A country of contrasts

Friday, I went south. Not to snorkel or scuba dive in Eilat, the southernmost city at the Gulf of Aqaba. Not to camp or hike or bike or ride a camel in the Negev Desert. Nor to visit a Bedouin market or Ben Gurion University in Beersheva. I went south to the area around northern Gaza. A place that scares me more than any other. Where Hamas reigns and terror transpires.

When a friend emailed about an organized Travelujah  tour of the area, in English, that included visiting the site of a destroyed tunnel, lunch with members of a moshav at the border, and a museum honoring the history of Gush Katif, I signed up and brought my parents, too.

Our 30-person group left Raanana by private bus, arriving at our first stop, Nitzan, a religiously observant communal settlement north of Ashkelon, within one hour. There, two residents of Gush Katif, a bloc of 21 Israeli settlements in the southern Gaza strip, which, in mid-August 2005, were forced to evacuate, showed us around a new museum documenting the history of the Gush while telling us their families’ stories. In sum, the Israeli Defense Forces removed 8,600 residents from their homes, their communities—schools, libraries, houses—demolished as part of Israel’s unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip. One of the museum’s rooms shows film footage  of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to disengage, the close vote in the Knesset (45 against, 7 abstentions, 67 for), and the withdrawal itself.  We saw footage of thousands of soldiers—men and women—forced to physically usher people out, as peacefully as possible, pain etched on the residents’ faces as well as on those of the 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds in uniform. We saw residents cry, and soldiers too. We sat on stools made from the original brown cardboard boxes the IDF had handed out to each family to pack up their belongings. We listened to the guides explain their dilemma as Israelis who revere the IDF, how they had to steel themselves and tell their children that the army would be coming to their doors to make them leave against their will.

Our second stop was further south, to the city of Sderot, which sits at the northeast edge of the Gaza Strip. There, we met with a woman representing a unique community called Afikim BaNegev; what began as a handful of families now numbers 260, people who have settled in Sderot to enhance local education, strengthen Jewish identity and values, and serve disadvantaged populations, such as children of single parent homes, Holocaust survivors, the elderly, and victims of terror.

A bomb shelter

Last summer, throughout Operation Protective Edge, this woman and her husband debated whether they should stay or go. They knew their six kids were traumatized; their six-year-old son stopped going to the bathroom alone because of the constant sirens. Where they live, they have 15 seconds to reach shelter. After nightly conversations, they agreed to stay, feeling that if they walked away from the community of young, strong families helping greater Sderot, they’d weaken their community and perhaps trigger others to leave. They also realized that most of the populations they serve had no choice—nowhere to go in Israel or abroad, no family to help, no resources to use. And that didn’t seem fair.

Across the road from the youth center, where kids suffering from post-traumatic stress spend every afternoon doing homework and playing games, we visited a park where children can play outside but be protected within the concrete walls of cylindrical caterpillar-looking creatures.

A safe place to hide

Our last stop in Sderot was the police station to see its collection of missiles and shrapnel and mortar and Iron Dome fragments, an array of harmful, deadly metals that have fallen from the sky. Each one has been tagged with the date, location it landed, who or what it affected. Our group stood in the boiling sun snapping pictures with cameras and cellphones, a sick sense of curiosity akin to passing a car accident and stopping to gawk.

Weapons that fly

From Sderot, we traveled northwest to eat lunch at and tour a moshav called Netiv Ha’asara, literally the Path of 10, named for 10 soldiers killed in a helicopter accident in 1971. Originally founded in 1973 in the Sinai Peninsula, the moshav was dismantled as a result of the peace agreement with Egypt. In 1982, it was relocated next to Gaza, the only moshav that chose to remain together and to move as a community. Standing at the southern edge of the moshav, we saw a wide expanse of greenhouses where members grow tomatoes and flowers and other fruits and vegetables, most of which is exported to Europe; a nine-foot concrete wall separating Gaza from Israel; the Erez Crossing, a pedestrian/cargo terminal on the border; an entrance to a tunnel that was uncovered this past summer and since destroyed. We learned about the challenges of raising children in a community striving for normalcy yet living under fire.

Our final stop before heading home was to a portion of the concrete wall, where a woman on the moshav, a mother and artist, created an inspirational art project to make the wall less frightening. All moshav members and visitors are invited to write a message on the back of a colorful mosaic tile, some shaped like butterflies, stars, seashells, and then glue it to the wall. The artist wrote in Hebrew and English: Netiv L’shalom or Path to Peace and hopes it will make people smile. Her next project is to decorate the wall facing Hamas’ training camp on the other side of Erez and write in Arabic Salam,which means peace.

My dad placing his mosaic

As we drove away from the moshav, I said to my friend on the bus I couldn’t live that life, not for all the money in the world. These people are made of a strength I don’t possess. Everyone we met and heard from that day touted the high-tech, sophisticated agriculture. They each praised the army. But what struck me most was an awesome sense of community. They stay and they endure not because they have to but because they cannot let their communities down and leave the people who are like family. They hold each other up.

I went to bed, heavyhearted. The politics–settlements, disengagements, mixed messages from the government, the role of the IDF, how Hamas evolved–were one aspect of the day and difficult to follow, to swallow. But even more difficult is the raw pain of people so close to danger on a daily basis, so close to me, and yet, far away. I live a different life.

Then I woke up.

On Saturday, I went south again, but this time to the beach at Herzilia. A yoga teacher friend was leading an open practice on a concrete landing overlooking the water, an annual offering from her to her students. From 8-9:15am, we moved our bodies through Sun Salutations, from one warrior to another, from standing to seated poses, balancing on our hands and bowing our backs. Part of the time, I closed my eyes, feeling the sun sear my body in the early morning heat and striving to quiet my own inner landscape. Part of the time, I looked out, beyond the teacher, toward the sand and the sailboats, the paddle boarders, the sunbathers, people heading into the water perhaps for their first swim of the season. I glimpsed the stillness of the Mediterranean, like a vast bathtub, welcoming and peaceful.

Look beyond, west, out to sea...

And I smiled because this country, as small and as troubled and as controversial as it is, never ceases to surprise me with its sharp contrasts, each one tugging at my heart, trying to catch my attention, open my eyes as if to say, “Hey, you, over here.”

Yogis in the sun

Leave a Comment

5 Responses to “A country of contrasts”

  1. Cathleen May 11, 2015 at 3:22 am #

    Beautiful writing, Jennifer.

  2. Jeanette lerner May 11, 2015 at 5:56 am #

    What an amazing experience thanks for sharing.

  3. Mona F Kolko May 11, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Israel is indeed a crazy, wonderful, unique spot on the planet; and your “tiyyul” down to the southern border and then your return home and your yoga on the sea are perfectly-described examples of the fullness of the experience you have carved out living there!


  4. Zondra Barricks May 12, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    Took almost the same trip 2 years with our friends from California and still think about it often. We had a young man from Sderot whose family was temporarily in the Bay Area help us with our sukkah last fall. His maturity was far beyond his age. When I asked him if they will go back there he said, “that is our home, yes of course.”

  5. Herb Friedman (aka "Dad" to you) May 13, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    To say how moving and beautifully written is, to say the least, a gross understatement !!

    Bringing back, as the trip and your “blog” did, the many memories I have of the many trips

Leave a Reply