I kid you not, before I left for my ten-day trip to Israel last summer, I typed out a letter titled “If I Die While I’m in Israel” on my computer, and alerted my friends and family of its existence.
“Just in case,” I told them.
Maybe it’s because I’m Jewish and therefore an eternal worrier, or because I lean toward a flare for the dramatic. Whatever the reason, when I thought of Israel, I pictured attacks in cafes and suicide bombers. The only television or newspaper coverage I saw focused on areas like the Gaza strip. I was sure my post-graduation trip to the Middle East could be potentially dangerous.
I really should have known better
I had traveled quite a bit in my twenty-two years, even studied in South Africa, a country with its own dangerous reputation, one I found distorted and dramatized during my three months there. I had also taken several classes on Israel, one in particular from top professor, Joel Migdal, who showed many other sides to Israel and its people. Still, my mind was saturated with those dramatic television clips, bloodied faces and blown-up restaurants. It wouldn’t be until I could see it myself that I realized my hastily typed will was not really so necessary.
The day after my graduation from the University of Washington, I boarded a plane to New Jersey, where I met up with several dozen other Jewish UW students to embark on our trip to Israel with Taglit Birthright (Taglit is a non-profit organization that organizes FREE 10-day trips to Israel for young Jewish adults who have never visited Israel before). Although every member of our group was by definition Jewish, our levels of religion seemed to differ greatly – from one guy whose father was a pastor, to others who attended Shabbat services every Friday and kept Kosher. I had never before been with such a large group of Jews. It felt strange and comforting all at the same time.
I think the majority of the group was a bit nervous about our security in Israel. I knew that Taglit would in no way place a large group of students in harm’s way – we obviously would not be traveling to Gaza or the West Bank. We would primarily be visiting popular locations around Israel, huge tourist sites like the Wailing Wall which were already heavy with security.
There are various sides to Israel when it comes to security. Yes, I felt safe my entire time in the country, but I also had to remind myself that we were accompanied by an armed Israeli guard at all times, and that there was no free time away from the group the whole week and a half we were there. I thought it was amusing when I told various people (both Israelis and Americans) that I had studied abroad in South Africa. “Really?” they would exclaim. “But isn’t it dangerous?” I would glance three feet away to Schlomi, our Israeli guard holding a large gun and try not to chuckle. At least I was able to walk to the market by myself in Cape Town!
Don’t get me wrong, several members of our group traveled throughout Israel after the trip without guards or regulations and they were absolutely fine. Taglit has a huge liability on their hands with thousands of students in Israel. They make sure to keep everyone as safe (and therefore, on as short a leash) as possible. There is a large difference between being in Gaza and walking the streets of Jerusalem.
I had some amazing experiences in Israel – from the deeply touching and moving Holocaust Museum to praying at the Wailing Wall and floating in the Dead Sea. I experienced a Shabbat in Jerusalem when the streets became quiet and it seemed, for the first time in my life, that I was not the only one observing the day of rest. I bought freshly-baked challah in a bustling shuk, market, and talked with Israeli soldiers my age, who instead of moving into college dorms at eighteen, had left home to join the army and defend their country.
Although the trip was short, and at times a little too touristy for my taste (riding camels in a circle for five seconds!), it was a wonderful experience – an experience I am so glad I didn’t give up because of fear or generalizations about the state of Israel. There are many sides to this country, war is just one of them. There is so much to miss out on if the images of bloodied faces and blown-up restaurants are all you can see.