Monday, July 26, 2004

Herzl Street at Night

2 AM in a town of 30,000 souls – doesn’t sound all that exciting, right? Well, in my hometown the "central artery" – like the main street in every Israeli town called either Weizmann or Herzl Street – is bustling with life any summer night.

People sit outside, around tables sponsored by the never ending row of junk food shops along both sides of the street, with ample supply of pistachio, sun flower seeds and other bird’s food (after ten years in Israel I still don’t manage to open a sun flower seed with my front teeth only in a split second and take the seed out with the tip of my tongue, but at least I do succeed to spit the peel silently onto the pavement), watch other people walking by, or stare with empty glares at the TV inside the nearest shop. The girls bitch about the competition, which the guys admire, if they are not preoccupied with the next Honda-Civic-turned-Starship-Enterprise, roaring down Weizmann (or Herzl, depends) Street.

The average age at these hours is around 19 for the men, and not more than 16 for the girls. Without checking the ID you can’t tell here if a girl is 14 or 22, there are no limits with regard to the minimum covered body surface, make-up and hair-do. Anything goes, the hotter, the better, remember: Taste is subjective.

The most interesting place is the central junction. Here is where the mating rituals take place. Four to six boys crammed into anything from a disintegrating wreck to the latest 4x4, try to get the attention of the apparently totally bored girls, which happen to be at this junction purely by accident. The challenge is to overcome the brutal volume of the car stereo (yes, true, I love Sarid Hadad, I have confessed to this one already) with shouts relaying deep wisdom and a deep tone. Can be difficult when you are 16, so better turn the volume up a little more. What happens when the mating calls are unexpectedly met by an inviting response?  Nothing, of course. How could you pack six girls into a 1986 Fiat Punto, which already is collapsing under six hopeful heavy weights? So here is my tip for the boys on Weizmann (or Herzl) Street: Walk!

As a father of two boys and one girl I have made the following resolutions after witnessing the local scene:

  • No driver license allowed under the age of 25.
  • Summer curfew is 8 PM for now, 10 PM for ages 16 and up. This is in our garden, outside take 2 hours off.
  • Pop’s and Mom’s cars are out of order after 8 PM.
  • No muscles shirts, no mini skirts and no barely visible blouses in my vicinity. (No platform shoes either, but this one is for another time, too.) .

I guess you are asking yourself now: Since neither his age (for sure) nor his dress code (presumably), actually not even his driving style (hopefully) is appropriate for that kind of nightlife, what is he doing outside at those hours?

Well, I’ll get back to this topic in one of the next stories, when I will tell you something about the not-so-nice sides of small town night-life in crazy Israel.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Another Wall, 15 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Now this one is especially interesting from a German point-of-view.
I have lived next to the fortified border between East and West Germany for 25 years, so it was kind of obvious to me that
a) one can build a border that is cheap yet almost impossible to overcome, and therefore
b) I suggested already in 1995 in several letters to the Israeli media to hire the unemployed East German border engineers for a year or two to separate Israel proper from the territories, at least as long as it is necessary to cool the fighting parties down.
As we have seen in Germany, such a border must not be permanent and is no contradiction to a negotiated settlement.  Well, somehow I was not taken all that serious at the time, but here I am, 9 years later, deeply satisfied that finally an Israeli government has the guts to do the sensible thing and separate us from the lowtech terrorism emerging on a daily bases from the PA territory.  
Is the wall, or rather fence - because that is what it is for 90% of the total length - legal or fair? Does it bring hardship upon part of the Palestinian population? Complicated questions with a simple answer: I couldn't care less, at this point in time.
The only relevant question from this side of the fence is: Does it save lives? And here the answer is a crystal clear YES! And, believe it or not, it saves both Israeli and Palestinian lives. Israelis are not being blown up in busses and restaurants, while the Palestinian suicide bombers have a hard time to find a worthy target to blow up, so they stay alive and their families don't suffer Israeli retaliation for another day, and another one, and another one. And maybe one day they'll wake up and realize that there are better career moves than to explode at the entrance to a disco.
Not many people know this, but there are at any given moment about 300 Palestinian volunteers willing to turn themselves into living bombs. The fence may save most of them eventually.   So this is what the fence is all about: It buys all of us, on both sides of it, time to stay alive, day after day, one at a time. Welcome to Middle Eastern realities.
In that context it is no wonder that nobody here gives a damn about the absurd recommendation of the International Court of Justice. From the Israeli perspective the fence is a must, like it or not.  And from the Palestinian perspective, too, although not too many Palestinians see it that way, I have to admit - yet. Once the fence is completed, things will settle down and when things settle down, blood returns from the muscles to the brain, and so maybe finally we can start talking business again. 
Since I promised to write about the daily life here, I want to add something you haven't read in the international press. Besides the already very clear impact on the security situation in large parts of the country, the fence has another very significant effect: It reduces incidents of car theft, break-in into homes and businesses by over 40% overall, and even more so in the parts of the country where construction has been finished.
The explanation is obvious. Most of those stolen cars disappeared in the West Bank. The new ones were turned into official PA vehicles (especially fancy 4x4 very appreciated by PA security and police (!) officials of all sorts), or sold at 5-10% of the real value to whoever can afford it. The not so new ones were disassembled and sold as spare parts back to Israel, where many cheap garages used those parts. During the happy times of the Oslo accords, when the border to the PA areas had more holes than a same-sized Swiss cheese, close to 46,000 vehicles were stolen in Israel in the record year of 1997! (See for official police statistics.)  
This unbelievable situation could only exist, because the Israeli government decided not to do anything meaningful against it, officially because there were not enough resources for that - there never are, by the way. Essentially the common Israeli financed the complete PA car pool indirectly via his or her extremely high car insurance payments. It was not only my impression that our politicians didn't want to step onto PA toes and rather tolerate the illegal flow of wealth into the PA coffers. You can maybe call this an indirect peace tax.  
What has happened since? Well, the silk gloves are off, the fence is progressing and car theft was down to 25,000 cars in 2003. Still very, very high by any standard, but there can be no doubt about the trend, can there?  
By the way, I lived five years in Hong Kong, which has a population just like Israel, about 6 Million people. Believe me, had there been 46,000 car thefts in that city in any one year, the world would have witnessed an uprising of the local Chinese masses. Which only serves to prove the point - you have to be a little mad to live in Israel...

Monday, July 05, 2004

Why mad, and why in Israel?

Am I mad? Didn't think so for the better part of my life, but recently I have come to reconsider. Let's start with some facts, so you'll see where I am heading.

First of all, having been born and educated in Germany, I could be living a peaceful, if somewhat dull life right there, or better yet, in Switzerland, Norway, or some other Eurodisney. Which place did I choose? A small town near Tel Aviv, Israel. Relatively quiet, but not quite as dull as, say, Trondheim. Not quite as clean either, but we'll leave that aside for the moment.

So how come? Why did I leave a perfectly sane place to live behind and settled in crazy Israel? Because I am a Zionist? Well, maybe a little, by now, but that was not the original motivation. Because I am a Jew? Nope, I am actually a Roman Catholic, although I have forgotten all about it. Actually, I haven't entered a church for reasons other than architectural curiosity in the last 30-something years, so I am not living here because I consider it the Holy Land either.

We have by now exhausted the range of acceptable explanations and enter the realm of the irrational. To make it short, I live in Israel because of love. I came here by accident and met a wonderful girl, which in the end agreed to marry me. Took some convincing, believe me, but this one is for later, too.

Sounds romantic, doesn’t it? Yes, but I can say with the authority of almost 10 years living in Israel, the doorstep of our house is where the romance ends. Outside of that tiny bubble of ours Israel is a pretty crazy place. It’ll make you mad in the end, even if you started out perfectly normal. And I love it.

I will try to give you a glimpse of the daily life in Israel, from my very own perspective of a German immigrant. There will be some funny stories and some astonishing ones, but many will be sad or upsetting, because this is what life is all about in the Holy Land. It is about the basics, not the sterile, all cushioned version I grew up with.

See for yourself. If you have specific questions let me know.