Shalom! I write this from balmy and bustling Tel Aviv, where I landed Thursday morning, marking my first-ever visit to Israel. I will be here for the next week or so and will be writing occasional dispatches from the Holy Land as I sightsee, get in touch with my People, and eat hummus. Seriously, whoever said this was the Land of Milk and Honey forgot to mention the hummus.
It’s also the land of tension. Even in the jet-lagged jumble of my wide-eyed whirlwind-toured first few days, it is apparent that this place is in a constant state of tension – and not just the kind that brings people fruitlessly to Camp David. No, the tensions here are many-fold: Between history and modernity; religion (and religions!)and unabashed secularism; the official Jewishness that underlies this nation’s raison d’etre; the changing, polyglot demographics that are ushering in an unmistakable shift; politics and security; culture, tradition and innovation.
Roger Cohen wrote yesterday that Israel was in danger of losing its “exceptionalism,” and I’m not sure I agree, changing demographics and fading urgency of the Holocaust notwithstanding. This country is exceptional all right – even excepting its exceptionalism! – as noted by the upcoming book Start-Up Nation by Saul Singer and my friend Dan Senor as they explore how Israel, with its 7.1 million people, heightened violence, and hair-trigger existence on the edge of war, somehow mints more startups than places like Japan, China, India, Canada and the UK. That has nothing to do with Israel’s original “exceptionalism,” or its historical exceptionalism, either.
Or does it? “You can’t unentangle things here,” my friend Jeremy, who has long worked on issues relating to the complex conflicts of the region, remarked last night. By then we were on our hotel roof in Jerusalem. Since I started this post giddy in Tel Aviv I have toured a school integrating immigrant children from 48 countries, including refugees from Darfur; seen the arresting, prizewinning work of Israeli war photographer Ziv Koren, graphic and bloody and real; met asylum-seeking immigrants who spent months languishing in Israeli detention centers; been hissed and spat at in Mea Shearim; wrote a note of prayer for my family at the Wailing Wall, and collided with centuries of both history and sexism as I approached it to pray…on the skinny slice allotted to women; looked over Bethlehem and the West Bank, and seen our group waved through a checkpoint that would have taken a Palestinian 2 hours; heard three different versions of what happened at Ein Kerem; buried my feet in a glorious sandy beach; buried my face in a delicious, tangy shawarma. This country will keep you busy, that’s for sure.
So – while I fight off jet lag and acclimatize to a millennium of history under my feet, I’ll do my best to take you with me in this rather unorthodox (ha) column for Mediaite. (You know Moses would TOTALLY have dug the logo). I will also be including slideshows for each of the above-mentioned adventures, because I’m pretty sure that “Thou Shalt Turn Your Vacation Photos Into Pageviews” was written on a stone tablet once. Here’s the first, detailing Day One. More to come – in the meantime, check updates at my Twitter feed for those interested – and thanks for joining me in the Holy Land.
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