21 June 2007

21 June 2007 - Solstice arrival

I am writing from the 24-hr Yodvata restaurant in Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean shore. I should have been asleep in Jerusalem by now, except that my flight left Johannesburg five hours late. I took the last train from Ben-Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv and arrived in the middle of the dead hour, with nary a bus or train to be found for at least 90 minutes. So I took a taxi to the beach to watch the sunrise.

It’s still dark outside—no stars to be seen through the humid coastal haze and the light pollution, but it’s still night for another hour or so. My companions are a tribe of teenagers who are still bouncing around after a night on the town and asking me for cigarettes. It’s just a short while until dawn—this is the summer solstice, after all, the longest day (and shortest night) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere.

The flight was comfortable enough, except for the extremely loud conversation going on among a group of middle-aged Johannesburg moms who kept going on and on about whose wedding they were going to, whose sister knew whom, whose children were applying to practice medicine overseas and which relatives they hadn’t seen in years. I’d have been more irritated, except they reminded me of my own family.

A couple has just emerged from the sea, having evidently gone swimming in their clothes—the man clad in a pair of short denim cutoffs and the woman wearing her bra and a pair of black knee-length shorts. They snap a picture of themselves with a cellphone and move on. Once, on an early winter morning, I saw a Haredi couple change on the empty beach and enter the water holding hands. It was quite sweet.

A tinge of blue in the sky now. Often, on flights to Israel, people burst spontaneously into applause when the plane touches down. This time no one did, probably due to the late hour and the fact that there were few young people, other than tiny tots, on board. But people began clapping along and singing when patriotic songs began playing over the PA system as we taxied to the gate.

I felt like joining them, simply to make a point. When I was in Cape Town, one of South Africa’s most prominent public intellectuals, and the former head of the local Jewish community, came up to me and said: “I liked your letter in the paper. But Israel’s dead. It’s finished.” That’s the PC opinion among South Africa’s chattering classes, I suppose. Someone forgot to tell these kids here, waiting for the sunrise.

Indigo blue, now, lighter on the city side of the promenade than the beach side—of course, we’re facing west, silly. I study the English menu, which proclaims: “Yodvata in Town/Is proud to offer you/A genuine Israeli menu.” I’m tempted by the “Natural Morning”—fruit salad, yogurt, granola and honey—but they have that in South Africa, too; the veggies of the “Israeli Breakfast” might be risky at this hour.

I could order in Hebrew—it amazes me how quickly the language comes back to me, after not having used it for half a year or so. I can never really explain why I absorbed it so well, having only studied it at Jewish day school and for three years at my public high school. I guess I had a few opportunities to use it on trips to Israel and with Israelis. Somehow, Hebrew became hard-wired into my brain, I guess.

I read an Israeli paper on the flight—the plight of the Palestinian refugees from Gaza was a front-page story. Apparently hundreds of families have been flocking to the Erez checkpoint to escape Hamas’s reign of terror. There was another article about refugees—Sudanese refugees from the Darfur genocide. The headline claimed: “Especially as Jews, we cannot be indifferent.”

I wonder whether people in the rest of the world know that Israelis do care about human rights, even the rights of their supposed adversaries. I read a short primer on human rights law on the plane, as well, and felt quite skeptical about the whole business—not just because those noble laws are used to persecute Israel unfairly, but because many of them just seem so ill-conceived at the outset.

Much of what we know today as human rights law emerged from the reaction to the Second World War and the horror of Hitler’s Holocaust against the Jews. The response of the international community was to establish a system of rules that could prevent the failures of the past and the hand-wringing that prevailed during the interwar period, in the time of the impotent League of Nations.

But these rules have not really been any more successful, it seems to me, than the old, limited protections. Did they help in Rwanda? Are they helping in Darfur? What has protected vulnerable groups and people from persecution has either been strong domestic political opposition or decisive military intervention, often by states acting in flagrant disregard of the niceties and protocols of international law.

What seems to keep the whole notion of human rights alive, in other words, is something beyond rules—a commitment to strength, a kind of fighting spirit, a combination of moral and physical courage. Can a state that embodies these qualities in its very essence protect human rights with regard to its own minorities, or to foreign citizens under its rule? That’s what I’m here to find out.

But first, I’m going to dip my hands in the ocean. The sky is a light blue now and the sunrise can only be minutes away. The first time I ever came to Israel, fifteen years ago, was a humid morning like this one, and I also woke up early. Then, my companions were the pensioners taking a morning dip. So it’s nice to be here now with a new generation whose voluble presence testifies to Israel’s enduring life.

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