Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Outside My Comfort Zone

I visited relatives recently in the north of Israel. I had not been to their house in a while and, though they live on a small quiet street, I drove past their home without recognizing it. What ultimately identified the house for me was a big tree they had planted in the yard some 40 years ago. I drove past the house at first because I didn’t see it. Since I was there last, they erected a big wall around their property, 4-5 feet high. Behind the wall, all the windows were covered with iron bars. While this is not uncommon in Israel, and many other places throughout the world, I was sad to see that they felt the need to make their quaint home into a compound. The house is very modest, small and old. There’s no indication of wealth and no particular reason why they’d need to protect their house specifically. So I was saddened to learn about an increase in violent theft and robberies throughout the area in which they live. I was sad to hear about it because in my utopian perspective of how Israel SHOULD BE, the increase of crime in general, and particularly against a person and his/her property, is particularly upsetting. I was saddened to hear that they feared opening their door to strangers, parking their car at the mall, and even suspicious telephone solicitations. I was saddened for them personally, but also for the state of things, that an older couple living in the same home for four decades no longer feels safe there. As we were talking, I couldn’t help but think about how, as far as personal security and crime, I felt the complete opposite. Maybe part of it is my naiveté. But a large part was very ironic. Because I live on the “West Bank”. Five years ago as I planned to make aliyah and told them that we were considering the “West Bank” they were horrified. Politically, we’re very different and I have learned a lot from them about how the far left thinks. (That’s a topic for another article.) They were horrified no doubt because, to them, the “West Bank” is not a place for a nice Jewish boy. They felt that the communities I was considering were unsafe. I’d be putting myself and my family in harm’s way. And politically, to put it nicely, they did not think that this was a prudent move for the good of the country. I did not have the heart to tell them in fact how safe, free and comfortable we are and feel. And how I am saddened for them in their loss of this feeling. While several of my Israeli relatives have actually dared to cross the “green line” to visit us and celebrate our smachot, I am mindful that they are uneasy with this for their own physical safety, as well as – in some cases – making a political statement that they’d rather not be making. It’s to their credit that they do join us from time to time. But most of the time, as much as we’ll invite them just to come visit, this is not something they will do. It is outside their comfort zone. During the 2006 Lebanon War I spent a few days in the north, working and bringing material and moral support to residents who had not fled. As the war progressed, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the north ran for the safer center of the country, we joined many neighbors in inviting people to move in with us. We had no idea how long the war would last or when they’d be able to go home, but we invited everyone we knew nonetheless: Friends and relatives. Arabs and Jews. I admired that, with only one exception, everyone we invited to join us stayed in their homes in the north. But it could not go unnoticed that for the majority of our relatives and friends whose political views are to the left of ours, the irony of being safer in the dreaded “West Bank” than they were in the north did not escape us. More recently, a similar situation took place. During the Gaza fighting, many here invited residents of Sderot and surrounding communities to move in, or even come for Shabbat as a respite from the daily barrage of rockets. For many, daily rocket firing was something they were used to so they stayed in their homes. Others thanked us, but politely declined as they were scared to come here. They were more afraid of perceived fear of life in the “West Bank” than living under a daily barrage of kassam and katyusha rockets. The most vivid depiction of this took place when two truckloads of vendors’ wares were on their way to a nearby community where Gush Etzion residents enthusiastically organized a shuk of Sderot vendors selling everything from food and disposable plates to electronics and clothes. This was a means to support those who lived in the war zone, economically as well as morally. But as the trucks were approaching their destination, one of the drivers heard something about rocks being thrown at vehicles somewhere in the “West Bank,” and he decided that to come here was unsafe. And so, while almost at his destination, he turned around with a truck load of things that we’d have bought, and went back to the safety of Sderot. I suppose everyone has their comfort zone. Some are politically oriented, and some are based on perceived level of personal security. For me, I could never live in a situation where I had to put a wall around my house. I look back on life in suburban New Jersey and recall how we’d never let the kids play alone in the front yard for a different set of reasons. Here, my kids have much greater freedom. While we raise them aware of other challenges we face, it’s a small price to pay for being able to live here. Here, I am mindful of my surrounding, but grateful for the freedom that we have just to live.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Defensive Driving

Cars swerving between lanes, opening doors without looking, a rubber ball bouncing into traffic followed by a little child. In a quick internet search of “defensive driving” I found the following definition and an abundance of places prepared to teach me how to be a better driver.

“Defensive driving is more than just knowing how to drive. It is about taking a conscious effort every time you sit behind the wheels to take all the necessary precautions for a safer ride. Defensive driving actually goes beyond the basic skills of driving. It is even more than mastering the rules of the road. Defensive driving is actually a form of training or practice for motor vehicle drivers to drive in such a way that they consciously reduce the dangers associated with driving. They do this by anticipating dangerous scenarios, which could range from bad weather to erring motorists. A driver who practices defensive driving is ever watchful and careful. He is one who can quickly identify and predict potential road problems and then immediately decide and act appropriately to avoid dangers and accidents.”
But none of these sites cater to the Israeli driver. When I moved to Israel, several things got me to think about driving in a way I never had before. I’ll bet that none of the defensive driving schools on the internet have ever thought how to be a safe driver in Israel, or even considered factors that make driving here unique. Israel is known for many wonderful things, many special and even miraculous things. But Israel is also known for things that are incredibly maddening, frustrating, and sometimes third world. One of these is the number of traffic accidents, related of course to a culture of aggressive and sometimes haphazard driving. Every year, some 450 Israelis die on the road. Many are pedestrians hit by cars. Thousands more drivers, passengers and pedestrians are injured. And there’s the loss of property. It frustrates me that something often in our control, to drive safely and mindful of hazards, is something too often disregarded and even flaunted. I see whole families of kids bouncing around in back seats of cars, seat belts nowhere to be seen. People talking on cell phones. Each vehicular death and injury is particularly sad because it’s in our control to prevent them. But all of these things could be covered in a defensive driving class, or even just by listening to the laws. There are other aspects of driving in Israel the developers of defensive driving classes would find more astounding and have a harder time fitting in to their curriculum. Living in Gush Etzion, we have to be aware of the hidden stone thrower. Too frequently these are not reported, and when they are, they rarely make it to the media. But every turn can yield a potential new danger. Every hill next to the road a potential staging ground for a rock, or a barrage of them. Or there’s the road covered in rocks. Making a turn, you might find the road covered with stones. Not little ones, but the kind that will take out your transmission if you go over them. Once I made a wrong turn in a place that, though abandoned, was still littered with rocks as big as could be carried by little terrorists waiting to catch an unsuspecting Israeli car. I was lucky, nobody was there and I was able to turn around. But others I know have not been so lucky. And in a situation like this, you’re told to act in a way that is counter intuitive; in case of such a roadblock, you drive right through it. No matter how big the rocks are. No matter how damaging to your transmission. Don’t stop, just drive. There’s also the risk of letting cars pass you. Most roads are one lane in each direction, so passing is risky at best. But it’s still common. (OK, sometimes I am guilty too.) But the cars to be careful of have white license plates with green letters, or green ones with white letters. These Palestinian cars drive more or less freely on the vast majority of roads in Judaea and Samaria. One needs to be careful not to let them pass you because they have used this tactic as a way to kill people. They drive up next to you, spray the car with bullets, and drive off. A good friend lost her mother this way. A few years ago, during Sukkot, three Israelis were killed not far from my house when an Arab car drove by, opened fire, and fled. In order to prevent this, I always make it a point to keep close to the middle of the road and drive with an extra measure of care not to let cars pass me, especially if I can see that it is a Palestinian car. All these risks make driving challenging. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not the Wild West. These things don’t happen all the time. Once is too often, so these are things that we need to think about, just as driving in suburban NJ you worry about a child chasing his ball into the street in front of your car. We just need to be extra careful as few kids in NJ target oncoming cars for evil, and the balls that we need to be careful of can smash our windows, or worse.
Most of these things don’t take place throughout all of Israel anymore, but it used to be different. Ambushes were once a very regular occurrence. More “clever” terrorists devised a scheme to kill and maim by stretching a thin wire across a road so that passengers in unsuspecting cars, and especially army jeeps, would get stuck, hurt or even decapitated. Look at the front of a military jeep and notice the long pole mounted to catch and break these wires. Just in case. Last week there was the third incident in nine months of a terrorist using a tractor to try to maim and kill Israelis. This newest mode of terror not only terrorizes and harms Israelis, it harms the other Arabs who by in large just want to go to work building roads, buildings, train lines, etc. Every big yellow tractor is now suspect as a potential weapon. And big yellow tractors aren’t limited to the West Bank, but roam the cities and town throughout Israel. In Jerusalem, Modiin, Beit Shemesh, Afula… It gives me pause when driving down the road, anywhere in Israel, wondering if a tractor nearby is being piloted by a fanatic terrorist “with Allah as his co-pilot.” I have taken to driving extra slowly when they are spotted, to keeping extra distance between my car and others, just in case I need to escape. And I am mindful that if I am so unlucky to be stuck nearby when this happens again, to hope that there will be someone with a gun close by to end the terrorist’s road trip and give him a free pass to martyrdom, hopefully without taking anyone with him. There are many customs as to when one is supposed to say tefillat haderech, the travelers’ prayer. Most people say it upon returning from a trip to Israel, or arriving in Israel from a trip overseas. But there’s also a case to be made that we need to pray for our safe arrival even when we go to the grocery store, commute to work, or meet friends for dinner. Simple things not to be taken for granted.