Midway Observations on Israel

One of my favorite writers of all time, Pramoedya Ananta Toer, once wrote, “An educated person must learn to act justly, beginning, first of all, with his thoughts, then later in his deeds.” For most Israelis you will meet on the road between Golan Heights and Negev Desert, the statement translates to an open invitation to debate their politics and heritage, all at the same time they welcome you to their homes – whether it was an off-road ATV ride on the northern border or an afternoon wine tasting in the Galilee region.

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Post-ATV picture op in our yellow raincoats!

At the end of every new encounter, they will say, “We are glad you are here to experience the country! When you leave, please judge and tell people of what you see – not what you hear from the media.” Fair enough! Not only because you have learned that the media can be biased (our darling political economy professor at school maintains that one needs to always subscribes to both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal) — but simply, because you should be able to construct an independent thought. This is especially important in a place like Israel, where six different religious beliefs can lay claim over one holy site in Jerusalem.

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The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old City Jerusalem, where the Roman Catholics, the Syrian Orthodox, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolics, the Coptics, and Ethiopian Christians share a home

After tech & start-up-heavy meetings in Tel Aviv, we traveled north to the Ramat David Air Force Base near Haifa. We were greeted by a Captain of one of the combat units, who also works at a start-up in Tel Aviv. It is still mind-boggling how he could manage to spend four days a week launching an app, and one day flying as a military pilot. He also quizzed us on real-life case studies — ones focusing on civilians’ safety during combat… which we humbly (if not miserably) failed. Perhaps the most radical difference between the Israeli Defense Force and their equivalents across the globe is (again) the lack of hierarchy, as well as its mandatory conscription of women in its structure. Every personnel is expected to make a judgment call on duty, regardless of his/her rank. While this system may not work for a much larger and diverse defense force, it builds on the strength of Israelis’ informal and proactive culture. We saw an F-16 too, by the way (how cool is that?); unfortunately I could not take any pictures for your viewing pleasure.

After Haifa, we continued our journey onwards to Galilee and enjoyed a traditional Druze lunch before a visit to Tulip Winery, the largest boutique producer in Israel. Located in Kfar Tikva (Village of Hope), the winery combines the production of quality wine with social responsibility – currently employing 25 village residents with special needs. Members of the Wine Society at school are probably surprised and delighted to taste the White Tulip, an unusual combination of Gewürztraminer & Sauvignon Blanc that supposedly commands a 94 rating by Robert Parker.

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An afternoon wine tasting invitation is always welcome!

After an overnight stay at a kibbutz-operated lodge in the Golan Heights that evening, we played outdoor and rode our ATVs to the green hills of Israel’s north-most tip, the small triangle area on the map that is bordering Syria and Lebanon. Considering the peace and beauty surrounding Golan Heights, it is ironic to realize that the topography of this contested area is probably the most strategic vantage point from where Israel’s military monitor the movement of its closest enemies.

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This is Spring Break, after all…
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Golan Heights is ironically so beautiful

But there is nothing straightforward about Israel, as we learned in Nazareth, the first Arab-majority city we visited during this trip. On our walk to the Church of the Annunciation, we ran into a graffiti denouncing Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian land. Imagine my surprise that the graffiti was allowed to be displayed on the Israel territory! At present, Israel’s law protects such forms of free speech, even and especially if it the rhetoric is the work of an Israeli citizen. Is this comparable to displaying a Confederate flag on America’s South? I am definitely not the right person to opine on the subject matter, but it is quite obvious that Israeli citizens enjoy free speech comparable to the levels in the most democratic Western nations — regardless of their ideology or politics.

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Israel law protects its citizens’ freedom of speech

And finally, finally, we charge forward to Jerusalem – the holiest city known to men (three major religions and at least eight of their orders consider it sacred).  The city itself is a feast to the eye, with the white Jerusalem lime stone mandated for any buildings erected within an area enveloped with lush green hills. There, we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, a place dedicated to the remembrance of lives lost and celebration for protectors of the European Jewish during the horror – people such as Oskar Schindler and King Christian X of Denmark.

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I can overdose on pomegranates and strawberries and be content for life

Visiting the Old City of Jerusalem, it is almost hard to notice that the city is also the proclaimed (but not internationally recognized) capital for both Israel and Palestine, the primary seat of governmental institutions. After hearing so much about Israel’s economic miracle, we got a chance to meet with the young superstar of the Israel’s Ministry of Finance, Director General Shai Babad. Having worked in the private sector, Mr. Babad discussed Israel’s two main economic challenges: one, the integration of Ultra Orthodox Jews and Arab women into the workforce and two, the intent to control high living costs without causing persistent deflation. He is one to believe in the importance of a competitive free-market for productivity, arguing that Israel should disallow protectionism while at the same time recognizing the importance of government’s intervention into the excess effects of capitalistic economy on the society (such as his latest campaign on affordable housing). It is really quite refreshing to learn that the people of the country, for once, is bothered about something other than military conflicts and the justification of its existence. Maybe the area can be stable after all… Shalom!

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The first time we are donning business outfit for the trip, where Group A and Group B meet to chat with Mr. Shai Babad

Aphrodita R. Kasih (Class of 2016)

Chazen Israel Spring 2016, Group A

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