Monday, August 31, 2015

Black Hats, IDF, Camels and "El Chapo" the Shark

August 28, 2015

My family vacation this summer was my favorite one ever. Two wonderful weeks in Israel. For my wife and me, it was our first trip to the Holy Land. Our older son had been to Israel before on Birthright. Our younger son also had been there before on Birthright and then studied for almost two months at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Importantly, I was not the only one who enjoyed the trip; my wife and sons also had a fantastic time.

Having been raised in a big city, I always appreciate long drives in rural settings. When my kids were younger, and our summer vacations entailed driving through various parts of the American landscape, I would instinctually point out horses, cows and various other animals whenever I would spot them. After a certain point (which usually did not take too long), my three fellow passengers would politely and then not so politely tell me to stop.

Our trip to Israel was different. My family knew I was "crazed" to go and excited to explore and see everything we could cram into our pre-planned itinerary, which involved driving through much of the country. That partly helps explain their patience. They totally tolerated my constant shouts of black hats (said then and now with the utmost respect and admiration) and IDF (soldiers). They even tolerated my camel alerts, which were pretty frequent in the desert. It was heartwarming for me to know that my family was tolerant not only for my sake, but also because they were enjoying the same things I was. In large part, that focused on being around our fellow Jews. All Jews. For once, we were not the minority and that was a spiritually uplifting feeling.

There was another reason this trip was important to me. I have said and written a lot about Israel, always from a pro-Israel perspective. People I know, including Israelis, had been surprised about my passion for the country, particularly since I had never been there. At the same time, they assured me that, even though I had never visited, I really had a good understanding and was not missing anything that would change my views. Still, I knew that I had to go, and go with an open mind. It was not just for my own sense of credibility, I just had to see for myself. After spending a couple of weeks in Israel, and traveling through much of the country, I came home with a deeper and more informed love and appreciation of the Homeland and its people.

Our trip officially started under the blistering sun in the Dead Sea Region of Ein Bokek.  We stayed at a resort hotel that seemed to cater mainly to native Israeli and Russian Jews, although we met Jews of other backgrounds as well. There were, however, a good amount of arabs, many dressed in their traditional garb. A rough, non-scientific estimate would be around 5%-10%. Whether at the Sea, or in the spa or at breakfast and dinner buffets at the hotel, everyone in this eclectic mix appeared to be getting along just fine. We also saw an assortment of people, including arabs, as we hiked in Ein Gedi. Here too, there was nothing unusual to report.

We spent a good amount of our time at different beautiful beaches in Israel, including in Tel Aviv, Netanya and Haifa. It was in the clean, warm waters of some of these beaches that we encountered the only thing that gave us concern on the entire trip. It was a small fish that nipped, mostly at the ankles of swimmers. My younger son dubbed the fish El Chapo the Shark. I have no idea why. But the nickname caught on, especially when we would see swimmers scampering out of the water clutching their ankles.

We were the minority on a mostly arab beach in Haifa. Jews and arabs both frolicked in the water and on the sand while enjoying this wonderful beach. There also were many arabs in the section of Haifa where we stayed. There was a whole strip of restaurants, bars and cafes filled with younger arabs who definitely seemed to be carefree and enjoying themselves.

Pretty much wherever we went we came across arabs. In Tiberias, at the Jordan River and, obviously, in Jerusalem. In fact, we saw arabs in most of the places where we went in the Old City of Jerusalem. What was notable to me were the warnings that we, as Jews in Israel, received about steering clear of certain arab sections, gates and quarters of the Old City, but the routes we were told to use were full of arabs. One place where we did not see any arabs was in Yad Vashem, Israel's holocaust museum and memorial. There we saw only Jews.

In the vast amount of driving we did, we were able to see a lot of Israel. I was impressed with how much Israelis have accomplished in such a short period of time since the establishment of the country in 1948. They have done a truly amazing job of building up the country. At the same time, I was struck by how much land was still undeveloped and how much more room there appeared to be for growth. We would drive on roads (well-paved I might add) for long stretches of time and not see anything except the beautiful scenery until we came upon a city or town, sometimes elevated and off to one or both sides of the road. Interestingly, we would often observe the gold dome of a mosque in these places. As we would drive through arab towns or view these mosques, I could not help but to again think of the hypocrisy of the international community, which condemns Israel for being a racist country, but supports Palestinian demands that there not be a single Jew in their territories or in any future Palestinian state. Taking a detour into Gaza to spend some more quality time with arabs was not part of our itinerary. No, any interaction between Jews and arabs had to be done in Israel.

To be clear, we knew that the danger was not limited to Gaza. We also were aware of the increased terrorist attacks by Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and did not venture there on this trip. We decided not to go to Hebron to see the Cave of the Patriarchs, after considering going with an armed presence and in a vehicle with bulletproof glass. We also heard about the danger and political nonsense occurring there from a rabbi who we spoke to who had been there earlier the same day.

Regarding the areas we were in or very close to, a Jewish couple we met told us about their trip to Nazareth, which consists mostly of arabs. They drove there, arrived at their destination, and had to quickly scamper away after encountering a young man and his machine gun there. We heard stories, but fortunately Jerusalem was quiet while we were there.

Throughout our trip, I could not help thinking, particularly as I was enjoying the rest and relaxation at the beaches, just how much the Palestinians were squandering their opportunity. If they only would want peace, their population could live in prosperity. Their people could enjoy freedom and have malls, restaurants, cafes and bars. In Gaza, they too could have a coast of resorts for their people to enjoy. It is to everyone's great misfortune that they instead choose to embrace terrorism, murder and brutality.

I cannot wait to return to Eretz Yisrael and be with my fellow Jews. I wish all Israelis peace and the coming of a time very soon when their biggest concern will be El Chapo the Shark.

Am Yisrael Chai.

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