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samedi 6 décembre 2008

Israel and the Family of Jewish People

. The general perception from outside about a visit to Israel, concerns itself with Security, Terrorism, religious and national fanaticism and the brashness of its inhabitants.

I was reminded of a line from Jacobo Timerman, author of a worldwide best seller, Cell without a Number, Prisoner without a name. A journalist, outspoken critic of the military government and a good argentine citizen until his death, after his return from exile to his native land, and the city of Buenos Aires.

As a child, he recalls, he wanted to know why, so he asked his mother. Why do they hate us, mama?

 The thoughtful Ashkenazi mother of young Jacobo replied.

They dislike us, because of they don’t know us.

This visit, I consider to be a personal gift from someone special, has made me admire Israel and Israelis a little bit more, have a desire to delve more than just superficially into this Mediterranean country. Then again, it is not just any other country. It is Israel. I am not a tourist while I go sightseeing, I am not a stranger even though I don’t understand the conversations in the resurrected, ancient language, Hebrew.

I have learned to look at them as relatives, this nation of mainly Jews, immigrants and refugees (900 000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries have been absorbed into Israel, but there are no refugee camps in Israel), here the American Indian saying, Mitakuye Oyasin, resonates well. We are all related, Indians say, and I felt it, while walking through the streets of Haifa, for the first time this sensation of mitakuye oyasin, more than in any of the countries I have visited, including the lands of my birth, infancy and adolescence, I can look at every one of the citizens, the dark haired guy serving up the lunch at the multi branched coffee shop near Hotel Dan Panorama, the blond slightly overweight cleaning lady, the enthusiastic  sales people in shops regardless of what they sell, the taxi driver, so on and so on, and say without shame or guilt or patronization: we are all related. Mitakuye oyasin.

Historic, biblical, polemic, manmade, monument to human endurance and audacity, Israel is all of that plus the healthiest food in the region, a mixture of European and middle eastern cuisine.  Arab restaurateurs ,  Druze coffee makers, Ethiopians serving Hummus, fresh vegetable salads, abundance of fish and seafood, weather a near perfect transition from summer to autumn, blue skies to sit under or stare at, and almost all adolescents and young men are fit and lean, you cannot expect them to defend the country if they are overweight. 

This is not the first time I had come to Israel. Nor the first visit to Haifa and the Siman Tov family. Israel had to protect its borders and with aircrafts now filling up the skies of the traveller, they had to institute stringent security measures.

 Here they have one important asset.

The Israelis.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US soil, the airport security in the USA was worth  a laugh. Chewing gum, the lowly paid, privately contracted security agents, paid scant attention to the handbags or to the person, or the identification papers. Even now, with streamlined procedures for security check, most of the TSA employees who are charged with guarding the borders, are not philosophically plugged into the security apparatus, for many it is a job, the ambience is not one of pride or cooperation of protecting the country. Impatient Americans often bark at the TSA agents, whose profile is an unclear one, and because it was put together hastily, the effectiveness of individual employee is questionable, even though, the structural process of screening, taking your belt and your shoes off and putting your liquid beauty products into plastic bags have had an effect on the personality of those impatient travelers, now more than ever frustrated by the fact that up to 1/3 of all flights are delayed, for other reasons than security check.

Still, I am yet to feel that the TSA transmit the sense of pride and sensation of protecting the country, rather than the echolalic noises of young but unfit men and women, going through the process of oiling the structure, which has had a deterrent effect.

Let me tell you about my first experience.

Paris Airport.

Terminal 2 A

El Al Israel Airlines

At the end of the corridor, their check in gates are isolated from the American Airlines and  other long haulers. As we entered, a young woman, could be attending an university, asked us to follow her to the desk, four or five such security desks were against the wall, opposite the check in desks. A slightly older woman was supervising the many young workers, all of them Israeli. They were talking to one another, asking questions and quipping in Hebrew.

My travelling companion has an European/French passport. The Israeli security agent  takes mine. I noticed that she was not wearing any name tags. Made a mental note that  these young workers must speak at least three languages: Hebrew, French and English.

Transaction of symbols

These are not young French Jews, these workers were all Israeli. You noticed that not a single one was overweight.

She opened the conversation with a pleasant remark

Has the process of checking in been good so far?

Yes, we have hardly begun, I told her, she smiles while looking at my Australian passport.

Arab or Muslim sounding last name. indistinct first name.

Brand new passport with only one page used. ( the other passport which had seven years of life left but none of its 62 pages empty, had been carefully exchanged for this brand new, computer imbedded Australian passport.

In the USA, crossing over into the Texas territory from the Mexican state of Coahuila, the overweight, less aware border TSA agents, look admiringly at the shiny passport but their eyes are looking for place of birth: Malaysia? Then they ring the bell. It might not occur to them that the passport is not Malaysian and the holder has no visible Malaysian cultural links. Human robots they become without the education necessary to be astute security agents in a world where human movement is taking place at  exaggerated numbers, at much higher rate than the immigration of the people. Americans are used to immigrants but not to travelers.

Back to the Israeli young lady.

Is this the only passport you have?

I thought, this is a clever question. I could have any other passport since in recent times most western countries began permitting second and third nationalities.

Yes this is the only passport I have, I replied, which happens to be the truth.

No obvious questions of other security workers, such as connecting your place of birth and your nationality and confusing it; the place of residence which could be more than one or transient. What would you ask the CEO of Nissan, a brasilian of Lebanese origin educated in france, who lives in Paris and Tokyo and travels to New York. Does the question where do you live have a meaning there? It is only by understandinging  what is different that you could detect the level of normalcy.

Noticing the discreet star of david that I wear, she asks me in Hebrew and then in English, do you speak Hebrew?

Ani lo daber Ivrit, anee yehudi mi Australia.

I don’t speak Hebrew, but I am a Jew from Australia.

So you did learn to read Hebrew? Did you learn it with vowels?

With that symbolic transaction, cementing another relationship, the questioning took another tone and direction.

Why are you going to Israel?

I had the wedding invitation ready in my hand. I am going to Haifa to attend the wedding of my friend Shimon Siman Tov. And handed over the invitation. She looks at it, scrutinizes the names and says, excuse me, and goes over to her supervisor.

She comes back, apologizes, then asks, do you know the brides family as well?

No, just the groom’s family. She was impressed with the fact that I had brought with me the original wedding invitation rather than a copy, even though I did have a copy with me.

Original! She smiles.

Being a cultural anthropologist, I am well aware of the importance of symbols in our lives. Most of us know the symbols of our own culture. Even jews may not be aware of  the symbols of Israeli life.

For example, while Jews living abroad tend to wear and display, symbols of their jewish affiliation, such as stars of david or the symbol Chai, in Israel that symbolism is redundant. Reminded me of the “wannabee” Indians wearing feathers where as the real Indians wore feathers  only on appropriate occasions.

Do you remember the parsha of your bar mitzvah? She asked.

I have not been very good at remembering my religious duties, I answered. Which would ring resonant with most Israelis, since the majority of Israelis are not religious and do not follow strictly most of the religious practices of the Jews. To be jewish, is more than belonging to the religion, it is belonging to the people. We say Am Israel Chai… Life to our people, Israel.

It is true, I had been fairly observant when I left Australia for Sweden but in the past ten years, symbolically marked by the death of a very close friend of mine, Irena Glaser of Miami, I have become less and less observant, even of the big item holidays, such as New Year and Day of Atonement, let alone Simcha Torah and Succoth and Purim.

This young lady was very polite, very professional. None of that  personal power trip, the less intelligent security agents elsewhere demonstrate, whether they are selling you a computer or checking you in for a flight .

Do you have a Hebrew name?


Your family name?

Chakkingal  in the local language, meaning the place where oil is being pressed, in Hebrew it is Kovesh.

Disappears for a little, comes back and apologizes and says, I will finish very soon.

No more than ten minutes had passed. Quick and efficient, a good representative of Israel, a country which cannot afford to be lax or inefficient.

To do business with a people, learn how they fight, then you would understand they think and behave, says a contemporary French philosopher. To do business in China, study the Chinese pattern of collective responsibility. American individuality is reflected in their fighting methods as well. Turks, valiant, rich and powerful, lost their empire quite quickly because they lacked discipline and order.

Here at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, waiting for flight LY 324 on the morning of 5th Oct, there was no lack of order, no confusion.

For my own curiosity, could you tell me a little bit about the history of the Jews of Cochin?

I realized that it was a symbolic question, but as Shimon was to say later, she asked the wrong person. There have been three distinct migrations from the Holy land to the coast of Kerala, one during the time of King Solomon and soon after the destruction of the temple; the Sephardic migration after the 1492 expulsion from Spain and there have been integration of local people into the community throughout the ages as happens everywhere where the Jews have lived.

She looks pleased.

Leads us to another corner, where machines are set up to check the luggage, not the huge ones, but they swipe and insert the paper into the machine and wait for the green. Each and every one of the bags to be checked in is opened and a thorough swipe with her wand and within five minutes, things are pasted to our passports and our luggage and we were in line to check in our bags.

This young lady, was slightly less friendly but she had a much more manual job to do. No questions from her.

I looked at the security stickers. My name in Hebrew, F circled, perhaps indicating the person who checked me.

The luggage check did not involve taking every single item out and wondering what use it might have.

Within forty five minutes after the taxi had left us at the curb, we had

Cleared security

Opened our bags for inspection

Checked our bags in and gotten our boarding passes..


Oh, the pleasant young girl who questioned, did ask, have you been to Israel before

Yes, of course

When was the last time?

I could not remember

A few years ago.. I said. Then thought to myself, in the years after 2000, I have been to Argentina about fifteen times,  to Burma around the same number, Cambodia and Vietnam and Brasil about five times each; so I can forgive myself for not remembering which year I was in Israel last.. add to that I had a 12 month period in 2005 when I visited Japan ten times.

You know that we are on High Holidays now, did you celebrate it?

Yes, I was in Paris for Rosh Hashanah and I broke the fast in Lisbon on Yom Kippur, I didn’t have the mind to tell her that I was travelling overnight on Yom Kippur to Lisbon from Miami!

I broke the fast at a Portuguese restaurant with a typical Portuguese sea food meal at the walking street near Praca dos restauradores in Lisboa, Portugal.

Quickly through passport control. The police officer looks at the passport and then at you, and within thirty seconds that interaction is finished and you are standing in front of the x ray machines with your shoes and belts on, but with the computer out of the bag…

Civilized, the French

You feel that the security people who are at the gates here were there to serve you.

No shouting at the top of their lungs, no liquids, no shoes, no belts, take off everything removable you are wearing, no cellphones, no change…

Quick and pleasant, a compliment to the French

The flight was slightly delayed, it gave us an opportunity to have café and pain au chocolat, and boarded leisurely on to a full flight ( they had oversold the flight and wanted to know whether we would give up our seats for the reward of a return ticket or 400 Euros, No, I was quite eager to reach Israel)


Brand names are very important for business, of course.. Virgin Atlantic Airlines for example, the jumping Kangaroo on Qantas tails, EL AL has a good one with the blue star of David…as you entered the final stages of boarding the aircraft, you saw the symbols for Continental, American Airlines ( I am Platinum Frequent Flier on both these), Air Canada, which has also a recognizable symbol.. there was a slight difference to the ambience of the EL AL parking lot..

There was a tank with two soldiers fully armed guarding the plane. There were other policemen and army people patrolling the area around the departure lounge..

I felt very very safe and thanked the young Israelis for keeping Israel and the mischpochah safe…

Later I thought I would write a short note to EL AL in Paris:

Dear Sir,

What I saw at the security point for El Al at CDG on 5th October, was courteous, professional, discreet and respectful.

I am a Frequent Flier ( Platinum Elite on Continental/Skyteam and American Airlines/Oneworld)

And it was quite gratifying to see young Israeli men and women protecting the traveler and Israel.

Toda Raba.