Sunday, November 26, 2006

Inside Israel: Part 2

Eye-opening Israel trip evokes thoughts of home
The New Paper, 22/11/2006
(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

ISRAEL is not a common destination for Singaporeans for holiday or for business. Yet many Singaporeans have been there, including those on pilgrimage. Back home after 11 days in the country - which is situated on territory that is Holy Land to the Christian, Islamic and Jewish religions - the most frequently asked question was: Were you in any danger at any time?

No, the Singapore Press Club group of 30 did not face any imminent danger even though the places we visited included spots close to the Lebanese and Syrian borders, the Golan Heights being one of the highlights. Usually, I do not like being buss-ed around for sightseeing. I would much rather explore on my own, at my own pace. But the sightseeing packaged for us gave me rewarding glimpses of historical sites and contemporary attractions.

I studied the Bible when I was in a mission school and, though I have no religion, I felt a distinct sense of place when we visited locations where Jesus had been, like beside and on the Sea of Galilee. I had read and heard about the Holocaust and the millions of victims of Nazi anti-Semitism. Yet it was still a discovery of facts and feelings as I walked and paused at the Holocaust memorial. The memorial was more a shrine than a museum. It comprised gorgeous architecture, designed to bring to glorious life the old saying that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It also conveyed grim remembrance, reminding us of murderous racism and of how one people, one religion and one vision could keep the Jews alive through centuries of having no home to call their own.

Now Israel in the Middle East is their beloved home - and the Jews are hated for that by many people because of the way the nation came about and what it cost, and is still costing, countless Muslim Arabs and others. Of more interest to me than the sightseeing were the discussions about Israel and its neighbours that we had with Israeli thinkers and doers.

The discussions came very close to home for us Singaporeans when we heard statements such as these: 'Israel, like Singapore, is a small country,' said an Israeli Foreign Ministry official in defence of his country's pre-emptive strike military doctrine. 'We have no second-strike capability.' 'In Singapore, your Muslims see themselves as part of the system,' said an Israeli parliamentarian. An Israeli social activist said in another discussion: 'In Israel, there is not yet equality of treatment for both races (the Jews and the Arabs).' 'We are part of the global village, we're very high-tech,' said the director of an Israeli think-tank. 'Our people are very mobile, they move around and are in high demand in the West. Yet, whenever we have to call up our reservists, the combat units get 100 per cent response. We have a very strong sense of commitment.'

What our trip lacked was access to Arab thinkers and doers, especially those who could speak for the Palestinians. For among the Palestinians too is a very strong commitment to homeland. And so my thoughts turned to home and to hopes for the same strength of commitment from my fellow citizens.

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