“TEL AVIV – After living in an Arab country for nearly six months, arriving in Israel came like a shock.
It startled me from the air. Whoa, I thought, as I looked out the window of the plane over the suburbs of Tel Aviv. If the border were open I could drive down there in a short couple of hours from my Beirut apartment. But this place looked nothing like Lebanon. My Lebanese friend Hassan calls Israel Disneyland. I thought about that and laughed when I watched it roll by from above.
Trim houses sprawled in Western-style suburban rows like white versions of little green Monopoly board pieces. Red-tiled roofs somehow looked more Southern California than Mediterranean. Swimming pools sparkled in sunlight. I felt that I had been whisked to the other side of the planet in no time.
The airport shocked me as well, although it probably wouldnâ€™t shock you. There were more straight lines and right angles than I was used to. There were more women, children, and families around than I had seen for some time. Obvious tourists from places like suburban Kansas City were everywhere.
Arab countries have a certain feel. Theyâ€™re masculine, relaxed, worn around the edges, and slightly shady in a Sicilian mobster sort of way. Arabs are wonderfully and disarmingly charming. Israel felt brisk, modern, shiny, and confident. It looked rich, powerful, and explicitly Jewish. I knew I had been away from home a long time when being around Arabs and Muslims felt comfortably normal and Jews seemed exotic.
First impression are just that, though. They tend to be crazily out of whack and subject to almost instant revision. Israel, I would soon find out, is a lot more like the Arab and Muslim countries than it appears at first glance. Itâ€™s not at all a little fragment of the West that is somehow weirdly displaced and on the wrong continent. Itâ€™s Middle Eastern to the core, and it has more in common with Lebanon than anywhere else I have been. The politics and the history are different, of course. But once I got settled in Tel Aviv I didnâ€™t feel like I had ventured far from Beirut at all.
Lisa Goldman kindly welcomed me to the country and met me for drinks in a dark, smoky, and slightly bohemian bar on my first night. We talked, as everyone does, about The Conflict.
Lisa is a journalist who has been writing for the Guardian lately. She moved from Canada to Israel years ago when Ehud Barak was prime minister. Peace between Israelis and Palestinians looked imminent. Israel was on the threshold – finally – of becoming an accepted and normal country in the Middle East. It was the perfect time to relocate, a time of optimism and hope. A cruel three weeks later that dream was violently put to its death. The second intifada exploded. Israel was at war.
â€œIt was so traumatizing,â€ she said. â€œAnd everybody blamed us. I donâ€™t think I will ever get over it.â€
Last year she wrote a six-part series on her blog called How Lisa Came to Israel. Itâ€™s riveting and terrifying to read. She must turn that material into a book. Do yourself a favor. Set aside some time and read Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and Part Six. If youâ€™re a literary agent, send her an email.
â€œI was near 11 or 12 suicide attacks during the intifada,” she said. “But thatâ€™s nothing. I know people in Jerusalem who were near 40 or 50.â€
She kept going to restaurants, cafes, and bars even while bombs exploded somewhere almost every day. She even chose to sit right next to the front windows, the least safe place in any establishment.
â€œThe staff kept asking me if I was sure I wanted to sit there,” she said. “I did.â€
â€œI didnâ€™t want to visit Israel then,â€ I said.
â€œHardly anyone did,â€ she said. â€œThe thing is, though, even when the intifada was at its peak you were far more likely to be killed in a traffic accident than by the bombers.â€
Sheâ€™s right about that. Most supposedly dangerous countries in the Middle East are considerably safer than they appear from far away. The region is not one never-ending explosion. Even so, suicide bomb operations are far more terrifying and traumatizing than car crashes. They’re murderous. Theyâ€™re malevolent. Theyâ€™re on purpose.
â€œItâ€™s especially disturbing when you know what those bombs do to the human body,â€ she said.
â€œDo I want to know?â€ I said. I was not sure I did.
She shrugged and raised her eyebrows.
â€œOkay,â€ I said. â€œJust tell me.â€
â€œArms and legs go flying in every direction,â€ she said. â€œHeads pop off like champagne corks. You just canâ€™t believe anyone hates you that much.”