Zion's Vital Signs

A journey through modern Israel, where terrorism has been a fact of ordinary life for decades—and where ordinary life defeats terrorism
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Passover is my idea of a perfect holiday. Dear God, when you're handing out plagues of darkness, locusts, hail, boils, flies, lice, frogs, and cattle murrain, and turning the Nile to blood and smiting the firstborn, give me a pass. And tell me when it's over.

The Lord did well by me this Passover—brilliant sunshine on the beaches of Tel Aviv, pellucid waters, no flies in my room at the Hilton, and certainly no lice. I am a firstborn myself, but I was not the least smitten, not even by the cute waitress at the Hilton's kosher sushi restaurant. I am a happily married man. And by the way, Leviticus 11:10 says, "Of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you"—an apt description of sushi as far as I'm concerned. But gentiles aren't expected to understand the intricacies of dietary law, although extra complications thereof lead to Passover's main drawback: food and—more important to gentiles—drink.

"I'll have a Scotch," I said to the Hilton's bartender.

"Scotch isn't kosher," he said. "It's made with leaven."

"Gin and tonic," I said.

"Gin isn't kosher."

"What can I have?"

"You can have a screwdriver—Israeli vodka and orange juice."

"What's Israeli vodka like?" I asked.

"The orange juice is very good."

There was no plague of tourists in Israel. It should have been a period of hectic visitation, with Passover beginning April 7 and the Eastern Orthodox and Western Easters coinciding a week later. But Israel's income from tourism dropped by 58 percent in the last quarter of 2000, and to judge by the queue-less ticket counters at Ben-Gurion Airport and the empty-seated aisles of El Al, the drop had continued. The marble lobby of the Hilton echoed, when at all, with the chatter of idle desk clerks and bellhops. The din of strife had rendered Israel quiet.

Quiet without portentous hush—traffic hum, air-conditioning buzz, and cell-phone beeps indicated ordinary life in an ordinary place. Tourism wasn't the only thing there was no sign of in Israel. No demonstrations blocked intersections; public-address systems failed to crackle with imperatives; exigent posters weren't stuck to walls except to advertise raves. There was no sign of crisis, international or bilateral or domestic political, although all news reports agreed that a crisis raged here, and an economic crisis besides. A 12 percent quarterly decline in gross domestic product was unevident in boarded-up shops and empty cafés, which didn't exist, and beggars and the homeless, who weren't on the streets.

There was no sign of terrorism's effects. The Carmel Market was crowded with people either wholly unafraid or indifferent to whether they were blown up singly or in bunches. If police security was pervasive, it was invisible. Israel, I've heard, is hated fanatically by millions of Muslims around the world, whereas Congress is loathed only by a small number of well-informed people who follow politics closely. But a walk around anything in Israel is less impeded by barriers and armed guards than a walk around the Capitol building in Washington.

There was no sign of war. Plenty of soldiers were to be seen, carrying their weapons, but this is no shock to the frequent traveler. For all that the world looks askance at America's lack of gun control, foreigners love to wave guns around. Nothing about the Israeli Defense Forces is as odd as Italian carabinieri brandishing their machine pistols while grimly patrolling that flash-point Venice.

There was, in fact, no sign of anything in Tel Aviv. In particular there was no sign of Israel's vital strategic importance to world peace—except, of course, those signs of vital strategic importance to world peace one sees everywhere, the lettering here in Hebrew but the trademark logos recognizable enough.

Tel Aviv is new, built on the sand dunes north of Jaffa in the 1890s, about the same time Miami was founded. The cities bear a resemblance in size, site, climate, and architecture, which ranges from the bland to the fancifully bland. In Miami the striving, somewhat troublesome immigrant population is the result of Russia's meddling with Cuba. In Tel Aviv the striving, somewhat troublesome immigrant population is the result of Russia's meddling with itself. I found a Russian restaurant where they couldn't have cared less what was made with leaven, where they had Scotch, and where, over one Scotch too many, I contemplated the absurdity of Israel's being an ordinary place.

What if people who had been away for ages, out and on their own, suddenly showed up at their old home and decided to move back in? My friends with grown-up children tell me this happens all the time. What if the countless ancient tribal groups that are now defeated, dispersed, and stateless contrived to re-establish themselves in their ancestral lands in such a way as to dominate everyone around them? The Mashantucket Pequots are doing so this minute at their Foxwoods casino, in southeastern Connecticut. What if a religious group sought a homeland never minding how multifarious its religion had become or how divergent its adherents were in principles and practices? A homeland for Protestants would have to satisfy the aspirations of born-again literalists holding forth about creationism in their concrete-block tabernacles and also to fulfill the hopes and dreams of vaguely churched latitudinarians praising God's creation by boating on Sundays. Protestant Zion would need to be perfect both for sniping at abortion doctors in North Carolina and for marrying lesbians in Vermont. As an American, I already live in that country.

Maybe there's nothing absurd about Israel. I wandered out into the ordinary nighttime, down Jabotinsky Street, named for the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, who wrote in 1923, "A voluntary agreement between us and the Arabs of Palestine is inconceivable now or in the foreseeable future." Thus Jabotinsky broke with the father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who, in Altneuland (1902), had a fictional future Arab character in a fictional future Israel saying "The Jews have made us prosperous, why should we be angry with them?" And now the Carmel Market was full of goods from Egypt.

From Jabotinsky Street I meandered into Weizmann Street, named for the first President of Israel, Chaim Weizmann, who in 1919 met with Emir Faisal, the future King of Iraq and a son of the sherif of Mecca, and concluded an agreement that "all necessary measures shall be taken to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale." Faisal sent a letter to the American Zionist delegates at the Versailles peace conference wishing Jews "a most hearty welcome home."

Turning off Weizmann Street, I got lost for a while among signpost monikers I didn't recognize but that probably commemorated people who became at least as embattled as Jabotinsky, Herzl, Weizmann, and Faisal. I emerged on Ben-Gurion Avenue. The first Prime Minister of Israel was a ferocious battler. He fought the British mandate, the war of liberation, Palestinian guerrillas, and the Sinai campaign. He even won, most of the time, in the Israeli Knesset. And still he was on the lookout for peace. In the months leading up to the Suez crisis, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower had a secret emissary shuttling between Jerusalem and Cairo. Egypt's President, Gamal Abdel Nasser, told the emissary (in words that Yasir Arafat could use and, for all I know, does), "If the initiative [Nasser] was now taking in these talks was known in public he would be faced not only with a political problem, but—possibly—with a bullet."

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