Existential threats. Israeli settlements. The Jordan River. Winter. I thought I understood these concepts, until December 2012, when I had the opportunity to travel to Israel. Now I have much more patience with the potentially off-putting statement “you don’t understand; it’s much more complex.” After taking the week-long educational Israel Young Leaders Program and comparing my impressions now to when I began, I realized that the Israeli-Arab situation and the Middle Eastern security environment are indeed much more complex. As one of my CMSS classmates concluded after taking the same trip last year, “if you want an accurate understanding of anything in life, you need to experience it.” This was what I found in Israel.
The program, which took twelve Canadian students to Israel for a week during the winter break, included touring the country and meeting with political commentators, civil servants, students, and the Canadian ambassador. In addition to the individual elements of the program, the experience was immeasurably enhanced by our tour guide. Israeli tour guides go through rigorous training, and Michael Bauer is one of the best. (He’s so good there’s a parody of him on CBC.)
Riding camels near the Dead Sea.
An immediate surprise was the safety and peace prevalent in all the areas we visited. We witnessed calm interactions between all types of nationalities in Jerusalem, and one of the most striking aspects of the environment was all the children running around the largest city in the country with no adult supervision. Parents generally don’t let kids play soccer unsupervised in random alleys in Toronto. I also hadn’t expected to drive calmly into settlements (some of the older ones) and through the West Bank (on Israeli-controlled roads, but still). While I recognize all these phenomena would not be present during periods of heightened hostility and violence, it was eye-opening that this level of peace is possible, in a region that we understand from outside reports to be in a perpetual state of hostility and insecurity.
As a security student, I was particularly interested that we were able to walk right up to the security barrier and visit the Golan Heights, where we toured a bunker (I later discovered this is described as the “tourist bunker”, which explained the adjacent coffee shop). Standing in the Golan Heights and hearing distant explosions from Syria put into perspective the magnitude of some of the terms being proposed in the peace negotiations, such as the possible return of the Golan Heights. I had some understanding of how the region has changed hands in recent history; however, visiting the region underscored its immense strategic value, and the vulnerability of the strip of Israeli land between Lebanon and Syria without that elevated eastern position.
The trip had one element that invoked less recent strategic studies history. On our way to the Dead Sea, we toured Masada, Herod’s ancient fortress at the top of a plateau. From the top we were able to see remnants of the Roman siege of Masada (which was undertaken partly to give the soldiers something to do, to avoid idleness and disobedience). The siege remnants included walls built unnecessarily out of a strict adherence to orders and training. All of this took me back to the days of studying ancient strategy and warfare at CMSS with Dr. Cooper and Dr. Herwig.
At Masada. Israelis are refreshingly honest about historical restorations.
On a lighter note, I earlier mentioned the Jordan River. The stories and songs had led me to expect a majestic torrent of water. Instead I saw a stream. I mean no disrespect to either it or the Sea of Galilee, but they were a tad small. Nonetheless, it was neat to see them, and they illustrated the importance of fresh water in the region, reflected in their elevation to majestic status.
A concept that resonated throughout the trip to Israel was human resilience. We heard several stories about the strength of human determination in the face of considerable odds. One of the most unusual stories was in Pkiin, a Druze village, where we met Savta Gamila, who overcame considerable discrimination to found her own international soap business, still lives in her same village, and has a grade one education. The theme of human resilience was evident throughout the country, and it was powerful to see examples of how much the human spirit can withstand. I haven’t even discussed the trip to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, and our meetings with Holocaust survivors.
We also had a chance to travel with Israelis our own age, which brings me to a quirky juxtaposition: the Israeli students embedded in our group talked to us one night about their initial reluctance to serve in the army, their exposure to security threats, in one case, being in the vicinity of a terrorist attack. This prompted the question: “why do you live here?” They responded that Israel is home and they could not imagine living anywhere else, and spoke of the sense of comradeship throughout the country (including examples of a mass movement to travel south to the city of Beersheva to kickstart business after security concerns had shuttered part of the city). There is an amusing contrast between this and an encounter by last year’s Canadian group (related by tour guide Michael) with elementary school kids in Sderot, near the Gaza border. Sderot has been a frequent target of rocket attacks, and these children have been trained in taking cover if they hear sirens. Meeting the Canadians, they asked about winter. After hearing about piles of snow, wind chill on your face, and being unable to feel your fingers, they responded with the instinctive, innocent question: “why do you live there?”
I didn’t want to put a photo of myself swimming, so here is “Johnny Depp” applying mud at the Dead Sea.
There were many lighter parts of the trip I haven’t gone in to – notably swimming in the Dead Sea, celebrating my birthday on a kibbutz, after a Golan Heights Winery wine tasting (they gave me free birthday wine!), and celebrating New Year’s Eve with exuberant Russian Jews who liked their dancing. In all, Israel is a fascinating country and worth visiting, both as a tourist and a student. In a nutshell, it is indeed complex.
Maria Robson, MSS Student