report from israel: one month
You don't need a newspaper to know that there is a war going on in Ashdod. For one thing there are the planes that streak overhead, in the general direction of Gaza, every hour or so. For another there are the children, out of school as a precautionary measure despite Government reassurances, who clog the malls and keep their parents from doing anything more productive. Only at the Cafe Francais (Ashdod has an unusually large immigrant population) does everything seem normal, the waitresses chatting away in a mixture of texbook French and French-accented Hebrew, the customers in Russian and other languages.
The mall itself is an experience which, as the little girl in Peanuts might say, should not be confused with the experience of being in Israel itself. In four weeks here I have not seen anyone except me pay full price for anything. Everyone has some kind of mivtza, a word that used to mean military operation but now means discounts, and there is almost invariably a discussion (argument) about some aspect of the transaction. It's obvious that people are stressed financially: I've seen several pay part of the price in cash and the rest with credit cards, or put back items that didn't qualify for the intended price break. The stress shows up on highways too: even in Philadelphia I have never been passed on the right in an exit lane, a nearly daily occurrence here.
What is interesting about all this is that it is taking place in a country which, in many ways, is doing quite well. New roads are sprouting everywhere, the rest stops including book stores, espresso bars, playgrounds, and multiple varieties of food. The stock market appears to go up every day. The cultural level, at least in the coastal region, is plainly higher than in the US (admittedly a faint compliment): one could fill every day attending lectures, debates, and artistic presentations. The diversity is striking, even overwhelming, both within the Jewish community and outside it: the percentage of Arabs, even within older "green line" Israel, is higher than that of the Black and Hispanic communities in the US combined, higher still once one leaves the Tel Aviv region.
The problem, as is so often the case, is that the country's institutions have failed to keep pace with the changes in the population and its environment. One sees this most plainly in the army, which has a couple of hundred thousand people at any time, but only a fraction of whom appear to be doing much that has to do with traditional military objectives. (I spent too weeks on a notoriously inefficient supply base, so I may be somewhat biased). But it is also true of the political system, which reflects the divisions of prewar Europe more accurately than today's realities, and of the general society, in which a European-oriented elite--represented most clearly by the Ha'aretz newspaper--dominates economic and cultural life but is increasingly swamped politically by a coalition of religious and Middle Eastern ("Mediterranean") Jews who believe it to be unrealistic, condescending, and generally out of touch. All this is before one even reaches the problem of the Palestinians, whose cities (Kalkilya, Taiba, Tulkarm) drivers streak by on the new Highway Six but who most people realize are probably not going away.
Motzei Shabbat, Saturday night, my host interrupted dinner at the sound of a siren. "We have a bomb," he said calmly, and we heard the explosion--which apparently wounded someone a few blocks away--about a minute later. Later the same evening we returned to Tel Aviv and attended a somewhat halhearted demonstration for social justice--a follow-up to the summer's tent city movement--at which the attacks were mentioned but seemed somehow far away. It was a day that encapsulated the contradictions of a country with enormous problems but also incredible energy, and a kind of dignity under stress that makes many of the things Americans worry about seem, well, trivial. I'll be back with more about politics and other matters in a later post.