Israel: Two Weeks In The Real World

Israeli soldiers outside Yad Vashem (Holocaust Museum)

I recently returned from Israel, with a side trip to Petra in Jordan. There was so much to absorb in both history and culture, and I still feel overwhelmed by the experience. Two weeks in a country do not make me an expert, nor am I qualified to comment competently on the culture and history. So what follows are my impressions on which I welcome comment and corrections.

Other places I have traveled to are more beautiful than Israel, although there is much beauty to admire there. What hooked me emotionally is the people. To encounter this amazing conglomeration of disparate people from different cultures tied together by the singular fact that they are Jews is profoundly moving. Jews from Europe, America, the Middle East, Ethiopia, and Russia; religious Jews ranging from the merely Orthodox to the ultra-Orthodox (haredim),and the non-observant Jews who never go to “schul” all live on this tiny piece of land (the size of New Jersey) and seem completely committed to its continued existence (although, inexplicably, the haredim consider a Jewish state blasphemous until the Messiah comes).

I found no sense of fear or uncertainty about Israel’s survival. They talk about Israel’s “problems,” like the ultra-Orthodox who are most numerous in and around Jerusalem and who often harass secular women with epithets of “shiksa,” and prosititute, showers of spittle and demands that the women sit in the back of the bus or travel in segregated vehicles. But the threat from Iran and terrorism in general are also called “problems.” The word “crisis” doesn’t seem to be in the Israeli vocabulary. And the many children and pregnant women attest, at least to me, that these Jews intend to stay where they are and if worse comes to worst, will not go gently into that good night.

Israelis do not seem to have the same concerns American Jews have, at least not to the same extent. I didn’t read or hear anyone talk about abortion, for example. Gun control in Israel seems to mean having a good aim. You know you are not in America when you see an 18 year old Jewish girl in an army uniform strolling down the street with an Uzi (I assume) slung over her shoulder so that it bounces against her butt (the latest style in weapon-wear according to our guide).

The sight of young Israeli soldiers got to me. They look so young and except for the uniforms and weapons seem just like American teenagers with their headsets and cell phones. But they are different because they are Israel’s protectors and that is a very serious business. As our guide told us, “Unlike you [Americans], we profile.” The Israelis know whom they are looking for when it comes to their security, and they don’t waste time doing multi-cultural security checks so as not to offend anyone likely to complain (or sue) as we do in America. They believe that, while not all Muslims are terrorists, most terrorists are Muslims. The security people are very “pro-active” with people whose appearance and “body language” is suspicious – a contrast to the bored-looking security guards you often encounter in America.

Israelis refer to the Jewish extremists among them as “the Americans.” Many of the zealots who want to expel all Arabs from Israel and annex the West Bank (and beyond) tend to hail from America as do the peaceniks who consider the Arabs victims of Israeli “occupation” and who want to make Israel a subsidiary of the post 1960’s American Democratic Party. Most Israelis fall somewhere in between. Our guide had particular distaste for the zealots who set up an illegal settlement somewhere, only to be evicted by the Israel Defense Force (IDF), after which they move on to another area and destroy Arab dwellings. The zealots call this “payback.”

Haredi man near the Western Wall

The ultra-Orthodox or haredim add a certain exoticism to Jerusalem where they are numerous. A big “problem” for secular and moderately religious Israelis is what our guide Yacov called “Ben-Gurion’s mistake.” As Mati Wagner writes in Commentary Magazine:

David Ben-Gurion’s willingness to make concessions to the haredim in the first decades after the establishment of the state of Israel was the direct result of his conviction that his version of secular Zionism would soon become the dominant force in all aspects of Israeli society, while Judaism as a religion, especially in its most extreme expressions, would disappear.

Perhaps that seemed like a good idea back at the time when secular socialists founded Israel and there were relatively few devoutly religious Jews living there, but now the haredim have grown into a large, powerful community whose members are highly visible and are often aggressively abusive to moderately religious and non-observant Jews, especially women. Since the average number of children born to the haredim is 8, many secular Israelis are more fearful of a haredi takeover than they are of the Arabs. Others believe that the modern world, particularly the internet, will change the haredim before the haredim change Israel. As the Israelis say about most things: We will see.

The haredim are particularly eccentric, colorful or weird (take your pick) in their Sabbath outfits. My wife provides description:

The everyday uniform of the haredi – the large black hats perched on top
of yarmulkes, the long black coats, payot, fringes hanging down from under sweaters or jackets—seems only slightly less out of place in Jerusalem than in Brooklyn but still anachronistic, belonging to another place (Eastern Europe, not the Middle East) and another age (a century or two ago). The Shabbat attire is something else. Costume, costume. There are variations, subtle and not-so-subtle (like a hat leaning to the left or the right, stockings in white or black, beards shaped this way or that) that are apparently very important as signs to those who know as to what
sect or rabbi someone belongs. But most wear their Shabbat best: a belted pink-beige silk kimono-type robe over the regular black suit, sometimes worn under a shiny black overcoat, sometimes not. White or black stockings with black patent slippers. The headpiece is a huge flat-top, round fur-brimmed hat, the brim at least six inches deep, often more. With beards and payot, of course, that can sometimes reach well below the shoulders. The impression is of a spinning top walking down the street, wide on top, narrowing to a small base. The women, sometimes walking behind the men, look modern by comparison, wearing simple dark clothes, a scarf or nice plain hat on the head, always with children dressed in their best.

Secular Jews could not appear more different from their religious compatriots. In a sentence: Israeli men look tough and Israeli women look sexy. I didn’t see any recognizable American Jewish types of men (although there may be some) like, say, the characters played by Woody Allen, Larry David or Jerry Seinfeld. No nebbishy, timid, kvetchy guys in the American style. Secular Jewish men look much more like Tony Soprano than Jerry Seinfeld. Dressed in jeans, often powerfully built, secular men wear their hair closely cropped and eschew facial hair. I would guess that hair, to them, denotes piety and piety is not their thing.

An aside: One night we walked into a convenience store in Jerusalem where the kid at the checkout counter was engrossed in a Seinfeld rerun on the TV monitor. It was the episode where Jerry and George go to the network executive’s apartment to persuade him to “greenlight” their pilot episode and where George ogles the “cleavage” of the executive’s young daughter. I said to the kid, “One of the best episodes, no?” He chuckled and nodded yes.

I really cannot say why Jewish women in Israel are sexier than their American counterparts. Maybe it’s because they speak Hebrew or Hebrew-accented English. Hebrew sounds sexy to my ear. Go know.

Another aside: Yesterday, I had some root canal work done by a quite skillful, Jewish woman dentist who prefaced every sentence with the phrase, “I’m like…” Cannot say whether there is a Hebrew equivalent, but I did not hear similar locutions from English speaking Israeli women.

Or perhaps it’s the setting. As Hemingway noted, places of war and danger heighten the senses. The knowledge that these women have served in the army and must live their lives on a tiny sliver of land surrounded by millions of implacable and often murderous enemies maybe sharpens and deepens their personalities in a way not evident in their more secure American sisters.

Walking through the various quarters of Jerusalem, it became clear to me why devout Christians are thrilled that the Jews control the city and why religious Christians make up a major part of the support for Israel. The easy access Christians have to their holy sites is secure with Israeli sovereignty over the city, which would hardly be the case if Muslims were in control. Even in the West Bank cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem where the Palestinian Authority is in charge, Christians know that in the absence of a final peace treaty, the Israelis are the ultimate controlling authority and will protect Christian holy sites. I cannot imagine that West Bank Christians relish the thought of living in an Islamic Palestinian state .

To be continued.

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  • Don  On February 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Interesting observations. Some of the things I wonder about have to do with what is going on and what are the conversations within the various groups such as the Russians, Ethiopians, the Asian workers, the West Bank settlers. Any personal data on these matters?

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