Out There: Feeling the love (not)

Out There Feeling the l

"Herbert, come with me," the uniformed, mustachioed Jordanian official said, holding my passport and calling me by my passport name, waving me away from the small group of Israelis I was travelling with. On our way to a Russian-sponsored conference on Middle East peace on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, five of us had special dispensation to cross into Jordan from the Allenby Bridge, a privilege not ordinarily granted Israelis. I followed the official into a small room, where another uniformed man, smoking a cigarette, told me I was not on the list of Israelis approved for passage. "Why are you not on the list?" he asked in an intimidating bureaucratic tone that immediately got me nervous. "I dunno," I replied, always quick on my feet. "I should be." Yup, I had him there. "Sit there," the Jordanian gestured, not unkindly. And so I sat, as the wheels of Jordan's bureaucracy began to turn. And as I sat there, separated from my newfound Israeli friends, I felt an impotent sense of powerlessness. I knew rationally that no harm would come to me, and - if worst came to worst - I would be sent back across the Allenby Bridge to the loving embrace of my family. But one does not always think rationally, especially in settings like these, and the darkest of thoughts intruded on my mind, particularly during the short time I wasn't allowed to join my travelling-partners. I thought about jail cells and visitation rights and that grisly 1970s movie about Turkish prisons, Midnight Express. Sitting in the room in silence as the officer waited for a clarifying phone call, I kept looking at the ceiling for one of those ceiling fans. You know, the kind that whirs above and always accompanies scenes like these in movies, where an innocent guy is interrogated in some hot, Middle Eastern or Latin American country before being thrown into a holding cell with terrorists, rapists and drug runners. Those thoughts fled when I joyously noticed there was no ceiling fan, and when I was finally allowed to rejoin my group. A short time later, after the Jordanians served us sweet tea, and the country's head of intelligence - contacted at home - approved my entry, we were permitted passage into the Hashemite kingdom. Okay, I thought, a two-hour border delay is not that bad. My unease was unwarranted; I'm just paranoid. BUT I was not alone. On the way back to the Allenby Bridge from the conference, the cab driver started down a narrow road, taking a different route to the bridge. Since it was night when we drove from the bridge, and daytime when we returned, I had no clue we were on a different course, and was downright blissful in my ignorance. Not so Ya'acov Amidror, a major-general in the reserves and one of the Israelis - along with Bar-Ilan University Prof. Efraim Inbar - with whom I shared the cab. Amidror, with those sharp military instincts, sensed we were driving by a different route and suspiciously queried the driver. The driver responded that this was simply a quicker way back. That sounded reasonable. But, indicative of our thoughts, black humor flowed regarding possible captivity. "Who do you think the kidnappers will treat with more respect," someone said, "the general, professor or journalist?" "At least we are three, enough for a mezuman [quorum for grace after meals]," someone else noted. All of which underlines the insecurity and vulnerability that Israelis feel when travelling even to Jordan, a country with which we have a peace treaty and good relations at a governmental level. I stress "governmental level," because I didn't exactly feel the love from the folks participating in the conference. According to one report, a number of Jordanian journalists protested the presence of the small Israeli delegation by simply not showing up. The Israeli presence also forced representatives from some other states, such as Iran, Bahrain and Lebanon, to cancel their participation. One would think, therefore, that those who did muster the courage to come to the conference and sit with Israelis would be open and awfully nice folk. Think again. Taking my place around the conference table, I was positioned between one female professor from the US, and a strikingly attractive woman from an Arab state, whose name tag I could not see. After exchanging pleasantries with the American, I turned to do the same with the woman on my left. Bad idea. She turned her back and grunted in response to my hello. We sat in the same session - right next to each other - for some five hours, but exchanged nary a word or even a glance. And my experience with that woman represented a veritable love fest compared to statements delivered by speaker after speaker from the Arab world - the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. SITTING IN Israel - talking to ourselves, about ourselves - we become detached from and immune to the feelings of enmity toward us that exist among our neighbors. We definitely know they are there, but we don't feel them first-hand. But that enmity is real, it is passionate and it is sobering. For two days, I sat at a conference on peace in the Middle East and heard one Arab speaker after the next essentially drop all of the world's evils on Israel's lap, at our door step. Loyal readers who follow this space might remember that last month, after visiting the US and Canada, I wrote that Israel had much more support in North America than we generally appreciate, and that this support could be found in some of the most unexpected places - like Austin, Texas or Florence, Alabama. Last month I felt that love, 10,000 kilometers miles away in the American South. This month I felt the hate, 50 kilometers away in Jordan. And that explains why when I came back across the Allenby Bridge, I had this sudden yearning for all things Alabama.