The Birthright Stuff

Local Jews watched from Israel as the war with Iraq unfolded.

The night our President sat in front of the cameras and told Saddam Hussein he had 48 hours to get the hell out of Iraq, two young American women and I were getting loaded at a seaside pub in Tel Aviv.

The bar was Mike's Place, and it was Purim, the Jewish holiday when it's tradition to dress up in costumes and drink until you can't tell villains from heroes. Purim this year happened to fall on St. Patrick's Day, the Irish-Catholic holiday when it's tradition to drink until you can't tell House of Pain from The Cranberries.

Being proud Americans with proud American livers, we did the melting-pot thing and celebrated both holidays. Only Americans would stagger into a foreign bar decked out head-to-toe in traffic-signal green with feather afros, Hawaiian leis and T-shirts that command in Hebrew, "Kiss Me I'm Irish."

All three of us were visiting the "Jewish Homeland" on a free ticket courtesy of the Birthright Israel program. About three years ago, the state of Israel matched funds with American Jewish groups and about a dozen wealthy philanthropists to set up a program that would "strengthen the sense of solidarity" between American and Israeli Jews.

That night, my experiments in solidarity boiled down to introducing a crew of young Rabbis-in-training to their first Guinness Stout. I made pass after pass at the waitresses, who could've smeared me against the wall since nearly all Israeli girls learn hand-to-hand combat in basic training.

I was pickled like a kosher dill. But around 4 a.m., I sobered up faster than you can say falafel. The bar quieted, and Dubya appeared on the television to promise Iraq that we'd "apply the full force and might of our military" unless Saddam surrendered.

"Your country's in deep shit," an American sitting at the bar counter said to the Israeli bartender. In the last Gulf War, Saddam launched 39 Scuds at Israel.

The Mike's Place bartender shrugged his shoulders and answered, "Eh, it's about time."

Since the day Israel declared its independence, it's been attacked over and over by its Arab neighbors--Six Day War, War of Attrition, Yom Kippur War, etc. Now the United States was locked and loaded to obliterate one of its more hostile enemies.

Israel certainly wasn't going to shed any tears. Diplomatic solutions haven't worked well for Israel in the past. And they don't have a whole lot of faith in the United Nations, for whom their nickname is the "United Nothings."

In the last few months, nearly every kitschy souvenir shop in Israel began selling refrigerator magnets and cotton T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag overlayed by Star of David, exclaiming "Don't Worry America, Israel Is Behind You!"

The general Israeli consensus is a brotherhood between America and Israel--boiling down to the sentiment, "Now that you've been attacked, you see what we have to put up with."

A little more than a month later, a suicide bomber tried to push past the bouncer at Mike's Place, then blew himself up outside the front door, spraying nails and shrapnel, killing three and wounding dozens of others.

THIS YEAR WAS LACEY Busby's last chance to apply for the Birthright Israel program, which is only available to Jewish young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who haven't taken a guided tour of Israel before. The gift covers airfare between New York and Israel and a 10- to 14-day bus tour that usually covers a canvass of historical sights and monuments, city life and nature hikes. The program is in its fourth year, and to date, nearly 40,000 American Jews have taken advantage of the Birthright gift.

"I definitely wouldn't have gone during the war if it wasn't for Birthright," said Busby, who now works at the Tucson Jewish Community center after spending a month and a half bumming around Israel.

The program is designed not only to foster solidarity between American and Israeli Jews, but to allow participants the opportunity to come to terms with their Jewish identities. The basic justification is that all Jews have the right, by birth, to visit Israel. Participants come from all areas of the Jewish community, religious and non-religious. All in all, it's a generous gift, and it's a shame more religions and cultures don't offer similar back-to-your-roots programs.

"The first the 3 1/2 years have been during the intifada," said the program's executive vice president, Simon Klarfeld. "It's absolutely amazing that so many have chosen to go."

Not surprisingly, safety concerns make young American Jews hesitant to travel to Israel. The wave of terrorist attacks known as the Second Intifada, aka the Palestinian uprising, began in September 2000. According to the Israeli government, 778 people (as of this writing) have been killed by Palestinian terrorists since September 2000. That's more than double the number of casualties in the seven years before.

"The trip organizers are very aware of the security issue," Klarfeld said. "This means that there's more built in flexibility in the schedule of trips. We devote a lot of technology to keep trips connected to our security department on an hourly basis, if we need to be. Secondly, we take advice from Israel Defense Force and the Ministry of Defense, and therefore we sometimes limit trips from visiting certain cities or give participants less in the way of free time on the weekends."

Daniel Schnoll, an employee at Raytheon in Tucson, took the trip in 2001--six months into the second intifada.

"There were no bombings when I was there, but it was definitely in the back of my mind," Schnoll said. "My folks didn't want me to go. Raytheon advised me against it. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot.

"A lot of people try to eliminate all risk in their lives, but that doesn't really make sense. You can't do that, so I decided to just go ahead."

Schnoll was about to turn 27; it was his last chance to go.

The main ways folks in Tucson get involved in the Birthright program is either through the Tucson Jewish Community Center or the Hillel Foundation on the UA campus.

"For the first two years, we were taking 40 kids per trip during winter break from UA alone," said Hillel Foundation executive director Michelle Blumberg. "This was when the political scene was a little different.

"This year, we had 13 over the winter break. Then, over the previous academic year, we sent 18 to Israel, which was pretty good considering the political climate."

As nearly 250,000 U.S. and British soldiers swarmed the region, the number of Birthright participants in Israel dropped until there was one small group still in the country--the one Busby and I traveled with.

"If I was going to die in the war, I'd probably be hit by a car in Tucson if I stayed at home," Busby said. "I really believe that when it's your turn, it's your turn."

Busby said the only time she was afraid was the night the war broke out. "I was in a bar. This guy ran into the room where my friends and I were and said 'The war's started. We're going to get bombed!' And I was like 'Oh my God!'"

For several weeks, the Israeli government had been distributing survival packs to people staying in Israel's major cities. They cost 200 shekels (about $40), but half that was refundable if you gave it back unused after the war. Inside was a syringe of anti-nerve gas agent and a gas mask. Ever caustic, Israelis thought since war was approaching, a good joke was to ask: "Have you picked up your aardvark mask yet?"

The United States attacked Iraq about 8 a.m., Israel time. That day, I was tramping around Herziliyah, a suburb of Tel Aviv, in search of an Internet cafe so I could assure my parents that I was still alive. At the mall, at the coffee shop, at McDonalds--everywhere I went--every single person had a survival kit hanging on a shoulder by a plastic strap, as if shoebox purses had become the new fashion rage overnight.

A COUPLE WEEKS BEFORE the war, Lacey and I found ourselves in the eye of the political storm. She'd stayed in Israel to travel following the bus trip, while I was volunteering in a Jerusalem soup kitchen. It was the Sabbath, which starts Friday at sundown and lasts until Saturday at sundown. We were where our parents least wanted us to be: deep in the heart of the West Bank, spending it with our friend Lazer Loev and his family in their settlement.

We met Lazer Loev during the first week of our bus trip. As part of the "Israel Experience," it was our privilege to travel with eight Israeli soldiers in a civilian capacity.

For five days, we were confined to a bus with Lazer and his stories--as well as his aggressive denials that he is not, in fact, a nerd (see photo).

"Calling someone a nerd is like calling someone a nigger," Lazer once said.

Israelis don't quite get the whole political correctness thing. We set him straight on that one, and he later set us straight on the whole security situation.

"You know what we'll do when the war starts?"

"What?" Lacey asked.

"Make some popcorn and watch it on CNN."

Besides his razor wit, his charming--yet nerdy--nature and his willingness to die to defend "his people," the single coolest thing about Lazer is that he has a toe for a thumb.

About a year and a half ago, Lazer accidentally dropped an artillery shell, mangling his four fingers and obliterating his thumb. The doctors were able to salvage the fingers, but what was left of his thumb had to be removed.

They could've left him thumb-less, or they could've supplied him with a prosthesis. But Lazer needed his thumb--without it, he wouldn't be able to hold his gun. So he chose a third option and had the doctors remove one of his big toes and attach it to his hand.

This is a pretty good example of the type of people who live out on the settlements--people who would trade balance for the ability to hold a gun.

The deal with the occupied territories (Gaza Strip, West Bank) and the settlements is not as complicated as it seems. Before 1967, the two areas on the east and west sides of Israel were under the control of Egypt and Jordan. Then came the Six Day War. Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria started sending their armies to Israel's borders. Israel launched a pre-emptive strike and captured the Palestinian territories

The Palestinians say that it's their home and they have a right to self-rule. Israeli settlers say they captured it, fair and square, and they have a right to stay there.

Between 2001 and 2003, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon supported the emergence of 70 new settlements in the West Bank. These "outposts" displace Palestinian villages, making it even more difficult to draw lines when, inevitably, a Palestinian state is formed.

From that, you've got Palestinian extremists waging a revolutionary war using terrorist tactics against civilians, which then ignites armed response and a continued military occupation of Palestinian villages.

If you were to get out a map and draw a line straight north from Jerusalem, then another directly east from Tel Aviv, where those lines intersect--deep in the heart of the occupied territory--is Lazer's settlement, Ma'le Levona.

The settlement is little more than a normal 90-family suburban neighborhood: clean streets, green grass, shiny family sedans.

Except some of those sedans are riddled with bullet holes and the whole neighborhood is surrounded by multiple fences of barbed wire.

The settlement overlooks a desert valley. Across the valley, one can see sand-colored Arab villages scattered on all sides.

"What's that village over there?" I asked Lazer, pointing to one outcropping.

"That one is a very problematic Arab village. We caught several terrorists there last month," he replied in English.

"Oh," I said. "How about that one over there?"

"That one is going to be problematic very soon," he answered. "They just received much more funding. They'll probably use it to build bombs."

The quiet that I'd welcomed as a break from the traffic of Jerusalem was suddenly very, very unnerving.

Lazer's entire family lives in the settlement. He has six siblings, ages 4 to 20. Lazer's father, like many of the settlers, is an American Zionist who migrated to Israel in the '70s.

When it came time to eat, the dinner table took over the living room. Lazer left his Uzi on the couch across from his brother's M16 assault rifle on the love seat. Lazer's father wore his pistol to the dinner table.

"We're open-minded people," his father prefaced the meal. "Feel free to express your opinion. As long as you can deal with our opinions."

And what opinions they've got.

During the getting-to-know-the-houseguests portion of the dinner, Lazer's father asked me what I plan to do after I return to Arizona. I started to mention that I've applied for a four-month volunteer program in Ghana.

"Oh yeah? What's the organization?"

"It's this Canadian NGO called Journalists for Human Rights ... "

"Human rights?! What about our human rights?! What about our human rights to not get shot at?!! What about our human rights not to get blown up?! It's always the Palestinians ... "

"Sir, you know, I don't think there's much of a Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Ghana."

"Yeah, you're probably right," he said quietly before exploding again. "It's so typical of a Jew! Go help the Africans before your own people!"

Rather than argue that I was already peeling a bajillion squash each day for "my people," I let it drop at that.

The meal continued on--Lazer's mom is an amazing chef--with rousing discussion of the week's reading from the Torah (the original Old Testament). Then the table-banging and competitive chanting began as the siblings fought over who could pray loudest.

Over dessert, it got political again. I happened to mention that my younger sister was dating a Persian. When they asked where Persia is, I explained it's modern-day Iran.

Immediately, Lazer's 16-year-old sister fell off her chair and rolled around the floor squealing, "ewwww, ewww."

Lazer's mother turned to me and said, "Tell her she has to be careful. You can't trust the Arabs."

"This is going to sound racist, but it's not," said Lazer's 20-year-old brother, a sniper who was once given the go-ahead to take out Yassir Arafat. "They're all animals."

"It doesn't sound racist; it is racist," I said, but it got lost in the cross-table shouting: "The only good Arab is a dead Arab" and, "They all speak Hebrew when you put a gun to their head."

In all fairness, it's not hard to understand how they'd come to feel that way. The only Arabs they ever met are the ones shooting at their cars on their way home. Lacey and I had to take an armored bus to get there.

On the other side, it's the same thing. The only Israelis that the Arabs in the West Bank meet are the ones with tanks and M-16s who are invading, or sometimes bulldozing, their homes.

NO JOKE: SECURITY in Israel is tight. If you're not Jewish, you'll never make it past airport security. Even if you are Jewish, but not Super-Duper Jewish, your best bet is to stick close to someone who is, and follow his lead.

Israel's national air carrier El Al is probably the safest in the world, with good reason: You can't get on to a plane without passing two or three rounds of interviews. If you stir even the smallest suspicion, you'll end up as I did: singing Passover songs to one security agent while another shined a light into the bottle of wine I picked up in Spain to make sure it wasn't filled with chemical agent.

Outside of every establishment--grocery stores, coffee shops, malls--there is a security guard with a magic wand. This wand goes up and down your legs, around your waist and under your arms, making little beep-beep noises. If it makes a big BEEP noise, you'll find yourself in some frightening room being interrogated by a rock-faced Israeli Defense Force investigator. When I was caught at Western Wall with a tiny pocket knife, I was detained for 45 minutes until the people leading my tour rescued me by explaining in Hebrew: "He doesn't know any better. He's an American."

Another example: I wear horn-rim glasses. Apparently, in Israel, only Arabs wear horn-rim glasses. At any given security stop, I was singled out by someone with an enormous gun, then groped and wanded while my passport was inspected and my bags emptied. Usually after 10 minutes, they'd finally allow me inside to buy a slice a pizza.

UA GRADUATE STUDENT Jesse Frantz said he's no more religious now than he was before he attended Birthright in its first year.

"I do feel more connected to Judaism," he said. "I am more likely to do things like keep Passover than I was before going."

Ever since he returned, Daniel Schnoll has read the Jerusalem Post online on a daily basis.

"I've thought about going back, definitely, but not at this point in Aliya (immigration)," Schnoll said. "Maybe sometime in the future, I think it would be definitely something I'd consider. I think as far the spirituality, there's a special feel to the place and I would like to, if I had the economic means."

The Birthright Israel is currently in its fourth year of its five-year trial period.

"We are now in a strategic planning process to move beyond this five-year experiment," Klarfeld said. "It has been so widely successful beyond everyone's expectations, in terms in the impact it's having on the participants. The impact it also has on Israelis in terms of their own identity is remarkable. The groundswell of the alumni when they come back to Israel is so remarkable that every partner is involved is talking about year six and on and on and on."

Birthright Israel also an economic priority for Israel, which has suffered substantially because of the state of political turmoil. According to the Middle East Times, arrivals to Israel have dropped 6 percent annually over the last three years. Revenue from foreign tourism topped $3.4 billion in 1995, was down to $3.2 billion in 1997 and is estimated at $3 billion for this year.

"We asked alumni how likely it is they'd return to Israel in the next two years," Klarfeld said. "Participants who answer a little, somewhat or extremely was about 87 percent. In total, 36 percent said they were extremely likely."

Locally, Blumberg says that between 20 and 25 percent of Tucson birthright participants return to Israel,

"Sometimes it's to go to school, sometimes to volunteer, or a kibbutz program or because they've made friends or family they want to visit. Some to do intensive study," Blumberg said. "There are a couple planning on aliyah (immigration)."

Busby is one of those strongly considering moving back to Israel.

"My mom's biggest fear was that I just would not come (back), not even get my stuff," Lacey said. "The Israelis just opened their homes to me. I felt like the country was just this huge accepting, loving place. The way I felt when I was there--it's going to sound so cliché--I just felt like it was right."

Gaining citizenship in Israel is pretty easy if you're a Jew--the government will even give you money to get started. But it does take some preparation. You've got to learn Hebrew and you have to be willing to serve in the military. Lacey says she wouldn't mind.

"I wouldn't feel comfortable serving on the front line, but I would do what they would have me do, maybe office work," she said.

THE DAY AFTER I LEFT the settlement, I got a call from Lazer. I was back in Jerusalem, working as a volunteer painter for the poor.

"Hey, Dave," Lazer said. "Do you remember Nyvia?"

Nyvia Durban was a 25-year-old captain in the Israeli Airforce. He'd traveled with us the first week of the trip. He and I played hacky-sack together. I'd nicknamed him "The Porcupine" because that was how his surname translated in English. He liked the $30 boots I was wearing so much that I promised to sell them to him for $60.

"Of course; I'm staying with him this Thursday," I said. "What about him?"

"He's dead."

Lazer explained that Nyvia had been shot in the stomach the night before. A drunk soldier tried to steal his car and killed him in the process.

"I'll find out the funeral arrangements and call you tomorrow," he said. "Have a nice day."

Having a nice day was impossible at that point; Nyvia was the first peer I'd ever known to die a violent death. But for Lazer, it was different. It's become such a regular event his life, he'd become numb to it. Death is a regular event in the lives of most Israelis. Everyone knows someone who was killed, either by terrorism or in the line of duty.

The funeral was in Haifa, a tourist town on the coast of the Mediterranean. Haifa has historically been a city where Arabs and Jews live peacefully. They live in the same neighborhoods, work in the same offices, attend the same schools. Two weeks earlier, the harmony was marred when a terrorist blew up a bus in Haifa, killing several teenage Christian missionaries on a peace-making trip.

The remaining Birthright participants from our trip met at the train station, which is only a 10-minute walk from the beach. With a half-hour to kill, we walked to the beach to grab a drink at a seaside bar owned by the Camel Cigarettes. I kicked off the boots I'd promised to sell Nyvia, and dug my feet into the sand.

Nyvia was tall and charismatic, a dead ringer for Harrison Ford in his Han Solo days. Nyvia was a born leader, an outspoken opponent to violence, Israeli and Palestinian alike, and possibly the best man I'd ever known.

Some people aspire to write novels or direct films or open restaurants. When he finished his military service, Nyvia planned to found a city. He explained he'd build it in the middle of Israel's Ein Gedi desert. He said it would be based it on principles of tolerance and environmentalism. When he died, the city died with him.

There were easily 1,000 in attendance at the funeral--the biggest memorial ceremony since Columbia astronaut Ilan Ramon's death. One by one, Nyvia's loved ones rose to the microphone and spoke. None of us Birthright participants understood much spoken Hebrew--we didn't need to.

More than our common heritage, culture or religion, what bound us American Jews and Israeli Jews together were our personal connections and our shared struggles.

If I learned one thing from the Birthright trip, it's that in Israel, it's possible to have a nice day after the death of a friend. For the same reason that they keep riding buses even after one has blown up, Israelis continue to have nice days in the face of tragedy. And yes, I do feel safer now that Israel's behind me.

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