or American will; and a possible re-election of a quite popular U.S. president without much Jewish support and, therefore, without much sense of obligation to the Jews or the Jewish state.

And within? Israel continues to be governed by the bizarre coalition of Ehud Barak, a former hero who heads a declining left-wing movement and who sees the current situation as dire and strongly urges immediate moves toward peace; Avigdor Lieberman, whose constituency of Russian immigrants, many of whom do not speak Hebrew, harbors anti-Arab attitudes that verge on racism; and the confused, temporizing Binyamin Netanyahu, who seems to care more about not rocking his strangely poised political boat than he does about leading Israel into the future.

        As Passover quickly approaches and we celebrate our first Exodus, we can also celebrate our second arrival in the promised land, even if we don’t know what will happen next. So what do I think? I think—I know—I will go, and it will be frustrating—and real.