Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, has generated headlines lately by urging singer Alicia Keys to avoid “soul danger” and cancel her July 4 concert in Tel Aviv. Keys and other celebrities should ignore Walker and visit Israel. They may be amazed at what they discover.
I was fortunate to see Israel for the first time last week, thanks to the America-Israel Friendship League. Five of the eleven journalists on AIFL’s fact-finding trip were new here. Keys and other artists likely would find Israel at least as surprising as we did.
First and foremost, Israel’s omnipresence in the U.S. media makes it sound like a superpower. But as much as anything, Israel is impressively compact. At just 7,992 square miles, it is slightly larger than Clark County, Nevada (greater Las Vegas), but smaller than New Hampshire. Israel is crowded on three sides by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. It could fit 157 times within the land masses of those countries.
Israel is not just small. It’s svelte. At its thinnest point, near Netanya — just north of Tel Aviv — Israel spans just nine miles. The land separating Israel’s Mediterranean beaches from its border with the Palestinian Authority covers roughly the same distance as does Manhattan between Battery Park and the Apollo Theater on 125th Street, or Los Angeles from the Santa Monica Pier to the La Brea Tar Pits. Conquer those nine miles, and you chop Israel in two. Given this existential danger, the late foreign minister Abba Eban called this and the rest of Israel’s narrow waistline its “Auschwitz boundaries.”
Nevertheless, Israel is the little country that could. Within a desert that is hostile in every sense, Israel has become a prosperous nation with a per capita income of $29,512, its Central Bureau of Statistics reports. In 2012, Israel’s GDP expanded by 2.7 percent, while America’s grew just 2.2 percent. Israel’s unemployment rate is 6.9 percent, vs. 7.6 percent in the U.S.
This start-up nation has pioneered plenty, including drip irrigation, the computer flash drive, and the PillCam, which lets doctors remotely examine a patient’s digestive tract after he has swallowed an aspirin-sized camera.
Tel Aviv’s BioGaming is developing motion-sensitive video games that entice and reward physical-therapy patients as they complete their exercises. “One man with an ACL injury was in such pain that he did not jump for five months,” says CEO Dudi Klein. “He played our game and jumped up and down 200 times in 40 minutes.”
The Weizmann Institute of Science, “Israel’s MIT,” has registered some 1,400 families of patents since 1959, roughly one per fortnight, on average. Its researchers created Copaxone and Rebif, to treat multiple sclerosis; a new hepatitis B vaccine; and an MRI-based method to distinguish benign tumors from malignant ones. Now in final tests: a treatment for Type 1 diabetes.
So what, you ask? Smart people used brains and water to fill Southern California’s sands with stars.
True, but Hollywood’s biggest early challenge arguably was irrigation and, as the film Chinatown dramatized, William Mulholland took care of that. Unlike the Angelenos, Israel hydrated itself while fighting off its next-door neighbors — from its 1948 inception until 1979’s peace with Egypt and 1994’s with Jordan. Nonetheless, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen remain technically at war with Israel. The Palestinian Authority maintains a tense state of non-combat with Israel, although cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security officials is encouraging.
Conversely, the Gaza Strip’s chief export is rockets lobbed at Israel, courtesy of the terrorist Hamas government. (In fact, according to Haaretz, Islamic Jihad launched six rockets at southern Israel from Gaza last night.) This triggered retaliatory Israeli air strikes on an IJ weapons depot and a command post.) Israel largely has shielded itself from that threat, thanks to the Iron Dome system, a mini-me of the missile-defense system that Ronald Reagan envisioned for America. Some rockets do slip through, however. And the only defense against short-range mortar shells is to fling open the doors marked “Shelter” in many buildings and hunker underground.
Alicia Keys might be startled to see the degree to which Israeli Arabs are integrated in this society.
(photo: Deroy Murdock)
Israel’s official languages are Hebrew and Arabic, both of which appear, along with English (unofficial but convenient), on street signs everywhere.
Fourteen Arabs serve in the Knesset. They compose about 12 percent of this 120-member parliament, or about half of their approximately 25 percent of the general population. Yet it’s a safe bet that far fewer Jews hold seats in other Middle East legislatures.
While Israeli Arabs are exempt from the nation’s military draft, the Druze insist on serving, and many Bedouins (who are both Arabs and Muslims) volunteer for duty. The latter use their desert-living skills to track those who penetrate Israeli territory.
A drive through largely Arab East Jerusalem reveals a dustier, poorer part of town than Europe-like, mainly Jewish West Jerusalem. Boosting the wealth and influence of its Arabs should be Israel’s urgent priority. That vital objective will be far easier to achieve with Israelis manning work stations rather than ramparts.
Jews and Arabs shop for food, side by side, in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo: Deroy Murdock.
As a U.S. group called Creative Community for Peace observes, musicians like Keys also should appreciate Israel’s broad, American-style freedom of expression, something rare among its neighbors and in the wider Muslim world. In May 2012, for instance, Lady Gaga was forced to cancel a sold-out concert in Indonesia when fundamentalist Muslims decided her act was Islamically incorrect.
In Saudi Arabia, music groups are emerging. However, they are relegated to the Internet. As FreeMuse.org explains, these groups “all dream of a time when they will be able to perform in public instead of being forced underground by the religious authorities. At the moment they have no venues in Saudi Arabia where they can perform. Public music is banned.”
In the seaside Gaza Strip, which Israel abandoned and handed to the Palestinians, Islamofascist Hamas officials have prohibited local journalists from cooperating with their Israeli counterparts.
Gazan musicians need permits to play, and the Hamas government grants such permission grudgingly, if at all.
“I spent hours in front of the mirror, singing, dancing, and recalling the memories of my concerts in Europe in the summer of 2010, where I performed in many European cities,” Gazan rapper Mohammad Antra complained to Al-Monitor’s Asmaa al-Ghoul. “However, I could not perform in Gaza.”
Another rapper fared far worse.
“I was supposed to perform at Rashad Shawa theater,” on April 25, 2012, Ibrahim Ghneim told Al-Monitor. “However, a few hours before the show, I was beaten by security officers along with my band mate, Ahmed Labad, in a bus belonging to the security apparatus. They broke my arm and leg and my partner’s arm as well. At the time, I was scared to inform the audience and the media of what truly happened. So I refunded the people’s tickets, putting myself deep into debt.”
Meanwhile, according to Arab News, a Saudi program called “Buraidah’s Got Talent” bars musical competition. Instead, contestants face off in athletic events, poetry recitals, and religious chants. The show also is closed to women. Keys — and Walker — need not apply.
Alicia Keys could learn this and lots more in Israel. So could Alice Walker.