First-time reflections on Israel

I visited a new country the other week, and I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport in return.

Tel Aviv constructionIsrael had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s scenery we’ve read about in the Bible, it’s a state that’s constantly in the headlines (not always in a good way), I’ve heard great things about it from friends who have traveled there, and it’s the home of a thriving tech industry.

My overdue introduction to Israel came courtesy of a trip arranged by the America-Israel Friendship League with help from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That New York- and Tel Aviv-based non-profit invited a group of U.S. journalists and analysts to get a close-up look at Israel’s cybersecurity sector, and my editors at Yahoo Tech thought its invitation worth accepting.

My report from the trip should finally be up in a few days. Meanwhile, here are some first impressions of the nation I took too long to visit; please bear in mind that if I were terribly confident in all of these judgments, I would have tried to sell this post to a paying client.

MezzeThe food is great. A friend mentioned that he puts on a few pounds every time he visits Israel, and I must admit that I did too. Shakshuka for breakfast, the 20 different mezze at The Old Man & The Sea in Tel Aviv, the stews at Azura in Jerusalem… it was all delicious, and I didn’t even get around to sampling any of the street food.

Tel Aviv has neat architecture: I’d read that before about this city’s stock of Bauhaus buildings and believe it now. I wish I’d had more time to wander around (see also my comment on street food).

Ideological violence is not a far-off thing. Here, many politicians compete to show who can be more freaked out over the specter of terrorists showing up at their front door. In Israel, attacks on civilians are not a hypothetical risk–one happened at a grocery store in a West Bank settlement the week I was there, and the newspapers also carried numerous stories about the recent surge of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.

Israel is more diverse than it gets credit for. After a meeting with a cybersecurity professor at Tel Aviv University, we came downstairs to find the building’s lobby crowded with Muslim students wearing headscarves (which, it later hit me, would have been illegal in France). The next day, a quick tour of Jerusalem brought us to the Western Wall plaza as new soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for their swearing-in ceremony there, and I was struck by how many of them were the product of the Ethiopian aliyah.

Western WallJerusalem is humbling and unsettling. Thousands of years of history intersect with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem, and standing in the middle of it left me feeling profoundly humbled. I expected that, but I did not expect to see so many IDF soldiers and police walking around with automatic weapons. It wasn’t just me who found that unsettling; one U.S. veteran in our group did not appreciate seeing one man casually hold a rifle pointed outward at a crowd. Another uneasy sight: the bomb-disposal containers we spotted.


I still think Israel is creating an existential problem for itself. A week in Israel left me as unconvinced as ever that the country’s continued habit of building settlements in the West Bank does it any long-term good. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has eloquently observed, Israel cannot annex the West Bank without either betraying its own democratic principles or losing its identity as a Jewish state, and a permanent military occupation is not a solution either. The murder of civilians by Palestinians is horrible but does not justify Israel going out of its way to make any eventual peace more difficult.


11 thoughts on “First-time reflections on Israel

  1. Perhaps you missed it in your short visit, but the Western Wall is also considered a “West Bank settlement”. As is the Tel Aviv University, where you can still see the ruins of Arab villages that once stood there. So stopping construction in Israeli communities, regardless of which side of the 1949 cease-fire line they are on, is not about to solve anything. In fact, construction on the “West Bank” was stopped numerous times before, and Israel offered to remove almost all of these communities, with no effect whatsoever.

    Last but not least – not a single Jew lived in Judea, Samaria and “East” Jerusalem between 1948 and 1967, but that didn’t get us anywhere, did it?

    • I’m well aware that many of Israel’s neighbors regard the entire state as illegitimate. Rejecting that doesn’t require me to accept that anything goes in the occupied territories because, hey, the Palestinians will hate us no matter what. I am sure people once said the same things about Egypt and Jordan… that didn’t get us anywhere, did it?

      • First of all, I never said you should “accept that anything goes”.

        Second, the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan didn’t get us anywhere, did they? I mean, both countries still behave as if we’re at war, so what’s the deal here?

        Third and last, these “settlements” include neighbourhoods of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, tombs of the Patriarchs – the most holy sites of Judaism that will be demolished IS-style the moment the IDF leaves. I don’t see how abandoning these and ethnically cleansing over half a million Jews will contribute to a lasting peace. I believe the example of Gaza has shown clearly what the prospects are.

      • Let’s see here… in your logic, saying that West Bank settlements are not in Israel’s own interest actually means I’m okay with a complete reversion to the 1967 borders, and establishing diplomatic and commercial relations with neighboring countries after decades of war is a meaningless accomplishment. I hope you’re not always this bad at advancing an argument, sir.

      • First of all, there is not such thing as “1967 borders” – there were cease-fire lines drawn in 1949, explicitly (upon the Arab request) stated NOT to be borders.

        Israel offered leaving 95 to 98% of the areas it gained from Jordan in 1967. That’s as close as it would ever get to a complete reversion to the pre-1967 disposition of forces, meaningless as it was to begin with. That offer was rejected repeatedly, which leaves me to wonder – what else can Israel offer except marching into the sea? Since that offer was not good enough, I’m not sure why you think some limitation to construction is going to make any difference. Its not like it is going to bring peace – see Gaza.

        The “diplomatic and commercial relations” with Egypt and Jordan you speak of are a meaningless accomplishment indeed. There is no normal relationship between Israel, Egypt and Jordan. Citizens of Jordan and Egypt that dare visit Israel are demonized in their countries, almost no one there speaks of Israel except as “the enemy”. Commercial relations? Uruguay is a more important trade partner of Israel than Egypt and Jordan combined. There are no commercial relations, the peanuts that do get traded are negligible. Even the little Israeli tourism that these countries have seen is stone dead.

        Most importantly, both Egypt and Jordan are on the brink of collapse. What value are these peace agreements, when both Egypt and Jordan cease to exist – like Libya, Yemen or Syria?

      • I’m going to set aside the merits of your “haters gonna hate” view and the dubious statement that Egypt and Jordan are “on the brink of collapse” and just ask a few questions that you can answer and then we can both get on with our lives: What’s the end game with settlements across the West Bank? Is there any point at which Israel should stop their expansion? Do you want to see Israel annex that territory and be done with it? If so, how do you avoid having Jews become a minority in their own state? If not, then how does building more settlements make it any easier for an eventual two-state settlement?

      • “Settlements”? “West Bank”? I will leave aside the merits of your use of dubious terms and try to understand the core of your questions. Are you asking me about my personal opinion or my interpretation of the actions of the Israeli government? The second one I am not in charge of and not qualified to answer. The first one I will try to.

        In my personal view, the end game of establishing and maintaining Israeli communities in the Galilee, Samaria or the Negev is the existence of a Jewish national home, the same it has been all along, the Return of Zion. Why should Israel curb the growth of communities somewhere, I do not know – I see no real benefits in doing so, as I clearly explained. I think Israel will eventually annex the territory, or a large part of it. The Arab residents may get a citizenship, or a stripped- down variant of it, I would like to see them being encouraged to emigrate, with a generous “exit bonus”, and, if they do become citizens, most strict conditions on it – like an impeccable track record over two generations, and military service, again, over generations. The Druze and Bedouin citizens of Israel show clearly that being non-Jewish should not prevent people from being loyal to the Jewish state. The Jews becoming a minority is not an issue then – firstly, because demographics are actually in favor of the Jews and secondly, because if the non-Jews are better than some Jews in protecting the Jewish state, I don’t see a problem. Personally, I think it is possible that at some point (when the Arab world collapse will reach bottom) the “Palestinians” will discover how they love the Jews and how the Jews actually save them from the chaos around, and will start converting in droves to Judaism. Other variant of the end game is the existence of a Palestinian autonomy, much like now, only a functioning one. Limited souvereignity and acceptance of being a de-facto protectorate of Israel.

        A two-state settlement? There is Jordan – that’s one Palestinian Arab state. There’s Gaza- that’s a second one. There’s Israel – with 20% Arab population. And you want ANOTHER Arab state in Palestine? That’s 3.5 Arab states versus 0.5 Jewish state – not really fair, is it? Two- state solution? I’m all support, if it means all Arabs of Israel, including Gaza, Judea and Samaria, cross over to Jordan. Like the million Jews who were kicked out of the Arab counties and found refuge in Israel. That would make two states in Mandatory Palestine – a Jewish and an Arab one.

        Now to the main point of the whole argument. How does stopping building anything in Israeli communities in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem (so-called “settlements”) make it any easier for an eventual two-state solution?

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