Paula R. Stern – When an Israeli Goes Abroad
It’s hard to explain to a non-Jew, perhaps even to a non-Israeli, what it is like once we leave the safety of home. Yes, safety. I know it is hard to believe, but most Israelis feel more comfortable, and safe, at home in Israel. The outside world is large and cold, foreign and, above all else, simply not home. As individuals, we are welcomed; as a nation, we are treated differently.
It’s a subtle message delivered again and again in nearly every airport, every city, every port. I noticed this each (and every) time I have traveled over the last few years. To meet another Israeli is to touch home and a warmth spreads through you at the feeling that, at least for this moment, you are among family. The ironic thing here is that this is true as much for someone you know, as someone you have never met before. All that matters is that you are who you are, and they are who they are.
Last year in Germany, after a presentation in Stuttgart, several people came over to me to ask questions. The last person, the one who waited in the background, was there simply to say in simple words, “Ma nishma?” [What’s new/What’s happening in Hebrew]. That was all it took for us to feel the connection, to speak of home for a few minutes, of where we live and more.
So now, you’ll likely say that this is normal, that all people feel this instant connection when abroad. Perhaps that is true, though I don’t think so. But let me tell you what is not normal. Israeli flights are almost always placed at the farthest points in the airport – the place where no one has any business going, unless they are flying on an Israeli carrier…or about to make trouble. Armed guards line the path, guard the entrance, signs are quickly put up and quickly taken down. Once you pass through their guards, you come to our own. They look you over and then their eyes, always moving, search around. You are instantly recognized as one of theirs to protect. The native police look around; the Israeli guards look under the chairs, in the bathrooms.
Taking a cruise is the stuff of dreams. Beautiful sunsets on the water, new cities and amazing islands visited almost daily. And two police motorcycles that lead and guard the buses that leave the ship. One takes the front; the second is mobile – blocking off intersections to keep the buses together, guarding the rear of the procession.
Two soldiers guard the boat, two more enter and look out from positions at the top of the ship and when you return from the excursion, you pass them and come to our own security. They check your papers, ask you a few questions, and then you become theirs to protect.
As the ship leaves port, a police boat escorts you beyond the port and into open sea and you can almost hear the sigh of relief as they stop and watch our boat continue out and away before they turn and return home. An Israeli ship filled with Israelis, filled with Jews, has come and left and nothing happened. Only the ship doesn’t fly an Israeli flag. It was registered in a far off land and so flies that flag in port. At sea, it doesn’t fly any flag and we sit aboard speaking a collection of languages – English, Russian, French, and Hebrew. Announcements are made in Hebrew (and often in Russian and English); the plan for the day is in Hebrew.
The food is kosher; the lobby of one large room filled with Shabbat candles as we first welcome the Sabbath and then usher it away as the new week begins. To be an Israeli is to accept all of this – taking our religion with us, our God, our people, our language.
On the ship, we speak with others and when they speak of Israel, it is constantly “here” even though at this moment, here is thousands of kilometers away. We see the police escorts, the soldiers, the armed guards and there is a feeling of sadness. What have we done to need to be guarded this way? To be separated into a corner of a sea port or an airport? The answer is even more depressing than the question because it didn’t start in 2014 or 1967 or even 1948. It started longer than our collective memory can pinpoint and this too we carry with us wherever we go.
And when the cruise finishes and returns to Israel, I have another business trip to Europe and I watch in something that is somewhere between dismay and disgust, as the El Al plane lands in Geneva. I see a police car on the landing strip and I tell myself I am being paranoid…isn’t it normal in today’s world for police to patrol everywhere? Why do I assume the police car is there because an Israeli jet is landing?
But as we taxi down the runway, the police car follows us and as we move to a much slower speed, the police car rides along side. It seems like they are there because of us…And then, the police car speeds ahead. I am being paranoid…I watch the police car stand at an empty gate as our plane taxis past the stopped Police car…and then the police car follows and catches up. Clearly, they thought we were stopping there. We continue, and the police car follows.
As we turn into a different gate, any doubt flees. The police car pull close to the plane. I’m not being paranoid. We get off the plane and there are heavily armed guards at the entrance as the passengers disembark. I tell myself that all the emotions need to be put aside – the anger, the disgust, the depression, the longing for things to be normal when an Israeli plane or boat visits foreign shores.
And more, each ship that leaves Israel with Hebrew guides and kosher offerings, each plane that flies under an Israeli company, each Israeli passport we hand over to be stamped and recognized is a message that we are here and will not disappear.
We’ll take your guards if you want to give them; we’ll take your police escort if you think we need it because we too have a right to enjoy the glorious world God has created.
Ultimately, we know something that the world doesn’t always recognize. Our greatest protection was never the Greek or Italian security forces, though we thanked them each time. It isn’t even the Israeli security that comes along with us. The Protector of Israel watches over His children in every corner of the land and the sea and as we travel over beautiful seas, we feel Him with us as we walk passed the police, the guards.
We will not stop being who we are; we will not stop traveling. We will not hide our Israeli passports. We are Israelis. We are Jews. That’s the message we bring to the world. We. Are.