After my family returned from three years resident as temporary workers in Israel, my mother told me to write a book about the experience. Israel provides a wealth of material.
American Jews who visit usually sojourn not in Israel as it exists for Israelis, but in a parallel Eretz that trip organizers themselves describe as Jewish Disneyland. Few secular American Jews (other than ex-Israelis) have even beginner non-liturgical Hebrew. I do; I can still read the headlines on a tabloid newspaper. I have the perspective of someone who worked next to relatively ordinary Israelis at a high-tech multinational corporation headquartered in Silicon Wadi. My sons attended Israeli schools.
Despite the Jewish sense of humor, Israelis (even liberals) tend to lack an ability to see their own reflection in Irony’s twisted mirror. That’s not a problem for me. Perhaps my combination of perspectives could be both informative and amusing?
I would have begun the book, of course, with our arrival, and below is how it went.
July 2, 1998
We are already 18 hours late, having misconnected in Canada because of thunderstorms. We are not making up for lost time on arrival: the queue for non-Israeli Passport Control spills out of the terminal onto the 100-degree tarmac. After half an hour we get inside, which at least is air conditioned, another half hour to go. That’s lots of time to start practicing my Hebrew! A large banner is draped on the wall of the terminal, reading (in Hebrew): Ron Arad, Born to Freedom.
My trivia-champion brain kicked in. Ron Arad is, or much more likely was, an Israeli air force officer forced to bail out during a bombing mission over Lebanon in 1986. For some time he was in the custody of Lebanese Hezbollah, and he is widely believed to have been tortured and killed either by them or by their Iranian masters. There is no proof of his being alive after 1988.
What struck me, even then, as rather odd is that, in an attempt to trade for Arad, Israel had kidnapped and imprisoned 21 Lebanese nationals to use as bargaining chips. Two were genuine Hezbollah terrorist leaders who might be viewed as some sort of lawful prisoner, although that doesn’t justify the torture they underwent. (Remember that quaint pre-9/11, pre-24 era?) A few were low-level Hezbollah grunts who were sentenced to prison but not released after their sentences expired. Most were family relations of Hezbollah leaders, including a mentally retarded and unstable teenager.
Ron Arad may have been born to freedom, I wondered, but what about the Lebanese civilians? Was there a freedom banner for them too?
Credit where credit is due: After years of upholding the administrative detentions, the Israeli Supreme Court eventually confessed itself unable to differentiate “bargaining chips” from hostages, the taking of whom is specifically forbidden by the Geneva Conventions. Israel is a signatory, and in April, 2000 the Court ordered all but the known terrorists repatriated. The government complied. (The remaining two were released in 2004 as part of a prisoner exchange.)
More credit where due: Former dissident Natan Scharansky has turned to the dark side on most issues, but while Minister of the Interior he said the long queues at the airport reminded him of the Soviet Union and insisted, successfully, that more booths be opened.
Bonus airport sign for Hebrew readers: There was (and probably still is) an interesting sign posted in the exit hall of Ben Gurion. The English version said Present ticket and boarding pass. The adjacent Hebrew version was one line longer. Present ticket, boarding pass, and Israel Defense Forces permission [to leave while still eligible for call-up].
The book never happened; it was my tiny casualty next to many others’ great ones arising from the failure of the Oslo Accords. The right wing was ecstatic, but for us and our Israeli friends, Autumn 2000 was like living on the inside of a collapsing balloon. One month we were joking who could score us tickets to Palestine Independence Day. The next month I was changing my commute route because of sniper fire.
Weeks of hard work for Democrats in Israel culminated in an ulcer and a promise to my friends that once all the Florida ballots were re-counted we would come out ahead. I still wonder what would have happened if someone had encouraged Gore’s supporters in Miami to thwart the Brooks Brothers riot. After we came back, I returned to my old Stateside job, beginning September 10, 2001. Next day, I discovered the Middle East had followed me home. The book project was a good idea, but beyond my resources as the world turned grey. Bad timing.