Day one of the Birthright program, and I gotta say: Israel the country has impressed me with its beauty, energy, and history – but I’m finding it hard not to be a little jaded about the Birthright program.
Last night, we got a bit of an introduction to Birthright, how it operates, and what its mission is. While nominally the mission is to give Jews a chance to experience Israel, in hopes that they might feel more connected to or invested in the Israeli state, I can’t help but feel thus far that the latter (i.e. “invested) may be more true. More on that in a bit. Some good stuff first 😉
The first part of our day today was quite nice. We went for a hike through Tel Dan, a small park in Northern Israel through which the river Dan runs. The river Dan is one of the major tributaries to the Sea of Galilee (Israel’s major/only water source), and it begins in the mountains of Lebanon, which makes it a precarious resource given Israel’s shaky relationship with Lebanon over the years.
The park was gorgeous, especially after the fresh rains. The air seemed desperate to hang onto the moisture, and the scent of the trees and leaves I can only compare to springtime in the states, or a stroll through Golden Gate park, though wholly new to me. I had the opportunity to chat for a bit with our tour guide Vivi (short for Vivian), and wouldn’t you know it, as we began talking about the outdoors and sustainability, she asked me if I’d heard of “permaculture.” You may well imagine the smile that brought to my face. We spoke for a bit about how permaculture could apply to her apartment lifestyle, which started me yammering on about aquaponics, maximizing solar energy and passive solar inputs, building soils with food scraps, and growing food that can hang from windows and balconies. Oh look – a newt!
Only natural I suppose, that the wilderness would pull us back from talking, and back to observing and enjoying. I always feel validated as a wilderness leader when I notice things (like small animals) in the path – Vivi remarked that this was the first time in the twenty trips she’s led that she’s seen once of these spotted newts. Not to mention it was right next to a porcupine quill that was about 10 inches long. Ouch!
After our wonderful hike, we left for lunch out at Golan Heights, a strategic area (militarily speaking) that Israel captured in the Six-Day War of 1967. This was where things started to take a turn. First indicator: who wants to stop and buy Tevas? We took a fifteen minute stop at a shoe outlet on the way, where apparently shoes were super cheap. Since I had brought my shoes, sandals, and Vivram 5-fingers with me, I stayed on the bus and continued plugging away at the Count (which I am now almost halfway through – it just keeps getting juicier! ;). All in all, it just seemed like a strange place to stop – and I felt the same way when we arrived at the mall for lunch.
The mall itself wouldn’t have been so disconcerting I suppose, if it hadn’t been for the convergence of four or five birthright groups in that single spot. It felt like a circus, and I couldn’t help but truly feel like a tourist, a feeling I’ve never been terribly keen on. The tour buses, the nametags, the clearly-American-stick-out-like-a-sore-thumb loudness and looks of confusion – all of this converged in the one town and one mall in Golan Heights. There were so many of us that they actually ran out of Shawarma (which is something akin to a very large wrap – I didn’t have one) at one the fast food joints dotting the food court.
After this, we went to an olive oil farm/factory/store. On our itinerary, this is described as “Golan Olive Press”. Though admittedly it is now the off-season and the press is no longer in operation, I’m not sure what we could have seen anyway, as the entire process is hyper-mechanized and oxygen-sealed. Instead, we were shown a supremely goofy/strange movie about the Golan Olive Farm (featuring one actor playing many characters superimposed poorly on green screen animation) and the many products it offers. This was then followed by a talk from the farm’s owner. While I appreciated what he had to say about farming in Israel, and the environmental awards he had won, the conversation focused mostly on a) the many products they sold, and then b) how most Israeli families are peace-loving, good people, who are caught up in an unfortunate reality of fighting constantly for their independence, when all they really want are the opportunities we Americans have.
This topic is certainly a worthwhile one (and one I imagine will be common on our trip), and I appreciated the passion with which our host spoke, but I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that his request that we “take a look for ourselves” was vastly outweighed by his request that we see how great Israel is, and tell everyone at home what we saw (i.e. how great and peace-loving Israel is). I realize I’m diving into an extremely sensitive topic here, but there was something about the delivery and timing of this talk (perhaps the fact that it immediately followed the talk about the benefits of their many olive oil skin care products) that left me with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. I know what he’s trying to get across – there are good people in Israel, and like many folks in America and elsewhere in the world, they don’t want much beyond the opportunity to pursue happiness, and to provide such opportunities for their children. But I think, as is often the case, I was looking for a bit more “show” and a bit less “tell”, which I’m sensing may be a running theme for this trip. Also, there was the lady with the headset behind the counter selling all the skin care products. Headsets – they may work for Britney; but otherwise just make me think of shamwow (or Nia… *shudder*).
Lastly, when I had heard we were going to a hot springs, I guess I couldn’t help but envision a nice, natural springs situated somewhere off in the woods, or nestled up among some mountains. I wasn’t expecting to hop back on the tour bus and find ourselves at a resort next to the Sea of Galilee. I’d be hard pressed to complain about time spent in warm/hot water – but again, is this the Israel I came to see, that donors from across the world believe it’s important for me to see?
We’ll see how day two goes – for now, my analogy for Birthright is this: it’s like running a Google Search for Israel, and having the top ten results be ads instead of the top three. The beauty of the country, the tumult of its past, and the passion of its people still shine through – but I’ve been finding that I need to read between the lines and keep my eyes very open to see these things.
Like any good teacher (or teacher who aspires to be good; or person who aspires to be a teacher who is aspiring to be good), I will end this criticism sandwich with some positive remarks. Namely: how can I be all that jaded when, what do I find on our hike this morning, but this tree accompanied by this sign:
Even here in Israel reaches the great wisdom and joy of Winnie the Pooh. It’s nice to know that there are some things you can be sure of, no matter where you go.