A more tranquil Israel, but still eye-opening

The last time I was in Israel, in 1991, I had the heart-palpitating experience of being woken up by air-raid sirens, racing to a “sealed room” in my Tel Aviv hotel and wearing a gas mask as dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles rained down on the state.

In January, I went back to Israel for my first visit in 22 years. Like the previous time, I was with a group of journalists, but this visit had an entirely different focus and feel. Instead of running to a shelter and discussing scary topics like war and chemical weapons, I got to eat fresh goat cheese, walk through an underground passage built by the Crusaders and have a massage at a boutique hotel in the Galilee.

It was all part of an eight-day itinerary arranged by the Tourism Ministry for the American Jewish Press Association, highlighting tourist-friendly locations around the country that visitors might easily miss. The hope, unstated but implicit, was that we would share our impressions with readers when we returned home, inspiring them to come see these deserving, overlooked sites on a future visit.

Forget hard journalism — pass me another glass of award-winning Yarden chardonnay and hand me my pen!

So, yes, this trip lacked the drama or gravitas of surviving a Scud missile attack. And it definitely showed a softer side of Israel — there was more food, wine, culture and history stuffed into eight days than I thought possible.

But it also renewed my appreciation for this fascinating, resilient nation, underscoring how complex and vibrant it is, and how often the headlines drown that out.

Of course, you can never escape politics or conflict in Israel. That was illustrated on one of my favorite days, when we visited Moshav Abirim in the western Galilee, a few miles from the Lebanon border.

It was a quiet, beautiful setting among old-growth trees and high above a valley, where we were fed a lunch of fresh goat cheese, yogurts and breads by Eyal and Edna Hefer, gracious hosts who have lived on the moshav for 30 years. Edna, who makes the cheese at home, described her process: “It’s direct from the goat. And me.” The industrious couple patch together a living selling cheese, running two rustic guest houses, renting out campsites, and offering horseback riding and team-building retreats.

As we ate and talked, two Israeli fighter jets zoomed overhead, their roars breaking into our conversation. “Oh, they’re probably just taking pictures in Lebanon and coming home,” said Eyal. Two days later, news broke that Israeli warplanes had struck an arms convoy on the Syria-Lebanon border.

This kind of dissonance is an ordinary part of life. It explains the shoulder-shrugging attitude of many Israelis, who know their history well and accept that living in this place means tolerating all kinds of tension. They cope by thinking about it only when necessary — like, when a rocket falls in their backyard.

Driving along in the Galilee in Israel’s north, our amiable, talky tour guide, Gideon Har-Hermon, pointed to one border or another with unsettling frequency — up there you see Syria, that stream is the Jordan River, now we’re on the Green Line, over here is Lebanon.

Then he’d tell an amazing story, like the one about Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated Syria in the early ’60s. One of his many brilliant moves was convincing the Syrian army defending the Golan Heights to plant leafy eucalyptus trees, providing shade for their sweltering trenches and bunkers — intelligence that identified enemy locations for the Israelis and helped them conquer the territory.

I don’t even want to find out if that story is true or not — it’s just too good.

Har-Hermon reeled off one impressive fact after another about Israeli ingenuity. There was one bit about mice trained to sniff out explosives, which he boasted would be used as part of airport security systems “all over the world.” I thought I smelled a rat, but to my surprise the story checked out (the Herzliya company is called BioExplorers).

If this method is ever ready to implement, I’m guessing El Al will be a first adopter. Even though the airline’s security system looks fool-proof to me — reassuring as a passenger, but still unnerving — Israel always seems to be ahead of the curve. Something else to feel good about.


Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.