The bomb that exploded this past week in Jerusalem went off a scarce two miles from the youth hostel where I stayed during the second week of spring break. I was on an alternative spring break trip to Israel, where our group did service work in the Carmel region destroyed in a December fire, as well as in and around Jerusalem. Reports of the rockets and mortars that are being fired from Gaza and landing in Beersheba seem even more real to me after this experience.
I fear that this shrunken and degraded image of violence is all Americans ever hear about Israel. War, attacks, and retaliation followed by pain, suffering, and mourning. The entire country reduced to images of the Western wall, soldiers, warplanes and burning rubble on one side or another of the border between Gaza and Israel. People think that Israel is a nation of soldiers whose diplomacy is war, that it is not safe to walk the streets of Jerusalem or Tel-Aviv, that life in Israel is somehow different or of a lesser quality than it is elsewhere.
This image is false. In the constant attention given to the violence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we often lose sight of the humanity of the people involved. The country that I saw and the people that I had the privilege to meet and work with are both exceptional in every way and disarmingly normal. Israel is, on the most fundamental level, a country like any other. The first place we worked was at a school in Haifa. We were tasked with giving it a new paint job. As we worked, various groups of kids came out for recess. They were heartwarming as they tried to help us paint, and communicated with us through either their broken English or our broken Hebrew. They acted just like kids anywhere. They played and fought. They had crushes (one girl gave her number to a guy in our group) and grudges (they had no qualms about talking back to their teachers). The school was diverse, including many kids from recent immigrant communities. Other than the language spoken, this could have been any average American elementary school.
Over the next few days we visited other places like this one. We worked to help a school recover from the devastating December forest fire that swept through northern Israel as the kids prepared for their annual Purim party. While we worked we saw groups of kids trooping by us with familiarly hilarious costumes. The community garden we volunteered at could have been in Middletown as easily as Haifa. Israel is so much more than perpetual war, and so much more than tragedy. It is a country full of ordinary hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Kids play sports and videogames, dream about college and life beyond their homes.
Yet Israel is also special. I feel it when my plane lands, and everyone applauds and looks through the windows, all faces sharing the same giddy happiness. I feel it when I walk the streets of Haifa or Jerusalem, and everyone goes through daily life. There is so much life in Israel. I felt it everywhere I went when I was there. This is not a country that likes war, wants war, or enjoys fighting. This is a country that loves to live, that was founded on the belief that life and peace are the most beautiful thing in the world.
There is a song in Hebrew, more a mantra really, that begins with the phrase am yisrael chai. It means “The People of Israel Live”. There is no phrase that I think better sums up the Israel that I saw and want more people to see. Don’t believe only the sound bites or clips on TV. There are problems, but everyday life in Israel goes on. The only difference is the acute sense I feel of how special this life is.
Blinderman is a member of the class of 2014.