Immigrant Moments,Israeliness

At my most Zionist

A Dry Bones aliyah cartoon from 1976 (more at

In our daughter’s 12th grade class yesterday, on the cusp between Memorial and Independence Days, her teacher asked something along the lines of “what was the most Zionist, nationalist moment, for you personally.” Merav was unsure how to answer. Many of her friends referred to their families’ aliyah.

“But I was just a baby then,” she said, and indeed she had been only a year old as she crawled her way through the oversized immigration processing hall, built to handle 2-3 planeloads of Russians all making aliyah at once, at the old Ben Gurion Airport.

I began to think how I would answer the question. Aliyah seems the logical response too – and we were old enough to appreciate what we’d done (as well as all the subsequent bureaucracy). But there are other answers I could give.

Getting my Israeli driver’s license and taking strange pride in my ability to successfully navigate Israeli traffic has definitely made me feel one with the nation.

Starting a company in 1998 and walking around the shell of our new investor-backed offices, I felt more than just an entrepreneur’s dream come true; I would soon be contributing to the Zionist enterprise by employing a staff of 15 fellow immigrants who might stay in the country due to the sweat and vision that had gone into the making of that day.

Another defining moment of Israeliness came from the tragic side. When our cousin Marla Bennett was killed in the terrorist attack on the Hebrew University cafeteria in 2002, we were thrust into the pan-Israeli world of mourners, and every year when Yom HaZicharon comes around, I feel just that much closer to my brethren.

But that’s not it either – because the terror war that killed Marla and 1,000 other Israelis in those horrible years made me just as inclined to consider fleeing to the “safety” of the old country than to stick it out here as a brave soldier in civilian clothes (obviously I didn’t flee as I’m writing here from Jerusalem).

When I started becoming non-religious at the beginning of 2000, after 25 years in the Orthodox world, I had to re-jigger my entire value system about why I was living in Israel. I found, to my delight, that it wasn’t the kosher food and the synagogue options that were keeping me here, but a deep Zionism and appreciation of the rhythm of life, the Jewish calendar, and the community that we’d built, religious or otherwise.

Travel abroad often makes the heart grow fonder, especially with the third world destinations we’ve been to recently – India, Egypt, Africa and now Nepal. Upon each of our returns, Israel seems so much saner, organized; even genteel. That feeling of coming home to our own country, warts and all, applauding when the plane touches down at the airport, always fills me with a quiet nationalistic fervor.

But by far my most Zionist moments have been our family hikes throughout Israel. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to any regular readers of Israelity: I’ve chronicled all 12 tiyulim we did over the course of our youngest son’s bar mitzvah year.

To walk the land is, in many ways, to make it your “own,” with clear Biblical roots, going all the way back to Joshua and the Israelites (although they didn’t just walk). Modern day hiking bumps into numerous archaeological sites, which add visceral detail to the history of the Jewish people in the Holy Land.

And Israelis are inculcated with a love of hiking from a very young age. Beginning in first grade, all Israeli school children head out for their tiyul shnati – the “annual trip.” The youngest just go for the day, but by high school, overnight hikes can stretch up to a week.

So, when I want to feel most Israeli, most Zionist, most connected to this country; and to imagine I not only immigrated in my thirties, but grew up in this land, I hit the trails.

That’s my answer, and I’m sticking to it. How about you? This is a great opportunity to contribute to this discussion by leaving your comments. I’d be very happy to hear.

ISRAEL21c invited to prestigious global cancer fellowship

ISRAEL21c has been chosen by the American Cancer Society to represent Israel at its first ACS Global Journalist Fellowship in New York City.

Viva Sarah Press, associate editor at ISRAEL21c is one of 44 journalists and 78 cancer and tobacco control advocates, representing all the world regions, to be invited to take part in this unique workshop from June 18-22. Press will be the only journalist from Israel attending.

The ACS initiated the fellowship in order to generate awareness of the increasing burden of cancer around the world, in an effort to ensure that cancer is adequately included in the global health and UN agenda.

The journalist fellows will attend UN meetings, and meet with world leading experts about the latest developments in cancer and tobacco control.

Cancer is today a leading cause of mortality worldwide. In 2007, it accounted for 7.9 million deaths, around 13 percent of all deaths, according to figures from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Despite the fact that about 30 percent of all cancer deaths can be prevented, the mortality rate is rising. Until now heart disease was the number one killer worldwide, but experts suggest cancer deaths will soon overtake this figure. By 2030, cancer will cause an estimated 12 million deaths a year worldwide, according to WHO.

Israel is one of the leading players in cancer research worldwide, and is recognized internationally for its major contributions to the field. Over the last 10 years ISRAEL21c has reported extensively on the many significant breakthroughs emerging from the country.

“I am honored to be chosen to take part in this important conference,” said Press, who served as a senior news editor at IBA News, Israel’s only English-language news broadcast, for seven years before joining ISRAEL21c in January. “Cancer is a major cause of death worldwide, and it’s vital that we continue to raise awareness about this deadly disease.”

Conspiracy theories on Bin Laden’s death

I’ve been keenly following the many articles that have appeared across the web reporting details on the death of Osama Bin Laden, but I’m just not getting it. Now, I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, but there are so many holes in the official story released so far, that I had to confirm my suspicions. So I turned to Debka.

Debka is a Jerusalem-based English and Hebrew language website that reports on military intelligence and security issues around the world, with a focus on the Middle East. Launched in 2000 by journalists Giora Shamis and Diane Shalem, Debka is unabashedly right wing and alarmist – any rumor regarding a threat against Israel or the West is reported in screaming headlines. Which makes it utterly compelling. Even if I don’t believe half of what I read, whenever a topic involving terrorism starts to trend, I open up Debka to get the inside scoop.

I turned to Debka this time because it seemed unfathomable that a three-story heavily fortified luxury villa could be built 100 meters from a Pakistani military academy in a small town that also houses a full military base, without the Pakistani authorities having any idea what was going on. It also makes no sense that the U.S. could operate for 11 hours at the Bin Laden mansion, much of it in full daylight, without the Pakistani military taking any action whatsoever. Didn’t a U.S. helicopter have to be blown up? Did Pakistan take no notice of a large explosion right under its collective nose? Either the Pakistanis are a sloppy amalgamation of amateurs (with nuclear weapons), or there’s more to the story (aiding and abetting the enemy springs to mind).

As I was pontificating on my speculations around the dinner table the other night, Debka was reporting these same questions…and more. The official U.S. report, for example, said that none of the computers in the house were connected to the Internet and there wasn’t even a phone inside. Debka claims that photos released show both a satellite dish on the roof as well as “cables and wires snaking along the outer and inner walls.”

Debka reported in 2007 a readership of 1.3 million and that 80% of its reports turn out to be true. Yediot Achronot reporter Ronen Bergman, on the other hand, said that Israeli intelligence officials do not consider even 10% of the site’s content to be reliable.

Call me a conspiracist, but a lot of readers rely on Debka for their daily dose of inflammatory analysis, including me at times. I wonder what they have to say about the ongoing Obama “birther” controversy?


The future of Israeli tourism online?

The Kinzy family from their Facebook page

Who are the Kinzy’s and why are they so important to the future of Israeli tourism? The Kinzy family of four, from Bulverde Texas – along with another couple from New York – were chosen from nearly 600 applicants to participate in an all expenses paid two-week vacation in Israel. The catch: the lucky winners have to post pictures, videos and status updates to Facebook and Twitter.

The social media campaign was developed by New York advertising agency Bodden Partners and is being paid for by the Israel Tourism Ministry. The result is oddly compelling, in a voyeuristic kind of way. I don’t know the Kinzy’s, but it’s fun to watch them experience Israel for the first time and document it all in public, in the same way that people can’t turn off Big Brother and other reality television. Only this time it’s for a good cause.

The Kinzy’s were in Israel during the Passover holiday: one of their posts reads “we sure do love matzoh brie.” There are 40 photos from the family’s trip to the Galilee and another 37 snapped at the Dead Sea. There are also a number of YouTube videos – real down home stuff like visiting the Western Wall and eating at a steakiya.

The posts are understandably ebullient – not only did the Tourism Ministry pay for the trips, but a film crew followed the family around in order to make a post-visit commercial. To their credit, there’s no subterfuge: the “welcome” screen on their Facebook page clearly indicates that this is not just a family who “happen” to be posting about a trip to Israel.

The effect, unfortunately, may not be as extensive as the campaign promoters would have hoped. Only 345 people “liked” the Kinzy’s page (the other winners – Arthur Rollin and Caitlin McNamara – had slightly more, at 427 likes). But it’s a creative approach to harnessing the power of social media, exactly what one would expect coming from a country as “wired” as Israel.

Spotting the wild Israeli

Adam Leighton (in blue) with Israeli biking group in Nepal

With all the Israelis who head off for the Far East on extended post-army trips, we were pretty sure we’d meet tens, if not hundreds, of our fellow countrymen and women during our recent trek in Nepal.

On the first six days of the trek, though, we met Brits, Canadians, lots of Germans, Japanese, Korean and Thai tourists, but no Israelis.

Was Nepal no longer an “in” spot for the young backpacking, dreadlocked, and multiple pierced Israeli rebel?

Apparently they were all waiting to gang up on us in one place, in the small village of Tatopani. They weren’t hard to spot: our “Isradar” (a term we coined for “Israeli radar”) started jumping as we reached our guesthouse where we were greeted by not a lone trekker but 15 Israelis…and their bikes.

The Israeli group (a rather mature bunch of mostly 40 and 50-somethings) was on a two-week biking tour of Nepal, organized by Gur Kotzer who runs, a joint Israeli-Nepali trekking agency.

I met up with Gur while bathing in the natural hot springs that have made Tatopani a Himalayan vacation get away – a sort of Ein Gedi for those who like to really rough it. Gur told me that his agency runs a whole host of adventures in Nepal, not just biking, including standard walking treks, jungle safaris and white water rafting. Gur is based in Israel, but travels to Nepal frequently.

The Israelis we met were not a part of any specific riding group. They hailed from all over the country (though none were from Jerusalem) and they had brought their bikes with them all the way from Israel. The group had just biked down nearly 1,500 meters that day (some of it through a driving rain) on bumpy roads and 900-year-old stone staircases cut into the mountainside.

Our paths continued to cross with the bikers. We met again at what’s arguably the “world’s largest Passover Seder” organized by Chabad in Kathmandu, and then again on our El Al flight home.

Interestingly, the Israelis’ “Isradar” was working just as well in the other direction and we were easily identifiable too. This always perplexes our kids who steadfastly believe that, as North American immigrants, we don’t look outwardly Israeli. How did the Israelis spot us then?

Easy: they spied my daughter reading a sign in Hebrew at the entrance to the guesthouse. It read “Shakshuka – excellent guest house and tasty food.”

Only in Israel…or should I say, only in Nepal?