“Welcome to your homeland!” Our Birthright tour guide Zvi exclaimed to my group of 40 other international Jews upon our disembarkation in Israel. We were among the few who didn’t cancel their trip during this particularly volatile time. Hamas was firing a steady barrage of rockets, most of which were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. Hotels were begging for business, and Tel Avivians subdued their trademark nightclubbing nature to calibrate with national somberness.
The first day greeted us with a series of gunshots drifted across The Old City skies. I was in the midst of bargaining with an enthusiastic Arab jeweler when the loud sounds cracked and my sense of security faltered. He laid out some gems on the table and cheerfully said, “Dear Jewess, don’t be afraid. If it were dangerous, I wouldn’t be here. It’s graduation time! We celebrate by firing shots in the air. ”
Zvi told me the next day. “Muslims will say, ‘how was the wedding yesterday?’ They’ll reply, ‘It was fantastic; only 3 people got shot.’ “
Then the rockets caused four israeli defense force casualties. We were taking cover in a well equipped kibbutz when Zvi rifted into a Captain Willard persona type a la Apocalypse Now. He collected cigarettes from the chatty periphery while gazing to the Golan heights’ leaky moon, so dedicatedly asking it for a mortal favors.
Birthright can make someone who once looked at the country from afar adopt patriotism so strong that he/she would put life on the line to defend a place they only visited for ten days. One of the fallen soldiers was a birthright alumni, which was very difficult news to sallow for Zvi.
Judaism isn’t very strict. It’s a big, all-inclusive (kosher catering) supermarket. There’s many aisles (Orthodox/Haredi, Traditional, Conservative/Masorti, Reformed/Progressive, Reconstructionist.) Some people stay in one aisle, others will shop all the aisles. The only mistake one could make is skipping this very special supermarket and finding your niche of suitable beliefs.
“With our inventions, we’ve saved over 100 times as many people as we’ve had to kill in defense. They can keep throwing rockets at us. I say that because we believe no matter what, we should be a light to all nations. And you know what we say about the Palestinians. They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” That was Zvi’s final declaration to us about the triumph of Israel and the shortcomings of its neighbors.
When the rest of birthrighters boarded back to New York with a newfound connection to Israeli strife, I extended my stay and drove up to Nazareth “the Arab capital of Israel” the next day. It was during the last day of Ramadan and the roads were a bright light show with balconies flickering festively and bumper to bumper halogen headlights blinding me from seeing where the sidewalk started. Driving closer into the center city, Hebrew signs morphed into Arabic and the pedestrian garb went from yarmulkes and shtreimels to hijabs and gurkhas.
If heroism can be simply defined as great bravery, then the perseverance of Israel and Palestine is just that. But conflicts of geographical and religious magnitude are seldom resolved with diplomatic servings of scotch in wainscot boardrooms. The hate is palpable in the media, but most civilians seem moderate. Extremism is promoted, along with the political stubbornness.
Courage and grace are in high demand and lowly stocked for the political powers that be. How can one possibly empathize when the other side’s set of metaphorical shoes needed for walking are separated by shrapnel and heavily guarded walls? The only thing left for me to do is refrain from righteousness, realize that this mess could have happened in the US, and maintain empathy for everybody.
There’s going to be plenty more bad days for these people, and no ancient text or pity treaties can excuse the turmoil on both sides. Despite all their differences, you could see all the religions sitting next to one another with their individual falafels from Nazareth nights to The Four Holy Cities at prayer time. For morale’s sake, I’ll be naive and heartily believe that first step to resolving fights and feasting alike.
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