Ever cycle across Israel?

To benefit the Arava Institute and Hazon to encourage sustainability and peace.
Benefits the Arava Institute and Hazon to encourage environmental sustainability and peace.

Me neither. But on Election Day I will be taking off from Jerusalem along with 195 bicyclists on a 5-day adventure known as the Israel Ride.  We have been asking friends and family to support our ride by contributing to the well-known Israeli environmental program — Arava Institute — that brings Arabs, Jews and Christians together in a model of cooperation to learn environmental stewardship of the holy land they all share.

Since my life-changing 1977-78 junior-year-abroad, studying at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I’ve visited Israel many times.  In all those trips, however the thought of experiencing Israel on a bicycle never crossed my mind.  Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of my first trip which has me pondering just how much both Israel and I have changed since our June 1977 landing at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv.

For a political science major arriving just weeks after a historic election to a 29-year-old State of Israel, I found a fascinating political upheaval had occurred.  The founding political leadership (Labor Party) lost their parliamentary majority, ousted by Menachem Begin’s right-wing Likud Party.  It was widely considered the most dramatic shift in Israel’s democratic politics since the 1948 founding of the state.

The new prime minister was not a native-born Israeli Sabra like the prime minister who preceded him; Yitzhak Rabin.  Begin was a native of eastern Europe, raised and educated in Poland and Turkey who spoke English with an old world accent while dressing in the formal suit-tie.  His manner reminded the first founding generation Israelis of centuries old diaspora lifestyle consciously rejected in favor of informal roll-up-your-sleeves, physical laboring, drain-the-swamp, can-do kibbutz socialists who had dominated the Israeli military then government since the 1940s.

The Israeli electorate had changed since the 1940s and 50s mainly through immigration from Arab countries, which had kicked out thousands of Jews, and of course the arrival of thousands of Holocaust survivors, many whom had to run a British blockade and sneak into Israel.

The moving words President John F. Kennedy used in his 1961 inaugural describing a new American generation “born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage” could easily characterize the Israeli electorate of 1977.

Many Israeli and American political analysts found themselves shocked, when just a few months after the election, Egypt’s President Anwar Sadat initiated his trip to Israel and speech before Israel’s parliament (Knesset).  My fellow study-abroad college students found ourselves caught up in the genuine and palpable excitement.  Israelis lined the route of Sadat’s motorcade waving Israeli and Egyptian flags welcoming a potential Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, just 4 years after the searing, shocking, devastating and deadly Yom Kippur War.

Ah, 40 years ago. I was young, idealistic and optimistic, seemingly so was Israel. So many vivid memories have been coming back while planning and training for the Israel Ride. For example, Israel’s military (IDF) always had an entertainment troupe of singers known as the Infantry Ensemble who traveled from base to base, front to outpost lifting up the young Israeli service members’ morale through song.

One of their most moving and evocative songs became over the decades a touchstone for the Israeli peace movement, Shir LaShalom (song for peace).  Israelis prided themselves on their sincere desire for peace with their Arab neighbors, expressed in many forms including music.  Tragic and ironically, Shir LaShalom is the song Yitzhak Rabin sang to close the 1995 Tel Aviv peace rally before he left the stage and was assassinated by a Jewish Israeli right-wing extremist who still brags of his evil deed.

No one in 1977 would ever have predicted or believed that a prominent military and political leader, member of the founding generation who served his country in so many critical roles could be shot in the back by a fellow Israeli, yet that is what happened. A devastating loss of innocence for Israelis and supporters of Israel abroad.

My last trip to Israel was a memorable personal and family occasion at the turn of the millennium.  Israel was enjoying a period of peace and calm between the first and second Palestinian intifada (uprising).  We felt secure and at ease as we celebrated our daughter’s bat mitzvah on the Mt. Scopus campus of Hebrew University overlooking Jerusalem, where we had attended college 22 years before.  We climbed Mt. Sinai in the dark to experience the sunrise from the peak and arrived in Eilat (the final destination of the Israel Ride) staying up all night as Israelis danced and partied to welcome a new century.

If all goes well I will be coasting into Eilat on November 14th with the wind at my back and a song of peace in my heart.

About the Author
Ken Toltz began his professional career at AIPAC in Washington, D.C. from 1979 – 1982. He's a 3rd generation Colorado native, businessman and long-time political activist.
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