A Spring Visit to Israel

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published May 04, 2011, issue of May 13, 2011.
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A journalist friend tells me I am wrong to talk of “a Tel Aviv bubble,” a common expression that refers to the quite distinctive café society of Israel’s megalopolis and also implies, dismissively, that Tel Aviv separates itself from the Israeli hinterland, is more open, more casual, sexier, more — well, more Mediterranean. But my friend observes, correctly, I believe, that with regard to “the situation” — that is, of course, the festering conflict — all Israel’s a bubble. The news broadcasts and the television talk shows deal with the big questions incessantly, but in daily life and conversation, except for some startling event — say the murder of a family in Itamar — there is simply no indication that people feel they are living on a knife’s edge. None. Such indifference to reality may be thought adaptive; it may also be thought escapist.

I ask two brothers, relatives, what is to be done. One says the only answer is hasbarah. Hasbarah is a difficult word to translate. Technically, it means “explanation,” but in the Israeli context, it means something like a propaganda campaign. I ask him what in the world he wants to explain, what new alibis and excuses there are for the government’s obduracy, why he supposes that a world long since grown weary of Israel’s self-justifications will be swayed by Israel’s successes in high tech, in scientific research, in economic growth. His brother offers a somewhat more sophisticated analysis. He is a man of the moderate right, and he has much to say — some good, some not good at all — about Prime Minister Netanyahu. But soon enough he gets to the standard cop-out: There’s no one to talk to, no partner for peace. “They” are “primitive,” they have a “different mentality.”

That is a view I have heard from a disconcertingly large number of people. My standard response is that if the current situation is intolerable and there really is no partner, then you have to ask whether there is anything you can do to encourage your adversary to partner-like behavior. But every time I say it, I remember that my premise is that they, too, see the current situation as intolerable. And the blunt truth is that Israelis don’t. Indeed, a Gallup poll ranks Israel as the seventh “happiest” country of the 124 it surveyed, right up there with Denmark, Sweden, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Finland and New Zealand.

I ask an old friend, a Christian Arab educator in Nazareth, what is to be done. Her answer: The story of how she successfully organized a group of women in an Arab village to demand that one road in the village be paved. “Incrementalism,” some might say — but not those women. For them, it is huge.

I have tried to stay away from big issues — just to collect stories, vignettes, stray observations from this visit to Israel — and I have not exactly kept that promise. So here is my belated effort. Everyone knows that in Israel, it does not rain after Pesach, right? Wrong: Last night, an unprecedented lightning storm over the Mediterranean, the night sky lit for well over an hour — and soon thereafter, thunder and torrential rains. Earlier in the week, at an open-air concert in the Jezreel Valley, the temperature hovered around 40 degrees. People came wearing parkas. All week long, drizzles and downpours.

But today, spring. In a couple of hours, the sun will be swallowed by the Mediterranean. And tomorrow, Jerusalem. I am happy; go figure.


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