For a teeny country that is squashed into space smaller than New Jersey or the Kruger National Park, Israel is a study in contrasts – be it the ever changing landscape as you travel the length (okay, so Israel doesn’t have much breadth) of the country or the kaleidoscope of different cultures made up of at least 82 different ethnicities. There are
fabulous contradictions at every twist and turn – where else can you buy a t-shirt that says “Don’t worry America, Israel is behind you” complete with F16’s from the man reading Al Quds newspaper that espouses the latest Hamas drivel? It is only by speaking to the ordinary folk and hearing their stories that you can gain a better understanding of this
temperamental, passionate and heart warming country.
The South African Deputy Foreign Minister, Ebrahim Ebrahim, remarked recently that South Africans should not visit Israel because of the country’s “oppression of Palestinians and practices of Apartheid”. He added that the only reason to visit Israel was perhaps for peaceful means. Alrighty then. Sadly this kind of statement not only smacks of one-sided bias and ignorance but hearkens back to the days when South Africans faced restrictions on their freedom of movement and choice. Scared people may come here to Israel and see for themselves that we are not an Apartheid State? We here in Israel have nothing to hide and
encourage people from all nations to come and visit and decide for themselves.
I recently travelled to a Moshav situated four kilometres from the border with Gaza. Deceptively peaceful and calm, it was quite incredible to see the agricultural industry that has turned the Negev desert into an oasis. Through ground-breaking technology like low drip irrigation,
greenhouses and hothouses produce the freshest, tastiest fruits and vegetable and magnificent flora. A real miracle in the desert that endures regular greetings from our Gaza neighbours in the form of Grad or Qassam rockets. The calm was broken two days later when
children starting the new school year became targets for terrorists intending maximum harm.
A visit to this region would not be complete without sharing a few stories. Names have beenchanged to protect identity.
Yitzchak lives in Sderot. A child of a religious family, Yitzchak rebelled by becoming more secular and questioning his upbringing. He is estranged from his family. Yitchak shared what it has been like to live in a town that is not an economic powerhouse, in fact many of its residents struggle financially and are immigrants from Morocco, Ethiopia and the Caucasus. No wealthy anglos in site…This community has endured barrages of rocket attacks over the last 6 years that have damaged their homes, schools, business and most of all, their psyche. Children live in fear of loud noises and sirens. Teenagers wet the beds. Parents constantly worry. Everyone know what to do in the event of a rocket attack. Everyone knows what to do when hearing “Tzeva Adom” (colour red) but few know what to do about PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder. Yitzchak wants to study agriculture. He has completed his army service and dreams of a business that helps his community recover. This is his gift to a community that has opened its arms to him.
Ze’ev grew up on the moshav. The sand and stones that he played in as a child are part of his blood. He dreams of being a business man one day and has served his country in one of its defensive wars. A proud member of the Golani, Ze’ev speaks passionately about his army
service and what it was like to serve in Operation Cast Lead, protecting the community he grew up in. He spoke about what it was like to face 16 year olds with RPG launchers who hide behind children. How split second decisions have ever lasting consequences. How when you
stare down an enemy with nothing to lose because they welcome death you need to be prepared for anything. Ze’ev quietly spoke about what it is like for a young person to grow up in a country where everyone has been touched by war or terror because everyone knows or has lost someone. He also spoke of what it is like to be a soldier stationed at the border, how his unit helped a Palestinian woman give birth and transported Palestinian children to nearby Israeli hospitals. He speaks with great pride at th humanity shown by an army he loves. Will he go to war for his country again? In a heartbeat he says. He is only still in his 20’s.
Matt comes from Eritrea. He comes from a rural area and is the first in his family to be educated. A qualified midwife, Matt dreams of a future where he can help provide for his family. To him, Israel represents a place of refuge, a place where he can work and send much needed money home to his family. So he started the long journey. From Eritrea, through the Sudan and Egypt, the Sinai Peninsula and eventually, Israel. Carefully hiding his Christian identity from Janjaweed militia, Matt moved from city to city, aware that he is a discriminated against minority. It took him three months to move through the Sudan and eventually he found his way to Egypt. In order to “insure” his security, Matt paid $ 3000 dollars to greedy traffickers. He is one of the lucky few. Bandits in the Sinai Peninsula often kidnap migrants, holding them for ransoms of up to $ 40 000. Or they will be executed. This isn’t the story that is making headlines around the world.Why? Perhaps we should pose this question to newscasters. I asked Matt about his interaction with Israeli soldiers and he said, “They saved my life, they gave us food, shelter and medical care”. I asked him if he bears any ill will to this country which may have to deport him if he fails to secure a work permit and he said no. He understands the risk involved in coming here and while there are
bad peopke who will profit off migrant workers there are many Israelis who are caring and warm and treat him with kindess.
Israel is full of complexity and the issue of illegal immigrants is sensitive and difficult. How do we reconcile our feelings of humanity while dealing with limited resources and space and the need of Israeli society? Nothing excuses the behaviour of vigilantes who should face the strong arm of the lawbut we also cannot absorb so many illegal immigrants when we face so many internal social issues. It is something that weighs heavy on all of us.
This is Israel. Behind every person is a story. It is a country that is vibrant, as volatile as its terrain and as passionate as its summer heat.
The only way you will ever understand her is by coming to visit her and discovering her inner issues yourself. Talk of travel boycotts be damned!
Mr Deputy Foreign Minister, dare to take us up on our offer?