Israel in 10 days

July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

Through funding from the Israeli government and private donors, the Taglit-Birthright organization allows almost any American with Jewish ancestry the chance to experience Israel through a 10-day trip throughout the country. The possibility of such a trip has been on my radar since I found out about it in college but even though I love traveling, and took the opportunity to study abroad twice in school, I procrastinated until the last few months that I would be eligible. The cut-off age is 27 and my 27th birthday is in the fall, so this summer was the last chance I would have to take advantage of this opportunity. So during the first two weeks of this July, I did.

There were a number of reasons that I initially put off going to Israel through Birthright: I felt like I had plenty of time, I didn’t want to go by myself, I didn’t think I was religious enough. The main reason, though, is the one I imagine most people give for opting not to go on Birthright, even if they are eligible: what if a full-on war breaks out in the middle of my trip?

The safety measures that Taglit implements are no joke. The organization boasts that they have not had any incidents with participants, even though trips continued throughout the 2006 Lebanon War. Despite these statistics, I’m not sure how much it quelled my mother’s anxiety to know that I would be arriving in the country on the day that Israel would be mourning three yeshiva students who had been killed by Hamas and found only a few days before. Only a few hours after I arrived, a Palestinian teenager was lit on fire and left to die in a revenge killing. Three Israeli Jews are now suspects.

On Tuesday, July 8, we spent the night in the middle of the Negev desert in one of the few places for the whole ten days where we were without wi-fi when a man came into our tent to tell us that Israel had started sending missiles into Gaza. He said that the prime minister had told the IDF to “take their gloves off” against Hamas and use any means necessary to restore peace in Israel. He added that although violence should usually be a last resort, it was necessary to bring peace to the country.

The previous Saturday, on July 5, we were supposed to have a political seminar about the current situation in the country but in a weird twist, we were told that the speaker who was supposed to meet us couldn’t leave his city because of rocket fire. We were also told that this was normal and that he was going to be fine, so this just meant that our talk was postponed a day.

While it was true that he was safe, it was clear that my idea of “normal” and the idea of “normal” for everyday life in Israel was vastly different. And while one of our group leaders, Dayna Simon, told us that the low-flying military planes we could hear throughout the night while we were in the desert were there to protect us, the closeness of the planes’ roars was still unsettling.

A few days into our trip, before our trek into the desert, we met up with seven Israeli students and soldiers. Roei Sadgat, who already completed his military service, told us about a time during his service that he was in a field with his fellow soldiers for about week when they suddenly realized they were in a minefield and had all been steps away from being killed. He then nonchalantly explained that even though he had finished his service, he would be in the reserves until he was 45. Coming from a country that doesn’t have mandatory military service, the Americans in the group (including me) were shocked at such a prospect, but Roei just shrugged it off as part of his service.

IDF soldier smiles for the camera (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

IDF soldier smiles for the camera (Photo by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

Not long after Israel began firing missiles into Gaza, he was one of the reserves that the IDF called up. I asked if he knew what he would be doing and if it would be similar to his previous service. He said he wasn’t sure exactly except that it would be similar to what he was doing in the army before, and that it would definitely be interesting. The day that Israel began their ground offensive, last Thursday, he told us that he was on his way back.

Vania Glinsky, the belligerent Russian-Israeli who spent the whole trip with us serving as our medic and comic relief with his unimaginable amount of smoke breaks, told us last Wednesday through Facebook that he had got a recruitment order to go back to the army as well and has been posting pictures of the training.

While we were on our way to the last day of activities, Dayna told us what we were supposed to do if the alarm goes off when we’re on the bus. We were supposed to get off and move away from it, get down on the ground and cover our heads. She said that the rockets themselves don’t cause that much damage but if they hit a window, the window explodes. She also mentioned that it was better for us to move towards the front of the bus instead of the back because we were traveling north and Gaza was to the south.

The last night of our trip was supposed to be spent in a hotel in Netanya, which is essentially a suburb of Tel Aviv. We had to make our way from the desert in the south where we had been visiting a goat farm and should have been able to make it up the coast in less than two hours. Because of all the sirens and all the rockets that were being targeted towards Tel Aviv at the time, we had to go in more of an L shape to avoid Tel Aviv entirely, making it a bus trip closer to four hours.

The day we left, sirens had been reported near the town where we went to the beach. We never got much information about what was happening but I thought if the sirens were going off, we wouldn’t be going there. We ended up going anyway and the beach on the Mediterranean ended up being a siren-less (albeit jellyfish-filled) oasis. Our tour guide Michael explained later that he was almost glad, in a way, that we were in Israel at this rough point because it illustrated a small part of what life is like there when things start to get crazy. It’s difficult to imagine that it would be anything but chaos when there are rockets flying overhead but just as we went to the beach in the midst of the alarms, Israelis do too.

The safety measures put in place by Taglit make the situation sound much more dramatic than it actually was when I was there. The organization had banned all birthright groups from going into Tel Aviv but the night we were supposed to be there, I got a message from one of the Israeli students that we had met, Tomer, that he was out in Rabin Square, in the center of the city, hanging out with friends.

Still, for my own parents’ peace of mind, it was probably for the best that they didn’t know that Hamas was reportedly aiming rockets at Ben-Gurion Airport around the time that we were there to catch our flight home and that a number of people in my group saw a few rockets while we were on the bus on our way there.

Going to Israel was a dream because getting to see such a beautiful place is one of the reasons that I love traveling so much. One of the other reasons I love traveling is getting to meet the people who live there and while it was incredible to meet the Israeli soldiers and students that I did on this trip, I can’t help wishing that there had been a way to receive a less one-sided perspective of the country’s complex history and politics. The current violence was only escalating more by the time I left and as of last Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that there were over 200 Palestinian deaths to Israel’s one. As of this past Wednesday, since Israel began its ground invasion, the numbers have increased to 632 Palestinians (75 percent of them civilians, according to the United Nations), 29 Israeli soldiers and three Israeli civilians, the New York Times reported.

At one point in our trip, we visited the military cemetery at Mount Herzl where IDF soldiers are buried. What struck me first and foremost about the headstones was that the age of almost all of the soldiers whose graves we visited were younger than I am now. It only served as a tragic reminder to me of the deaths of so many young people on both sides.

(This story originally appeared in the July 24, 2014 issue of Town & Village and on the blog here.)

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