This blog post was written in collaboration with Stephanie Reisfeld
Visitors to Israel are constantly amazed that people are walking around speaking an ancient language that only a century ago was considered "dead."
Countless things in modern Israeli life have no Hebrew words to describe them, and English words often step into the breach, sprinkling conversation with nouns and verbs recognizable to Americans. "Rafting" is one of them.
On this warm October morning, we were loaded -- without guides or instruction -- into four inflatable rafts and shoved into the gentle Jordan River. The river, fringed with willows, Eucalyptus and wild fig trees, was as sleepy as those of the California Central Valley, but we had our innocent fun. Yet a fundamental fact of any understanding of Israel is that water is a serious issue, underlying the country’s policies, its military conquests, and its presumption of a future.
Israel, we are finding, is full of paradoxes, a place where everything is juxtaposed with its opposite. Ancient and modern. Secure and insecure. Past and present.
The control of water resources signified by the conquest of the Golan Heights and control of the Sea of Galilee, has allowed Israel to effect its famous transformation of harsh land into green and productive farms, where bananas, mangos, figs, apples, citrus, and grape crops enliven both the landscape and the food supply. Likewise, the proliferation of bright new shopping malls and new housing developments -- ample, clean, and climate-correct. Yet there is no achievement that is not barricaded with fences and barbed wire, guarded constantly from real or imagined threats. Even the vast fields of a successful kibbutz are defined in this way. How can victory co-exist with such insecurity? Hard to say.
On a visit to the Golan Heights yesterday, the proud monument to a conquest deemed necessary for Israeli security and water resources, the solemnity of the location was leavened by a tourist coffee shop - the ultimate statement of normalization. A huge Coca-Cola truck labored up the steep incline that Israeli tanks had claimed during fierce battle with the Syrians in 1967. And standing on the barren peak with us, looking north into Syria and north west into Lebanon, were an army of curious metal creatures shaped by a Dutch sculptor from the refuse of military armaments. Serious reminder of military victory? Or a kitschy Wall-E land? It was hard to say.
The geography of Israel -- largely dry, rocky, and barren -- explains much of its ancient history as a place where diverse peoples sought access and control of safe routes to more fertile areas of the middle east. Yet the contemporary landscape is marked by brand new roads, highway lighting and absolutely clear signage - no more ambivalence in the journey through these deserts. It is a massive and intentional infrastructure, with highways defining the bloodlines of the nation. Monuments to national heroes and heroic events are everywhere. It is odd to read the road signs that label real places of biblical repute alongside signage for mini-malls, kibbutzim and new cities created from scratch. The ancient and the modern overlapping, intersecting.
Driving south from the vast plateau of the Golan, our ultra modern, air-conditioned bus effortlessly climbed the 2400 feet to the eastern entrance of Jerusalem. Outside the windows of our bus two young Arab men ambled on donkeys up the same incline, the sun illuminating the donkeys’ tails as they swished away flies and dust. Camels lounged on the outskirts of Bedouin encampments; communities living in rusty cargo containers not far from a sparkling Jewish settlement hugging the heights.
On our last night in Tiberias, looking for a dose of culture, a small group of us wandered into a hotel theater spectacle featuring sequined dancers in a kitschy retelling of some Biblical story -- maybe Sodom and Gomorrah. In this musical, a young Jew of ancient times sang of his terrible life while angels with blue hair and miniskirts counseled and challenged him and a devil in sunglasses made his pitch. "Don't look back! Don't look back!" the angels urged, if our limited Hebrew served.
It’s hard not to look back because the past is all around you here. Israel’s roots are in the in the past but its intention is taking charge of the present. In Israel, the "now" is really what rules.