Negev Dreams, Part I

Three nights later, I’m still having dreams about the desert. Sometimes I’m falling asleep in a sleeping bag, in a close huddle of people, the dunes imprinting themselves against a star-filled sky around me. Sometimes the landscape shimmers and shifts and for a second I’m back in Jerusalem again, dashing through the streets of the Muslim quarter too quickly to identify any one shop or face. Mostly, though, I hate to say, I have a distinct feeling of dread in my stomach, thinking, “Why am I back here again when I know I just left?”

So, Israel. It is hard to put my thoughts into words that make sense to anyone who has not been there, and even more difficult to make those words form a blog post that seems well-written and orderly. There is nothing about the country that is orderly, and nothing about my experience there that would seem conducive to writing a travel article that has a traceable beginning, middle, and end. Even my time there, as I have already said, seems not to have ended yet. Although I sit at my computer, back in the safety of my little Berlin enclave with the spring sun shining and the little blue flowers beginning to peak through, emotionally and psychologically, I’m still going over the events of the past three weeks and trying to come to some conclusions.

The first and perhaps easiest way to go is to say that my time in Israel was not a positive experience. Too easy, because indeed a lot of positive, and even quite amazing things happened while I was there. First and foremost, I saw with my own eyes a country that has been making headlines since before I was born and throughout my life. I would never deign to say that it was not a worthwhile experience. Second of all, my trip was free, which is something that really only politicians, some celebrities, and journalists in press junkets can ever claim. But just like the trips offered to those in that last category, mine was one that could never even pretend to be “fair and balanced.” Like those members of the press invited to make a positive “review” of a product, we were inducted into what we were informed was a worldwide community, and we were urged to act as reporters for our cause, told that the best thing we could do to help Israel was to “go back and tell our story to all who would listen.”

Well, here is my story. I climbed Masada at 4 am and hiked in the Golan Heights, I floated in the Dead Sea (swimming is difficult without getting painfully salty water in your eyes, and diving is virtually out of the question as you can’t sink) and tucked a message into the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I went clubbing in Tel Aviv and antiquing in Jaffa, I followed a canyon in the Negev desert and looked out over the vast, moon-like expanse from the cliff side where David Ben-Gurion is buried, and I ate hummus and falafel. An untold amount of it. But what was somehow lost to me in this “once-in-a-lifetime” experience was the sense of connection that everyone else seemed to feel.

When the news came that rockets were flying in from Gaza (after a preemptive attack by the IDF of course), and that Jerusalem had been bombed, we had already spent a week getting to know several Israeli soldiers and students who were traveling with us, so our first thoughts were for their safety. But that sense that a part of me had been threatened, and that the attack was somehow personal because it was an attack on my so-called home, simply was not there. I worried for my own safety as well as the safety of my new friends, because I had decided to extend my trip another week, to attempt to go beyond the “Birthright bubble” and see what it was really like to travel in a country at the constant brink of war. But my sense of solidarity with the Jewish people and this Jewish state did not make an appearance, maybe because I’ve simply never really felt that Jewish.