I land at Ben-Gurion Airport just before midnight and begin the long ascent to Jerusalem. The headiness hits me immediately and will remain until I depart 10 days later. A few hours later I sit bleary-eyed at breakfast ahead of a day spent trading ideas with some of Israel’s finest intellects from diplomacy, journalism and academia. I take lunch with the Director-General of the Foreign Ministry, Yuval Rotem, former Ambassador to Australia. A perfect specimen of energy meeting acumen, sneeringly called ‘cunning’ by Bob Carr in his diaries, Yuval at once sees the big picture while recalling the smallest detail. In the evening, I dine on Kurdish dumplings and hummus while discussing war and peace with a spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister.
The following morning I depart for the Palestinian Territories to visit a Palestinian refugee camp, meet the Mayor of Bethlehem, and venture into darkest Hebron. I enter the camp, really just a common village of paved roads and stone houses, the entrance to which is adorned by an enormous key symbolising the Palestinian quest to return to what is now Israel. The enormity of the key aptly captures the degree to which the Palestinians are anchored in the past, unable to conceive of a future. Everywhere I turn I see the images of their ‘martyrs’. A corflute shows a young man with a Hamas headband and the smouldering wreck of an Israeli passenger bus he detonated. Where I come from such people are considered the lowest of cowards whose names should be blotted out. Here their names are exalted.
Next – the mayor of Bethlehem. A great walrus of a man, he enthusiastically shakes my hand no fewer than 6 times. We discuss the peace process, Rabin, Olmert, Sharon. I am impressed by his reasonableness. As he speaks, I picture EU officials leaving his company beaming to one another, ‘now there’s a man you can do business with!’ But the longer he talks without interjection the more his stream of consciousness takes him down avenues of delusion and conspiracy.
On my way out, the Mayor’s elegant young deputy diverts me to the balcony overlooking Manger Square. She recounts a recent indignation at the hands of an Israeli soldier who forbade her from entering a closed military zone. She speaks of her desire to live in peace and dignity. Her eyes flash with such intense passion that a lesser Zionist would have crumbled and given her east Jerusalem right there and then.
In Hebron I stand at the spot where a Palestinian sniper shot a ten-month old baby girl as she lay in her stroller. I inspect the shuttered shops of Shuhada Street and squeeze past queuing Palestinian men, their faces fixed with simmering rage, chanting ‘Allahu Akhbar’ while waiting at a checkpoint to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs. The indignity of being made to queue by young Jews in fatigues is clear, but then nothing in Hebron is simple and everything is conditioned by bloody history. I stop to speak to a young soldier heading for the front line. His nervous energy is palpable. I wish him strength. As I leave Hebron I hear the rhythmic thuds of tear gas rounds.
The following day I spend with Sharren Haskel, a rising star of the Israeli Parliament, whose intense passion matches that of the young PLO official on the balcony over Bethlehem. She invites me to attend a Memorial Day ceremony in Itamar, deep in the West Bank. Itamar means one thing to me – the Fogel family. In 2011, two cousins from the Arab village of Awarta penetrated the perimeter fence of Itamar, broke into the Fogel’s family home and hacked Ruth and Ehud Fogel to death in their beds before killing their three children. Three-month old Hadas Fogel was decapitated in her cot.
Sharren warns me that some will surely disapprove of a Jewish leader spending Memorial Day in the settlements. But on a day to mourn the Jewish dead, I couldn’t care less what side of a defunct armistice line they died on, and I can think of no worthier place to be than the home of the Fogels. We drive through the exquisite countryside of the West Bank – biblical and bucolic. The ceremony begins. We bake in the hilltop sun. The mood is sombre and pained. Teenagers recite prayers for the fallen, community leaders weep as they deliver their addresses, and a kid strums a guitar while his friend in a knitted kippa sings beautiful lamentations. My attention is seized by a stocky man who shuffles to the podium before reciting the prayer for the dead (Kaddish). He has the face of a broken man, whose pain is fresh. The father of a recently fallen soldier perhaps.
When the ceremony concludes, Sharren mingles with the people while I stand back and take in the majesty of the surrounds and the weight of the moment. Sharren walks over with the man from the podium and introduces him to me as Boaz Shabo. It’s a name I have heard but cannot immediately place. He tells me how much it means to him that I came. I am humbled. ‘Come, I want to show you,’ he tells me, leading me to a huddled group of people obscuring a monument of some sort. They part reverentially for Boaz and I see four identical graves littered with small stones left by mourners. ‘This is my wife, Rachel and these are our three sons.’ Before there was the Fogel family there was the Shabo family. As Boaz worked late one evening, terrorists broke into his home and murdered his wife and three children, the youngest a boy of 5. Boaz and I lock in a long embrace and I wish him strength and long life.
I catch up with the Leader of the Israeli Opposition, Isaac ‘Bougie’ Herzog and meet Tzipi Livni to discuss peace and the Palestinians. I leave the country dizzier still from the beauty of its soulful people, the splendour of the land, the scale of the nation’s achievements, and the enormity of its threats. I think of the grandeur of Jerusalem. Most of all, I think about Boaz Shabo’s tormented face and the price of having a Jewish state. Indeed, the price of being Jewish.
Waiting to check my bags I flick through stories about Boaz. Five years after the massacre he remarried. Two years later, after losing his three sons to terrorists, his second wife gave him triplets. ‘Never give in to despair. There is always a light at the top, even if it might involve a hard climb,’ Boaz said after the birth. And therein lies the story of the Jewish people and the destiny of their tiny nation-state. Strength, defiance and progress. Eyes fixed to the future while never forgetting the lessons of the past.
Alex Ryvchin is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry. His new book is ‘The Anti-Israel Agenda – Inside the Political War on the Jewish State’