First Person | Israel

ISRAEL AT 65: Despite challenges, after many visits, Israel still inspires

At my age (closing in on 60), I often tell myself, in a reassuring tone, that “age is just a state of mind.” Now that the State of Israel is turning a ripe old 65, I wonder, what is Israel’s state of mind? And how do we, American Jews, view Israel these days? As a youngster still growing up? As a teenager acting out? Or is it maturing, aging, perhaps gaining wisdom with years?

(L-R) Nancy Mellan, Diane Weintraub, Israeli artist Tzameret Zamir, Stuart Mellan and Ron Weintraub at Zamir’s mosaic of peace project on the anti-sniper wall at Netiv Ha’asara. The mosaic will spell the world ‘shalom.’
(L-R) Nancy Mellan, Diane Weintraub, Israeli artist Tzameret Zamir, Stuart Mellan and Ron Weintraub at Zamir’s mosaic of peace project on the anti-sniper wall at Netiv Ha’asara. The mosaic will spell the world ‘shalom.’

It would be a gargantuan understatement to say that from the time of its birth in 1948, to my first visit in 1982, to my 25th visit last month, Israel has undergone many changes. The perception of Israel and its internal challenges, along with the ­reality of the tumultuous neighborhood in which it resides, continues to be fluid. Having become a technological giant, a “start-up nation” with a thriving economy and a bastion of democratic freedom in the Middle East, Israel’s achievements are truly awe-inspiring.

At age 65 Israel is also coming face-to-face with the demographic reality of a population of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and Israeli Arabs that must be more successfully integrated into society to assure Israel’s stability and strength. In a related set of challenges, much like our own country, the very fabric of Israel’s political core is challenged by the growing disparity between the affluent and the impoverished. And Israel at 65 faces the imperative to find a way to achieve peace with its Palestinians neighbors, while the world and its media shine a spotlight on the festering dilemma this poses. Meanwhile, Israel’s neighbors —Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon — appear to be either failed states or in danger of becoming so; and the dark shadow of threats from Iran loom overhead.

I try to stay current on “all things Israel”; I remain committed to deepening my understanding of Israel’s challenges and achievements, along with its internal and external vulnerabilities. And I visit as often as possible. Clearly, Israel is in so many ways unlike what it was, but regardless of how Israel has developed and evolved, regardless of how often it undergoes changing political leadership and the nature of how it copes with the challenges it faces, the truth is that my experience of Israel is virtually unchanged.

Perhaps one might think that I hold on to a certain naiveté, or perhaps one might say that I hold to the deeper truth of what Israel means to the Jewish people and what its place is in this modern world. But unabashedly I must admit, I still become energized when I take a late night stroll through the Zion Square area in Jerusalem, full of young people out and about and appearing to be “living large.” I still love people-watching from my chair in a coffee shop in Jerusalem’s German Colony or strolling down the tayelet (promenade) along the beach in Tel Aviv. The striking juxtaposition of modernity and history, the ever-broadening cultural mélange still take my breath away, just as they did during my first visit. Perhaps even more so!

More than anything, Israel comes alive for me when visiting Israelis in their homes. On my last visit, along with Diane and Ron Weintraub and my wife, Nancy, I had the privilege of interviewing seven remarkable individuals who were candidates to serve as the next director of our Weintraub Israel Center. Each one was impressive for their professional accomplishments as well as their personal journeys — each one facing challenges and adversity but responding with an infectious optimism, a powerful spirit and life force. We were joined in Israel by former Tucsonan Dan Karsch, who had been Diane’s Israel Center co-chair until May 2012, and after two full days of interviewing, our committee of five managed to narrow the field to three; and so home visits to our three finalists were next on the agenda.

Before we traipsed around Israel to visit our candidates, we enjoyed a visit at the beautiful condominium home of Dan and his wife, Carol. The first thing we noticed was how relaxed Carol appeared. Israel (and retirement from her position as executive director of our Jewish Community Foundation) is treating her and Dan very well. The Karsches are living in a new community built in the ancient city of Modi’in. They told us that in a short time they had made many new and wonderful friends. Their condo is just a block away from their daughter, Chana, and her family, and the Karsch’s lifestyle made me sentimental for the intimacy that many Jewish families experienced in Brooklyn, N.Y., in the first half of the 20th century, when grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins lived around the corner. I am quite certain, however, that the bucolic views from the Karsch’s third floor balcony are far more desirable than those from the brownstones of Brooklyn!

And so the home visits began. First to a kibbutz near Beit Shemesh, where our first candidate’s home was situated precisely where her husband grew up and where his parents and four of his siblings and their families still reside; and ultimately to a kibbutz near Beit Shean to visit Oshrat Barel and her family — a remarkable woman who will serve as our next Israel Center director. Oshrat, her husband Eli and three daughters live in a small house, and we were greeted enthusiastically and warmly. As we sat in the living room for the ample pre-dinner refreshments, we saw a picture prominently placed over the couch. It was a photograph of Oshrat’s father, who had been killed in a terror attack at a café in Beit Shean during the first intifada. While the photo was haunting, the manner in which Oshrat responded to the tragedy of the loss — by creating a dialogue of reconciliation between local Jewish and Israeli Arabs living in her community — seemed to be a powerful reflection of Israel at 65.

The next leg of our recent trip was a visit to our partnership region of Kiryat Malachi and Hof Ashkelon. We witnessed the heroic struggle of our friends in Kiryat Malachi to build a successful community in a town of new immigrants with few resources. Most emotionally riveting was a stop at Moshav Netiv Ha’asara at the border of Gaza. On previous visits, there was an expansive view into Gaza with a lovely Jewish town in the foreground, and with the Gaza shoreline in the background. Now, sadly, there is a 30-foot high wall that has been installed to protect the moshav’s residents from sniper shots. We met at the wall with Tzameret Zamir, who has created a mosaic of peace, an attempt to transform this cement barrier into a force for reconciliation and beauty. Central to her vision is that all visitors to the wall have an opportunity to add their mark by adding tiles to the installation. We were struck with the irony that one of the results of the withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza, in an attempt to create the environment for peace, was this wall separating Gaza from Israel. It was a painful reminder that in this place of remarkable achievement, there remains the burden of living beside people whose leaders view Israel as the enemy.

During my first trip to Israel in 1982 our Federation’s mission group heard from Menachem Begin, who told us with great optimism and an air of certainty, “Peace is at hand.” He explained (I am paraphrasing): “We have made peace with Egypt. With the PLO out of Lebanon we will have a quiet border to the north, and soon peace will come with Jordan on our eastern border.” Sadly, one month after my visit, Israel came to be viewed not as liberator but as occupier.

Israel’s state of mind at 65? Well … I suppose it’s imbedded in the question. One’s state of mind is, by definition, a matter of perspective. On one hand, Israel is a youngster, still maturing. On another hand, having the scars of wars and enormous handicaps, it might be perceived as a bit weary and worn. For me, some 20-odd trips later, having been robbed of a degree of optimism due to the setbacks since I visited in 1982, Israel seems to be no less mythical, and no less miraculous. Israel’s state of mind at 65? I can only say that in my view … it looks awfully good for its age.

Stuart Mellan is president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.