Sunday, March 30, 2008

Disengagement: The Package Tour

The Jewish Week, September 16, 2005

Several months ago, when I chose to bring a congregational tour to Israel this summer, little did I know that our journey would coincide with the Gaza disengagement. While Gaza was not exactly on our itinerary, every aspect of this trip suddenly took on new significance as we immersed ourselves in a bubbling cauldron of orange and blue.

Israel is a place where even the choice of luggage adornments has meaning. Our tour company innocently distributed orange luggage handles, all the easier to pick out on a baggage carousel. Orange, of course, has been the ubiquitous color of those opposing disengagement.

Concerned that we would be construed by El Al security as anti-government agitators flying to Israel a week before the D-Day, I hastily prepared talking points for group members to explain to agents that sometimes orange is simply orange.

Sometimes a visit to Masada is simply a visit to Masada -- except when, at the very moment my group was descending from the heralded rock in the desert, Masada's suicidal legacy was being played out in real time. First, a female settler set herself afire at an intersection near Gaza (the woman, Yelena Bosinov, later died of her wounds) and the madness continued as another settler, a man, dangled his baby Michael Jackson-style over the railing of his soon-to-be-abandoned home.

The "Masada scenario" was an oft-discussed topic during the weeks prior to disengagement. While no mass suicide-murder ultimately took place, the mere fact of it being discussed so freely attested to the grip ancient events have on the Israeli populace. Americans also invoke history freely, but we usually go back no further than a generation or two, to Vietnam or Watergate. Not so for Israelis, where ancient Herodian ruins are today's news and where the disengagement even before it had happened had already been rolled into the series of traumatic events recalled on Tisha b'Av.

The Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv celebrates the heroism of Israel's Greatest Generation, those who risked all to forge the new state. As my group learned about the internal conflicts between Ben-Gurion's centrist authority and the right-wing groups like the Irgun and Stern Gang, the Altalena incident was being re-enacted just a few miles down the coast, in Gaza. In 1948, you may recall, a ship loaded with weapons for the Irgun was sunk by Ben-Gurion's forces. And here, once again, an Israeli authority asserted its control over the far right using military might.

So the disengagement was either the work of a conniving Judenrat or a heroic Haganah; take your pick. Our group could not escape the crossfire of historical analogies, which is just how we wanted it. We were anxious to learn as much as we could. We even arranged for phone interviews with a soldier at the front and a disengagement opponent who somehow had managed
to join his brethren in Gush Katif.

On the second day of the trip, we traveled about 40 minutes southeast of Tel Aviv to Bet Guvrin, just a stone's throw from where David defeated Goliath and now a popular archaeological site where tourists dig for a day. The site is dotted with hundreds of limestone caves that were used as homes by Idumeans during the second century BCE, a period when the descendents of
the Maccabees were consolidating their rule.

The Idumeans were resident aliens and the king, John Hyrcanus, gave them the choice to convert to Judaism, leave or die. Most chose exile, and since they didn't want their enemy to enjoy the fruits of their affluence, they dumped their household pottery and other possessions into big piles in their basements -- these caves. Ironically, this scorched-earth policy, which was intended to bury forever the evidence of their residence, has made it much easier for us to rediscover the Idumeans today.

Meanwhile, down the road, our modern-day Idumeans were turning the homes and synagogues of Gush Katif into tomorrow's Bet Guvrin.

Late in the trip we had a bar/bat mitzvah affirmation service at the Western Wall. Midway through there was a quick announcement in Hebrew and then a sudden explosion. This was a controlled explosion, the routine detonation of a nearby suspicious object, but there was nothing routine about the incident for us. Shaken but undaunted, and feeling perhaps more
heroic than deserved, we resolutely went on with the service. The big bang was a startling reminder of what it really means to be a Jew choosing to take part in the greatest drama Jewish history has ever known: the State of Israel.

That night, just as I was settling into my hotel room to relax, I heard another sudden explosion. I quickly looked out my window and it was one of the most spectacular fireworks shows I'd ever seen, right over the Tower of David. The display celebrated the opening of a major international crafts fair, formerly an annual event but more recently a victim of the Terror War. And I thought, "Why not! Why should Israelis be denied the simple pleasure of having an explosion be just a few fireworks from time to time?"

Sometimes an explosion is just an explosion. In Israel, that's what normalcy is all about.

Maybe now, orange can go back to simply being orange.

No comments: