Josh Kaplan

Israel? Feisty, brash – yep, same as ever

I expected to get off the plane to a radically altered Israel. I was wrong

March 27, 2024 18:13

As the two regular fans of this column will recall, a few months ago I said I’d like to go back to Israel (preferably on a press trip) to experience the unique form of wartime unity that I’d read so much about. Well, as it turns out, sometimes if you speak things into the world, the universe replies. A couple of weeks ago, as the guest of the Israeli tourism authority, I attended the Jerusalem Marathon as part of a trip that hit all the classic Birthright spots, Masada, the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, that market in Jerusalem where Americans buy T-shirts.

I expected to get off the plane to a radically altered Israel – one steeled even further by the long five months of war: overly cautious, afraid of its own shadow. But I was wrong, Israel remains Israel. There are signs, of course – yellow ribbons and hostage posters everywhere. Protesters, angry at their government, meeting weekly in the centre of Tel Aviv, a whole square dedicated to the hostages and raising attention to their plight. And perhaps most noticeable of all: the flags. Even for a country that’s prone to flags, the current displays on every house, every office, every shop are remarkable. I suppose in a war in which the average person feels powerless, everyone is looking for something that says: “We’re here, we care.”

On the streets of Tel Aviv, it doesn’t feel like a country at war. From the Soho House in Jaffa to the shuk to the tayelet, it’s a bit quieter, yes, but otherwise exactly the same. Women in hijabs walk the streets alongside tattooed secular Jews, Russian-tinged Hebrew mixes with grating American study-abroad kids – all the characters you’ll know and love from any visit to Israel are all still there, living and existing.

I also went up to the north of Israel to see family I hadn’t seen since the start of war. On my second day on my grandma’s kibbutz, I woke to the news of a Hezbollah rocket barrage about 60 miles to the north. The only thing I noticed was the roar of jets heading towards Lebanon – otherwise life goes on.

When you live somewhere like the UK, war is a very remote, alien thing. If you’re under 70, there’s not been an existential threat you’d ever have known. For people my age (still just about under 30), the Battle of Britain is an abstraction, something that happened in black and white a million years ago. I simply can’t conceive of circumstances that would necessitate picking up a gun and going into harm’s way, it may as well be Mars. When you watch the news about Israel or when you see shots of the country, it’s all about war. We know that the news only really cares about the big stuff and not the million of ordinary things that happen every day, so it was nice to remember that Israelis are just getting on with life. It’s a country where people are hurt, where they’re exhausted, but it’s still a country that has time for the small joys in life.

The hummus is still great, the pitta still fresh, Jerusalem is still, well Jerusalem. I think there’s a tendency to assume that all life stops when a country goes to war, and maybe that’s true in the beginning. But life has to continue at some point.

I said before that I hoped Israel would be more united, more together, but that was wrong. Israel by its nature is brash, it’s in your face. It’s arguing and shouting and pushing in queues. If there was harmony and consensus and calm, then it wouldn’t be Israel. Asking Israelis not to fight with each other like asking Jews not to kvetch, Americans not to overshare, or Brits to not complain – it’s just not happening.

I don’t know what I expected to find when I went to Israel – I’ve been there dozens of times. But what I saw gave me hope. The fact that life goes on reminds us that everything has to come to an end, and once it does, Israel is capable of picking up where it left off.

March 27, 2024 18:13

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