Thursday, May 8, 2008

Yom Ha'atzma'ut -- Eretz Yisrael Turns 60

Ah, yes, I think everyone has a nationalistic side to them, and I am no exception. Today is the 60th anniversary of Israeli independence. On May 8, 1948, the state of Israel was created. Born out of a barren patch of earth in the heart of Arab country, causing the displacement of many such Arabs who called themselves the nation of Palestine, the 650,000 Jews who would originally make up the population of that country. Today there are over 7 million Jews in Israel, the country is a thriving democracy in a region filled with dictators, monarchs, and terrorist regimes. Industry, agriculture, tourism, finance, and other services make the country a model for the rest of the middle east to follow.

I visited Israel once in my life, though only in passing. I was on my way to Egypt in the winter of 1994 as part of an entertainment troupe for the Pentagon. Our plane landed in Tel Aviv. I did the cliche thing and kissed the ground as I deplaned at Ben Gurion Airport, and I could not stifle a beaming smile. Although I had spent the previous 34-plus years living in America, I felt like I was home in Israel.

I was filled with so many strong feelings: elation at having arrived and set foot in Israel, bewilderment at how similar to California everything looked, nervousness at the idea of being in a country over which so much war was still being fought. Most of all, however, it was that primal sense of belonging. I just can't describe it adequately, but I think other Jews who had first visited there would understand.

I and my fellow travelers were then driven across the border into Egypt, with the lights of Gaza visible in the distance at the crossing point. The journey to the border took all of three hours, including a stop at a roadside cafe for a little local food. It was my first exposure to the realities of life in Israel, as two fully-armed soldiers with Uzis slung across their back and hundreds of rounds of ammo stood in front of us in the checkout line. I thought about how I would feel if I saw military troops in the streets of Sherman Oaks or at my local Whole Foods market buying groceries while on duty. It is NOT the same as seeing policemen with pistols, or even the National Guard troops at the entrance to LAX.

Ten days later we were back in Israel on our way to Tel Aviv, again passing through as we headed for a flight to Turkey. I was weeping the whole time while in the van. I was so close, and yet would not have the chance to spend any measure of time in this country, this place that had radically altered me. Although I didn't know it at the time, the foundation of a pillar of uncompromising self-identity had been built in my soul. Today, it is for me what I and other men call a term, part of the core of who I am as a man: I am a Jew.

During a stop for gas, I hastily jumped out of the van, not sure of what I was going to do. But I knew I needed something I could take with me that was part of Israel. I reached down and picked up some soil, but put that down as I had nowhere to carry it. Then I found a simple rock, stuck it in my pocket, and got back in the van. I felt better, and more connected to the place. I resolved that one day I would be back with the children I hoped to have someday.

I passionately believe that the Jewish people have a right to exist as the nation of Israel on that narrow strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. I guess you can say I am a Zionist. As the Palestinians escalated their acts of violence against innocent Israeli women and children, my heart hardened against the Arab people, against Muslims, and against anyone who argued that Israel's government oppressed others as it defended itself and fought for its existence. I wrote many letters to the Los Angeles Times, and had had some published, anytime I read an editorial or an op-ed, or even a letter that criticized Israel's policies or its right to exist. Particularly abhorrent to me were any attempts to liken the government of Israel with the Nazis.

As I get older, however, I find myself mellowing somewhat and moderating my views. I still firmly believe that Israel's right to exist on that land is absolute. However, I believe that the Arabs who once occupied that land have a right to peaceful existence on the land they occupied while the Jews were scattered around the world. For that paradox to be resolved, I think it will take a miracle that I cannot today imagine. I know it will require all Arabs to recognize Israel's right to exist on that land; I know it will require a renunciation of terrorism, as well as targeted assassinations, and the end to the indiscriminate killing of civilians on both sides.

In my cynical way, I think money will play a large part. Money that comes from the U.S. and Europe, the two major international players trying to resolve the problem. It will also require a significant reduction in Iran's influence in the region. Most of all, I think it will require the two sides to take their heads out of their respective religious texts and start to talk about commonalities. Blaming others is for children (ya hear that, W?); understanding and compassion are what make adults of us all.

Next year in Jerusalem!

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