In California, I interact with many people who have never been to Israel and many who imagine it is a place they would never visit. Their questions have become predictable, enough so that I’ve developed a kind of routine for shifting a previously uncomfortable dynamic. Now, I almost enjoy these conversations (maybe it’s a perverse kind of enjoyment) and sometimes, the person with whom I’m speaking actually pauses to reconsider his or her assumptions, at least momentarily.
“You were in Israel? What was THAT like?” sometimes followed by “I bet you’re glad to be back!”
“It was so much fun!” I watch their faces for the familiar quizzical look and, before I’m interrupted with question 2, I crowd in a whirlwind of typical tourist Israel:
“The beaches are beautiful. And there is so much going on, music festivals, art fairs, gorgeous places for hiking and being in nature. And the food! It’s amazing. There are great cafes, especially in Tel Aviv. And of course, there are all the historical sites. In Jerusalem…” by which time, question 2 will certainly be interjected:
“But weren’t you afraid?”
“Well, yes. It’s scary driving there. Sometimes I do rent a car but Israelis tend to drive really fast and there are people honking at you if you slow down at all. The roads are pretty good but I usually get around just on the trains and the busses…” About now, or sooner, question 3 shows up in an attempt to clarify:
“I mean, isn’t it dangerous?”
“It’s true they’re surrounded by countries who are run by terrorists or who harbor terrorists or who even tell children it’s a good idea to kill other children. It’s a very weird part of the world. So, Israel’s pretty much the expert country on safety. And honestly, I feel safer there than I do here, certainly, safer than in any big city in America. I can walk around by myself at night, which I never do here. There isn’t anything like the kind of crime we have in American cities. And there’s a lot more care about safety; when you go into a public building or event there’s almost always a guard or security check….” Now, having raised the issue of security, question 4 appears, posing usually as the “gotcha” question:
“So I guess it’s pretty grim and militaristic?’
That’s the question that makes me laugh no matter how often or in how many forms I’ve heard it. I pull out my phone to show a few photos, of a Tel Aviv beach, or a shuk or shopping mall, or kids playing at a park. Or my favorite, the light rail in Jerusalem crowded with every demographic of the country, a picture confounding what they’ve heard about the “evils” of Israel and sometimes even leading to an actual conversation, one in which I get to ask questions, too:
“It’s really the most relaxed yet intense place I’ve ever been. Pretty much the opposite of ‘grim.’ You know that Israel is one of the happiest countries in the world, right?”
Originally published in Times of Israel.