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Levin ‘smitten’ after recent trip to Israel

Scott and Laure Levin employ a popular mode of transportation in the NegevSO just how is Israel doing as it approaches its 64th birthday?

Is it, like the Beatles once lamented in singing about that particular number, “losing its hair” and “sincerely wasting away?”

While in mere human terms, 64 might well qualify for senior status, in national terms — especially when you’re talking about a nation that was actually born thousands of years ago — 64 is barely toddler stage.

But such a toddler!

While much of the world, when it comes to Israel, routinely frowns — not to mention shouts, finger-points, disparages and condemns — the modern Jewish state remains a youthful, energetic, creative and generally optimistic place.

Just ask Scott Levin, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, who experienced a close-up glimpse of Israel last month.

Although his first trip to Israel took place last year, that was a professional gathering, designed for ADL executives, and offered only passing glances at the sort of things most tourists — and most Jews — really want to see for themselves.

“It was focused on politics and meeting with senior officials and learning the ins and outs of Israeli policy.”

No so his more recent journey, in the company of his wife Laure, as part of a group of some 45 Temple Emanuel members, led by that congregation’s Rabbi Joe Black.

This was much more free, informal, laid-back and — bottom line — interesting, Levin said in a recent interview with the IJN .

“I kind of viewed it as a pilgrimage,” he says, “a way to explore Israel.”

The finest moment, Levin says, was a very personal one shared between him and his wife, who was experiencing her first look at the Jewish homeland.

“It was the anticipation when we were driving into Jerusalem,” he says. “We realized that it was a country that you could really have a love affair with.”

Which, for some 10 days at the end of March, is precisely what they did.

THE Levins’ itinerary, like many trips to Israel, was kaleidoscopic. The Denver visitors spent Shabbat in a Tel Aviv Progressive synagogue, met with representatives of Denver’s partner city Ramat HaNegev during their visit to the desert region, met a large animal (read: camel and horse) veterinarian, took camel rides, hiked up the steep grade of the Roman Ramp to Masada, visited the Kineret (Galilee) region and finally experienced Jerusalem.

Their reactions were as kaleidoscopic as their schedule.

On the Golan Heights they met a former IDF sergeant who was one of the earliest Israeli soldiers to engage Syrian troops during the Yom Kippur War in 1973. The veteran described how a handful of Israeli tanks, one of them his own, were able to delay the Syrian invasion long enough for reinforcements to arrive, and how close and bloody the fighting was.

“It was interesting to hear the story in context,” Levin says. “The people who really preserved Israel aren’t Spartans. They didn’t grow up to be warriors. These are math geeks and farmers and people who worked in factories who stood up to hold this country together.”

In Jerusalem, the group met with Ethiopian Jews who told the story of their dramatic modern exodus to the Promised Land.

“They lived Passover, no question about it,” Levin says. “The way they described their story was as a wonderful fulfillment of a dream.”

Overarching everything they saw was the awe-inspiring reality of Israel’s ancient origins and its seemingly perpetual role as a crucial and controversial crossroads of the world.

“It’s easy to see why it’s such an important place,” Levin says, “when you consider that Jews have been there from 3,000 to 4,000 years, Christians have been there for a couple thousand years, Muslims have been there for about 1,500 years.”

He remembers seeing Jerusalem Arabs, smoking cigarettes and reading newspapers, as they casually watched a contingent of prayerful Episcopalians proceed along the Via Dolorosa; Christians in tears at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher; Jews with their emotional intensity at the Western Wall.

“So many people think that Israel became a Jewish state as a result of the Holocaust, but in reality it’s been a Jewish state for 3,500 or more years,” he says.

“That’s a very hard thing to understand. It’s also an amazing thing. When you walk through the Old City of Jerusalem and walk by all these little stalls and hovels in the walls where people have stores and shops, you realize that somebody has had a store or shop in that little hovel forever.”

He was amazed at how such diverse peoples are able co-exist in one relatively small place,  leading what appear to be normal lives, amidst a plethora of political, ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts.

“The whole world looks at Israel as such a diverse and fractured state, but in many ways these cultures have all been living together for a very long time. On the surface there may be problems but they’ve always found a way to get to parity and be able to work it out.

“Life just continues to go on.”

PART of that collective life, Levin realized on this trip, is the fact that Jews everywhere — including himself — are an integral part of it.

He found himself asking a question: “Why do we still feel this tug for Israel?”

His reply alludes to something that might be called ancestral memory.

“We grow up hearing the same stories, over and over again, that well predate the State of Israel,” Levin says.

“At seder this year, I was thinking that every year of my 54 years of life I’ve heard about the aspiration of Jews to get to Israel. It’s not a question that I’ve just heard in my life, but my parents and their parents and their parents, going back generation after generation. They’ve heard almost the same identical story and have had the same aspirations about next year in Jerusalem.

“If a community hears the same thing for so many successive generations, it does almost become part of your DNA. Recognizing it in myself, that connection does seem to be my core with my state of Israel. It’s as if there’s a genetic marker that Israel resonated with.

“And being there, it resonates in ways that you just can’t imagine if you haven’t been there.”

Levin says that his own lifelong fascination with history — especially the history of the Founding Fathers and presidents of America — has been similarly ignited by the historical richness of Israel. The fact that some of Israel’s own founding fathers are still living is compelling to him.

“I’ve always considered myself a student of politics and history,” he says.

“Certainly the historic nature of all the peoples that have been in that land for millennia is remarkable. But as a student of politics, to understand what the State of Israel represents in this short 60-year period of time that it has been on earth in its modern incarnation is absolutely remarkable. I am just amazed when you get to meet people who knew the foundational generation of the state.

“Those who got to meet David Ben-Gurion and his generation are as if they met George Washington. That’s a pretty neat deal. To me that ability to understand that it’s only been a couple generations since the people who had to go about setting up institutions to form this democracy, an oasis in the Middle East, is just extraordinary.”

In the course of his profession, first as an attorney and later as ADL director, “I have had the privilege of meeting presidents and politicians,” Levin says.

“They are all remarkable people, but there’s something different about being the foundational generation.”

MORE remarkable still is the fact that the ambitious experiment of those founders has turned out to be successful. The very birth of Israel was a long shot by any measure, yet here it is, 64 years later.

Yet its existence has been disputed and threatened from the very beginning.

“Those of us who believe in Jewish history may feel an entitlement to this land and a grounding in this land, but whether it succeeds or not is still to be written,” Levin says.

Despite the unending threats to its own survival, Israel always tries its best to remain a moral nation under the most trying of conditions. Levin found that commitment inspiring.

“I truly believe from the people I spoke to that the Jewish people in Israel see that they have a special obligation to the world and to their own neighborhood,” Levin says.

“It’s a struggle and they don’t always get it right, but I’m firmly convinced that they’re trying to figure out the best way to live in peace.

“They know that they could go in from a military point of view and do much more than they’re doing now, but part of the strength that I think Israelis show is because there’s a moral component to the State of Israel. It’s certainly in the forefront of their thinking.

“They take that responsibility of being a light unto the nations very seriously.”

LEVIN is too much of a Jewish community professional to miss the fact that his trip also provided him with plenty of professional motivation.

“The passion that I have for Israel is important because so much anti-Semitism is being replaced by anti-Israel rhetoric right now,” he says.

“The ADL doesn’t view anti-Israel criticism to be the same as anti-Semitism, but at the same time it creates a lot of space for anti-Semites to come in. It certainly can be anti-Semitic in its worst extremes.

“For me personally, being there, I think I have a little better idea now at calling the balls and strikes. Having had that experience and having seen it on the ground, it does have an impact in what I can do professionally.”

One striking example: “What Israel does for its own security is certainly up to the Israelis.”

Levin now better understands why Israelis are unlikely to ever give up Jerusalem or the Golan Heights in any peace arrangement that it accepts.

“There’s a simple thing,” he says. “Until you’ve been to the top of the Golan Heights and you’ve looked over that bunker and seen the only bump on the road between Damascus and Jerusalem — and until you realize how important being on the high ground is —all the pictures that you’ve seen, all the stories you’ve heard about it, are nothing.

“Standing there, peering down from the top of that bunker, it means a lot.”

Which is not to say that Israel doesn’t want, and won’t compromise for, peace with the Palestinian people.

“I think Israelis are by and large committed to a two-state solution,” he says. “I think Israelis are willing to concede some geography in the name of trying to be able to get security. From almost everyone I’ve met in Israel the question is just trying to find a willing partner to do so.”

His sense of the Israeli public attitude about peace is one of cautious but hopeful optimism.

“I don’t think anyone as yet, that we met at least, has given up hope that there’s going to be a solution,” he says.

“I think everyone views it as being wrapped up in local politics in the tough neighborhood in which they live.”

One sentiment that seemed almost universal among Israelis is a sense of security in the faithfulness of the US as an ally, even though the Israelis are well aware of the anti-Israel activism, including the BDS movement, in America.

“The Israelis, to a person, believe that the United States has their back,” Levin says.

“But they view it as many of us do in the US, that we’re going through some changes, some growing pains, some challenges.”

The same goes for President Obama, he says, despite the claims made by conservatives that he doesn’t care much for, or understand, the Jewish state.

“Some people have cautious feelings about Barack Obama,” Levin says, “but I would state that they are absolutely convinced that if push came to shove, President Obama would have their back.

“It’s interesting because they’re very aware of the politics in the United States and know that there have been some divisions and challenges within the Jewish community about what’s going on with regard to Israel.

“But I heard over and over very positive comments about our military relationship, our security relationship — the Iron Dome project in particular — and while some people have been somewhat challenged in their relationship with the president, they know that if he wasn’t supporting them they wouldn’t have all those positive things.”

So — to answer the question asked at the beginning — how is Israel doing at the ripe young age of 64?

“It is a beautiful, wonderful country,” replies Levin, admitting that his appreciation for the Jewish state is something he acquired only fairly recently.

“I have grown to appreciate it so much more by having the opportunity to travel to the country.

“I had the opportunity when I was a teenager to go on the Israel Study Tour when it first started. I decided I’d rather stay in Denver and play tennis and chase girls.

“For 40 years or so, I’ve regretted that choice.”

Alongside his liberal religious orientation and relatively progressive political orientation, Levin says, he has become an unabashed and proud fan of Israel.

“Israel has moved much higher on my list of interests,” he says.

“Having been there, I would say that I’m smitten.

“I can’t think of a better place to go, where I can feed my Jewish roots, feed my interest in history and spend time on the beach.

“Where else can you get that in the world?”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News


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Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor | ijnews@aol.com


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