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"And There Was English Heard In The Land..."
by Judy Lash Balint
Israel Insider
July 4, 2004

They're back. Real tourists...real live English speaking tourists. Not the serious looking types who showed up in little groups all winter long for four days at a time to meet with as many Israeli politicians and pundits as they could pack into their tight schedules. I'm talking about people here on vacation with their families, to actually tour the country, take in the scenery and the sites and relax at the beach.

Last night most of them seemed to be out on Jerusalem's Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, as the first weekend of the Hutzot Hair festivities drew to a close.

Hutzot Hair was initiated three summers ago by former Mayor Ehud Olmert as a way to entice people back downtown after months of terror attacks decimated business for shopkeepers and cafe owners.

Olmert rationalized that by closing off the area and stationing security personnel at every possible entrance, customers would return in defiance of the terrorists. Add a few quality food stands, music stages and arts and crafts booths and Jerusalemites hungry for a night out would show up.

That's exactly what happened as the festivals gathered steam. Every Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday night for eight weeks of the summer, thousands came out to enjoy themselves and spend a little money. Tourists were few and far between, and the infamous handwritten signs on many Ben Yehuda area Judaica and jewelry stores ("Big Discounts to Brave Tourists") looked a little pathetic.

Last Saturday night, dozens of English speaking tourists wandered in and out of those stores proud to be counted among the brave. Many teenagers and twenty-somethings stop to take in some of the really good bands playing along the street, as they munch on falafel or schwarma. Unlike most students here during the year on one year programs, these summer travelers have no restrictions on coming into town, and seem to relish being part of the huge mass of Israelis thronging the street.

In Zion Square, a lively Salsa dance session is underway. A Japanese TV crew completes the ethnic mish-mush as a bright full moon illuminates the scene.

A little way further up the street, heavily made-up models strut their stuff on a stage in a mini fashion show of bridal dresses and evening wear. All the evening dresses are sleeveless, backless and worn by young women with perfect bodies. One yeshiva boy walking down the street manages to turn his head in their direction and slow down just enough to get an eyeful. His hands instinctively fly up to his long, black payot (sidecurls), which he proceeds to frantically twirl as he unsuccessfully wills himself to walk on.

The wine bar in the middle of the street is doing great business as the more sophisticated types perch on high stools sipping a glass of kosher Merlot as the crowds surge by.

Since the concept of personal space is completely unknown in Israeli society, parents with strollers and elderly grandparents with walkers all take part in the extended mosh pit atmosphere. Conspicuously absent though, are the heavily armed soldiers who patrolled the event in past years.

In the past few weeks, various commentators have heralded the "normal" news hitting Israeli headlines ( Dog mauls child etc.) and postulated that perhaps we'd won the latest war. By last Thursday, when Sderot, a Negev community within the Green Line, had buried its Kassam rocket victims--a 4 year old child and a 50 year old grandfather, and explosives packed into a tunnel blew up an IDF convoy claiming the life of one soldier, their theories looked way off. Friday brought more rocket attacks on the small Negev town just down the road from Arik Sharon's farm.

This morning, reality returned with full force as Victor Kreiderman, 49, of Mevo Dotan was killed in a terrorist ambush as he drove with his wife to work.

Things haven't really changed that much since last summer's hudna (cease-fire, truce)--except this year we're sharing the experience with lots of tourists.