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Spirit of the People
by Judy Lash Balint
Midstream
December 6, 2000

The violence which has dragged on now for more than two months and which permeates almost every sector of our lives has in fact caused one or two positive shifts in Israeli society. The most obvious is a closing of the ranks-- a sense that despite the political wrangling, we’re all still family.

Golan residents volunteer their services to help protect the roads for their endangered Jordan Valley brethren; Jordan Valley bus drivers trade shifts with their Gush Katif counterparts and the people from the south and Gilo are invited to Galilee kibbutz guest houses for a free weekend of relaxation.

These actions are but one manifestation of the spirit of the people of Israel. Since the outbreak of this crisis, I’ve come into contact with people who exemplify that unique Israeli combination of strength and goodness which many thought had been long buried under materialism and individualism.

Take Haggai, for example. Haggai drove me to a conference in Sderot the other day. He’s the father of five kids who holds down two jobs. He picked me up in his blue minivan which he uses to transport kids to school from his community of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion just south of Jerusalem. In the middle of the day , when he’s not with the kids, Haggai takes off to the film studios of Neve Ilan to work as a technician.

Haggai is in his forties with dark disheveled hair, a shaggy mustache and a knitted kipa which looks like it’s about to slide off the side of his head at any moment. Our conversation quickly turns to “the situation.” Haggai tells me quietly that he grew up in Kfar Maimon, a small moshav in the south. He doesn’t need to tell me that’s the place where a recent terror victim is from. Ayelet Hashahar Levy, 24, the daughter of National Religious Party leader Rabbi Yitzhak Levy, also spent her early years at Kfar Maimon. Haggai recounts his shiva visit to the Levy family back at his birthplace.

Amongst the dozens of people there, Haggai found himself sitting next to another old friend from his Kfar Maimon days, Noga Cohen. Noga now lives in Kfar Darom, and he hadn’t seen her for a while. They updated each other on the latest escapades of their kids and went on their way.

Just three weeks later, Haggai was devastated to hear on the news that three of his old friend’s kids were critically injured by the terrorist bomb which pierced a school bus in Kfar Darom, claiming the lives of two adults. All three children have had limbs amputated and lie in hospital. Haggai and his wife organize a constant stream of visitors to the family; they help set up a fund to help with expenses and just sit with them at the hospital. Just plain acts of loving kindness that are ingrained in their character.

I get to ride home from the Sderot conference with another driver, Zion. Zion is older, a grandfather of nine. Zion’s ancestors are Turkish Jews who lived in Iran before arriving in Israel in the 1940’s. Zion decides to take me back via the scenic route--past Bet Guvrin and through the beautiful rolling hills of Emek Ha’ela, past the new towns of Tzur Hadassah and Beitar, and out onto the tunnel road into Jerusalem. The roads are almost completely deserted save for the occasional jeep. Zion is intimately familiar with this route as it passes his rural home in Neve Michael. As we pass each site along the way , Zion tells me stories of the founders; of the people who live there now. His passionate love for the land comes through in his every word. He relates how he wakes up early each morning and putters in his garden before enjoying a cup of coffee with his wife. He marvels at the beauty of the land he has helped cultivate.

Zion explains how his community of 150 families works. “ We visit each other all the time. No one comes to visit without something from the orchards or fields in his hands,” he says. Bushels of grapes, avocados, oranges--whatever happens to be in season is shared by the families of Neve Michael. With a broad smile he describes his ultimate joy--Shabbat gatherings of his children and grandchildren. “You should see my daughter,” says Zion. “She can’t do enough for us. She won’t let my wife do a thing in the kitchen while she’s there. Ach...what a pleasure.” Just a simple, natural love of land and family ingrained in his character.

Israelis living in Judea and Samaria are passionate about the land too, but their feelings these days have an urgent edge to them. One day last week I accompanied Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Michael Melchior on a visit to the embattled communities of Psagot and Eli. Melchior, a leader of Meimad, the left wing religious party, decided that he needed to reassure people in those small settlements that despite their political differences, he and his party stood with them in these terrible times.

The impetus for the visit was the publication of an open letter signed by Peace Now calling for the dismantling of settlements. The fringe group chose to run the ads not only in Israeli papers but also in a Palestinian daily published in Ramallah. Melchior is outraged at the action which he feels legitimates and encourages violence against Jews living in YESHA.

At Eli, a hilltop community of some 3,000 people, Melchior asks for a meeting with the students and faculty of Yeshivat Bnai David, a pre-army yeshiva program. The discussion is closed to the press, but we are briefed by Gidon Prager while the meeting takes place. Gidon is young, tall and clean shaven. His cardigan sweater and owlish glasses give him a scholarly look. He addresses the journalists in perfect English learned from his English born parents.

Gidon speaks calmly about the high tech company he’s founded in Eli. He tells us about the security concerns of the people of Eli and neighboring communities. Gidon fields some hostile questions with measured responses, quietly explaining his point of view. He is self assured without being arrogant and refuses to be lured into the journalists lair. He firmly but respectfully reiterates his opinion that the residents of Eli will not be frightened into violent responses to Arab terror, and repeatedly asserts that any change in the situation will come about only through democratic means. Just a rational, firm belief in the justness of Israel’s claims ingrained in his character.

Minister Melchior is invited in to the community center for a meeting with Eli community leaders. It’s an earnest, thoughtful and unsettling discussion. The bearded Eli representatives lay out their feelings about the government’s attitude toward the settlements. The men wear the knitted kippot of the national religious movement. Their furrowed brows reveal their concern and consternation. “We’re brothers,”says one of the men to Minister Melchior. “We must always remember we’re brothers...but you have to agree that what the Arabs are doing in trying to steal away our country is a crime,” he continues. He passionately argues that the left must be more careful with language. “If we all buy into the argument that we’re a ‘foreign occupying government’ here, there’s no hope,” he says. Rabbi Eli Sadan speaks up: “We have to keep our faith...we won’t accept the Arab attempts to rewrite history and deny our historic claims here.” Rabbi Sadan fervently urges Melchior, a religious left wing minister, to exert his influence on the secular leftist politicians. “Your words (that some settlements will have to go) have created a terrible dynamic,” Sadan continues, accusing Melchior of undermining the morale in the small outlying communities. Just a passionate, total committment to Zionism ingrained in his character.

The compassion of some Israelis is inspiring. Twenty seven year old Keren Leibovich won three gold medals in swimming at the Sydney Paralympic Games. Leibovitch, disabled since 1992 from an accident during her army service, made it her business to travel down to Soroka Hospital in Beersheva to pay a special visit to the three young Cohen children who will spend the rest of their lives without one or two limbs as a result of the Kfar Darom terror attack. Keren wants to show the children that the challenges of physical disability can be overcome. To give them hope for a productive future. Just empathetic, caring and compassion ingrained in her character.

My doorbell rings. Standing smiling at the threshold are two long-haired twenty something young men in blue youth movement shirts. They’re holding bulging plastic bags and ask if I have any candy to contribute to their collection for distribution to hospitalized kids. The Israeli version of trick or treat. Just a sense of responsibility and a natural impulse to care for others ingrained in their character.

It’s not only native Israelis who exemplify these characteristics. I spent a Shabbat filled with humor, concern and spirit at the home of Avi and Barbara Grant in Ra’anana. The Grants are immigrants from England, in Israel for just five years this time around, Avi and Barbara are on the front lines of the battle for media balance. Avi is a retired engineer. Congenial and intelligent, Avi has a wealth of knowledge and life experience which he puts to good use writing and circulating letters to papers all over the world advocating Israel’s interests. Barbara is a PR professional who understands the workings of the media world. She’s articulate and assertive and relentless in her pursuit of fairness from the press. Since the start of the violence Barbara has found her days consumed with articulating Israel’s case by phone, fax and e mail. Her business has suffered, but every day she comes up with fresh ideas for engaging journalists in lively discussion and politely challenges their ignorance and willful bias. Just a total commitment to the pursuit of truth ingrained in her character.

Every few weeks I spend a spirited Friday night with the Cohn family in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Shmuel neighborhood. There are hundreds of us who count ourselves among the fortunate targets of Moshe and Ruth Cohn’s hospitality. The lively couple who emigrated from London five years ago to join their children here, welcome dozens of guests to their Shabbat table every week. It’s always an eclectic group of immigrants and native born Israelis; young and old; singles and couples. Many long term friendships have been forged around that table, between people who might otherwise never have met. When I ask Moshe if I may reciprocate one Shabbat, he politely declines, informing me in his London accent: “There are too many interesting people around that WE still have to invite.” Just a genuine desire ingrained in his character to spread friendship and warmth and fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

The list could go on--performers like Yehuda Glantz, originally from South America, who almost stopped the show at the opening of the recent Jerusalem Du Siach (dialogue) Festival. Glantz, a Hasidic/rock/world beat singer and musician with bushy black beard, long twirly sidelocks and a powerful stage presence, joined forces with Gidi Gov, the quintessential secular, sabra singer, to sing ‘Kol Haolam Kulo, Gesher Tzar Meod.’ (The whole world is a very narrow bridge.) The chorus, belted out by the two performers on stage as well as everyone in the packed auditorium, is: “But the main thing above all, is not to be afraid at all.”

Surrounded here by people such as those I’ve described, it’s a lot easier to internalize that mantra. The spirit of the people of Israel is battered, but alive and well.

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