My summer in a war zone
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I'd chosen to spend three and a half weeks of my post-GCSE summer in Israel, along with many other Jewish teenagers from North London. The experience, known simply as ‘tour’, is a rite of passage for many Anglo-Jewish kids. It’s an eagerly awaited antidote to the stress of exams and a welcome escape from parents, to a carefree summer in the sun. But my cohort came back with more than just memories, a fading tan and a croaky voice. We'd lived through part of a war.
The youth group I went to Israel with is vegetarian, left wing and concerned with gender equality and human rights. Our itinerary was packed with traditional tour activities; hikes through wadis, stays on kibbutz and visits to the Wailing Wall and Yad Vashem holocaust museum. But the spontaneous elements were the best part of it. Washing the dirt off our bodies in the Kinneret River after sleeping on the bare ground, under the night sky. There's nothing that makes one feel freer than bonding over a group lack of personal hygiene.
A lady from our movement met us off the plane and went through the usual protocol. Plan on getting drunk? Think again. Cigarettes? You'll have to explain that to your mum. Oh, and if you hear a siren? The answer is run. Run for your life. This year there were additions to the rules and regs and it left me questioning my choice. Having just stepped off a flight into the humid early hours meant that our reactions to words like "army", "bombs" and "iron dome" were calmer than they should have been.
Throughout the trip we met many Israelis who were surprised and grateful that we’d come, some going as far as to even thank us. My group was also due to tour the separation fence but that was cancelled as it was deemed too dangerous. We also had talks from Israeli Arabs, Bedouin and Druse.
The Israeli Arab speaker who addressed us works as a lawyer. He said that he feels like a second class citizen and discriminated against. He said the ambulance service and other public services are better in the Jewish parts of town. His English was perfect and his views were clear. Our Israeli Jewish leaders were disturbed by his rhetoric and challenged him. But he had been invited by the Zionist organization that arranged our trip. He was free to express his disquiet despite the fact that the country was in the middle of a bloody armed conflict.
Our visit to the Bedouin encampment was the highlight of tour for me. As a vegetarian in a shwarama-fuelled country, we were given the best meal I’ve ever consumed. As we sat cross-legged in what was effectively a massive tent, platters of rice, salad and bread were served to us. It may not have been fully authentic. There’s a touch of Middle-Eastern Disney about the set-up, but boy did the food taste good. We rode camels, our hats flew off and we ‘skanked’ to Bedouin music. It was utterly surreal. That night I refused to sleep in a very hot tent with 42 other (by this stage very smelly) teens and led my disciples to sleep outdoors.
Mass suicide was next on the agenda: an early morning wake-up call and hike up a mountain to the ancient site of Masada, where a group of Jews killed themselves rather than submit to the Romans. It’s become a place of modern pilgrimage where Israeli soldiers swear allegiance to their country. Our purpose was to get to the top in time for sunrise.
But many of us were too puffed to appreciate the ethereal moment of beauty. We recovered sufficiently for a round of songs and morning prayers before heading down for a well-earned breakfast.
We learned the basics of Jewish history (“They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat!”). And there was advice about how to deal with living in a war zone. An acting workshop used improvisation and laughter to show us ways of coping with unbearable stress.
I encountered extreme hostility in just one place; the queue for banana boats. Rival tour groups tried to out sing and out chant one another in an outburst of impassioned “ruach” (spirit).
The main enemy and threat to our wellbeing was constipation. We pleaded for fibre and yearned for a bowel movement. We stayed on a kibbutz which specializes in recycling human faeces, and could only dream of passing such wonderfully copious stools.
It took some getting used to the collective living and sharing that characterize kibbutz life. Where the Bedouin had offered us bread and a bed, the kibbutzniks plied us with booze and practiced their halting English on us.
For me the oddest thing to get my head around was the war. Several people dropped out of the trip as parents were understandably reluctant to send their kids into a war zone. Thanks to daily changes of itinerary to avoid the trouble spots, we didn’t even hear a siren. But some groups did and one person who was in the shower when the siren sounded had to run naked to the shelter, wrapped only in a towel.
The biggest scare happened on Kibbutz Almog on the West Bank. We were all told to stay in our rooms on lock down. Tension was high as rumours circulated that there was a mountain lion or armed burglar prowling around. In fact, there was a hole in the perimeter fence but the cause was never found. Nothing is better for group bonding than being confined to barracks, told to lock the door from inside and being too scared to wee alone.
The rest of the tour was uneventful; just hot, heady days spent touring, swimming, learning and laughing. And blissful nights sleeping in hammocks under the stars, chatting to old friends and new.
As my ElAl flight smacked down on the wet tarmac of Luton, I felt no relief, only sadness. A country that had been the backdrop to my magical month had also suffered and inflicted the tragic realities of battle. A bittersweet summer; sweet for me, but bitter for many.