Israel has always been a big question mark for me. My understanding was that it is a sacred land with a profound history and about three hundred perfect beach days a year. Candles burn for seven days past their expiration date here, and Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike have a founded history in Jerusalem.
Friends and family generally encouraged me to visit, while news anchors painted a chilling picture of Israel — broadcasting the turmoil, terrorism, and unexpected suicide bombings on neighborhood buses.
What was the truth about Israel? I just had to know.
Since I was eighteen, the age when Israeli men and women are required to enlist in the army, I have pondered visiting the Promised Land. I made a habit of applying to a free Birthright Trip to Israel, but would routinely change my mind due to my own paranoia of being religiously brainwashed, or even killed.
Another seven years passed before I swallowed my fears and embarked on a three week long journey that would change my life.
I landed in the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on May 7th, 2012 with a group of forty Jewish travelers and a completely open mind.
My first observation of Israel was how stunningly beautiful it is.
Valiant mountains accrue throughout the tiny state. The beaches on the Mediterranean are a vibrant aquamarine, and Israeli flags wave high above the waters. You can sense the patriotism in the people that you meet, most of them English speakers who love America for sharing its democratic values and supporting the sanctity of the Jewish state. Markets throughout its modern cities and local farms thrive with fresh fruit—most notably the sweet cherry tomatoes that pop from the vines just a few miles from Gaza, the same Gaza from which explosive rockets were fired at Israel as of a few days ago.
Israel is vulnerable, but its buoyant atmosphere tells a different story. The threat that the Israelis live with is difficult to spot to the onlooker. People don’t appear stressed like they do in New York or Boston. For whatever reason, these people seem to be at ease.
Throughout the entirety of my Israeli experience l felt invincible. I found that scaling a cliff in the Middle East isn’t so scary with forty people by your side. Climbing to the top of Masada at five in the morning with friends you’ve quickly grown to love, and watching the sun wake over the Dead Sea as you recall that story about Moses that you learned as a small child in Hebrew School is just brilliant. Throughout my travels, I felt unequivocally proud of my heritage.
Call me crazy, but I believe that the six million Jews who consider Israel home should feel this way each day. These are people just like us, who go to nightclubs on the weekends, enjoy iced aroma coffees, and share our ideals. Unfortunately, Israel’s anti-Semitic neighbors have refused to accept the Jewish state since its inception in 1948, when Israel first gained independence. These same nations have threatened Israel thoughout its short history, an especially frightening thought, given Israel’s proximity to its bullies.
Can you imagine if our entire country was populated in Texas and all of Mexico was out to get us? That’s how close Israel is to Egypt, to Jordan, to Iran. Just picture the threat of powerful rockets suddenly invading your home.
Thank god our politicians could agree on one big thing. Israel is our ally, and we must support it.
What’s funny is that even with the awareness of this impending danger, I didn’t want to leave Israel. I didn’t feel it while I was traveling, not at all. All I could really sense during my experience was the magic that enchanted me on Shabbat eve at the Western Wall, and the satisfaction of riding a camel through a beautiful desert outside of the Bedouin tents.
Perhaps today it feels a bit different.
As I speak to my new Israeli soldier friends and watch television broadcasts about Palestinians in Gaza, my perspective has finally become clear. I feel completely at peace with Israel, so why can’t the rest of the Middle East?
John F. Kennedy once said:
Israel was not created in order to disappear – Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy and it honors the sword of freedom; and no area of the world has ever had an overabundance of democracy and freedom.
Despite decades of obstacles, Israel has prospered. If that’s not inspiration, then I don’t know what is.
The message of Islamic extremists has been made loud and clear, and as long as Hamas keeps its position, we can’t expect Kennedy’s sentiment to be shared anytime soon. However, we should work towards a future when peace is actively pursued by both sides. This will be a future in which money will be spent on food and education instead of the sponsorship of violence. And Christians, Muslims, Jews and non-religious people like me, can feel at peace in a land as historic to their past as time itself.