A Visit to Israel

By Walter Lee walt@xroadstx.com

In his essay on "Israel at 50", Jonathan Wallace quotes Israeli Communications Minister Limor Livnat. Her statement concludes with the words: "[T]he Israeli public broadcasting channel is not supposed to show the propagandistic positions of the Palestinians, while pushing aside all our myths." (with Mr. Wallace adding the emphasis.)

In modern parlance, "myth" has been equated with falsehood. I don't know where it was first offered, but the definition of "myth" that I often use is "Something that never was and always is." A "myth" is something more than a lie. Before any story or statement is true mythology, it must make a point that a society (or that societies at large) deem true. Some of the most important links between cultures takes place as one group begins to study, learn from and share each other's mythology. The stories which have the impact to touch our lives and provide meaning are the ones that shape the world. The plays of William Shakespear are not accurate portrayals of history. They do not intend to be. However, they speak to the essence of human existence in ways that have transfixed multi-generations with their truth. Likewise, Aesop's Fables and the Brothers Grimm provide lessons that shape our world. There are mythological elements in lasting literature ranging from Genesis to Mark Twain. Even the classic movies, and some not so classic, explore themes which are bound by truths eternal.

Is the modern nation of Israel founded on "myth?" Perhaps. If so, I would suggest that foundation the basis of all nations, and perhaps families and individuals as well. We are shaped by the stories that we remember and tell and re-tell. Most of us have selective memories. Sometimes, that is by design; sometimes it is through psychological impulse. Who really wants unvarnished memories of those times we have proved weak, deceitful, selfish and unfaithful to be the prime recollections of our lives? I would suggest that a close reading of the Old Testament (Israel's most ancient self recollections) reveals a higher than normal rate of honest self disclosure. How many other nations would understand their greatest leaders in the way the stories of Moses and David are told?

And note what Mr. Wallace does not emphasize in his quotation. Mrs. Livnat calls the Palestinian position "propagandistic." Like "myth," propaganda is a word much in maligned. We forget that in its basic form, a definition of propaganda reads: "The systematic propagation of a given doctrine or allegations supporting particular views or interests." Every political campaign is propagandistic by definition. Any time there are two or more factions completing for the hearts and minds of a nation or the world, propaganda is by definition employed. The fact that something is propagandistic does not speak to the truth or falsehood of a proposition. Its focus is on a style of delivery.

The title of the essay is "Israel at 50." It speaks of a reality: Israel exists and has existed as a political reality for half a century. The debate is not that of 1947 as to whether Israel should exist. It is not whether Jews should de-possess Arabs in Palestine. The question is where do we (they) go from here?

Rabid Jews and Palestinians are caught up in their own myths and propaganda. Both see their foreparents victimized heroes and heroines. Both share the same longings for the same land. It is an eternal struggle in that crossroads country that has been occupied by every great empire to rule anywhere near that section of the earth.

However, my perceptions of the issue have been greatly changed this summer for I just returned from a "Ten Day--Seven Night" tour of that country. (Ten Day-- Seven Night tours are a story in themselves.) Let me say that many of my expectations were met, while others were challenged if not shattered.

One of the things I have been told by those who have spent significant time in Israel is that the longer one stays, the more sympathy one develops for the Arabs. I went with that expectation, based on the experiences of those who were involved in archeological digs in the 1960s and '70s. I was somewhat surprised by what I found. Following arrival at Tel Aviv, our group bused to Tiberias (on the Sea of Galilee). I expected Hebrew and English to be on the signs, but I didn't expect everything to be in Arabic as well. Nor did I expect mosques to dominate the skylines of any number of cities and villages. (I don't know why not. The land was officially Moslem for more than a century.)

I was surprised to learn that about a million of the six million Israeli citizens are of Arabic descent. I guess I supposed that they were all Jewish. (That's what you get when you assume.) There are another million or so Palestinians, primarily refugees and their families in the Gaza strip and on the West Bank. All Jews are conscripted into the Israeli armed forces following high school. Citizens of Arab descent can enlist but are not forced to join. As far as I'm aware, non-citizens are not allowed to enlist. Most of the Arabs who do join come from Bedouin or Druse backgrounds.

I was also shocked by how small the country actually is. From our hotel, we could look to the north and see mountains near Lebanon. To the east, over the sea (which is really a lake), stood the Golan Heights >From which the Syrians once shelled the area in which we stood (according to our guide). We drove through the West Bank (which was Jordanian prior to the 1967 war) and saw the kibbutzim living behind barbed wire. Much of it was old and rusty. One could see where the military line (the Jordan River) had been in place from 1967 until it was dismantled following the peace treaty with Jordan in 1992. That's not to say that Israeli military are absent from the area but most of the border watch towers were empty. When we journeyed to the South of the Dead Sea, we were not so far from Saudi Arabia. We didn't cross the desert towards Egypt, but some of our group did. It's not all that far. My doctor's office is a hundred and twenty miles from my house. In a distance that I often drive in a routine day, we were within ten miles of four countries that have been openly hostile to Israel until quite recent times. In more places than one, we could see damage to buildings from past fighting.

While we were there, the defunct truck bomb was reported in Jerusalem. We were based in Jerusalem at the time and learned of it from CNN. The Israeli's blamed Palestinian terrorists; the Palestinians blamed the Israelis. I had a chance to talk to our Arab driver— a native of Jerusalem. He went to school in Jordanian Jerusalem prior to the Six Day War. I asked him, "What is it like to drive Christians on all these tours?" His response: "Oh, I like American Christians. American Christians are fine people." A polite response and an expected one given the fact that his pooled tip had not been collected as of yet. But then my questions dug a little deeper. I asked: "These are the Holy Lands. Do you ever drive the bus for touring Jews?" His attitude changed totally. He became almost cold. And he begin to tell us how it was from his perspective.

"My father was a wealthy man. He ran a fleet of tour cars--before buses. After the Israelis took Jerusalem, he bought buses. He was very successful— a good business man. Very wealthy. I was the boss of all these drivers you see. It is well known. You can ask any of them. But in those days, Israelis did not like wealthy Arabs, and they accused of my father of not paying taxes. He had to sell his buses to pay the taxes. It broke him. Today he has cancer. A broken man. But let me say that I have nothing against the Jews. That was a different time. Things are better now. Arabs, Palestinians, Palestinian Jews-- we have much in common. Once, we three groups would not talk to each other on the street. Now we do. We have no problems with each other. We speak each others' languages. We do business every day. We even are friends. With Palestinian Jews, I have no problem at all." He paused, then continued. "But American Jews-- foreign Jews-- that is something else. They think this country is something different than it is. Moslems, too-- foreign Moslems. Everybody tries to stick their nose into Israel's business. They think they know what has to happen here and they are not satisfied to leave us alone. We must get along. We depend on each other. It's the foreigners that are causing the troubles in Israel. With Palestinian Jews, I have no problems, but I would never drive for American Jews. Never. I was supposed to one week and I drove on Monday, but on Tuesday, I would not come back. I told them find someone else. With the Jews in this country, I have no problem. But American Jews..." I believe he was looking for a place to spit, but we were in his bus and he treated it well. He held the rest of his piece and we began to talk about families.

I have been in Israel for all of eight days of my life-- two days and three nights were spent on El Al MD-11s. I am in no way an expert on that country or the Middle East. But I have had a glance at "Israel at 50." It is a land of which we often hear--usually in terms of competing myths and propaganda--often from foreigners and rabble rousers, who somehow see that land through the eyes of vested interests. But up close, it is a land filled with people longing for peace, prosperity and security. It is a land like a garden where and when the water flows, but with too little reliable water. It is a land where people have worked hard to clear swamps and reclaim desert; a land where much has been done and where there is much still to do. My prayers include Yossef (the Arab driver) and Hannah (our Jewish guide) and the Palestinians who seek a place in their ancestral homelands. Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem and the surrounding nation.

In the words of Rodney King-- words almost echoed by Yossef, "Why can't we all just get along?"

Walter Lee is a former law enforcement official living in Texas.