Onnie Schiffmiller

The Good Land

Israel is an apartheid state. Arabs cannot be served in public restaurants. Israelis are racist. Israel is not tolerant of secular Jews. If you’re anything but an Orthodox, praying-three-times-a-day Jew, Israel won’t tolerate you. Israel is a bully to its neighbors. I know this is true because I read it online every day. And I read it not just on any Web site. Not the English al Jazeera Web site, and not the Palestine Chronicle. But on the journalistic icon, the New York Times site. It reminds me daily about the oppressive regime that defines the Israeli landscape.

So, clearly, I don’t live in Israel. Store fronts sport Hebrew lettering and the holidays listed on the calendar are Jewish ones, but clearly I must be living in an alternate universe because what I read in the newspapers and what I experience in my professional and personal life just don’t match. And the people I meet each day; clearly these people don’t live in Israel either. Why would they? A doctor who takes a vacation from his practice and his suburban lifestyle to train doctors in Ethiopia clearly wouldn’t settle his family in such an oppressive regime. And another doctor who volunteers his time providing free healthcare to African refugees wouldn’t leave the good life Down Under to study and build a family in a country labeled as an apartheid state by everyone from ex-American presidents to European prime ministers.

And yet, sarcasm aside, I do live in Israel and I’m proud of it. Why? It’s simple. Because I don’t live in the headlines. I don’t live in soundbites. And I don’t live here as part of a two-year stint. I live here in the long term. Like the millions of others who have chosen to make this place home, I am a parent to this still-nascent country. In a way, Israel is my child. She will have bad days and good ones. She still needs to learn right from wrong. And I know that in a country this small, each one of us, myself included, are responsible for how she turns out.

That’s why I have decided to start writing. I read what is in the newspapers and watch in horror at what I see on T.V. Do I just sit back and complain? Well, that’s how I started. I would scan the headlines or listen to the news roundup and then disrupt the activities of anyone within earshot to scream and curse at the distortions so easily. What country were these reporters talking about? Surely not mine. And so, I thought that it’s my responsibility to try to set the record straight. To tell the world about my Israel. So, I will try to give you a peek into my world and introduce you to the real people of this country

Sometimes the stories will be poignant, like the one of Shari Mendes. Diagnosed with breast cancer. She discovered just how expensive a cancer diagnoses can be. Instead of just complaining, something completely within her rights, Shari founded the Lemonade Fund to help other women with a similar diagnosis receive one-time grants to help defray the costs of lost work hours, taxis to and from treatment, necessary extra babysitting services as well as other unexpected expenses associated with treatment and recovery. The grants have been awarded to women across the religious and political spectrum.

Maybe the stories will shed some light on people in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Force) who don’t make the front pages. People like Arianna Goldsmith, an American olah (immigrant) who works with special-needs soldiers insuring that people who were erroneously once thought unfit for military service now fulfill their military responsibilities like everyone else. Most people don’t know that Israel’s military has made great strides in making inclusion a reality. True, it wasn’t always that way. But as people here know, army service is the gateway to integration in the wider society. And, Israelis, never a reserved bunch, have fought for great inclusion practices in the IDF, and thanks to the dedication of people like Arianna, they’re getting it.

Other times, the story might have a business spin like the story of Erica Harel. At a stage of life when many woman are content to relax, take courses or spend time doing things they didn’t have time for when raising a family, Erica embarked on starting a new business. Always a lover of handbags with the self-confidence to believe that she could make them better, Erica founded her own handbag company. Not intimidated by the demanding work and long hours, Erica took the bold step of selling her bags on line. Erica works with people of all different backgrounds and continues to challenge all of us who think that start-ups are just for technologically-savvy twenty-somethings

And, yes, sometimes the stories will be downright funny like the time the lovely Arab hospital orderly would not believe me when I told her my husband was a vegetarian and needed a meat-free meal. “No, don’t worry! The food is kosher!” she informed me. When I explained that I was not questioning the kosher status of the food but just needed food not fit for a carnivore, she wasn’t having any of it. No way could a man be a vegetarian. “No, no, the meat in the hospital is the most kosher meat in the country.” You just have to stand back and laugh. Only in Israel could a Muslim woman do her best to assure a religious Jew that the food met the highest kashrut standards possible.

And so, The Good Land is my attempt to be a voice for what I see as the real Israel. The Israel that may not be perfect. The Israel where bureaucracy reigns supreme and car horns are seen as more efficient than brakes but a country that is still striving to be a beacon to the world. hope you’ll find the stories as inspiring as the people behind them.

About the Author
Onnie Schiffmiller is a tour guide and the owner of Israel with Love. She made aliyah with her family from New York in 2003.