Saturday, June 5, 2010

Reflections: Mi Gaza, Su Gaza


In the aftermath of the homicidal attack made by the Israeli military on the “freedom flotilla” attempting to ship humanitarian aid into blockaded Gaza, there has been a lively discussion of Israel, pro- and con-, at Vox Nova. VN is relatively new-to-me daily read to which I was first led from Journeys in Alterity. Presented below is a revised and extended version of a comment of mine, pertaining to this post at VN. I have previously written more favorably about visiting Israel. These recent events have provoked memories of the dark side:

I saw a foreshadowing of the reasons for the growing condemnation of Israel while traveling there in 1979. I was traveling as an accompanying spouse with my wife’s modern dance company, under the auspices of the U.S. state department, in a “goodwill tour”-type situation. Because of the geopolitics of the region in those days, this was a very special tour. The company was to be the first group of individuals to cross the border with Jordan, over the Allenby Bridge (pictured above), since before the Six-Day War. In order to do this, each member of the dance company, as well as each fellow-traveler like me, had been issued a second U.S. passport. As I recall, the purpose of this special passport was to be able to present customs agents in the Arab nations with a passport which had not been stamped in Israel.

I was thrilled to be in Israel. It was a joy to walk the ancient streets of Jerusalem; to climb the slopes of the Mount of Olives; to pass from the blazing sunlight into the awesome obscurity of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But my flaming enthusiasm for the visit was abruptly doused, on our last day there, by the treatment I received at the hands of Israeli officials.

To make a long story short, my billfold, containing traveler’s checks in the amount of several hundred dollars, as well as the equivalent in Israeli currency of about $250 cash, disappeared from a canvas bag stashed under a deck chair by the hotel swimming pool. This happened in the span of time that it took me to have a quick splash in the pool, just to cool off. My bag had been left under the watchful eyes of two of the “guides” assigned by the Israeli government to facilitate our visit.
In order to be able to recoup the traveler’s checks, and to protect myself against the possibility that my credit card had already been used before the theft was discovered, I had to be taken to the local cop shop to make a report. With deliberate rudeness, the Israeli police spoke to each other only in Hebrew, although each of them showed that he was perfectly capable of questioning me in English. Throughout the interview they laughed amongst themselves, seeming to be greatly enjoying my obvious consternation. In the end, they shrugged and said, “Nothing we can do, Meester.”

The next morning, as we were packing to leave, having cancelled the credit card – an extreme inconvenience while on the road – I got a call from the hotel desk. They had found my billfold, so they said, in the bushes near the fencing around the pool. When I recovered it, I found that nothing – not even the cash – was missing. You do the math.

This is how Americans were being treated as guests of the state of Israel – a state that is able to survive only as an American client – in 1979, when Israel was still held in high regard by most Americans. By constrast, we were treated with respect and friendship by officials in both Egypt and Jordan. I had a particularly good experience in Jordan, also involving interaction with officials, which I may write about at some later time.

Incidentally, the hotel strip along the beach in Tel Aviv was literally swarming with hookers. I was several times openly solicited in broad daylight by young women on the sidewalks, or in cars parked along the sidewalks of the main drag, who exposed their breasts without shame and made enticing verbal suggestions—in pretty good English. On one of these occasions, I walking to our hotel with my wife! The beaches were covered in tar, so that one had to wear shoes while swimming or sunbathing in order to avoid having one’s feet semi-permanently blackened. And, although I loved being able to visit the Church of Holy Sepulcher, dealing with the money-hungry priest on duty (I’m not sure which of the several churches he was representing), was quite unpleasant. In the end, I was glad to be getting the hell out of Israel when the tour bus pulled up.

Bottom line: The Arabs can have it, for all I care. That would at least keep it out of the hands of the Southern Baptist Convention…