By Nathan Godleman
It was not the first conversation of its kind I had experienced. “You’ve been abroad? Where? Israel? Isn’t it dangerous? What a tragic situation!” All followed by my attempt to offer reassurance and a certain reframing. “Yes, there are dangerous times and places, but it’s a beautiful country, full of variety. You should visit!”
When we mention Israel to people we don’t know, it’s a bit like a leap into the dark. There’s a moment of tension as we await their response.
While readying ourselves for hostility, we are more likely to find curiosity, along with an impression shaped by news stories and images which concentrate almost entirely on the conflict.
A conversation at the airport with a young shop assistant showed the power of Tel Aviv as a party town to eclipse it occasionally. He thought of beaches; others think of blockades.
Having recently returned from four months in Israel, living in the northern city of Haifa, I am acutely aware that stereotypical views of the country and its people are neither accurate nor helpful.
A more complex society it would be hard to find. Yet alongside the social and political problems – deprivation in a Hadera neighbourhood, African migrants left to flounder in south Tel Aviv, Arab Israelis protesting building restrictions in the Galilee – there is much to celebrate. At the university, the words ‘diversity’ and ‘opportunity’ are writ large.
Stand and watch as the students walk by: old and young; soldier and civilian; fully sighted and visually impaired; Jew, Arab and Druze.
And each morning I passed queues of traffic, drivers and their passengers resigned to arriving late for work or school, again. Plans were made on mobile phones, shopping lists compiled. Beside the disturbing and the extraordinary, there is the mundane.
We won’t see it through the lens of the war photographer, or even from the window of a tour bus, but without it we miss the bigger picture. Israel is a country where people live.
Nathan Godleman is a student rabbi at Leo Baeck College