In recent weeks, as always around Independence Day, we were inundated by media stories as to the important achievements of our state. These are indeed stories to be proud of, but also to be concerned about. My own patriotism is not linked to our superiority syndrome of being a “Light upon the nations” – we are not. It is more visceral, a love story, linked also to experiences and people, to pictures in my mind.
I will spontaneously outline some of them.
1. A kaleidoscope of color through which one can see Israel
A unique blend of the azure of the Mediterranean, the bright yellow of the Negev, the soft green of the Galilee, the mystical gold of Jerusalem. A beautiful collage of pastel colors as background to our rocky reality.
Our people are no less colorful, given their diverse backgrounds from Ethiopia to Siberia, and their direct, passionate expressions. It is hard to trace a dull face in Israel. Every man, woman and child has a fascinating life story to tell that parallels the country’s modern history. And they do it with little timidity.
2. A friend in need is a friend indeed
When in trouble, it’s best to have an Israeli friend.
Israelis will go out of their way if somebody they know needs medical help, is fired from work, has a broken heart or car, or God forbid, sits shiva. In grieving over families and friends, one’s house is packed with people whom we can barely remember, telling how exceptional the deceased was. Israelis are also the best matchmakers for those who aspire toward a match for life.
People will travel from Kiryat Shmona to comfort a friend in need. I have such a friend, Moshe Ram from the Peres Peace Center, who is with me and my family through thick and thin, as if it were the most natural thing to do.
People here are less generous in cases of great success; we love to be jealous. It is the opposite of the United States, where success is celebrated and people’s failure or problems are not societally recognized.
3. ‘I saw her on the way to the gymnasium’
As the quintessential Israeli Arik Einstein sings, indeed, I see my two granddaughters, Anouk, 15, and Miki, 13, on the way to the Herzliya Gymnasium school in Tel Aviv. The two youngsters represent the charm of Israel to me, with a rare mixture of ingenuity and integrity, in love with life and critical of it.
Miki recently interviewed me for a school paper on the Oslo process. Like their mother, the author Maya Savir, they are all-out peaceniks and veterans of peace demonstrations with their younger brother Leni.
Anouk introduced me to another all-out Israeli, her headmaster, Dr. Zev Dgani. Russian-born, he has led her and her classmates in an innovative scientific school program of growing spirulina sea algae in Coke bottles. Spirulina is rich in protein, and can be a lifesaver for malnourished children in Africa and beyond. Dgani has combined the ingenious Israeli scientific development with the curiosity and goodwill of Israeli children. “From early childhood, we must guide them how to contribute to the world,” he told me before leaving for Cape Town to work with South African youth in growing spirulina for children in need. Maya and Anouk joined him on this trip.
4. Achinoam Nini
Achinoam Nini, the beautiful Israeli, embodies Israel in every sense of the word. She combines Yemenite beauty and charm with an American background and tolerance. A woman of peace and principles, she is never afraid to share her views, out of the deepest love for her country. She is ready to sacrifice part of her audience for total honesty.
I was privileged to host her together with the mayor of Rome for the first-ever public concert in that city’s Colosseum. She sang “Imagine” together with her Algerian friend Khaled in Hebrew, Arabic and English, imagining a better future of peace. The legendary Ray Charles was there with Georgia on his mind, and like his friend Quincy Jones, he was in awe of Achinoam.
She is known worldwide as Israel’s peace singer, and she has performed at the Vatican and in the Eurovision Song Contest. Together with Mira Awad, another true peace performer, they sang “There Must Be Another Way.” She believes in it and fights for it.
5. My cousin Avraham
Avraham is an Orthodox man with a long white beard. Some of his children live in settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights. We could not be more different and yet I feel a deep kinship with him.
He is a man of principle, totally convinced of Greater Israel as the fulfillment of the biblical promise, yet at the same time tolerant and empathetic to opposing views.
He grew up politically alongside National Religious Party stalwart Yosef Burg and became a senior official as the head of the rehabilitation of prisoners unit. He developed one of the most advanced methods of prisoner rehabilitation, in order to prepare their return into society. As such he is well respected also by Hashomer Hatza’ir, Meretz as well as Israeli Arabs – and even internationally. He is often invited to the United States to lecture about his policies.
One can imagine that during the Oslo process years, he was not the greatest enthusiast of his cousin Uri.
Yet we remained, as today, very close, and in a way maybe possible only in Israel, have a common language of mutual respect despite polar opposite views.
6. ‘London and Kirschenbaum’
It’s the best news show in Israel. Highly opinionated, like all Israelis, they are eloquent and experienced journalists, opening the door to a gallery of talented young colleagues. The journalists in the show reflect an important generational gap – veterans who see the historical trends and express their opinionated views and values; the young see the events, and analyze the news in a more pragmatic fashion.
The two old-timers gain the respect of their younger colleagues. Yaron London is a champion of healthy cynicism and strong opinions. He does not stutter between the West Bank and Judea and Samaria, but defines it for which it is: the occupied territories.
Moti Kirschenbaum, more disciplined, but with no less intellectual depth, is also a champion of good Israeli satirical humor from the days of Nikui Rosh, the 1970s satirical TV show.
Israel’s leading radio station is a military news outlet without an ounce of militarism. Its playlist often shapes the destiny of performers and songs. Listening to it, as I do in the mornings, one gets exposed to the chaos of traffic on our roads, and to the harmony of mostly popular Israeli music. You hear songs from Arik Einstein, Shlomo Artzi and Ninet, in between depressing news of car accidents and political casualties.
Israelis today are more complacent about the turbulence of political life, and take it easy with good Mediterranean music in the background. Israeli, especially Tel Avivian, escapism has special charm.
8. The barmen at Café Michal
This charming Tel Aviv café on Dizengoff Street has become my second office, where I write and conduct my meetings. The atmosphere is relaxed and joyful, with a good, varied Tel Avivian crowd that does not fit the image of the “north Tel Aviv bubble of the elitist, capitalist leftists.” It has its own special charm of the Mediterranean, just minutes away from the seashore, with an open horizon to the world.
Avi and Rafi are the two barmen, compelling products of Israel’s young generation. Both are tall, slim with black trimmed beards, outspoken and introverted at the same time.
In bars in other parts of the world, people pour their hearts out to the barmen; here they laugh together, exchange views on the background music and the news of the day. There is much intimacy and flirtation in the air, more subtle than elsewhere. The favorite alcoholic drink at this Israeli café is an orange juice, with a bloody Mary here and there.
9. The flight attendant on the El Al flight to Paris
El Al is Israel. When you get on board abroad, you have landed in Israel. A friendly staff, calling you by your first name, a noisy crowd, people recognizing each other as if they were shopping on Ben-Yehuda Street, humous and chicken for lunch, “Hava Nagila” on the loudspeaker.
On a recent flight to Paris, one of the charming El Al flight attendants engaged me in a friendly chat.
“Uri, how is peace? Not so well, I guess,” she laments, “but we will always have Paris,” as she smiles.
Recounting her last Parisian experience, “You should check out Les Deux Magots café,” Iris recommends. This used to be Jean-Paul Sartre’s hangout.”
She is a student of philosophy at Ben-Gurion University and continues to engage with me on existentialism.
Only on El Al. I ended up going to the Deux Magots.
10. Shimon Peres
President Peres is not only our No. 1 citizen, but the man who forged our modern-day history more than anyone since David Ben-Gurion – from Dimona to Oslo.
He embodies much of what Israel is about, his care for an effective defense capacity, unconventional thinking about a technologically based modern economy, a fervent consumer of modern Hebrew culture and a passionate fighter for a more peaceful future.
He is a sensitive intellectual, with tremendous operational capacities; a pioneer from Kibbutz Alumot, and a cosmopolitan statesman.
Peres maintains that while building our might, we must seek the moral high ground. Unlike other Israeli leaders, he always spoke to our Arab neighbors out of respect, with a full sense of human equality. He believes that being in charge of our own destiny is important enough and that we must not control the destiny of others.
While Israeli at his core, he believes in erecting a critical bridge to the world. He in many ways leads our modern exodus from the Ghetto. The respect for him in the world is without parallel. Above all, Peres is an ardent optimist about creating our own future without being bogged down by the tragedies of the past. I once asked him if with everything he accomplished, he was satisfied. He answered, “No, I am happy about our achievements, but never satisfied.”
Satisfaction, he claims, makes you lazy. He is what we ought to be, a rebel against the past, and a creative architect of a better future.
These are the pictures in my mind that together create a fascinating mosaic of the Israel that I love. And maybe one more: Friday afternoon sunset on the Tel Aviv beach, sipping strong Turkish coffee, writing Savir’s Corner.
Uri Savir is the honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator of the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.