A Dangerous Place?

August, 11 2008

Senior Editor Mandy Katz reports from Israel:

Megiddo, an ancient city overseeing the mountain pass from Mesopotamia across the Jezreel Valley, supposedly saw some of history’s fiercest battles. Indeed, many Christians expect an even bigger conflagration there, as the site is also called “Armageddon,” a variant on its Hebrew name of Har-Megiddo. Today, all that remains is its “tel,” or mound of ruins – an archaeological park in a rural area of the Galilee. From an open car window, you can smell ripe watermelons on the vine as you drive past farm fields

There was no great clash of armies at Megiddo when our car was broken into this afternoon, in a parking lot so sleepy that our girls didn’t think twice about leaving iPods and their little purses on the seats. In back, like more sitting ducks, were seven pieces of luggage and two backpacks containing precious laptops). After wandering the ruins for 45 minutes, we came back to find the front passenger seat sparkling with translucent green niblets of shatter-proof glass and the purses gone. In them were maybe $40 total, along with the youngest’s summer reading notes and postcards to her friends (written and stamped), and the eldest’s brand new driver’s permit, iPod and custom-made trombone mouthpiece. The luggage, luckily, remained.

“Indeed, Israel is a dangerous place.”

As you may remember, if you read my Moment cover piece on this country’s foray into nation branding, that’s the tag line of a TV ad created by a team of would-be international spokesmen for Israel. The commercial – possibly the cleverest public statement about this region since Abba Eban said of the Palestinians, “They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity” – puckishly pokes fun at the way everyone back home views Israel as a modern OK Corral, more Grand Theft Auto than garden-variety auto theft.

The reality is less Munich than Beach Blanket Bingo, suggested the amateur marketing team who filmed the “dangerous place” spot. And they’re right: Israel on a daily basis feels safer than New York or downtown D.C. or even, under some circumstances, the family-friendly suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, where I live. Sixteen-year-old girls can stay out late in Tel Aviv, past midnight even, pretty much without fear of mugging or molestation. I wouldn’t let my daughter do that in Bethesda.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way most of us in the U.S. see Israel. My friendly neighbor Michael regularly davens, as he refers to attendance at morning prayers at his Conservative schul. He’s tight with his family, his eldest just became a bar mitzvah, and he makes a mean cabbage-brisket soup. But “we’ll never go there,” is what Michael predicted about Israel. His wife’s too scared, he said, and he gets regular bad news blurbs by email from an old school chum now davening as a rabbi in Jerusalem.

“CNN syndrome” is the expression I coined for the way we at home get to thinking of Israel as a place of only “rabbis and Rambos;” the latter is an expression coined by Boaz Mourad, one of my nation-branding sources. If all we see of Israel is the news on CNN, and the only time we think of Israel is when we see it on the news, then of course we’ll imagine it as a place of bus-bombings and religious wars. CNN isn’t sending out crews for special features tagged, “regular life proceeds in the northern town of Afula, where nothing much happened today.”

This came up in an interview with Israeli Tourism Commissioner Arie Sommer in New York in October right after I talked to marketing maven Mourad about the rabbi/Rambo problem. So perhaps I can be excused for dropping all pretense of journalistic objectivity when Sommer mentioned that Israel is broadcasting daily from a webcam trained on the Kotel – the Western Wall – in Jerusalem. “Are you kidding?” I blurted out. “Put the webcam on the Tel Aviv boardwalk!”

In big-city Tel Aviv, though, I would have been all over my kids to hide their stuff when we left the car. People might break in, I’d warn. And watch for pickpockets. Because, indeed, Israel is a dangerous place.

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