Which Israel is Obama visiting?
Whether or not he achieves diplomatic breakthroughs on his visit to Israel, President Obama’s trip could help the peace process by focusing news media attention, for once, on positive aspects of normal existence in that controversial corner of the Middle East. Though coverage inevitably focuses on newsy themes of conflict, violence and danger, details of daily life for most Israelis and increasing numbers of Palestinians offer grounds for encouragement.
I became aware of the huge gap between American perceptions and Israeli realities after my kid brother Jonathan moved to Jerusalem 22 years ago. At the time, it seemed like a rash, irresponsible decision for a well-credentialed graduate of Berkeley with a rising high-tech career to take his wife and young children to the Middle East. I assumed they’d be surrounded by perpetual warfare, economic insecurity, religious wrangling, ceaseless U.N. condemnation and an uncertain future.
But once my wife and I began visiting regularly, we saw a dramatically different, more down-to-earth Israel that bears only tangential connection to the lurid news media images. I continue to see that different Israel as I lead yearly tours organized by Keshet, an educational non-profit which promotes the trips through advertising on the radio network that carries my show.
Not a violent society
For instance, Americans instinctively assume that Israelis face the constant threats of deadly violence, but Israel’s cities count among the more secure on earth.
The national murder rate is significantly less than half that of the United States (2.1 vs. 4.8 per 100,000 population). After constructing the security barrier on the West Bank and the launch of stronger efforts against militants in 2003, there have been fewer than 190 homicides annually among 8 million Israelis compared with 535 murders last year of Chicagoans in a city with about one third the population. A visitor from Obama’s Windy City who lands in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem face nearly 10 times the risk of violent death when he or she goes home.
Outsiders tend to buy the characterization that Palestinians as one of the worlds most viciously oppressed and impoverished peoples. But that assumption can’t survive first-hand visits to the more prosperous precincts of the West Bank.
About 55% of West Bank Arabs live in areas with full Palestinian administrative and security control with no official Israeli facilities no Jewish settlers. A construction surge with an attendant forest of cranes displays undeniable economic progress. CIA data show that the West Bank and Gaza have enjoyed growth rates of 5.7% or more for the past three years, easily doubling last year’s growth rate of just 2.2% in the USA.
Even in Gaza, ruled by the militant Islamists of Hamas, a luxurious air-conditioned shopping center (ingeniously dubbed the “Strip Mall”) opened in 2010, providing additional diversion for Gazans who already enjoyed seaside bistros, the Faisal equestrian club and, for the kiddies, the Crazy Water Park (until it was destroyed by Hamas in 2010).
Sweet, surprising nature
Despite the political turmoil, life in the Holy Land would still strike most Americans as utterly normal and surprisingly pleasant. Watching my brother’s four kids grow up in Jerusalem, I envied their experience of great schools, beautiful parks and playgrounds, tight-knit neighborhoods, hiking and camping with youth groups, and electrifying night life. After the Sabbath, on Saturday nights, Ben Yehuda Street comes alive as a carnival of youthful revelers, break-dancers and street musicians, with ultra-Orthodox and Palestinians mingling with fresh-faced soldiers on leave.
Even the military service that three-quarters of Israeli men experience confounds American expectations. In a small country, with no bases on foreign soil, 18-year-old recruits serve close to home — and typically come home for Sabbath meals and mother’s love on two or three weekends every month.
Grim news coverage that largely ignores this sweet, surprising nature of Israeli reality stems from eternal priorities of a sensation-hungry media rather than any conspiratorial intent. If a plane lands safely and on time, it never makes the news. But if there’s a fiery crash, it’s a top story all around the world.
The presidential visit gives the American media a chance to balance this bad-news addiction, at least for a few days. While Obama divides his time between high-level meetings and visits to historic sites full of profound meaning, reporters might check out falafel shops, soccer games, chamber music concerts and perhaps even a Friday night dinner with an ordinary family.
Of course Israelis worry over nuclear progress by Iran, the threatening presence of Hezbollah on the northern border, a civil war in Syria and the constant threat of renewed rocket attacks from Gaza, but visitors will discover that in addition to all the drama and intensity, real life in the Jewish state provides unexpected levels of kindness and comfort.
Radio host Michael Medved, a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, leads yearly tours to Israel.