We were in Israel last week and this came about rather suddenly.
I suppose this can come under the heading of you do not select the day you are going to be born or the day you will pass from this beautiful world. To that end, we arrived in Israel for my mother-in-law’s levayah with throngs of those planning to make their annual pilgrimage to Meron on Lag B’Omer, the yahrzeit of R’ Shimon bar Yochai.
For many this is a two- to three-day trip from the States or whatever other country one is traveling from. We left JFK last Sunday at the unusual time, for El Al, at 11:00 a.m. If you make this trip with any regularity then you can do the math and figure that we landed in Tel Aviv at 4:20 a.m. on Monday.
We davened Minchah and Ma’ariv on board and landed before sunrise so we were on our own, in our individual shuls, for Shacharis. The airport was bustling even at this extremely early hour. Walking speedily through the groups huddled around one another I saw large groups of tourists from Africa. I asked one man where he was from and he said Nigeria.
Then there were groups of students, and I was not sure whether they were leaving or arriving. All I know is that they were there at a bit before 5 a.m. on a Monday. Despite the large clocks on the walls and hanging from ceilings, time seems suspended in airports—that is, until it is time for you to board,
It wasn’t even in Modi’in, where our niece and nephew live, or later in Jerusalem that I was struck by the fact that I was experiencing a different type of Israel than I am accustomed to. And that dichotomy features the everyday small sliver of country on a globe contrasted with the Israel that many of us consume through our news sources.
On my second day here (it was a three-day stay in all) I flipped through some of the newspapers available in the lavish breakfast room at the Waldorf Astoria that we do not just have a particular affinity to but also a personal and professional attachment on several levels, which I will try to address shortly.
First of all, as I explained, it was a visit that came about as a result of my mother-in-law’s passing. But Avner On, the general manager of the Waldorf, went to extraordinary lengths to accommodate us and especially the fact that Esta was sitting shivah in Israel.
Ironically, when my father passed away 33 years ago it was Shabbos Chanukah and we were dealing with the same issue in terms of finding accommodations at one of the busiest times of the year here. I guess that is one of the things I’ve learned from personal experience over all these years. And that is if you don’t have a personal residence here and you need to be here around Lag B’Omer or on Shabbos Chanukah, that might prove more difficult than deciding late in the game that you want to spend the chagim in Israel.
On Tuesday morning I davened Shacharis at a nearby shul that is a central gathering point for U.S. and European tourists who do not want to take the not-so-short but very doable walk down to the Kotel. I met some friends and neighbors (including my nephew, known to us as the redheaded Yochanan Gordon, and his son Dovi) who had just spent the night in Meron and then farbrenging until sunrise with Rav Meilich Biderman.
When I returned to the Waldorf after davening there was heavy security and a lineup of government cars with both an Israeli and a flag of a country I didn’t recognize. I asked the concierge who the representatives of the other country were and she said that they were from Kenya. Apparently, there were bilateral meetings between the two countries. Relations between Israel and most African countries are good, as countries like Africa are longtime beneficiaries of the advances in technology and agriculture offered to countries around the world by Israel.
Also on Tuesday it was reported that the European Union canceled the diplomatic part of what was billed as Europe Day, which is a celebration of “peace and unity,” that was supposed to take place in Israel. The reason for the cancellation, according to an EU spokesperson, was that Minister of Public Security Itamar Ben Gvir was the scheduled representative of Israel at the event.
The EU released the following statement on Monday: “Regrettably, this year we have decided to cancel the diplomatic reception as we do not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the European Union stands for.”
That, of course, refers to Mr. Ben Gvir. What the EU believes is a fair and proper statement is mostly indicative of their hypocrisy and lack of hesitation to isolate and treat as pariahs democratically elected representatives of Israel with whom they do not agree politically.
Another story of particular interest that was in the daily papers here this week was about U.S. representatives who arrived in Israel after a visit with Saudi leadership in Riyadh. It seems that here in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu feels that bringing the Saudis into the Abraham Accords is the diplomatic accomplishment he needs more than anything else.
This is especially true in view of the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the facilitation of China. If the Bibi vision comes to fruition that could be very helpful in toning down the vitriolic rhetoric that emanates from Iran and is specifically aimed at Israel.
The U.S. diplomats are saying that the Saudis will not be willing to make such a move until there is progress between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs in terms of negotiations and peace agreements. This is probably a U.S. position more than a Saudi one. Proof of that is that the other Gulf countries that are part of the Accords would never have made such a bold move in the direction of Israel without the consent of the Saudis. Now Saudi leadership has to consider how any agreement with Israel will impact on their new relationship with Iran and how it will play with the Biden administration that does the bidding for some version of an unworkable two-state solution.
Usually when Arab countries like the UAE, Bahrain, and Oman begin to move in a cooperative direction with Israel, the first thing they generally do is allow Israel’s commercial airlines to fly through their airspace. The Saudis have already agreed to allow Israel’s passenger planes to traverse their airspace. But so far, the Saudis are not allowing direct flights between Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
These two U.S. officials this week did fly directly from Saudi Arabia to Israel—but not exactly. The plane carrying the U.S. officials filed a flight plan and chartered a route that looked like they were flying to Cyprus. According to the Jerusalem Post, as the plane approached Larnaca it made a sharp U-turn and made its way to Tel Aviv. So there are still no direct flights from Saudi Arabia to Tel Aviv—well, not exactly.
And finally in the other Israel that we are much more accustomed to, Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow, which targeted and eliminated four leaders of Islamic Jihad in Gaza over Monday night - for starters. Those neutralized were responsible for the death and injury of scores of Israelis over the last two decades and more.
In the meantime, in the other Israel that we began this essay about, the streets were teeming with people and the hotels full as Lag B’Omer was celebrated with great meaning and merriment, as we recalled the great sage Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, to this day an important part of whichever Israel you identify with or believe you belong to. Jerusalem Day will, please G-d, be more of the same.
Larry Gordon is editor of the Five Towns Jewish Times.