I wanted to approach Israel with a Zen mind, a beginner’s mind. During our 2015 trip, our first trip to Israel, my husband David and I wanted to learn what we could as tourists, letting the land and the people speak to us.
It turned out, however, that approaching Israel with a tabula rasa was a challenge. Several narratives stowed away in my mind, competing for attention. There was the formative narrative I grew up with, the perspective of my parents’ generation. Modern Israel, in this telling, was a miracle, the refuge of the Jewish people after the Holocaust. It was our homeland, the place where the founders of the country and its military heroes bore our names, had our faces and came from the places—Poland, Russia and Hungary—we came from. In this narrative, Israel was a place of safety, pride and belonging after centuries of displacement and distrust. It could do no wrong.
Playing alongside that view was the Israeli travel poster of my youth. It was the Israel of the Sabra, the generation born on the land. I could see a beautiful girl with dark curly hair in tan shorts plowing a field to make the desert bloom or toting a gun to defend her country. It was a vision of strength and moxie, accompanied by a soundtrack of exuberant Israeli folk music and spirited dancing. It was the Jerome Robbins version of Israel.
Banging up against these positive if romanticized views of Israel is today’s political narrative of Israel the occupier, an Israel of walls and fences, an Israel unloved by the world. I was curious which Israel we would encounter as the plane descended.
Our seatmate on the flight over was pleasant enough. He explained in perfectly unaccented American English that he lived near Tel Aviv, but worked in the United States, often in the South for two or three-week stints. Despite his friendly demeanor, he carefully never revealed his name, where he worked or his profession. Was he a defense contractor? Did he work in corporate, cyber or national security? We could only guess.
Just as the plane crossed the Israeli shoreline on its way to Ben-Gurion Airport, our neighbor reached across our seats, pointed out the window and asked, “How can we give that back?” The hills he was pointing to were about six miles from the airport, closer than the Santa Monica Mountains are to LAX. This was a narrative I, perhaps naively, had not expected. Despite hours staring at maps before we left, it had never occurred to me that the West Bank was that close. It was my first lesson in the practical geography of Israel.
Our first stop was Tel Aviv, a modern coastal city that reminded me of Miami with its wide beaches, high-rises, cafes and slightly decaying Bauhaus buildings from the 1920s and 30s. It is a lively place, a big city that is used to tourists. It’s as close as Israel comes to an American-style melting pot, gay and straight, Arab and Israeli, religious and secular.
The beach promenade on a sunny Sunday in April drew them all. Young Orthodox dads in white shirts, black slacks, kippot (skullcaps) and tzitzit (fringes) pushed baby strollers while moms in long skirts and loose knit caps covering their hair wrangled the older children. Arab women with headscarves and ankle-length robes took iPhone photos of their children playing in the waves. European 20-somethings rode bikes and took selfies against the spectacular view. The groups mingled, but didn’t interact.
Two days later we experienced two secular Israeli holidays, Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day). Memorial Day in Israel is a somber reminder of the enormous price Israel has paid to exist. In this small country, population eight million, with nearly universal military service, everyone knows someone who has perished from the War for Independence in 1948 to now. The remembrance began the evening before in typical Jewish tradition. Even in bustling Tel Aviv, stores, restaurants, cafes, theaters and all other activities closed. At exactly 8 p.m. and again at 11 the next morning, sirens blew throughout the country. Whatever you are doing, it is customary to stand at attention for the length of the siren. Cars stopped on highways and small streets alike so drivers and passengers could get out and stand beside their cars to honor the fallen. The holiday was quiet except for cemetery visits.
Around 8:30 the next evening, Erev Yom Ha’atzmaut, everything changed. As if a switch was thrown, the once-quiet streets were suddenly filled with people and honking cars. Early evening was family time. We followed scores of people up Rothschild Boulevard to see the fireworks, passing through two security checkpoints as we approached Rabin Square, the public plaza named for Izhak Rabin, the slain prime minister who was Israel’s best hope for peace.
My eyes teared up slightly when I saw the street sign, imagining what might have been. No time to reflect, we saw two huge stages with popular rock bands—no Israeli folk music—and kids playing with shaving cream and inflatable “hammers” or gavels, commemorating the moment in May 1948 when David Ben-Gurion declared the existence of the State of Israel.
Along the Mediterranean
Driving north along the coast to Caesarea the next morning, we glimpsed the holiday air show that traversed the length of Israel, showing off antique and modern war planes, reminding people that ensuring Israel’s independence is an ongoing job. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the display, but seeing it told me a lot about another of Israel’s narratives: Peace is achieved through military strength.
Caesarea, with its graceful aqueduct, impressive theater, hippodrome and fortified walls, was our first encounter with Israel’s Roman past. It was also the first place we began to understand that history here really is layered and complicated. The beautiful golden ruins were the Roman base for quelling the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 CE and probably the site where Rabbi Akiva and others were tortured to death. In later centuries the Byzantines and Crusaders took up residence in Caesarea. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has a home nearby.
At the Crusader fortress in Akko north of Haifa we learned that the Holy Land was overrun by civilization after civilization. The impressive list includes the Crusaders from France and England; the Mamelukes, former slave warriors from medieval Egypt; the Ottomans and finally the British. My head was spinning trying to absorb it all. Bottom line: Conflict in the region is as pervasive and enduring as its ancient ruins. The Israeli-Palestinian situation is just one more chapter in a very long history.
We toured Akko on our way to the Galilee with Richard Woolf, a British expat tour guide who immigrated to Israel in the 1970s. Richard had worked on an Israeli cattle ranch and was a partner in a horse breeding business. A Jewish cowboy with a British accent. We didn’t know it yet, but he was a man with a mission.
Next stop, Rosh Hanikra, on the coastal border with Lebanon. On the highway along the beach, Richard casually mentioned, “This is where the school bus was ambushed.” The attackers apparently came by boat from Lebanon. Looking at the placid scene, I swallowed hard and added these details into the narrative that was beginning to form of a people who really had to defend their borders in order to survive. Score another factoid for my mother-in-law’s view of Israel.
Exploring the northern Galilee
Richard took the northernmost road through the hills to the Galilee town of Rosh Pina, tracing the border with Lebanon. The land looked the same on both sides, green springtime hills, but I was more awake, more alert, wondering what it means to live that close to a border when the country on the other side is, at best, quietly hostile.
The next morning Richard showed us Rosh Pina, one of the agricultural towns developed by Baron Rothschild as a haven for Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. What if my grandparents had come here to grow silkworms—a failed experiment—instead of to New York? It’s hard to imagine what life would have been like as rural pioneers in a harsh land. That afternoon we drove through the Hula Valley, malarial swamps until they were drained by the Jewish pioneers.
Metula, our last stop of the afternoon, is known as the “fingernail” of Israel because the town pokes right up into Lebanon. The border fence is just beyond the last buildings in town, and the fields are cultivated right up to the fence. A roadside sign at the end of the road commemorates the illegal immigrants who passed that way from 1920-1923, when the area was a transit stop from the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon. Jewish refugees who escaped from Germany in 1933-34 also passed this way. To help the refugees pass safely into what was then the British Mandate for Palestine, residents of Metula would stage fictitious weddings, after which the “guests” were transported to the center of the country, far from the border.
I was relaxing that night after one of Richard’s typically long days when a jet flew low and fast over our B and B. Before I had a chance to ask David if he had heard it, whoosh, whoosh, two more rushed by. By then I understood the geography well enough to realize that no commercial planes would be flying north past Rosh Pina. North led to Lebanon and Syria; this was clearly not a commercial air route.
The next morning we asked Richard what we had heard. Oh, he said, there was an incursion by Hezbollah in one of the Druze villages on the Syrian border. We had heard the Air Force planes that took them out. “We’ll be passing by the village later today,” Richard added matter of factly. I felt my eyebrows rise a bit.
But first we drove north to Tel Dan to see the headwaters of the Jordan River and a major archaeological site first occupied more than 4000 years ago by the Canaanites and later the Israelites. Hiking in the woods by the cool stream was a soothing change from our information-packed days. On our way to the tel, the ancient stone city on top of the hill, Richard showed us communication trenches left over from 1948, where soldiers on the hillside could move about freely unseen by the Lebanese army in the fields below.
Hiking further, we came to the walls of what had been a large and prominent city in its day. According to Richard, it had everything it needed to prosper: It was located on a major trade route from Damascus to the coast; it occupied a defensible position high on the hill; and it had plenty of water.
The Golan drives the message home
In the afternoon we drove up to the Golan Heights, passing through the Druze villages quickly. They seemed peaceful enough, but we still had miles to go before our last stop, Mt. Bental, the highest point in the Golan.
From the lookout point at the top, we could see deep into Syria. The former bunker left over from the ’67 war is set up with tourist services, including a café, gift shop and walkways with metal cutouts of soldiers. In the distance, we saw the town of Quneitra, once captured by Israel, but later returned to Syria, and leftover Syrian army barracks.
Again I pondered what’s it’s like to live so close to enemy territory. We were looking at the IDF post on top of a neighboring hill when we heard the pop, pop, pop of artillery fire. It was far away. We saw no smoke or flashes of light, but the war in Syria was a lot closer here than it is on the front page of the Times or on CNN.
With the artillery sounds still playing in my mind, I superimposed what I learned about Israel on a virtual map of Northern California. I gained some geographical perspective by imagining that Napa Valley is the Galilee, Sonoma is Lebanon and Lake County is Syria. That’s how close everything is in Israel. One is rarely out of site of a potentially hostile border.
During those first few days of our trip, the contours of the land and the proximity of Israel’s borders shaped my thinking. It wasn’t the story I sought, but the tale of Israel’s borders proved to be a narrative that was impossible to ignore.