report from israel--part three
I went to Nahariya, a city on the Israelis coast 7-8 miles from Lebanon, to see how the population was doing five months after the war that bombarded it with Katyusha rockets for a month or so earlier this year. It turned out that--not surprisingly--most people wanted to talk about other things. Well, said the desk clerk at the Park Plaza hotel, whose lobby featured a hip cafe and improbably up-to-the-minute decor, most people with any money left, and it was basically the old and poor people who were left to face the rockets and spend evenings in dismal shelters or "safe rooms" in their own houses. Did your business suffer, I asked? No, we were packed with foreign reporters, it was probably the busiest time we ever had. Everything is a mixture of the personal and the political, I remembered, the warning I had been given when I began studying the Holocaust a few years ago. Never assume that anyone has a neutral perspective.
Rich and poor, or connected and disconnected, was indeed the main story in Nahariya, a smallish city which is sort of a microcosm of the country in general. Until the 1970s the city had something of a German flavor, and somewhat kitschy, Central European-style street lamps continue to surround the tiny river (Nahar in Hebrew) that runs, or more exactly drips, along the middle of HaGaa'ton street, the main thoroughfare. Indeed a number of German-, or at least Western-looking, pensioners have now taken over some of the older beachfront hotels, frequenting Chinese restaurants (there seems to be something universal about Jews and Chinese food) and giving the seaside areas a kind of faded Miami Beach feel. But there is also prosperity here, albeit mixed with desperation: a huge BMW peeks out of a driveway a few doors away from a clinic offering free mammagrams in Hebrew, Russian, and Arabic. (English is something of a luxury in these parts.)
The story is a bit different closer to the train station, where Russian competes with Hebrew and a somewhat poorer, earthier tone takes over. Further inland, as Route 89 begins to climb into the Galilee hills, a new white neighborhood shines out between two faded gray ones, although someone apparently forgot to provide adequate shopping: a trail of people carrying plastic supermarket bags continues to cross route 4, the highway from Haifa to the Lebanese border, with their afternoon necessities. The monotony is broken by Holocaust memorial park and an incongruous statue by an Italian sculpture, which appears to consist of two fish in a quasi-lovemaking posture: memories of Europe as the rode rises further into Asia.
The reminders of war are there if you look for them. On the highway going north a sign expresses love for Israel's soldiers, discreetly reminding them to enjoy Strauss ice cream on their way to the front. Security seaarches are more intense and hi-tech than in the Tel Aviv area. A sign reminds people not to abandon soldiers in the field (lo l'hafkir chayalim ba'shetach) next to a picture of Regev, Goldwasser, and Shalit, taken prisoner in Lebanon and Gaza before the recent war. A square has already been named for Shalit in another seaside town.
The point of all this is that I came looking for the war and instead found a series of ordinary, day-to-day problems: the distance between rich and poor, the clash between old a new populations, the incongruence of a central European city bursting with Russian and Middle Eastern immigrants. There is no obvious hostility between these groups, and no particular reason that this diversity should serve as a source of weakness, rather than strength, for the country. But one has the sense that Israel should be just slightly less worried about the what is going on on the other side of the border and more concerned about what is happening within it: that the future of the country may depend less on external threats than it how it resolves its own, internal contradictions.