September 23, 2003 | Op-ed

Jordan Russ in Israel

By Jordan Russ

Apathy is an untenable position in the Middle East. Unlike Americans, citizens of this inflamed and tattered region must deal with chaos, insecurity, and turmoil daily, forcing them to take personal political stances. Terrorism has plagued the region for almost half a century and while the violence spirals ever further out of control, there is no end in sight.

Under this seemingly perilous context, a Washington based think tank sent fifty undergraduates from around the country to study and analyze how Israel defends itself from innumerable terrorist threats. We attended lectures given by top Israeli military officials, intelligence analysts, internal security service officers, and a host of expert professors and intellectuals whose job it is to combat terrorism daily.

One day we were hearing from Colonel Miri Eisen, a top Israeli Defense Force spokesperson on how Israel is portrayed in the media and the next day we were firing M-16's with an undercover kidnap and assault team in East Jerusalem. The program was designed to, during a short span of only two weeks, educate us about the threat of terrorism to democratic societies. Yet beyond that, it showed me two very important things.

First, how lucky we are to live in the Unites States where, despite the continual threat of terrorist attacks, there have been only minute instances of danger amid the incessant alerts. Second, how unlucky Israel and other democracies are who must wage war daily, and in some regions hourly, against an unseen enemy who fights from the shadows.

Regardless of your own views about Israel and the conflict in the Middle East, terrorism is hard to justify or condone. Because of its size and population, Israel must commit all its available resources to fighting terrorist threats of all varieties. Because military service is compulsory, eighteen year old Israelis patrol the streets, playgrounds, and malls with machine guns.

During a lecture conducted by a member of the police bomb squad, we were told that the squad responds to over one hundred bomb threats per day, and while most turn out to be nothing, it only requires one suicide bomber to destroy a whole block and inflict numerous casualties. Israelis must always be on guard.

Luckily for us, we didn't encounter any such malicious activity, and one day after being briefed on the smuggling of munitions, we journeyed to Acre, which is an Arab-Israeli village located along the coast. Acre has an ancient past, one which includes occupation and rule by the crusaders, who built among other things a magnificent fortress to protect against invasion from the sea.

A few days later we were at the Erez Crossing where Israel maintains an enormous factory, which employs over 1,000 Palestinians and an impenetrable border. This border crossing is perhaps the most impressive facility in Israel. Every truck, its contents and every package are inspected to prevent entry of any harmful substances or potentially threatening items.
One thing many people overlook when they discuss the Israel-Palestine conflict is the relationship between the two peoples within the borders of Israel, not including the Gaza Strip. On any given day, a stroll through a local mall or market reveals the two groups interacting and conducting business just as we would see here in the United States. It almost makes one forget that just around the block another shooting or bombing could take place.

Regardless of the violence, there are indelibly human moments where all the turmoil seems to fade away and people, be they Israelis, Jews, Christians, Arabs, or Americans, can interact. During our stay at a resort on the Sea of Galilee, after a night of dancing, drinking, and general festivities with the residents of the hotel, five students in our program and I found ourselves laying on mattresses smoking a Jordanian hookah and telling jokes in three languages.

Laughing and becoming fast friends until 4 A.M., we learned that people, especially youths, still preserve vestiges of hope for peace. In no other setting perhaps anywhere in the world could a group of young adults interact the way we did that night. All the students present realized the next day that we had learned something even more valuable than all the classroom lectures we attended or any of the amazing sights we saw. Something very few people get to see is the real and personal side of the seemingly endless violence.

To this day the six of us still tell the jokes we learned, despite the fact that we really don't understand or get them, in an attempt to recreate that unforgettable night.

Returning to the United States was difficult because of the short time we were away, but I did notice the banality of things after what we had seen and where we had been. The mall was even more boring than I remembered it, especially since the girls weren't carrying automatic weapons. Security entering Nashville International Airport seemed ridiculously lax compared to that of El Al Airlines and Ben Gurion International Airport.

Finally though, I was able to order a normal double bacon cheeseburger without the staff at the fast food restaurant looking at me like a blasphemous infidel. As our program director told us in at the beginning of the program “this will be an experience that for many of you will be unparalleled for the rest of your lives.” In every aspect of the trip, whether it was surfing the beaches of Tel Aviv or meeting in the Prime Minister's Office, he was absolutely correct.

Jordan Russ is an Undergraduate Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.