PART 1: Getting There: First Leg of the Journey & Observations
Usually when I’m invited to go on a press trip, my family and friends are very excited for me. When my trip to Israel materialized, I eagerly shared with everyone what for me what was great news. Their smiles suddenly faded and were replaced with looks of deep concern. Be careful. Be careful. Be careful. I heard that over and over again with one email from a friend reading: “Don’t leave the group. Don’t eat in any outdoor cafes. Don’t use the buses. Don’t use any underground parking… Have a good time!” Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. That was the “bon voyage” sentiment that came at me from just about everyone.
While I’m fully aware of the recent hostilities taking place between Israel and Hamas, never for a split second did I have a single worry. After all, I was headed to a country that probably has the best security in the world. No El Al plane has ever been hijacked or shot down, which is due in large part to the routine security measures at airports and the state-of-the-art defense systems in place in that tiny country, no bigger than New Jersey. In addition, many of its aircraft are equipped with anti-missile technology.
After my United Airlines flight arrived in New York, I headed over to the El Al ticket counter to pick up a boarding pass for the next leg of my journey. A friendly gentleman greeted me and escorted me to the check-in line, at which point a young woman interviewed me. “Why are you going to Israel?” “I’m going on a press trip.” “What is the purpose and where exactly will you be going.” “The purpose is to write a feature on my experiences.” “At which hotels will you being staying?” At this point, I took out my itinerary as prepared by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which outlined the destinations we would be visiting. She read it carefully and then asked me some more familiar questions: “Did anyone give you a parcel to take with you to Israel?” “No.” “Did you ever leave your luggage unattended?” “No.”
Now being incredibly efficient, I had already received a note from Israel Tourism asking me to be patient and not be offended by any of the questions that might be considered “politically incorrect,” so I was fully prepared to even answer my bra size, would I be asked that. However, I was asked about which temple I attend for the High Holy days and how I celebrate. “I celebrate Passover with a family Seder at my home.” At no point did I feel any stress or concern as I knew this procedure is what has kept El Al Airlines the safest airlines and, in fact, was grateful for all the questions. (kind of odd that you talk about High Holy days then answer what you do for Passover.)
After about ten minutes of questioning, I was then escorted to the ticket counter where I was issued a boarding pass and a special invitation to wait in the El Al lounge for my connecting flight, which would be in about five hours. Not to worry though, like most Jewish “homes,” the food area was overflowing with wonderful treats to satisfy anyone’s palette and before I knew it, the five hours had flown by and the boarding of my flight to Israel was about to commence.
I queued up to get on the plane and when I handed my boarding pass to yet another security person, he very politely said, “Wait here.” I have to admit that was the only moment of concern, as I couldn’t imagine why I was asked to “wait here.” He went to another gentleman behind the counter who picked up the phone and spoke in Hebrew. The only thing I understood was ‘Beverly Cohn.’ The security guy came back in short order and beckoned for me to proceed to the plane. I asked if there was a problem and he smiled and said, “Not to worry,” and so I didn’t. I knew I was in incredibly safe hands and was actually looking forward to the 10-½ hour flight to Ben Gurion Airport.
I share this experience with you because following the latest war with Hamas, many people cancelled their booked tours or business conventions, as did many entertainers. The only entertainer who did not cancel was Lady Gaga, and I’ll talk more about her incredible performance in Part 2. Some of the talent that backed out include Neil Young, America, Backstreet Boys, and Kansas. I understand that Young has rescheduled, but I don’t know about the rest. Depriving Israel of its tourism income and American entertainers is playing right into the hands of Hamas.
To give to some perspective on Israel’s struggles, here’s a brief historic look back: On November 29, 1947, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, allowing for the formation of the Jewish State of Israel. Six months later, on May 14, 1948, Jewish leaders in the region formed the State of Israel, at which time British troops left, thousands of Palestinian Arabs fled, and Arab armies invaded Israel. In the David vs. Goliath Arab-Israeli War, Israel miraculously defeated its enemies.
It’s at this point, I’d like to ask for your indulgence as most people think Israelis live in terror of the next rocket attack. Also, they have gotten uniformly bad press with most headlines beginning with “Israel Kills Civilians” or “Israel Kills Children,” in bomb attacks. What is glaringly missing is how many rockets were fired into Israel and that Israel was acting in its own defense. And, here’s a piece of information that many people do not have. Given that Hamas hides their weaponry in civilian homes and buildings, such as hospitals and schools, Israel has no alternative but to destroy those buildings, BUT in advance of their attack, the military actually calls people on their cell phones telling them that they are going to bomb their building and that they should evacuate. They follow up with leaflets and another phone call. It is my understanding, however, that Hamas does not allow them to leave as the more civilians that are killed, the worst Israel looks in the eyes of the world.
I recently had a conversation with a rather intelligent woman who thinks that Israel’s policy is the Biblical “An eye for an eye.” I asked her to consider that it is not retaliation but action taken to protect its citizens. I also asked her to imagine for a moment that the United States was attacked by Mexico or Canada, and thousands of rockets were launched across our border. I know that’s rather silly, but I wanted to bring the circumstances closer to home so she could perhaps gain another perspective. I asked her opinion as to how long it would take the U.S. to counterattack and if she thought that would be the correct procedure. She agreed that it is incumbent upon the United States to immediately take action to protect its citizens. I then asked her why it’s any different with Israel vis-à-vis its enemies. She was quiet for a moment and then just shrugged her shoulders. I’m not exactly sure what can be done to counter the very slanted bias by so many people, and our news agencies, other than to have conversations and to send letters of protest to the appropriate outlets demanding balanced reporting.
It’s about here that I would like you to indulge me for a moment and think about the fact that we here in California live in earthquake country. So, unless it’s a big one like the 1994 Northridge earthquake, mostly we have a brief tremor and then it’s back to business as usual. We don’t walk around thinking about the next earthquake and some of us aren’t even “earthquake prepared.”
I really need to impress upon you that it is the same in Israel, sans the earthquake. Despite the occasional hostilities, life goes on as usual. People wake up in the morning, have their coffee or tea, and go to work or school. Life is active and the streets are alive with people. Even in times when they have to go to a shelter, when they emerge, it’s an instant return to their daily routines. Why do I tell you this? Because a lot of people have the impression that Israelis live in fear of the next attack, which they do not. Also, most of the hostilities take place in the Gaza Strip, with the exception of the last war when Hamas was able to fire long range rockets at cities across Israel, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. However, most of the rockets were deflected by Israel’s “Iron Dome,” its missile defense system, whose development was the result of a joint effort between Israel and the United States, which provided the funding. It should be noted that since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, terrorists have fired more than 11,000 rockets into Israel.
If you are in any way sympathetic with the ongoing struggle for survival Israel has had to endure to since it became a state, whether you are a Christian, a Jew, or a Muslim, you can show your support by traveling to Israel to visit its ancient religious sites as well as experiencing its arts and entertainment offerings.
To take action here in America, you could support any number of organizations – Christian or Jewish – dedicated to the continued survival of the Holy Land. Remember, Hamas has one stated goal: To wipe Israel off the map.
In closing, I would like to quote former Israel Prime Minister Golda Meir, who said: “We will achieve peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate us,” and Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said: Here’s the difference between us: We’re using missile defense to protect our civilians, and they’re (Hamas) using their civilians to protect their missiles.
Part 2 is a detailed feature about my actual experience in Israel, which includes visits to Yad Vasahem – the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust, Old City of Jerusalem, the Western Wall, Mount Zion sites, including King David’s Tomb, the Room of the Last Supper, the Muslim Quarter including the Arab market, Capernaum, the ancient Jewish fishing village where Jesus began his ministry, and so much more. So, stay tuned.
Beverly Cohn is the editor-at-large at Mirror Media Group, editor-at-large at Splash Magazines Worldwide, entertainment editor at Traveling Boy, a contributing writer for TravMedia.com, and a member of BAFTA-LA and International Press Academy. She can be reached at [email protected]