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Life in Israel: Normal, Yet Not
by Rabbi Ira Youdovin, Chairman, Jewish Community Relations Council
July 15, 2011

For someone like me, who begins each day by scanning newspapers and the internet for news of the latest Israeli crisis, actually being in the country can be a startling experience. Diaspora Jewry is on a vigilante watch for BDS---boycotts, divestment and sanctions initiatives aimed at delegitimizing the Jewish State. In Israel, the only time I heard the word "boycott" during a recent two-week visit, was in the context of a consumer action campaign protesting the rising cost of cottage cheese.

Israelis are living lives that are best characterized as "normal". The weather is perfect. Kids are at vacation camps or in community-based recreational programs. The economy is strong relative to others in this era of global economic crisis. Bob Dylan, a Jewish folksinger from Duluth, drew a packed house to a one-night stand in Tel Aviv. It was a strange performance. He refused to greet the audience or speak to them… just came on stage, sang his program and departed without encores. One senses a note of protest in this. But he did show up, and the Israelis were excited to have him.

Of course, "normalcy" must be tempered by an asterisk when a madman like Iran's Ahmadinejad threatens to annihilate you, and is working on building nuclear weapons to do the job. But there's a general sense that it won't happen. And besides, there's nothing much an Israeli can do about it at this time unless he has a stealth bomber armed with bunker-busting missiles parked in his garage.

There's also an absence of tension over the Palestinian issue. Most Israelis acknowledge that there will come a day when they will have to make major concessions to attain peace. But that day seems far off. Even if the Palestinians follow through on their threat to petition the U.N. for recognition in September, the United States (and perhaps others) will veto the motion in the Security Council, which is the only forum empowered to actually create a new state. Endorsement by the General Assembly could be bothersome. But nothing real can happen until Hamas' role in the new state's government is clarified, which may take a very long time.

This is not to say that Israelis are unconcerned about the daunting issues their country faces. But living perpetually on razor's edge exacts a terrible toll. Taking a time out now and again protects against rash decisions made in panic. Indeed, perhaps the greatest benefit of the Security Barrier is its success in interdicting almost all terrorism from the West Bank, enabling Israelis to live free from the ever-present fear of being blown up by a suicide bomber.

This benign assessment of Israeli life is not universally accepted. Last August, Time Magazine ran a cover story accusing Israelis of being too complacent to seriously pursue peace with the Palestinians. And even now, Israeli pundits and talking heads exchange daily salvos of rhetorical warfare. Doves demand that Netanyahu put a generous and concrete offer on the table in order to pacify Obama and grab the moral high ground from the Palestinians. Hawks respond that why should Israel offer generous concession when Abbas is powerless to move from his extremist demands to meet Netanyahu halfway, especially when every concession Israel makes becomes a new baseline for subsequent negotiations? Both views are accurate, which motivates Israelis to head for the hills and beaches seeking refuge from the stalemate.

A personal word about our trip. Evely brought her entire family: her children, their spouses and their children. With us, that made for a total of seven adults and five kids ranging in age from 15 years to 8 months, with diversified interests and wildly diversified political views.

Despite some apprehension, the trip worked beautifully. Because tourism is so important to both Israel's economy and its quest for friends, the Israelis have become very adept at welcoming visitors. Guides are informed, and largely free from the tendency, prevalent among guides in other countries, to pad their income with commissions received in numerous stops at tchachkeh emporia. There are activities for adults and children. Our kids snorkled in the Mediterranean at Caesarea while parents and grandparents explored the site's extensive archeological treasures.

You can see Israel on your own (almost everyone speaks English); on a tour organized by a commercial operator, or one of your own design. Or come with the Santa Barbara Jewish Federation. A group of fourteen folks led by Federation executive director Michael Rassler went in May, and had a fabulous experience. Another mission is scheduled for this coming May.

There's nothing like it on the face of God's earth.