My First Trip to Israel

“I know your relatives all think you’re crazy, but we’re gladyou’re here,” our tour guide, Zvi Lev-Ran, said as 36 tired Angelenospiled onto a bus after a 13-hour flight aboard a chartered El Al747-400 from Los Angeles. We were part of the largest mission eversponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. More thanhalf of the 430 participants were first-timers, including myself.Having been born almost exactly one year after the birth of Israel,in 1948, it seemed fitting that I participate in this mission, whichwas timed to coincide with festivities launching the Jewish state’sgolden anniversary celebration.

But I was filled with anxiety as the departure date approached.And, indeed, some of my friends and relations didn’t ease my fears.

“Stay away from crowds,” my brother Denis told me.

“That might be a little hard to do, since I’m going with 400people,” I said to him.

“I’ll say a prayer for you,” a former neighbor said when Iinformed him of the trip just after one of the bombings in Jerusalemlast summer. An attorney, he offered to help me draw up my will.

But those who were regular visitors to Israel pooh-poohed suchanxiety. “You’re more likely to be a victim of a traffic accident ora random shooting on the 405 than a terrorist attack in Israel,” theysaid.

Three weeks after returning safe and sound to my home and familyin Manhattan Beach, with mostly positive memories of my 14-day visit,I wonder about my fears. After all, I took a solitary stroll alongTel Aviv’s waterfront after midnight, stared over the border intoSyria from the Golan Heights, slept in a kibbutz a few miles from theLebanese border, rode through the now-Palestinian-occupied city ofJericho en route to Jerusalem, and spent two days touring westernJordan. I can truly say I had few moments of unease about safety.

Yet, if I lived there, I might feel differently. Israelis withwhom I spoke talked about bombs that had gone off two minutes fromtheir homes or offices, about children who are serving or would soonserve in the armed forces, about stores and restaurants that hadblown up on this corner or that. “Israelis live with constanttension,” one woman told me. “If you have a son in the army, youcan’t sleep at night.”

Israelis told me that they were grateful to American Jews forcontributing financial and moral support, and prayed that they wouldcontinue to do so. But our hosts said that we shouldn’t judge them soharshly or expect change to come so quickly, particularly with regardto the conversion bill currently pending in the Knesset. The measure,which has caused such concern among non-Orthodox American Jews, haslittle relevancy in Israeli’s daily lives.

While waiting for the tram at the top of Masada, several of us hada discussion on the subject with our guide for the day, AmikamBezalel, a speech writer in the Knesset and for past prime ministers,including David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin. A witty manwho was born in Palestine during the British Mandate, in 1941, hekept us amused on the bus ride from Jerusalem along the Dead Sea withjokes about the local fish (pickled herring) and the peace process(“We live in a country surrounded by peace lovers: Everyone wants apiece of it.”). He became serious when the discussion turned to theconversion bill and its differing implications for Israelis andAmericans. With so few Reform and Conservative Jews in Israel, “thisis not a problem here,” he said. Most Israeli Jews are secular, butwhen they worship, they generally go to Orthodox shuls. Even if theydon’t attend services at all, the problem of assimilation isnonexistent in Israel, Bezalel said. “Everywhere I go, I’m surroundedby Jews.”

Although sympathetic to the feelings of Diaspora Jews whose Reformand Conservative Judaism is not recognized by Israel’s Orthodoxrabbinical establishment, he disagreed with their efforts to changethe status quo — in existence since Israel’s founding. It grants theRight of Return and citizenship to non-Orthodox Jews, but doesn’trecognize non-Orthodox marriages, divorces, conversions and burials.Although he is a secular Jew and doesn’t always agree with theOrthodox establishment, “I know where I live, and I know thereality,” Bezalel said. For him, the issue is more about identitythan conversion.

Some students we spoke with at a top-notch high school in Tel Avivseemed to feel conflicted — protective of Orthodox traditions thatthey mostly didn’t practice, yet worried about the growing power ofthe religious right. Facing military service next year, they mostlywondered whether their country would ever know peace. “I reallybelieve that, in war, we cannot solve our problems,” said adark-haired young man with a magnetic smile who hoped to run forprime minister one day and continue the policies of Yitzhak Rabin.

“I was surprised at how much I learned about politics,” said Dr.Andrea Green, a Kaiser Permanente physician with whom I roomed on thetrip. A member of the Reform Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge,Andrea had given little thought to the conversion bill before goingon the mission, but she came back more aware of what it might meanfor her.

“I have a more definite feeling about Orthodox Jews controlling[Israel] and deciding who is a Jew,” she said. “If they started todefine me as a non-Jew…then I don’t think I’d support Israel in thesame way. It wouldn’t be providing the function that it’s supposed toas a protected homeland for all Jews. I’d feel excluded.”

After listening to both the Israeli and American perspectives, aswell as hearing from Arabs in a small East Jerusalem town andexperiencing the hospitality of Jordanians in Amman and Petra, I leftIsrael feeling hopeful about friendly relations between individualIsraeli and American Jews, even between some Jews and Arabs. But theparty politics of Israel seems even more baffling and worrisome thanit did from my desk in Los Angeles, and the prospects of peacebetween Israel and the Palestinians both overwhelming andfrustrating.

Touring western Jordan (Petra, above) and the Golan Heights,staring over the border into Syria, there were few moments of uneaseabout safety.

Photos by Ruth Stroud