From the balcony of my “suite” in downtown Jerusalem, I see the tattered stripes of an Israeli flag seized by a strong wind, a huge McDonald’s with intact golden arches, and an almost empty street with caged-up stores in advance of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks. The Jerusalem Post showed a man in a black kippa—meaning religious but not too—harvesting sheaves in a gold field of wheat. He’ll make matzoh when the time comes. That the flag fragment is allowed to stay where it is may reflect the current level of nationalism here.
Last night I sat outside a restaurant known for Israeli fare—I had something quite nice called “Jerusalem Mix,” which includes chicken hearts and spleens—and watched a dense crowd of twenty-somethings sweep around each other. I picked the restaurant on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall where a couple my age was chattering French—or at least he was—and a bald fiftyish guy was hanging out.
The girls (I’m sorry: girls) were parading in anything from modest skirts to shorts so short they distracted even a jaded college prof. The boys wore jeans, including some of the ones with yarmulkes, or khakis, and cruised in clutches or buzzed buoyantly around the girls. It was innocent and ripe, and it made me feel good about the future of the Jews. Needless to say there were some boys and girls in uniform, and the odd automatic rifle.
I’ve seen my friend the Rav as well as friends who don’t embrace guys like him—the pediatric endocrinologist who takes care of Palestinian kids, trained the only such specialist on the West Bank, and is devoted to evolutionary medicine, an American medical student living her dream in more ways than one, and the former head of an anthropology department who spends much of her life with hunter-gatherers in India.
Tonight I’ll see friends who came from England forty years ago, an elegant artist and her doctor-husband who’s establishing a public health school in Nepal. Tomorrow I’ll go to Kibbutz Magen with my obstetrician friend and his charming, kind nurse-wife; she grew up on that kibbutz near the Gaza border. We’ll eat first fruits see her father, an unassuming eighty-something who taught himself English while building the country, dodging rockets and fighting wars.
My Ramallah friends seem to be away; it’s likely some rescue mission that few people would undertake. The news there is that the Arab league approved land swaps in a two-state solution. But among Palestinian factions, only Fatah, Arafat’s now-centrist party, agrees. Sure, people here are worried about peace with Palestine, Iran’s impending nuclear bomb, Syria’s dissolution, Egypt’s Islamist lean.
But not very, or not until you press them, when some may tell you they hope America takes care of it. This is not like them, but they are tired. I tell them Americans are too, tired of bewildering wars on the other side of the world. Obama’s visit more than doubled his positives here—but to 18 percent, which doesn’t make him a hero. America has other priorities. Are they trying to draw America in? I doubt it. Israelis do what they need to do in a dangerous neighborhood, as the recent Syria bombing shows.
But it’s not what they’re thinking most about. They’re thinking about a pediatric conference that drew physicians and scientists from twenty countries, about the price of an apartment, about their grandchildren, or wanting some already, about the student, the patient, the blank canvas, the grocery bill, or the stalled car in front of them, about what’s for dinner or where they will go on vacation. They’re thinking about the same things we do, not what’s on CNN or in The New York Times.
The election barely touched on foreign policy or the Arab-Israeli conflict. It turned on inequality, the economy, and the burden of the non-serving, non-working ultra-Jews. The real news? The first coalition in memory without religious parties; it may actually move on the majority’s frustrations. The down side is the coalition includes not just Yair Lapid, a TV-personage-turned-dream of the center-left, but Naftali Bennett, who, although also critical of ultra-religious Jews, is a settler leader who blocks the two-state solution.
And this: Friday, due to a new Supreme Court decision, police protected the Women of the Wall as they prayed in tefillin and prayer shawls. Before, police had to arrest them. Now they beat back the black-hatted, black-cloaked men who spit and hurl epithets. The plaza of the Western Wall, cherished by millions, will soon be redesigned for equality under the law.
And my Palestinian friends keep waiting.