By Israel Zwick, CN Publications, June 25, 2008
See Also: The Two Israels
It was an unusual day for January in Jerusalem, much different from what I expected. Every January, I visit my children in Jerusalem and I usually encounter damp, cold weather that chills me to the bone. But today was atypical. The sun was shining through a bright blue sky and the temperature was a pleasant 20C (68F). What a day to take the grandchildren to the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo! We called for a van, piled in and off we went. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones with the same idea, which is not surprising since the Zoo is Israel’s most popular tourist site. By the time we arrived, the Zoo was already teeming with families and school groups, both Israeli and Arab. A while later, we stopped at a bench to rest. I sat down and gazed at the picturesque landscape, rejoicing in the blessing I received from God, to be able to spend such a lovely day in Jerusalem with my wife, children, and grandchildren. Can it get any better than this?
Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by a scene that was occurring on the road opposite me. Two families were approaching each other in opposite directions. One was a woman with a full black Islamic burkha with two young boys happily playing around her. The other was a young Israeli family consisting of a father pushing a stroller with the mother walking alongside. The father was dressed in military camouflage with a pistol at his side and a huge rifle swung over his shoulder. The two families walked right past each other, without any interruption in their gait or their gaze. The Israeli family was not concerned that the Arab boys might throw stones at them and the Muslim family showed no fear of the heavily armed soldier. This is the Third Israel that Nicholas Kristof failed to notice in his widely distributed Op-Ed piece in The NY Times, “The Two Israels.” It is a climate of acceptance and tolerance, if not friendship and cooperation.
Over the last few years, I have written scores of fictionalized stories, fables, and parables about the Arab-Israeli conflict (See Zwick’s Picks). But the incident cited above actually happened exactly as described. So did the other stories that follow later in this article. I feel that I have to report them to counter the narrow, distorted view of Israel described by Mr. Kristof. Just last week, I was having a discussion with another pro-Israel activist and we both observed that we seem to be making some progress in the media battle because there appear to be fewer articles bemoaning the “plight of the poor, oppressed, suffering Palestinians who are struggling for liberation from the brutal Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands.” Then I received Mr. Kristof’s article in an e-mail, and what do I read? “Americans who haven’t toured the West Bank or Gaza recently may not appreciate how the new security regime of the last few years is suffocating, impoverishing and antagonizing Palestinians.” The truth is that the Palestinians wouldn’t be “suffocating” from Israeli security if the Israelis weren’t suffering from Palestinian violence.
As an American Jew, I can’t tour the West Bank or Gaza because it isn’t safe. When I visit Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, I find that the once picturesque site is now enclosed in concrete barriers and I can only travel there in armored buses with bulletproof windows. I can’t leave Rachel’s Tomb until the bus pulls up to the door. If I visit the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and want to tour the area, an Israeli soldier stops me, says “Saconah (Danger)” and prevents me from continuing. If I want to visit a Jewish gravesite outside of Hebron where there was once a thriving Jewish community, I can do so only in an organized group accompanied by an Israeli military escort, and still there have been incidents. Is it any wonder that the small group of idealistic Jews who have reestablished a community in the outskirts of Hebron feel antagonism towards their Arab neighbors? They are in constant fear for the safety of their families.
Why are the Arabs in Hebron so angry that they incite so much fear and antagonism among their Jewish neighbors? Mr. Kristof argues that the “massive system of guard posts, checkpoints and road closures since 2001” is antagonizing and oppressing the Palestinians while destroying their economy. However, official documents from the United Nations Development Programme (see UN Development Report) suggest that the West Bank population benefited from their association with Israel after the 1967 War but their living conditions deteriorated only after they turned to violence. Despite the many billions of dollars of foreign aid that were contributed to the Palestinians over the years, they have been unable to develop their economy or develop an adequate system of social services. Why are pregnant women waiting at Israeli checkpoints? They are waiting to go into Israel to get free medical care that they know is superior to anything they will get in their own neighborhoods. The Palestinians aren’t being “impoverished” by a handful of Jewish settlers. The “suffering of the Palestinian people” is self-inflicted from their own hostility, corruption, intolerance, and violence, not a result of the “Israeli occupation.”
The people that are suffocating and suffering the most from this conflict are the Israelis. They are the ones that have to endure the strict system of security checks. They have to have heavily armed police, soldiers, or private guards at the entrance to transportation facilities, supermarkets, shopping centers, or movie theaters. They have to endure long lines at these places while their bags are being checked at the entrance. Playgrounds for children have strategically placed concrete barriers to prevent a car from getting through. Most of the schools are surrounded by concrete walls with heavy metal gates that are opened only for entry and dismissal. Synagogues have to keep their Torah scrolls locked in bomb-resistant safes.
American Jews traveling to Israel are also subjected to severe security restrictions. The El Al terminal at JFK Airport in New York is surrounded by concrete and metal barriers. Security guards ensure that no car is left unattended or remains after it is unloaded. Every passenger is interrogated prior to check-in. Where are you going? Who are you visiting? Where will you be staying? Each piece of luggage goes through the x-ray machine. The last time that I arrived in Israel at Ben-Gurion Airport, the taxi driver told me that the main road to Jerusalem had heavy traffic so he was taking an alternate route that goes through the West Bank towards Ramallah. When I objected, he assured me that it was safe to take that route during the daytime but not at night when the Arabs throw stones at the Israeli cars. Along the route, the driver noted all the new housing that was being built for the Palestinian “refugees” but Jewish housing in the area was restricted.
Despite all the friction and antagonism between the Israeli and Arab population, my impression was still that the majority of both peoples were eager to adopt at least a minimal level of acceptance and tolerance towards each other. My son likes to visit the Jewish burial sites in the area of Tiberias so one day we rented a car and headed north. I used to be able to drive from Tiberias to Jerusalem in two hours, but the last time I rented a car to make the trip, the rental agent warned me, “Be careful not to go into the Palestinian areas, your insurance isn’t in effect there.” I had to take a circuitous route on various bypass roads and the trip took four hours. On the way back, despite my best efforts to avoid the Arab areas, I somehow went astray on a road near Jericho and entered a desolate area where an Arab family was having a picnic. Recalling other incidents where Israelis went astray and encountered tragedy, I feared that I led my son into a death trap. When a young man started to approach me, I was ready to begin saying “Shema Yisrael.” Then in his broken English, he politely instructed me how to get back to the right road. However, he didn’t offer us a drink or invite us to stay and chat a bit. I decided that it was best to leave right away.
Another day, my wife and I went to visit a friend in Tel-Aviv. We spent a nice day together and he dropped us off at the main bus terminal. He advised us that instead of taking the bus, it would be more convenient to take one of those minivans that shuttle between the Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem bus terminals. We were lucky that one was just about to leave. When we boarded we discovered that the driver was an Arab. We found two seats in the back then realized that the four young men sitting next to us were speaking Arabic. They were boisterous young men in their 20’s who could have easily fit the profile of typical terrorists, yet the van was starting to leave so we decided to stay despite our concerns. The bus station in Jerusalem was supposed to be the last stop so we figured we’ll stay on the van till we see everybody leaving. Instead we found ourselves alone in the van with the four young men. I approached the driver and asked when he’ll be arriving at the bus station. He informed us that we should have gotten off at the last stop. Apparently, the Arab driver was extending a courtesy to his Arab passengers by taking them a little further to their neighborhood. So we disembarked the van in an Arab neighborhood on a dark night. We quickly hailed the first cab we saw which took us to our destination without incident.
I had another incident with an Arab taxi driver. I hailed a cab in the Old City and discovered that the driver was an Arab who spoke very little Hebrew or English. I gave him an address on Rechov Shimon Hatzadik. Soon he was driving me through unfamiliar Arab neighborhoods. I asked him if he was taking me in the right direction. He assured me, “Yes, Yes, Shimon Hatzadik.” When we arrived at the destination, I realized that the driver took me to Kever Shimon Hatzadik located in an Arab neighborhood. When I explained the error, the driver was very apologetic, took me to the proper destination and charged me only the small fare for my original destination.
These incidents suggest to me that there are many Israelis and Arabs who have no interest in conflict or violence. They would be willing to live alongside each other with at least a minimal level of tolerance and cooperation. Arabs can work and travel in Israeli areas without fear for their safety. Israelis would be free to do the same in Arab areas if the Arabs stopped preaching hatred and violence.
Mr. Kristof looked at a small group of Israelis in a contentious area and made sweeping conclusions that there are Two Israels: a bad one that antagonizes the Palestinians and a good one that supports them. However, the left-wing B’Tselem group that denies the rights of Jews to their historic homeland, and the Jewish idealists eager to reclaim land in Hebron are not representative of the larger Israeli population. Making broad generalizations from a small, narrow sample that is not representative of the population is bad science and bad journalism. Mr. Kristof, who is a noted, award-winning journalist should know better.