Michael Kretzmer

My Trip to Israel

A few observations and memories from my recent trip to Israel:

I am met at Ben Gurion airport by my old friend Dave B who is one of those guys who makes you proud to be human. Dave lives in Kochav Yair and just before we enter the town he points to the high concrete wall that fringes the highway and separates Israel from the West Bank Arab town of Qalqilya (a known hotbed). “It’s the same wall they had in Gaza,” he tells me. I first visited Kochav Yair in the 70s when it was a deafening balagan of dust, diesel, hope, debt, heavy machinery and highly expressive Israelis building things. Today it is exquisite: a lush, tranquil town of clean roads and beautiful houses, a scented arboretum bursting with blooms and shrubs and resounding with birdsong and children’s voices. Cliched, but true. We take Dave’s dog for a walk and within a minute or so we are beside the dirt track that separates his town from the West Bank. That’s when Dave tells me that some people in this and other towns have recently heard the sound of tunnel digging at night. Very unlikely, but everything’s different after October 7.

The hotels in Israel are exorbitant because they’re still packed with internal Israeli refugees so I find an airbnb in the boho Florentin (south Tel Aviv). My building’s a slum with Eritrean and African refugees but I never feel unsafe and the only time there’s any concern is when Dave (bless him!) calls me at 1.30 am to tell me that Iran has just unleashed a huge barrage of rockets and missiles and they’re landing on my head in a couple of hours so I should get my lazy arse out of bed and find a bomb shelter. I do no such thing. Whenever Israel is at war I yearn passionately to be there so here’s my chance. I lie awake listening to the military aircraft circling above me and feel an intense joy that I am here and nowhere else on earth. By 9am Tel Aviv’s dancing again and it’s only when I read an article some days later (by a physicist who worked on the Iron Dome defence) that I realise the seriousness of the attack. He says that the 99% hit rate was nothing short of a miracle. This does not surprise me because frankly, miracles are kinda commonplace here.

There’s an intimacy in Israel that’s really hard to describe. It’s the beautiful tattooed girl and her hipster boyfriend who see me struggling to buy an electronic ticket on the bus (no data) and tether my phone to hers while teaching me the software (Moovit, made in Israel). It’s the taxi driver with whom I discuss the meaning of life. It’s the soldier who sees I’m lost and guides me to the right bus stop. It’s the tens of thousands of volunteers who got the country through this crisis in the absence of a capable government. It’s the sweet Chabad boy with the shot of Arak in honour of the Rebbe’s birthday and his smiling friend inviting me to lay tefillin. It’s every Israeli of every age and colour I stop to ask questions or explanations. None of these exchanges are sentimental or polite and they reflect the closeness of the Jewish People, now at war, a people who have struggled together against impossible odds in the face of a bizarrely hostile world for over 3000 years. And a people who have learned to conquer fear with love, hope and very often, faith.

On Friday afternoon the Machene Yehuda market in Jerusalem is pumping. All of ordinary Israel is here: soldiers returning home from the war with guns slung across their dusty backs, mothers and grandmothers cramming baskets with provisions, vendors yelling, joking and singing, revellers dancing wildly on tables and chairs to thumping Mizrachi loops, sexy girls in tiny dresses, black coated Hasids with huge books, tough boys and girls with guns, hippyish mystics singing about Reb Nahman and dancing like Moshiach’s already arrived and beggars, all of them religious, rattling cups of coins for tzedakah. This is poorer Israel and I am reminded of Jonathan Sacks’s distinction between individual happiness and collective joy. He wrote: ‘Suffering, persecution, a common enemy, unite a people and turn it into a nation. But freedom, affluence, and security turn a nation into a collection of individuals, each pursuing his or her own happiness, often indifferent to the fate of those who have less, the lonely, the marginal, and the excluded. When that happens, societies start to disintegrate. At the height of their good fortune, the long slow process of decline begins and the only way to avoid it, said Moses, was to share happiness with others, and, in the midst of that collective, national celebration, serve God. Simcha, he wrote, is the mark of a sacred society, the place of collective joy.’ And all around me, is simcha.

And then it stops as everyone goes home to light candles and say prayers with their families. I too leave, crossing the evocative Agrippa Street to my Airbnb in Nahlaot where I too will celebrate Shabbat. Within an hour, the frenzy has entirely passed, the swallows have taken over the franchise of a crystal blue sky and as silence descends and the first Shabbat zemirot filter from tiny synagogues and dilapidated homes I feel the ancient hope that one day the world will be perfect.

Israel is today a country washed in tears. There is not a single family who does not know someone who has lost a loved one in the most terrible circumstances. All the people I know have been to multiple funerals, shivas and remembrance ceremonies. And this is an enduring grief because of the hostages. Their faces are everywhere, like flowers of love, on cars, bikes, prams, buildings, factories, gardens, windows, museums, roads, flyovers and airports. They are remembered, constantly. It breaks and lifts your heart, all at once.

The Arab market in the Old City of Jerusalem is despondent: tourism has effectively died since October 7. I walk down the stone road from the Damascus Gate to the Kotel and feel zero sympathy for the desultory traders and their shuttered stalls: blame your effing Hamas rapists, I’m thinking. But I need to find a Pesach plate as a gift and since the Jewish shops are sold out I have no option but to try my luck in the Muslim Quarter.

It is there I meet a handsome Palestinian man called Sami who tells how tough things are. Pretty soon he’s raging, but his targets are Hamas (‘disgusting animals’) and the West Bank Palestinian Authority (‘thieves and gangsters’). Now he’s on a roll, telling me how it is the Jewish State of Israel that educated his five children, that cleans his streets almost every day, that ensures clean water, power and basic services, that looked after his elderly mother for a year when she needed dialysis. ‘The Jews did that!’ he yells.

Of course, this is great to hear but really I’m thinking: ‘And if your Jihadis cross that line from east to west Jerusalem and start stabbing and raping, where would you be, mate?’ It is just at that point, I swear it, that an elderly, poor Jewish man called Moshe enters the shop, nods at Sami and takes a chair in the corner to read his paper. Sami explains that he and Moshe have been friends for 35 years. No, Sami would not be among the killers. One of the miracles of this war has been the fact that Israeli Arabs have not joined the pogrom against Israel. This gives me hope, and the Pesach plate I bought from Sami will remind me of that forever.

There is one reason why I do not worry for Israel’s future and that reason is children. There are kids everywhere in this country and every one is its own network of continuity, love and joy, an iron chain that permeates into every community and every home. Did you know that Israel is the only OECD country that has population growth? This is a remarkable fact, so when childless, godless Europe points its sclerotic, boney, censorious finger at Israel, I can only feel gratitude and pity.

About the Author
Bulawayo born, a former travel writer for the Sunday Times and director/producer for the BBC and other once important media organisations, a keeper of chickens and grower of fruit and veg, a biker, a student of Torah, a Dad and Grandad... and a man determined to fight for justice in Lithuania.