It was eleven years since I last went to Israel with my late husband, Jon, and my son, Dan, who recited his bar mitzvah by the wailing wall. It was at the time of the Lebanon war. We stayed in Herzilya and I remember sitting on the beach watching war planes flying back and forth. Everyone we met was extremely gracious, thanking us for being there at that difficult time. Now was the time to go back there, for several reasons:
As a staunch supporter of Israel, I was starting to feel uncomfortable with not having witnessed the current situation for myself.
My heart was pulling me back there.
I needed to find out if I could live there, because if Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM, I might need to flee to the only country that would have me.
My friend Linda Levine kept asking me when I was going to visit.
Michelle lives in Ft Lauderdale, Florida, so we met at the airport, both of us excited about our next shared adventure. Even on our way from the airport to our hotel, I was struck by how much Tel Aviv had changed since my last visit. I remembered a third world city with a few five star hotels, now Tel Aviv is a young, vibrant, stylish, modern metropolis, with fabulous restaurants and independent shops selling innovative designs.
On our first day we joined a yoga class at the Iyengar Centre, then had lunch with my friend Nathalie Isaac, an Iyengar yoga teacher herself, who moved there from London with her three children, some years ago. From the perspective of a parent with children in the army, we discussed what it’s like living in a country constantly under the threat of war and some of the emotional difficulties that ensue.
Having walked half of Tel Aviv to get to the nearby class — lack of geographical awareness is one of my specialities — and back again to the hotel because taxis are just too expensive. In fact, Israel with her thriving economy is very expensive, especially for a girl who is mainly used to visiting commercially unexploited territories. But I digress, Michelle and I decided to take it easy, in the sun, for the rest of the afternoon.
We had no set plans for the next day, so we walked along Tel Aviv beach to the historical port-town of Jaffa. It was Lag BaOmer, a national holiday, and the beach was packed with people of all colours and religions, interacting, and even accompanying each other. And dogs — everyone has well behaved dogs — and they are also found swimming in the sea and enjoying the beaches here. On the streets, we saw quite a few Israeli Arab women with designer handbags and Arab men wearing expensive gear, driving around in bright, shiny four by fours.
Overall, the atmosphere was joyful. The people, helpful and friendly. It felt good just to be there. So much for the lie that Israel is an apartheid state.
We spent Saturday with Linda, her husband, Yigal, and a handful of their friends. We originally found each other on Facebook in 2014 during the Gaza war when Facebook posts became shockingly anti-Semitic and full of hate filled propaganda against Israel. We became part of a team trying to counter that awful bias. Linda originally came from Manchester but has lived in Israel for many years. Over a delicious lunch, we discussed UK and Israeli politics amongst other, more frivolous things, like my novels. It was just great to spend time with such open minded and open hearted people.
The next day was our big adventure. I had asked Kay Wilson if she would show us around for a day — another wonderful Facebook friend, who 8 ½ years ago was left for dead but, miraculously, and heroically, survived the severe butchering of a Palestinian terrorist attack. You can watch her TED talk HERE. My remit was not to visit any of the tourist sites but to learn something about the country and what it’s like to live there. When I contacted her originally, she asked how open minded I am. I replied, I think I’m open minded. She asked if I’d like to go to the Palestinian side ...
We met Kay at an intersection on the way to Jerusalem and she drove us to a restaurant parking lot just outside Bethlehem. Michelle and I took off all our frivolous jewellery and I hid my Star of David in my purse. We were waiting for Ali, our guide who was going to take us into an area A of The West Bank where Israelis are forbidden to go.
Ali, is a young, very bright man, resident of a downbeat village, originally built as a refugee camp by UNRWA to house Arabs (now known as Palestinians) that had fled their homes during the 1948 war. Kay had described Ali to us as an angel, and as we got to know him we learned she was not wrong.
It was a little bit daunting, walking beyond the big red sign warning off Israeli citizens, but once inside Palestine and in the company of Ali, Michelle and I didn’t feel unsafe, at all. At first, I couldn’t believe how relatively prosperous everything looked. Blocks of flats and large detached houses built of Jerusalem stone on either side of the road, but as we neared the camp things started to change. The buildings became shabbier, many left as building sites with plastic bags full of rubbish spilling out onto the side of the road.
We stood on an abandoned construction site overlooking the ghetto that extends down the hill and to the road beyond. The village is mass of square flat roofed stone dwellings and official buildings flying the Palestinian and Fatah flags. As Ali explained the situation here, he couldn’t help but get emotional. Billions of dollars donated by, mainly, Europe and the United States, over the last 70 years and still the inhabitants here are locked into poverty by a corrupt leadership aided and abetted by UNRWA. A leadership that is meant to be democratic but they haven’t had an election here since 2005.
As we walked down the hill and through the narrow, rundown streets, full of rubble, rubbish and graffiti, we saw small glum looking children, some as young as 2 or 3 years old, roaming the streets alone. There are no parks or green areas for these children to play in. The UNRWA school that was originally built to educate 200, now has over 3,000 pupils. They are taught propaganda from an early age to, amongst other things, hate Jews.
On one of the walls PEACE was written in red paint. The idea of peace is not allowed here. Ali was surprised that someone had the audacity to display the word there, in the first place, and said that it will definitely be painted over soon.
The average wage in Palestine is around NIS1400 (450 USD) per month, for a full time job. There are only three ways for people who live here to earn considerably more. They can work for the government and be party to the corruption, or if they have a wife, a male child, no history of terrorism and are over 23 years old they can work in Israel. Or they can kill a Jew and both they and their family will get a princely salary paid to them for the rest of their lives.
Our guide has another idea and took us to see the ground floor of a house which has been partially renovated. He wants to open an after school centre for 30 children— including some who are disabled — to come and be exposed to and learn about the arts. He has a group of teachers who are ready and willing to donate their time but it’s going to take another $10,000 to get the project up and running, and then there will be on-going costs.
Over lunch in an organic farm restaurant on the outskirts of Bethlehem, we discussed how both Kay (a Jewish Israeli) and Ali (a Muslim Palestinian) have been abused by Palestinian ideology but refuse to be victims. This humble idea, if it should snowball into a successful initiative, has the power to change the way the next generation of Palestinians think, and out-create the dogma that confines them. I will let you know when the Yellow Brick Road website goes live.
Late afternoon, Kay took us to one of the Israeli settlements nearby and introduced us to a rabbi and his wife who are very supportive of Ali, but also
very critical of a member of their own tribe who lives nearby and is disrespectful to his wife, informing me that things are not always what they seem.
On Monday, Michelle and I went to Jerusalem, to post our notes in the Western Wall. On Tuesday, we relaxed before going home and in the evening met Roxanne, my niece, for dinner. She is going out with a Christian Arab guy. She told me there is prejudice for their union from both sides. I wonder if Shakespeare realised that 400 years after his death, these kinds of things would still be going on?