“It’s fine. Very safe.”, she said. Of course I think we were on different subjects. She told me anyone could feel comfortable walking down the streets in most parts of Israel. Yeah, I agree. I saw this. But the concept of safety and peace take on a whole other meaning when you are having the conversation in Israel. The trick is finding the borderline between truth and paranoia.
When I first began to tell people here at home that I was planning to go to a sea kayaking symposium in Israel, I was enviably asked at safety. People here in the states mostly see only one Israel, the one on CNN. During the election we were swamped by the “Israeli Situation”. Having a large and powerful Jewish population, our president must of course have a stance. I mean, that one guy was a Muslim right!!? In addition the coming election also had some ethereal relationship to Iran. There were reports that Israel was contemplating air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities on or near the elections, even to the point of seeking approval from our current president. You certainly can understand why some would question taking this trip simply to paddle. Still, people are often filled with reasons not to do something.
I was sitting in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris waiting for my flight to Tel Aviv. A man in traditional Jewish dress walked up to me and asked, “Are you Jewish?”. “No”, I said. Without pause he walked away leaving me feeling as if I just said I was a leper. In truth he was gathering men together for a prayer for the flight. For this traditional Jewish sect a certain number of men are needed to give power to their prayer. Soon there was a group of some dozen men standing just a few feet from our gate bowing and praying. I watched this quietly for a time, then went to grab another coffee.
Our plane circled in on the orange lights of Tel Aviv. Looking out of the window I could see the city lights spreading far into the distance and disappearing into a black horizon. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright flash of white light that startled me out of my thoughts. I watched more attentively. Flash! I caught it that time. It was lighting. A storm was moving in from the sea. I continued to watch the storm light up the darkness until the chime tone signaled that we should all replace our seat belts and the plane began to make it’s quick descent. Touching the ground, the jet engines let out a roar as they pushed back against the momentum of the heavy passenger jet. Many people on the plane erupted with a loud cheer. I could’nt help but notice this. It’s not often people cheer when you land.
Ben Gurion Airport in Isreal is not an overt military encampment. You don’t get the impression you are walking into a war zone as I had been told. In fact this is probably one of the most impressive airports I’ve been in so far. The beautiful concourse is spread out in a circle around a fairly large pool of water. Every few minutes artificial rain fails from the 2 story ceiling filling the room with a sense of a calm summer day. Security exists only for the observant, and even then it sort of sneaks up on you like ghosts who appear only in the mirrors as you walk by. Eventually you become aware of the immense security. There are plain clothed agents everywhere, with only a small radio at their sides to give them away. You do not see military figures draped in automatic weapons, yet you sense that simply with the click of a button one of these plain clothed individuals could call in a ninja like shot out of nowhere. Later when I had a chance to talk about this with someone they mused that in the States we use showy display to ward off danger. We bare our teeth and dare the enemy to make a move. In Israel they make no show of force, they simply take you out and move on.
In asking later about safety in Isreal it’s understandable that the discussion took the form of law and order. There is a distinction. There is crime, and there is war and terrorism. Two different subjects. Lawlessness in not apparent, however like anywhere you don’t leave your camera gear in a car. Yet the average person cannot take simple steps to protect themselves from bombs and missiles. This is be left to the military. The average person has to find their own little blind spot when it comes to such things. One would go crazy if they spent too much time focused on the terrorism. So questions about safety are often viewed through the lens of civil law, and not through the wider angle lens of the “Palestinian Issue”. There are simply places you can go, places you can’t and the rest is left up to God and the powers that be. Some things in life are beyond your control.
Coming from the outside your first glimpse of the what the Palestinian dilemma means in real terms is a bit surprising. Palestinian and Israeli are often separated simply by a single highway and miles of fence. Sitting at a gas station along the highway, I could look west into a unremarkable cityscape and the other into a Palestinian settlement filled with flat white buildings centered around a Mosque. Each culture lives side by side, shoulder to shoulder. Still one could not simply take an exit to drive in the Arab neighborhoods. In fact those highway exits do not exist. One cannot get into or out of these areas without a pass and by moving through limited military check points. The separation is absolute. Yet, it’s also much more complicated than that. In places Arab and Israeli neighborhoods are intertwined in ways that one can’t imagine how they could stay apart. Neighborhoods sit upon neighborhoods in an apparent jumble, however somehow the separation is maintained. Again the casual observer would not notice at all but for the occasional high walls, barbed wire and armed checkpoints. The signs are there, but not always so obvious.
To further complicate things one cannot easily identify who is who or what is what. Isreal has many Arab and Muslim populations. Simply being Arab or Muslim as those sane among us know, does not imply an enemy. Race and religion are not precursors to violence among most. There are of course Arab areas that are gems of Israel and should be on anyone’s Itinerary. In fact we spent and evening in a Druze village on Mt. Carmel and while it was certainly a different cultural atmosphere, you felt very welcome. Israel has spent decades learning a lesson we in the states are just really starting to take to heart. Muslims are not the enemy, intolerance and violence are, and while they may have hijacked some loose identity, they are not representative of most people. You cannot look at someone on the street and say, “He is the enemy.” Simple prejudice does not work. Even in an area where conflict is sometimes palpable one cannot make such simple judgments.
Certainly all the news we get here sparks a sense of fear. There were times when I felt a bit of apprehension, especially the first couple days. Times when I heard gun shots in the distance or low rumbling compressions from somewhere over the horizon. In the end the shots were from a nearby firing range. I saw smoke rising from Arab villages on two occasions, both times in a big black “whoosh” that quickly disappated. Probably just garbage but you could’nt help but note the imagery.
As you can see from this post I can choose the images that produce a certain impression, certainly real, even if not wholly accurate. That’s the problem with the way Israel is presented to us. I remember a moment driving through Jerusalem. We were slightly off track in the Arab part of the city. My mind wandered into how easily one could be dragged from a blocked in car and disappeared down some dark street. These dark images force fed by the media can permeate your consciousness. I shook off the image by starting a conversation and getting on with playing tourist. The reality is of course that thousands of tourists and thousands of people are just moving through their daily lives and if you’d never seen a TV you’d probably not realize there was a shadow of strife lingering out there in the rocky deserts beyond the holy land. For my part, I’d return again in a heartbeat. The reality is I felt safer traveling the highways of Israel than I have driving down some murky streets right here at home.