See you next year in Jerusalem!

I am currently sitting near my boarding gate at the overcrowded TLV Airport struggling to ignore mouth-watering but ridiculously marked-up souvenirs — still in disbelief that this whirlwind trip has come to an end.

After almost a week of learning about Israel’s businesses and politics, we spent our last couple of days doing what tourists do best – we took our time for leisure! Thus we exited Jerusalem and made our first stop to Masada in the Judean Desert before cheerily floating on the Dead Sea.

Floating on the Dead Sea after a glorious mud-bath. Bucket list, checked!

The 2,000-year old Masada is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an ancient fortress built in the time of King Herod (yes, if you were well-versed in the New Testament, he was the Judean King at the time of Jesus’ birth). It also bore witness to the first Jewish – Roman War, which ended with the defeat of the Jewish rebels in 73 AD.

Our rock-star guide, Ori, explaining Israel’s topography in Masada

Driving through the Judean Desert, we also observed Israel’s desert agriculture, where drip irrigation technique has allowed for scarce water resources to be used at extreme limits to grow crops. The salty and mineral-filled water from around the area was found to be useful for crops such as cherry tomatoes and dates, allegedly making them 2-3x sweeter than the regular fruit.

Agriculture in the Judean Desert *mind-blown*

Returning to Tel Aviv, it is hard to deny that the Zionist movement has managed to provide a safe and prosperous homeland for the Jewish community after thousands of years of persecution.  Hanging out at Jaffa’s patio cafés or playing matkot on the beaches of Tel Aviv, one forgets that Israel is smacked right in the Middle East. This place could have been any towns in Southern Europe or the West Coast — and in my humble opinion, only better! The people are friendly and vigorously intelligent, they are assertive with no pretension; the weather is beautiful and the dress-code is always casual; the food comes only with the best ingredients and every meal can turn into a festive party with the first call of an “Arak?!” – all these, while you are constantly surrounded by romantic, ancient monuments of religious and cultural struggles.

Tel Aviv, seen from Jaffa
The charming Artists’ Quarter in Jaffa, home to many art galleries

Witnessing what the Israelis have achieved as a people and a nation, it is almost impossible to deny the Jewish land’s existence and right to exist. I am sure the Israeli Defense Forces work very hard in the background to ensure a normal day-by-day activity for its citizens; there were no x-ray machines on the entrance of hotels, no army personnel on the corner of the streets (unlike what a foreigner would have expected in a “war-zone”). In the words of Amir, our Israeli student-organizer, “Oh yeah, the security is everywhere, you just don’t see them.”

It is customary to bring flowers home for Shabbat. We passed by a synagogue in Old Jaffa and found this kind gentleman, who gave one stem of daisy each to the ladies.

And yet, as our bus was preparing to enter Tel Aviv, I could not shake the picture of Israel’s “barrier” walls on the West Bank – a man-made construction separating Israel’s territorial lands to that of the Palestinian’s. A widely popular Palestinian campaign a couple years ago highlighted that the wall has many parallels to an apartheid regime: the concrete wall (some reaching 8m, about twice the height of the Berlin Wall) created enclosed ghettoes in Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem and Hebron, isolating Palestinians from cattle rearing – the main source of livelihood in the area. Israel, as a response, noted that the erection of the wall has managed to significantly reduce violence and terrorism.

Israel’s barrier walls on the West Bank

As we were touring the country, Reuters and Peace Now Israel (a liberal NGO campaigning for a two-state resolution) reported that the Israeli government had signed a statement in which 580 acres of land south of Jericho, another Palestinian city, is now declared an Israeli government’s property. The declaration, which according to Peace Now is a de-facto confiscation of Palestinian lands, adds fuel to the fire after recent attacks in Jaffa, sending conflicting signals to the Palestinian (as well as the Israelis) that the government has little intention to work toward peace and two states. Soon after this event, further violence erupted as a Palestinian nationalist attacked two civilians on the West Bank, highlighting a deteriorating security situation… One can only wonder why.

But what really makes and justifies a nation’s rights to exist? What defines colonization or recapture of your rights to the land? Is it a shared culture, religion, ethnicity or a shared history? And for the latter, in which time period? As Israel battles the fact that its Arab-Muslims and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations will comprise half of its population within one generation, the question becomes increasingly critical to answer.

During his farewell note, our delightful Israeli tour guide, Ori Abramson, cheered, “See you next year in Jerusalem!”

Apparently even if you live all your life in Jerusalem, you will still say this Jewish greeting to each other. And this refers to two things: one, it refers to Jerusalem that brings peace to the entire world (through the arrival of Moshiach/Messiah) and two, the inflection of how you pronounce next year in Hebrew (“Haba’ah”) can imply the present time. In a sense, it is a wishful parting note for peace today and every day; and despite its Jewish roots, the meaning echoes across religions and borders.

See you next year in Jerusalem!

Let’s face it, the ability to travel is a privilege awarded to only a small percentage of the world’s population — even more so a trip in an academic umbrella like Chazen’s, where you are actively encouraged to learn and inquire, rectifying your assumptions and preconceived notions, no questions barred. To be fair, I have more questions than I am capable to answer even more after the trip. That only shows how complex the world surrounding  us is and  how important it is to correct our prejudices. I am sure every student who traveled together during this trip has different takeaways than mine, but I am confident that each one of us has gained more tolerance to (and respect) to those who hold different opinions. Such is the effect of 5,000 years of history on you.

My generation grew up during the Balkan conflicts as well as the Oslo Accord; and today, we are still debating about the Syrian war and the appropriateness of Turkey’s “trade” with the EU over the treatment of refugees. The farewell greeting echoes even more pronounced today than ever, so I do hope to see you next year in Jerusalem!

Aphrodita R. Kasih, Class of 2016

Chazen Israel Spring 2016, Group A

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.

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.

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.

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.

This is Spring Break, after all…
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.

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.


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!

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

An Indonesian in Israel

I never really considered Israel as a possible destination before Columbia, mainly due to the fact that I hail from Indonesia, which, along with the Arab League and Malaysia, maintains no formal relationship with this tiny nation in the Southeastern Mediterranean. I am unsure if my fascination about traveling to Israel can compare to an American’s toward Cuba (at least prior to President Obama’s attempt for diplomatic normalization). The history of this contested land is undoubtedly more complex – spanning 5,000-year-long accounts of the three largest monotheistic religions that make and unmake people, nations, and civilizations.

And yet, despite being literally situated in the middle of a “war-zone” (more to this later), Israel is charging ahead. With government’s R&D expenditure nearing 4% of GDP, Israel (mainly its beachfront city, Tel Aviv) has become the most prominent tech hub outside Silicon Valley.  Waze, the Israeli start-up that was acquired by Google for $1bn, has long been Jakartans’ favorite app to navigate the city’s notorious traffic. Having long embattled many forms of religious extremities, Israel calmly resumed its activities undisturbed despite recent attacks in Jaffa – much like how the people of Indonesia speedily shrugged off the January 2016 attack in the heart of Jakarta. And just like Indonesia’s fraught relationship with Total E&P on the Mahakam natural gas block, mega discoveries at Israel’s Tamar and Leviathan offshore blocks have led to headline news over the government’s partnership with Noble Energy.

Our first two days were centered in Tel Aviv, where Ezer and Amir (Class of 2017) spoiled us to unbelievably delicious Mediterranean fares, crazy fun night-outs, and opportunities to learn about government & business relationships. On top of our visit to Noble, where we discussed the delicate balance between national energy security, regulatory changes, and investors’ confidence, we spent our Sunday learning about Israel as a “start-up nation.”

But how did innovation & entrepreneurship culture come about in Israel? The answers seemed to revolve around the Jewish culture’s discouragement of strict organizational hierarchy and encouragement for informality. It is okay to challenge your boss; and it is a-okay to fail (“Your in-laws would have expected it at some point”). As a country of immigrants surrounded by unfriendly neighbors, Israel was also forced to stand on its two feet to ensure the existence of a top-notch defense industry – one that later on gave birth to a dynamic tech scene. Israel’s next challenge is how to now transition from a start-up nation to a “scale-up” nation, especially as its best and brightest are sought after globally — contributing to a potential brain drain in the country.

I learned more about Israel in two days than I have had in a lifetime. Our next couple of days will bring us to sample Druze cuisine and to the Golan Heights, where we allegedly can view the Syrian territory (and if we are “lucky”, the live military conflict!). More on the next post!

The beach in front of our hotel in Tel Aviv
The home of the German Templars is now converted into a luxurious shopping arcade
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We are very well-fed
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Prepping for a mandatory photo session at Perion (look at those cute seats!)

Aphrodita R. Kasih (Class of 2016)

Chazen Israel Spring 2016, Group A