Tel Aviv and Jerusalem

What a trip.

We had a family trip to Israel – Karen, the boys, my father – and we had an unbelievable time. I used to go to Israel a lot. When I was young we went two or three times a year, and after my Bar Mitzvah it became an annual event around Passover. We would have the seder with friends around Tel Aviv, or sometimes with the family. My father survived the Holocaust by fleeing from Germany just before the notorious Polen Aktion, and he grew up in Israel. There is still a lot of family there. His cousin Gideon owned a turkey farm 25 years ago… I was allowed to walk through the fowl crowd once, but I learned that they are mean birds that will peck at you – no doubt a small revenge for the pending conversion into luncheon meat. My uncle Omri took me octopus fishing, we loved eating them pan-fried in garlic and lemon over a fire on the beach.

I went to a Jewish boarding school in England, the now-rightly-disfunct Carmel College. The Hilton Tel Aviv was always a gathering point for Europe’s growing Jewish community, and it was fun to have many of the kids from school meet in a different environment. Late nights, warm weather, and no uniform dress code made a pubescent teenager’s heart beat with anticipation.

In the late eighties I entered university in the US, where the Passover schedule rarely overlapped with spring break and the distance made a quick trip to Israel prohibitive. I ended up in Tel Aviv every few years, but my last trip was in the early nineties.

My Goodness, how that little country has changed.

Israel is one of that small number of countries that participated in the boom starting around 1994 with biotech and internet investments, but unlike some other economies it never slowed down. The country has always had excellent universities that churn out sharpened minds and intellectual property, but unlike other places the strong sense of national mission ensured that there was no brain-drain. Even those toiling abroad feel as though they’re working on behalf of the country, and plan on returning as soon as possible… even if they never do.

The success has enabled Israel to create a good social welfare system. Americans who complain about welfare families have no idea. In Israel you get a lot of money for every child, and the large families of the Arabs living inside Israel are only outdone by the loafing non-working ultra-orthodox with their eleven children per family.

Obviously Israel is the Jewish state, so it is all the more impressive how darn secular Tel Aviv is – and those who know me realize I’m praising the town. It is a modern metropolis full of  great restaurants, fun night clubs, high-end apartment buildings, and beaches filled with gym-trim bodies who spend weekdays in air-conditioned office buildings working for international firms. The biggest difference compared to the U.S. or Europe is the unusual level of security wherever you go. Any place that can afford it – from fashion malls, high rises or fast food places – seems to have a recent Russian immigrant with a metal detector at the door who scans big bags and swarthy people wearing too much clothing.

The country is tiny, and looks a lot like California. The Hertzliya corridor reminds me of the Palo Alto region, with high-tech office parks housing software companies and investors. The Golan, a region overlooking the Sea of Galilee that Syria wants back, might as well be Paso Robles. There’s excellent wineries (find some Pelter Cabernet Franc!) nestled amongst rolling hills, small towns with liberal arts colleges, and manicured suburban towns with organic supermarkets. The gorges opening up on to the desert plains just north of the Dead Sea feel like the Coachella Valley, except for the 1,500 year-old monasteries nestled in crevices of the steep canyon walls.

To Karen and me, Tel Aviv is attractive for the same reason Miami is: you can have a family holiday in a warm place with a beach while still staying in a city with fun shops and world-class restaurants. Even better, the town is full of people we know through friends and family.

Jerusalem is another cup of Nana altogether. It is the Holy of Holies for those who believe, and a wonderful archeological site for students of history. The narrow streets of the old town are filled with meaningful sites. They force even the most biblically trained tour guides to flip through their well-worn pages so they might remember its significance. There are a number of large sites that predate written religions. As Jews we revere the City on the Hill because Abraham entered the covenant on the mount, and later we had our temples there. The Christians honor it as the place where Jesus’ destiny as the Son of God was to die for their sins. The Muslims think Mohamed rode a flaming chariot into heaven from there… though of course we mention the City 669 times in the Tanakh, and the Koran never mentions Jerusalem once…

The city is full of angry, self-righteous people who elbow past each other. In a place so filled with potential violence, it is somewhat surprising that every toy stand in the old market sells a large selection of authentic looking plastic guns for kids. You can even get an AK-47 that makes loud banging noises.

But the thing that Israel crystallizes is what the current battles are really about. It’s not about a particular religion. It’s about  the future vs the middle ages. Whereas religion wants to tie us into obscure rituals and uncomfortable clothes to ensure we don’t mix with “them.” Religion insists it has a monopoly on morality, although the evidence proves the opposite, in my mind. Modernity (and it’s emphasis on personal realization) forces us to find a basis on which to get along, to cooperate, to take responsibility if we want real rewards. The best scenarios, as always, are the ones where everyone benefits.

Nowadays, that common ground is business – as it has been for last 5,000 years. I wish Israel, Jordan, and Syria could agree on some kind economic zone at the place where their three borders intersect. Include the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon, surround the Sea of Galilee, and create an area with tax incentives and a shared infrastructure that the three states participate in. Watch how quickly peace and prosperity will spread. Let it touch the Green Line so that the Palestinians might join once they stop letting their hatred and their Mullahs govern them. Heck, let everyone join a Middle Eastern Economic Community. It sure worked in Europe.

In the mean time, Karen and I can’t wait to get back. It was a great trip, and we barely got a taste.

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