A Shiksa Returns To Israel
Twenty years after my first visit, I have returned to Israel. In 1995 I was fresh out of journalism school and anxious to see the place I read so much about in the headlines. Then, as now, the reality is a far cry from what we see in the news.
Given the recent wave of attacks in Jerusalem over the last six weeks; apparently targeted stabbings of random Israeli citizens, a few friends back home expressed concern about my coming here. In fairness, they are all people who have never visited Israel. Because the unfortunate fact is that when all we hear of a place is conflict, we assume the streets aren’t safe.
On this pilgrimage I am hosted by the Canadian organization, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. Every year CIJA takes a group of media, politicians or business people to educate and promote awareness of the region. Given how much is going on here outside of conflict, it is an understandable agenda. CIJA hosted our freshly minted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on what was reportedly his first visit to Israel in 2008. Christy Clark joined a delegation before she was Premier of British Columbia.
Guiding us this week is Idan, a certified tour guide, to paint a picture of the history, geography, culture and politics and it reminds me of my visit 20 years ago when I was similarly overwhelmed by the expertise of the guide I had then. The descriptor “tour guide” doesn’t do justice to the profession here.
As an organization, CIJA endeavours to enable Canadians with an appreciation of the challenges facing Israelis. CEO Shimon Fogel wrote in The Times of Israel, “This approach is grounded in the basic premise that most people know very little about Israel and Israelis, and therefore care little about the difficult challenges that Israel faces in the turbulent Middle East.”
My three days in Jerusalem have been peppered with fascinating discussions with local influencers; a Palestinian talk show host, a journalist and fixer, a lawyer crusading on behalf of terrorist victims. (To put it lightly. Nitsana Darshan-Leitner and her non profit group Shurat Hadin stares down the likes of The Bank of China and Facebook in court and has won BILLIONS in judgements.) Everyone has their own version of the story of the conflict and a unique position on where the answer lies, be it a one state, two state solution or something altogether different. Some don’t want to be quoted. Or photographed. Some say this conversation never happened. But all seem to agree that everyone, Israeli and Palestinian alike, seek the freedom to move about, do business and live in peace.
What may come as a surprise here is that everything is in such close proximity. You may need a passport to enter tiny Bethlehem, but it’s just a short taxi ride from the hotel. The Old City? That’s an easy wander along a cobblestone road. Thousands of years of history, conflict, debate and confusion all within a few square kilometres.
And of course this is true of the entire country. Enjoying a wine tasting at the world class Golan Heights Winery then taking a short drive to a hilltop for a view of Syria a few hundred metres away where a civil war rages on, is nothing short of bizarre. Standing in a vineyard in Kibbutz Yiftah, that’s Lebanon in the hills straight ahead.
Wandering along Ben-Yahuda shopping district late one night, alone, I feel as relaxed as I do in a similar situation in, say, New York or Toronto. (Except the people here are more helpful with directions.) This is a place that simply cannot be grasped by reading a newspaper. It is one of the most politically interesting, complex, fascinating, geographically and culturally relevant places on the planet. It is the global nerve centre for tech innovation and Canada matters a great deal to Israel. If you care at all about how it affects your own world – because it does – skip that next weekend in Vegas, save your shekels and put Israel on your bucket list. Near the top.
Find your own Idan (that’s a must) and start in Jerusalem for your history lesson (you will need the context) and move on from there. That’s exactly what I’m doing now as I head off for some fun in Tel Aviv. There’s a hooka pipe in my future. More on that, and more pictures, next week.