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First Person Despite the Fighting, Writer Finds Vacation in Israel Remains Idyllic

July 20, 2006
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My concerned daughter in Los Angeles called me in Israel over the weekend, shortly before my trip back home. I told her, truthfully, that I had just enjoyed the most idyllic and peaceful weeks of my long life. Come again? Didn’t I know that there was a war on, with missiles falling on Haifa and near the Gaza Strip, and that experts were predicting a regional conflict? Had I been holed up in a Dead Sea cave looking for missing scrolls?

Well, not really. What I was experiencing, as I have many times before, was a confirmation of what I have modestly dubbed Tugend’s Law: The perception of a crisis intensifies in direct proportion to the observer’s distance.

That’s not because the media invents or even exaggerates the facts on the ground; it’s just that readers and listeners in distant lands lack the geographical and emotional frameworks to place the facts in context.

A joke from the early 1960s illustrates the point. A family had two branches, one living in Tel Aviv, the other in the northern corner of sprawling Los Angeles County.

When news of a border incident with Egypt got prominent play in the American press, the Californians cabled their Tel Aviv relatives, "Stay if you must, but send the children here for safety."

A year later, when the Watts riots exploded in south-central Los Angeles, some 50 miles from where the American family lived, they received a wire from their panicked Israeli relatives, who urged, "Stay if you must, but send the children here for safety."

One more story, this one actually true. After the War of Independence ended in 1949, I decided to work for a few months on a left-wing kibbutz before returning to the United States. One day I fell into conversation with a highly intelligent kibbutznik who assured me that he would never visit the United States.

When I asked why, he matter-of-factly informed me that it was far too risky to visit a country where — as everybody knew — gangsters were continually gunning down innocent people in the streets and lynched Negroes were hanging from every other lamppost.

He listened politely while I explained that there were indeed gangsters and lynchings in America, but that the average citizen was unlikely to encounter either one in his lifetime. He didn’t believe a word of it.

OK, here’s a short report on my Israel stay. It started shortly after the kidnapping of Cpl. Gilad Shalit near the Gaza Strip triggered fighting with the Palestinians, and ended a few days after Israeli planes pounded targets in Lebanon and missiles fell on northern Israel in response to the kidnapping of two more soldiers.

My Jerusalem-born wife, Rachel, and I came mainly for a family reunion of her extended mishpoche, accompanied by three of our grandchildren, ages 1 to 6, and their parents.

Rachel’s family, the Spitzers, is extraordinarily fecund, and at the grand reunion at the Living Museum Ein Yael, adjoining the Jerusalem zoo, we were welcomed by 85 sabra relatives, spanning three generations and the entire political spectrum.

We had had long dinners and conversations with many of them, as well as with old friends, during the preceding week, complemented by interviews with political scientists and journalists, so we had a good sample of the Israeli citizenry.

The warmth and openess of the vast Spitzer clan made our trip, but so did our decision to go for broke this time and stay at the Sheraton Moriah in Tel Aviv.

The hotel offers some major amenities. One is a bracing salt water swimming pool. Another is the nearby Panorama restaurant, with generous portions of Israeli specialties.

Best of all, we scored rooms with balconies directly facing the Mediterranean and its beaches, which bustle with swimmers, joggers, bicyclists, dancers, lovers, paddle ball players and patrons who jam restaurants well past midnight.

Watching all that under a glorious Mediterranean sunset, we felt we were as close to heaven as we were likely to get, despite warnings of a stealth invasion — by jellyfish.

What surprised us was that Shalit’s kidnapping near Gaza and the Israeli retaliation did not break the mood or stir up our Israeli relatives and friends. Rather, they appeared surprised by our questions and concerns about "another incident down at the border."

The disconnect between the global headlines and the bland reaction among Israelis is rooted in two major attitudes, we were told again and again.

One is a preoccupation with personal and family concerns, the other the need for a certain emotional distance in a society constantly beset by political and military crises.

Maya Bar-Tov, the bright and attractive daughter of a cousin and a university student in geophysics, reflected the opinion of other young Israelis when she said, "We live our own lives. We may talk a little about politics once in a while, but it gets boring and we turn to something else."

The sense of national familyhood still exists at some level, but in a weaker form than at Israel’s creation, when the country had one-tenth of its current population.

A grandson of my wife’s sister put it bluntly.

"I live in an apartment house where my neighbor may be a Russian, Ethiopian, Orthodox or Iranian," he said. "What do I have in common with them?"

A sense of emotional remoteness from the headlines is Israel’s "abnormal normality — otherwise you go crazy," said Uri Dromi, a retired air force colonel and former emissary to Los Angeles who now works for the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.

The attitude should be understandable to Californians, Dromi added.

"You know that a devastating earthquake will hit you sometime, but you don’t think or talk about it at every waking moment," he said.

In a recent poll measuring the happiness quotient of citizens in various countries, Israel ranked near the top, certainly a surprise for a nation and people known as whiners.

Yet nearly every relative and friend I met agreed with the poll results. They cited good economic conditions, close ties to family and comrades and a solid faith that the nation would survive.

As for the likelihood of peace, real peace, a friend guessed it would take several generations. Another sneered at such wild optimism.

"At least another 200 years," she said.

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