Wednesday, April 4, 2007

A few thoughts about Israel, Part Two

--During our seven days on the ground, my group had perhaps three or four hours of daytime freedom. This was a point of contention among several of my colleagues. I was not surprised that we were over programmed. Sponsors of these types of missions pack as much as they can into the allotted time, and free time be damned.

There were a few days that became redundant to the point of coma. There are about 160 programs under the auspices of MASA. We saw maybe 20. We’d go from one student group to the next…each session consisting of listening to program directors speak, then breaking off into one-on-one interviews, then busing to the next stop where the process would begin anew. Jacob, a stringer for the Jewish Telegraphic Association, probably put it best. During one stop (I think it was Be’er Sheva), a student asked him how many MASA programs our group had seen.

“Every fuckin’ one,” Jacob replied.

--It’s true that I felt safe when I arrived in Israel, and I would recommend anyone to make the trip. But you have to be smart about where you go. A guy named Ted, from Cincinnati, went off by himself one day to visit the Western Wall in J-lem. To get to the Wall you have to travel through a dense, maze-like warren of Jewish and Arab neighborhoods. Ted soon got lost and found himself in the wrong part of town. The natives were not happy to see a big, “Jewish-looking” guy wearing a yarmulke skulking through their streets. According to Ted’s account, a group of Arab kids stoned him, even as he held up a two-fingered “peace” sign. The kids chased the heavily sweating Ted for 10 minutes until he finally made his escape.

--Most Israeli teenagers join the army following their primary schooling. Our guide Guy was in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) for eight years. He has spent his last four years as a tour guide. During our interminable bus rides, Guy would regale us with facts and figures about our surroundings, regional history, and politics, a favorite topic among Israelis. He didn’t seem to care that half his audience was sleeping, and the other half was chatting with their seatmates or staring blankly out the window.

Guy’s an interesting…guy. He was part of the infamous 2002 operation into the Palestinian territories following a terrorist bombing at Park Hotel in Netanya. (The attack killed over 20 people.) The liberal press lambasted Israel for demolishing civilian homes, which, according to Guy, had been turned into bomb-making factories.

He also had a near miss with a suicide bomber a couple of years ago. Guy happened to miss a bus to work one day and took the next bus instead. Turns out a bomber entered his usual bus, which was mostly empty, and blew himself up. The driver was killed.

Guy doesn’t watch TV; in fact he doesn’t own a television. For entertainment he reads history books, or travels with his girlfriend. (Israelis are great travelers. After army service, which lasts about three years, most Israelis scatter to the four winds. Many will settle down for a year somewhere in Europe or Asia. There are a great many Israelis in Thailand, as is my understanding)

By Guy’s own admission, he’s somewhat of a “square.” I can’t comment on that, but he is the wussiest drinker I’ve ever met. Honestly, Guy makes me look like Belushi in “Animal House.” I saw Guy get drunk off half a beer. I had to finish it for him. What does that tell you?