Israel@60 Mission: Reporter's notebook

The following is a reprint of my article which ran in the May 16 edition of j. Hope you like it: The first thing I noticed at Kiryat Shmona’s hillside cemetery were the spigots. Scores of them, lining row upon row of graves. I wondered what purpose they served. And then I saw. The cemetery is a final resting place for soldiers from this northern Israeli town. Mothers fill buckets with water from the spigots and scrub clean the headstones of their dead sons. During the seven days from Holocaust Remembrance Day to Memorial Day and Independence Day, widely considered Israel’s secular “Holy Week,” many came to wash the graves and to remember.

On Israel's Memorial Day, a woman prepares to wash the grave of a loved one at Kiryat Shmona cemetery.On Israel's Memorial Day, a woman prepares to wash the grave of a loved one at a Kirat Shmona cemetery. Photo by Dan Pine

For all its inherent contradictions –– secular vs. religious, hawks vs. doves –– Israelis united last week, proud of their 60-year national journey, concerned about the future yet barreling ahead toward it. And for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation’s Israel@60 mission, this was a chance to witness a historic moment. With six tracks and nearly 100 participants, the just-concluded eight-day mission was the federation’s most ambitious yet. On the first full day, a Friday, the mission visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. Coming the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day, the visit carried extra weight. The new exhibition hall, a prism-shaped concrete structure straddling the mountaintop, has few rivals when it comes to architecture serving a message. Methodically and mercilessly recounting history’s greatest crime, Yad Vashem left mission-goers in tears — the only logical response.

On Israel's Memorial Day, a woman prepares to wash the grave of a loved one at Kiryat Shmona cemetery.Yad Vashem. Photo by Jacques Adler

That evening, we gathered for Kabbalat Shabbat on the roof of Hebrew Union College. The setting sun had Jerusalem aglow, but unfortunately a frigid breeze left most of us shivering. Luckily, a warm banquet hall awaited us a few yards away. San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom arrived halfway through dinner. In his remarks, Newsom said a visit to Israel had been a personal goal for most of his life. The same could be said for my fellow mission participants, many visiting Israel for the first time. Treated to a VIP tour of the country, we also heard from a series of speakers, some painting less than rosy pictures. “Zionism remains a balancing act,” said Gidi Grinstein, founder of the Reut Institute. “The occupation [of Gaza and the West Bank] took Zionism out of equilibrium.” Cabinet minister Isaac Herzog elaborated on that sentiment at a seaside cocktail party a few days later. "We have the Israeli tears and fears,” he said, “of past and present, Shoah, wars, terror, alienated immigrants in a new homeland and tension between Arabs and Jews. But we are trying to increase economic prosperity.” Evidence of that prosperity was everywhere. High-rises and construction cranes punctuate the skyline in Tel Aviv. Towns like Rehovot and Yavne (about 13 miles south of Tel Aviv) are part of Israel’s Silicon Valley, with venture capital replacing the irrigation channels of old.

Photo by Travis Bernard.

“We can play global,” said Grinstein, who noted Israel is first in the world in terms of per capita investment in research and development. One evening the mission dined at the Jerusalem home of biotech pioneer Martin Gerstel and his wife, Shoshanna. Built by an Arab family in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, the house’s indoor arches, vaulted ceilings and gardens evoke a long-gone era. As a reminder that past often meets present in Israel, Shoshanna Gerstel mentioned that former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin spent the first six weeks of his life in that very home. The next day, we toured federation projects in the Arab city of Umm el-Fahm. Afterward, mission-goers and our Arab hosts gathered at a nearby Arab restaurant, treated to a divine feast of hummus, pickled vegetables, roasted eggplant and Frisbee-sized pita bread hot from the oven. This was the Israel CNN never shows: Arabs and Jews eating together, working together and living side by side. That’s not to say there aren’t problems. Poverty is rampant among Arab Israelis. The S.F.-based federation is one of the only Jewish organizations sponsoring programs to improve quality of life for Israel’s Arab citizens. For many on the trip, the highlight was Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day to commemorate the nation’s war dead. In a military cemetery on a cold evening, we stood on a small plaza. And suddenly, the siren. For a minute, sirens wailed all over Israel. It sounded like a shofar blast, long and loud and terrible.

Kibbutz members participating in the Yom Hazikaron ceremony at Tel Fah'r. Photo by Jacques Adler.

Then 33 children, dressed in white and clutching torches, walked onto the riser. They stood shoulder to shoulder, their flames starkly bright against the blue-black sky. And as the names of Kiryat Shmona’s 33 war dead were read one at a time, the children lit with their torches an even larger flame. It took a long time to read the names. And for a final surreal moment, on the mission’s last night we gathered at the Herzliya home of entrepreneur Zaki Rabib. At $24 million, it is the most expensive house in Israel, and it showed. Built by an Austrian Jewish mogul, it was all glass, teak and Jerusalem stone, with a sloping lawn reaching to a cliff overlooking the beach, the Mediterranean and the sky.

Sunset. Photo by Steve Lipman.

This was our farewell dinner, and joining us was Assam Ibrahim, Egypt’s ambassador to Israel. In a week of incongruities, perhaps none topped this one: the ambassador of Egypt –– a nation once committed to Israel’s destruction –– mingling with a group of San Francisco Jews in a town named for the pioneer of modern Zionism. With so much wining and dining, so much racing from Point A to Point B, one could argue the mission got a skewed view of this complex country. I disagree. The mission saw an Israel adjusting to its new national maturity. As Hebrew University political science professor Reuven Hazan told the mission: “We have grown up. Israel is more secure as a country than ever before.” No one tried to hide Israel’s problems. We could see them everywhere, from the trash-littered alleyways of Umm el-Fahm to the ubiquitous Israeli soldiers armed with machine guns, ready to shoot. Still, no Jew can visit Israel or meet its people without feeling a familial connection to the place. It’s good to come home. But after this mission to Israel, it’s hard for me to say where that home is.

Business track on the Israel-Lebanon border.
Tags: Israel
Categories: Israel


May 21, 2008


The Federation