Monday, September 10, 2007

Dispatch from Israel: A Tiny, Crazy, Compact & Wonderful Country

I've been here for three days now and already feel fully immersed in the ways of Israel. There's an intensity here that can make New York look tame by comparison. Granted, things can get pretty crazy in Israel, but given the conditions, one has to marvel that things function as well as they do. There's a method to the madness but this place is definitely not for the faint of heart.

The thing that keeps coming up for me is space. There just isn't enough of it here. Not in people's living quarters, not on the roads (traffic is horrific), not for parking. People drive like maniacs, but one sees survival at work. You just can't afford to let your guard down. There's too much vying for the same space, and it's incredibly limited. Today I went to a little park in Holon where my niece and nephew were playing. It was rush hour and I had to park illegally with the rear of my rent-a-car extending out into an intersection, only to watch my brother-in-law park across the street (also illegally) with the front of his car extending into the same intersection. Neither of us prevented other cars from squeezing between us because, well, they had to get by. Cars park on sidewalks, crosswalks, intersections, bus stops; you name it. Speaking of bus stops, I parked just in front of one in Rehovot yesterday (legally, but just barely), only to come out from shopping and find a note on my windshield informing me that the new dent on my left door was courtesy of an Eged bus. The driver put the note there himself and was kind enough to leave me his phone number so I could inform El Dan, the rent-a-car company. Seems like a good deed, and I believe it was, even though the driver would run the risk of being penalized if he did not do so and a passenger or bystander reported him. Still, I could imagine many a NYC bus driver in similar circumstances leaving a note that said, "I'm writing you this note because lots of people are watching. Lotsa luck, fella!"

The thing that's maddening about the driving is not so much the cut-throat nature of the drivers and the fact that you can practically feel the hot breath of the guy behind you on your neck(never mind that half the cars have Shmor M'rchak--keep your distance--on their bumpers). The crazy thing is that the signs on the roads are impossibly ambiguous, obscured by bushes and trees, popped on you seconds before the turn is required, and in three different colors (blue, green, and white--the white ones are pretty much nostalgic vestiges). My wife is a native and she can't make heads or tails of the way of the road, and I'm not talking Derech Eretz here. The good and bad part is the country is so tiny. Good in that you can't get too far out of your way; bad in that before you know it, you're practically in Gaza; or Lebanon.

Back to the space problem. You see it also in the streets, the parks, the malls, shopping centers, and of course, the roads. The country is incredibly compacted. And it's hot; and humid. And taxes are high; prices higher. Wages for most are not commensurate with the high cost of living [Yet somehow, everyone has a big flat screen tv, the new water dispenser in their kitchen (they sell for about $1,000 American dollars, but you get to pay it out over three years), a fairly new car, and manages to take regular vacations, send their kids on trips, and live surprisingly well]. Practically everyone has either a kid in the army or one or two in waiting, maybe someone still in the reserves, and knows someone who was killed, injured or traumatized by a terror attack, a missile attack in the south or north (take your pick), or just a plain old war.

I watched the news tonight (my Hebrew is not good enough to understand much but the pictures--my kind relatives filled me in) while all the kids were playing in the living room and it was like watching a series of catastrophes, tragedies and farces. The second day of neo-Nazi arrests and exposures. Apparently some bad apples from the FSU, but then there was one fellow whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor. Another dispatch told of a young man who beat another young man to death in a club, over God knows what provocation. Then there were the pictures of Hamas (or was it Fatah?) in their usual summer garb of ski masks and Kalashnikovs. I wasn't sure if it was Hamas abusing Fatah or vice versa. According to recent news reports, there have been episodes of both, with the former occurring in Gaza and the latter in the West Bank. There was Mahmoud Abbas looking very stately aside a likewise polished Ehud Olmert. Then flashes to Ahmadinejad, I presume, in his native Iran. My wife was surprised that her sister let the kids be exposed to all this. But we all quickly agreed that in a country where violence is so random and at least potentially prevalent, there's not much point in hiding it from the kids. Best to just explain as much as is age appropriate and walk the kids through the minefields of daily life here.

Did I mention that the beaches are on high alert for powerful undertows that took the lives of four people yesterday? Did that stop swimmers and wind-surfers today? Not on your life. The lifeguards at the Tel Aviv beach I was at today were imploring those in the water to come back in to shore. That it was very, very dangerous. NO KIDDING. My wife told me that this is a country where generally nobody tells you what you're doing is dangerous. Everything here is dangerous! Doesn't stop scooter drivers and motorcyclists from weaving in and out of traffic at high speeds. Didn't stop the bicyclist we saw today riding on the highway, and with not even a helmet. So if the lifeguards were shouting again and again that the waters were treacherous, it might be a good idea to take heed. Not many takers of unsolicited advice around here.

But I digress. Back to the Jewish Space Problem. There just doesn't seem to be enough of it around here (maybe someday the dream of seriously populating the Negev will come true, but in the meantime, it's crowded in all the major centers). And yet we're always talking about giving up more space in the never ending quest to be able to live in, and at peace with our neighbors. Which would maybe be okay if the strategy were successful. It's just that it hasn't seemed to work out that way; yet. Not exactly like the southern border has been quiet since the full withdrawal from Gaza two summers ago. North wasn't so great last summer either. Terror attacks are constantly being thwarted by the incredible work of Israel's security services, unbeknownst to most inside and outside the country. And of course, later this fall there will be more talks about giving up yet more space. I'm not saying that we shouldn't consider the possibility, but certainly it should also be acknowledged that we have some rights to the space too.
Ironically, we are seen as the great imperialist colonizers, when in fact Zionism has really never been about aggrandizement of land. Avi Erlich makes this point in Ancient Zionism.

"Abraham's idea is antiliteralist and explicitly anti-imperialist. Since the land's function is to represent monotheism, there is no need for it to be particularly large. It must be large enough to be a self-sustaining nation, large enough to notice that its intellectual lapses led to disintegration into the old tribal areas, but not as empire. Our passage continues to delineate a land that--though it radiates large metaphorical meanings to the lifted eye--is limited to the magnitude of territory encompassed by ocular vision: 'Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.' (Genesis 13)."

At about 1/95 the size of Saudi Arabia, and 1/6 of 1% of the Arab World, how is it that we've gotten such a bum rap as land hogs? We have so little and still we're willing to live with even less, yet we're portrayed as the usurpers; the greedy ones. Perhaps it's time to pull the camera back a bit and regain some perspective on what little space we're really talking about here, and about our rightful claim to a tiny parcel of the Middle East.
david brumer
from Rehovot

1 comment:

Lao Qiao said...

New York, Shanghai, Hong Kong--these cities have populations not only greater than Tel Aviv but greater than all of Israel. They feel no more crowded than Tel Aviv. The secret is tall buildings. Tel Aviv doesn't have enough skyscrapers.