For the past week, I have been visiting Jerusalem.
My only prior visit was in the mid-80s when I served on the staff of then-Vice President George Bush as a speechwriter. That time I saw much that tourists could not — a gathering of Knesset members and a trip to the demilitarized zone (both occasions for addresses), for example. But it worked the other way, too. Every tourist absorbs tastes, sounds, and rhythms of daily life that the intense schedule and security concerns kept far from our party.
So here are observations of a second-time and yet also first-time visitor.
Israel today has a flourishing economy. In America, we tend to miss this happy fact, focused as we are on the country’s security problems. I was startled to hear Israelis with whom I spoke characterizing the current situation a one of peace. The state of tension that we would consider intolerable one Israeli characterized to me as functional for all sides – the Palestinian Authority and neighboring governments as well as Israel itself. It has created space for economic expansion.
As if to confirm the man on the street view, the chair of the foreign policy committee of the Russian Senate came through town this week and told the reporters, “All the countries of the Middle East are going through significant change – Turkey, Iraq…. [but] the rearrangement of the Middle East would be very dangerous.” In other words, even Russia – traditionally a fisher in troubled waters – wants to maintain the current tense stasis.
So despite all the politics, Israel thrives. The housing bust that so crippled the economies of the U.S., Britain, Spain, and several other countries missed here. Everyone who has seen the country over the years says physical growth has never been so evident as now. Jerusalem is as much an example of middle income and upscale sprawl as any American boomtown before the Great Recession. You find new housing and new malls in all directions.
Another sign of rising wealth is the movement of populations. The day our family arrived (we had come for a wedding) the papers announced that immigration in 2010 was up over 2009. According to a Jerusalem Post interview with Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet dissident and now prominent in government and politics, “most of those coming are from free countries,” the U.S., the U.K., Belgium, and Switzerland, in particular. In addition to their other reasons for moving, the disparity between standards of living in Israel and the major developed countries had largely closed, Sharansky suggested.
The robust economy’s wide reach was evident in a talk I had with a very well-to-do Palestinian merchant. He mouthed the obligatory Palestinian gripes. But after many years running his one successful store, he was branching out, opening a second outlet on the West Bank. I joked about him building a retail chain. He responded with the kind of laugh and modest disclaimer that told me that was exactly what he had in mind.
I don’t mean to suggest that we saw no signs of troubles. In a trip to the ancient (even by the standards of Jerusalem) city of Hebron, the sense of continuing threat hovered in the air – or actually blared over loudspeakers. Hebron is the site of the tomb of Abraham and Isaac, who are, of course, claimed as their own by all three of the region’s contending faiths. An Ottoman-era edifice, now housing Muslim and Jewish centers of prayer and study, stands over the caves containing the patriarchs’ remains.
As we began our tour, the call to prayer started up. The voice was a steady tenor-baritone, loud but smooth. Yet as we emerged from the massive fortress, another voice on another public address system reached us from far down the valley. And this voice was on a rant. No one could translate, but translation was hardly necessary.
The Palestinian merchant I mentioned had a daughter in a prestigious job in the United States. He said that many young Palestinians were emigrating to the U.S., U.K. and elsewhere. Clearly these are well-educated young people with bright futures. Judging from the merchant’s prosperous personal story and all else I saw, if such Arabic-speaking young people are indeed moving out, it is not the economy or Israeli policy that prompts them to leave. It is that voice down the valley.
In a country that has found a peculiar but workable peace, that voice down the valley and those to whom it speaks still unsettle the days and menace the nights.