I have experienced the following incident more than once now and I am sure that I am not the only North American-Israeli out there to have found themselves in this position.
It goes like this ....You arrive at the airport to meet someone who has never been to Israel before. They enter the arrivals area of Terminal 3 at Ben Gurion Airport with their eyes darting from side to side. No matter how nonchalant they are trying to look, the fact is that they are anticipating trouble. I honestly believe that at least one of my first-time-in-Israel guests was actually expecting shooting to break out in the airport at any second.
They see me and the smile as bravely as they can (but their eyes are yelling PANIC).
Skip ahead to the end of their trip. We are back in the airport and they can hardly believe that they arrived here with only the vaguest hope of ever leaving alive.
You think I am joking, but I'm not. I have calmed more than one anxious arrival promising them that they would eat their words by the end of their trip. Thank G-d, so far, I am batting 1000.
What I never really considered, however, was just how common that sentiment was. To me, it seems fairly obvious that I wouldn't uproot my family from dull, quiet, reliable Toronto to move them into a war zone. I have beliefs and principles but I do not have a death wish. And after all the work I did bringing those children into this world, I have no plans to offer them an early exit.
Earlier this evening I had the good fortune to see some video snippets from a series of US focus groups sponsored by a pro-Israel organization. Although the real objective was not really clear to the focus group participants, their answers to questions pertaining to their perceptions of Israel left me speechless.
For the records, I haven't been speechless since 1967 -- and even then, I was just trying to freak out my mother.
The focus group participants were not Jewish and none had been to Israel. They were, however, educated beyond high school. These focus groups were carried out across the US -- 62 in all -- in 2004. Remarkably the answers for all the focus groups were very consistent.
Here is how the average, post high school, non-Jew living in the United States, views Israel. They think that there is nothing here but cement and barbed wire -- oh, and a little rubble thrown in for good measure. They think that everyone is an orthodox Jewish man who would not be open to having any kind of foreigner visiting Israel. They also believe that women stay indoors and that men carry on all outdoor activity on behalf of the family. They think that Israel is overwhelmingly dangerous and that there is no life so to speak on the streets. They do believe that there are tanks everywhere.
For anyone who lives here you know how laughable that is -- well, laughable, when you aren't crying about it. And for those of you who have never been here, please bear with me while I refute a few points.
- Israel is suprisingly green. There are tons of trees. The boulevards are lined with huge palm trees that resemble the boulevards in Florida. In fact Israel is so green in the winter that I often forget that I live in the desert. Yes, there is barbed wire, but you have to drive out to the borders of the country to see it and it is there for damn good reason: to keep out the kind of scum who enter the country illegally and murder sleeping babies and their parents while they sleep. Yes, this happened last week in a small community called Itamar.
- Eighty percent of the Jewish Israeli population is secular. And of the 20% who are religious, only 25% are overtly religous looking. Israel is full of non-kosher restaurants (I don't say that happily but it is true.) You can buy pork and sea food. Israelis come from countries all around the globe and as a result, they have different skin colours and different mother tongues. The fact is that Israelis don't care all that much about ethnicity or colour -- they care if you are a Jew.
- Oh, and they love tourists. It is a mainstay of our economy and last year there were more tourists in Israel than any year in its history. We all encourage you to come and see the country for yourself.
- Now to my favorite misperception. It will be a cold day in hell before I leave my husband responsible for taking care of all of our family's out-of-the-house business. If he had to go grocery shopping we would have to subsist on beets, apples and ice cream. The irony is that he probably spends less time outside the house than I do. The economy would be in ruins if only men went outside -- they are lousy shoppers for the most part and they aren't the best coffee shop customers.
- Soldiers carry guns. True. And I thank G-d that they do. I am always happy to see a young soldier on the street -- although I rarely do -- carrying a gun. I am also happy when I see them on public transit and in public places. It is precisely because of them that there isn't normally shooting on the streets. (Unfortunately this does not include the crazy vengeful mobsters who insist on occassionally fighting their personal battles on the streets of Lod and Netanya.) Without those brave young men who unfortunately do have to carry guns, this place would be overrun with Muslim fanatics in no time.
- There is so much night life in Israel that I often wonder how people get up and go to work in the morning. And not just adults. Come summer, it is not unusual to see small children sitting in cafes late at night with their parents. When my kids were little they were home in bed, but they were probably the only ones.
- And there is no room on the streets for tanks because there are too many cars in perpetual traffic jams because everyone -- men and women alike -- are going out to work or en route to doing something fun.
The point is: if you don't know what you are talking about then you have two choices. 1) shut up or 2) make it your business to find out. Oh, and then there is the third option -- my favorite. Get on a plane and come see for yourself. That's the only way to align perception and reality.
I will meet you at the airport.