Sunday, July 27, 2008

Israelis and Fellow Travelers

Ted Belman

About thirty years ago, my how time flies, I was listening to a lecture by an Israeli law professor who had represented Israel in negotiations with the Syrians after the ’73 war. To illustrate the difference in style between negotiators, he informed that when a customer walks into an Arab store, the Arab asks him how he is, to please sit down, can I get you a glass of water, where are you from etc., etc. When the same customer walks into an Israeli store, the Israeli says “Hello, what do you want?.. The Israelis are anxious to get down to business whereas the Arabs have all the time in the world. Current day Israeli negotiators should take a lesson from this. Israelis are legendary for their brusqueness, rudeness or impatience however you want to term it. As a case in point, Israeli drivers have one hand on the steering wheel and one hand on the horn and don’t hesitate a second, to use it.. If you ever stood in line for a bus you will quickly learn to fight your way to the head of the line just as all Israelis do.

But that is a misleading picture. Native born Israelis are called sabras after a local fruit of the same name which is prickly on the outside and soft on the inside. That “softness” comes out in many ways. On two occasions when I was the last to get on the bus, because I hadn’t yet learned the art of getting to the front of the line, young Israelis gave up their seats for me and sat on the floor for the two hour trip ahead of us. In “My visit to Ein Harod” I told of the hospitality extended to me by my host and the hospitality extended to soldiers on a regular basis. A few weeks later my daughter and I were Shabbat guests at the home of a friend of hers. Israelis love to be hospitable. They are so happy to see you and welcome you to their country.

Many is the time I saw Israelis help people to cross the street or get on the buses with their packages when help is needed’ Just yesterday I asked a stranger how to call Toronto with my cell phone. We couldn’t figure it out on my phone so he lent me his cell phone to use. He wouldn’t let me repay him.

There are a few beggars around, not so many as to disturb your visit, and from what I have noticed they make a good living. Israelis are generous and empathetic.

Israel is a good place to live, except for the many reasons why it is not. In a recent poll among Arab Israelis, 74% said that they would rather live in Israel than any other country in the world. You read that right. Similarly, 74% of Jerusalemites, Arab and Jew, said they did not want Jerusalem to be divided. When the fence was being built, Israel was overwhelmed by requests from the Arabs affected to include them on the Israeli side. There were very few that wanted to be on the Arab side usually motivated by politics.

Before the advent of the peace process there was much commerce and intercourse between Arab and Jew in Judea and Samaria. Everyone benefited and was happy. These Arabs had the highest standard of living and education compared to Arabs in any Arab country. The peace process ruined everything. The Arab rulers and the western leaders just had to interfere.

There is a vibe in Israel that doesn’t exist in other countries. The country is young and growing. There is a sense of building something. There is a sense of future. The Oleh , Jewish immigrant, comes to Israel to participate in that endeavour. Just visit Ben Gurion Airport when a planeload of them arrive organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh. The excitement is palpable.

tednanahamed25.jpgAnd you don’t have to be Jewish to be caught up in it. One friend that I have made, Nana, is an American woman in her late thirties who has been here for a few months though she has a PhD from an American University. She has taken a year off and is thinking of making aliyah. She, too, feels the excitement of being part of a young country. She likes the sense of community and this gives added dimension to her work.

She introduced me to Hamed, her new friend, who is a Muslim refugee from Darfur who taught himself to speak English.. Hamed is a beautiful black man who has lived in Israel for about one years and devotes himself to running a very limited shelter for 150 plus Darfurian refugees. He receives no pay for his full time work. He told me of the day to day reality for Darfurians in Sudan and in Egypt where they are oppressed and killed by both governments. When they attempt to flee to Israel they are killed by Egyptian soldiers if seen before they reach Israel. So far this year Egyptians have killed 19 officially but Hamed tells me the count is much higher. Israel has allowed about 1,000 Muslim Darfurians and 2000 Christian Sudanese in. Their situation is difficult but paradise compared to life in Sudan.

Israel is an expensive country to live in. The cost of living in Tel Aviv is higher than in New York and much higher than in Toronto according to the latest statistics. Yet Israelis who earn less, get by, because they are not materialistic. As long as they have a roof over their heads and food on the table, they are happy. Forget about owning cars or an expensive wardrobe. Bus travel is cheap and convenient. A senior pays about $1.00 each way. Locally gown fruit and vegetables are inexpensive if bought in the Jewish Market in Jerusalem. Tomatoes and cucumbers cost $1.50 a kilo or 70 cents a pound. Fruit is about $1.20 a pound. Elsewhere these things are more expensive. Imported foods or toiletry is much more expensive as are cars.

The Health Care system in Israel is reputed as one of the most advanced in the world, and has many achievements in the fields of the medicine and the medical study, health of the public and accessibility of the public to the health services. Thousands of “medical tourists” travel to Israel every year to take advantage of its state-of-the-art medical system. Even with the cost of flights and hotel, in vitro fertilization and cancer care in Israel costs far less than in the U.S. or Europe. Anyone can purchase healthcare for a low fee. It is graduated according to income. Pre-existing conditions or age is not a bar. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs tells the whole story.

It’s a small world, as they say, even smaller for Zionists. One of the places that I frequent is M-Central which serves as a home for international journalists. Lectures and information are provided to them. M-Central has interns from the English speaking world, usually young people who are intent on making aliya, who work with them. Much to my surprise one of them was the daughter of a friend of mine in Toronto.

Just recently, I attended a lecture at the JCPA by Amb (ret) Yoram Ettinger, who I know well,. One of the interns I met there was the daughter of a Washington insider that I met last year in Washington and with whom I now keep in touch. She too was making aliya.

Then I couldn’t help but notice another intern, Miranda, an American from Virginia, who is making aliya in a year. She was beautiful and black. I was intrigued. She was the daughter of a Lithuania Jewish mother and a black American father and she was a committed Zionist. She has one more year to go in Virginia to get a degree in Middle East Studies and intends to complete her Masters in Israel. She was a delight to talk with.

Yoram was there to talk about the AIDRG Study which concluded that the number of Arabs in Judea and Samaria has been over represented by one million. The net result of which is that there is no demographic time bomb and that the Jews out number the others 2:1. He is a man on a mission. He makes this presentation 2 to 3 times a day, often one on one. He has even presented to members of Congress. The word is slowing getting out. The importance of this study is that it takes the pressure off the need to rush to a settlement and it opens up other options for discussion, such as annexing Judea and Samaria.

One of the suggestions Yoram made was that Israel further expand Jerusalem’s borders to the Dead Sea in the east and Gush Etzion in the south. In the expanded area the ratio of Jews to Arabs would remain at 2:1. He is a believer in the benefits of modern infrastructure. He wants high speed trains and modern roads to service this area which will attract industry and people. It will also lower real estate prices for all. He even suggests the construction of an international airport in the city. Cheap housing could be built at the north end of the Dead Sea which would only be a 15 minute train ride to Jerusalem. He suggested that a town planner should draw up such a plan. As it so happens, a young architect friend of mine, Eric, who speaks Hebrew, just got his Masters in town planning. He is now visiting Israel and I have asked him to draw up such a plan and he is all for it. No political considerations would apply. He too may make aliya.

Jerusalem is located fourteen miles West of the Dead Sea and thirty-three miles East of the Mediterranean. Bethlehem lies about five miles to the SE. The city is situated on an uneven rocky plateau at an elevation of 2,550 feet. It is 3,800 feet above the level of the Dead Sea. Note those distances well. The Mediterranean is less than 50 miles from the Dead Sea. Approaching Jerusalem from the east requires an ascent is a short distance of 2500 feet. Jerusalem is surrounded by hilltops on which large suburbs have been built.. The valleys below are generally undeveloped..

It is Shabbat now and I am enjoying it in beautiful Ein Kerem where I am staying for the summer. It is a suburb of Jerusalem. I might add that there is no public transportation in Jerusalem on Shabbat but that’s okay. Nothing wrong in just hanging out and enjoying the view and the neighborhood..

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