Dec. 20, 2006
Momo’s Hostel, Tel Aviv, Israel
Made it safely through the security checks at Ben Gurion today, although I almost didn’t think I would. They seemed suspicious that I didn’t have any particular reason to be visiting Israel and didn’t know anyone in the country. I remembered at the last minute I did, in fact, know someone and gave them the name of an old roommate.
They asked me for his number, but it turned out to be the number of a cellular phone in Wisconsin – not great for my credibility. I was taken off to the side for the “extra-long-wait” treatment, but thankfully not the “bags-and-person search” treatment.
The rest of the afternoon was spent carting backpacks, finding a train, meeting Austrians and finding a taxi, then following a torturous route through Tel Aviv to the seaside. Reaching at last the famed Momo’s – home to traveling Kiwis and South Africans who have assigned seating at the bar where they drink their aching construction-weary muscles away – I slunk to my small cot and thankfully prepared to end my long travel day.
(No mom, I still didn’t have a plan, nor did I yet have a clear idea of why I’m really here. Pure curiosity, I guess.)
I was going to stay just a night or two while waiting for Inge, my travel buddy, long enough to get the lay of the land and figure out how to go about exploring Israel, Palestine and Egypt.
Almost at the point of passing out, I was startled awake by the last person I’d expected to meet in this dirty, dingy hostel: a bubbly brunette from Colorado who’d come to join the army and become an Israeli citizen. I was in shock. Who would choose to give up living in the States to come here?
Surprised to meet her, I asked Becca Smith (not her real name) what her story was.
“I’m here because I want peace,” she said bluntly, as I asked her why she had come to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). “I don’t think I can do anything from the States because it [the government] is so corrupt. I feel I can do something here.”
She’s a typical Jewish-American girl. Before studying physics in high school she got into anti-Semitism and Holocaust studies at the age of 10. She said she always loved research.
“It would be nice if there was peace. . . I think there should be a two-state solution. [Ariel] Sharon was building a wall [around Israel]. It’s shitty and it sucks. But what can you do? My father said, ‘You take your hits and you keep going.'”
She said a couple of her Palestinian friends back home didn’t agree with her decision to live in Israel and she probably won’t hear from them again.
“It’s getting better, slowly. [Israel is] working on pulling out of Gaza, out of the West Bank.”
“People live differently here because there’s the chance of a war everyday. I want to raise my kids here because I think it’s important and I want to help. But do I want to see my son one day grow up and have to serve on the front lines and learn to hold a gun? I don’t know.”
She talked of inspiration from Schindler’s List and Leon Uris’ book Exodus. In our little dorm room, lit only by a purple neon light outside, those far-off stories seemed a little closer and more real. She asked me if I’ve read much on the Holocaust. I said I had read a little bit.
I asked her what drove her to do all that research on her own as a child. “In a way, because it’s a normal question for every Jewish kid: why does everybody hate us?” she replied.
She explained some of the problems brought on by Israel’s Law of Return, the system whereby the state subsidizes any Jewish person who wants to visit or become a citizen of Israel. She said the Law, enacted in 1950 to deal with the Jewish problem of homelessness and persecution, came about because the government needed numbers to amp up population in the state. She opined this had been the main cause of much of Israel’s poverty.
“There’s a lot of poverty here,” she said. The state “airlifted people out of places like Yemen, Sudan. It was only possible because of Jewish-American money. These people come from villages into the modern world; they weren’t really able to cope,” she summed up.
Israelis are taxed roughly 50 per cent of their income, a lot of which goes to the army, which Smith described as “a first-world army in a second-world country.”
She thinks the army is essential to Israel’s existence and is proud to be joining.
“If Israel hadn’t kicked the crap out of Hezbollah in the summer, it would have been a sign of weakness.”
“They would have been like: ‘Hey, mighty Israel couldn’t defend itself against these little guerillas, maybe they’re not as strong as we thought they were.'”
She thought the two-state solution would not have worked the way it was drawn up the last time.
“The first one was just desert, it would have been pretty hard to have a functioning state. Israel offered to meet 97 per cent of the Arabs’ demands and [Yasser] Arafat said ‘No.’ He refused the Right of Return [to Israel].”
She said she knew “why the Jews had to be here. Having a Jewish state is backup: the next time someone comes to fuck with us, there’s going to be someone to speak up.”
We got off the heavy topics of politics and military strategy and got onto travelers’ favourite topics: where we’d been and where we were headed.
She told me what she thought of Jerusalem: “There’s something intoxicating about that city, there’s something magnetic there. I don’t know what it is about it.”
Can’t wait to go.
Day one in Israel. Tobi over and out.