Back to Israel

Steve Kelman's world travels take him back to Israel.

I am back in Israel, chairing an outside evaluation of university public-policy programs. As soon as I got on the highway from the airport to Jerusalem, I immediately noticed how green everything was compared with my previous trips last June and December. Like California, Israel basically has a desert climate, which keeps the ground pretty brown and dusty for large parts of the year, with a rainy season in winter that then makes things green again for a while. There are, however, fewer wildflowers than in California, though there are some.

My first day in Jerusalem I had lunch with a former student who now works as a foreign service officer at our consulate in Jerusalem. It's a unique U.S. consulate because it is in effect our nonembassy embassy to the Palestinian Authority.  Most of the consulate's work is political and economic reporting about the West Bank and Gaza, not the typical consular work of visas and help for stranded Americans. Interestingly, because of this, the consulate reports directly to Washington, not to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, which covers Israel. This is an amazing first posting for a new Foreign Service Officer who graduated from the Kennedy School less than two years ago. It requires not only great skills at gathering and analyzing information but at negotiating the complex linguistic and protocol issues of this part of the world.

We had lunch, based on my suggestion from a guidebook, at a restaurant in the Old City (inside the ancient walls) said to have – and my student agreed – the best hummus in Jerusalem. I was somewhat surprised to see no prices on the menu. We had a great meal of hummus, minced lamb kebab, and chicken kabob, with pomegranate juice for each of us. When we asked for the bill, the waiter said "100 shekels" (about $30), a suspiciously even-number price that seemed high. I guess a nice way to put it is that this was "the American price." I would actually go back to this place again, because the food was really good, but I think next time I will ask prices when I order.

After lunch, I walked toward the Damascus Gate, the gate from the walled city through which travellers from ancient Damascus (in Syria) entered. You come out of a cramped, claustrophobic warren in the Old City, under a sort of arch, and you emerge into the expanses of Arab Jerusalem outside the wall. It was a weird feeling, actually. Suddenly all the women had headscarves, and the buildings were lower – giving the area a more open and expansive feel – and built in a style quite unlike that either of Jewish Jerusalem or of the crowded, walled Old City.  I was taken back psychologically to experiences literally decades ago of going through passport control at the Friedrichstrasse railroad station, the major gateway between West and East Berlin, then exiting the train station into East Berlin, and into a very different world

There was also a fun article in the Jerusalem Post about the chief chef at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, (where China's quasi-parliament meets), whose hobby was learning about ancient Jewish coins. He had visited Israel several times, spent a small fortune on buying old coins, and actually published a 575-page book in Chinese called "Money of Ancient Judea and Israel."  He was quoted in the article as saying, "No one can understand the world without understanding the Jews first. For Chinese, Jews are special. They are very smart. ... No other country refers back to its ancient history in its modern coins as does Israel."

This is yet another example of the fascinating affinity between the Chinese and the Jews, which is reflected on the Jewish side with traditional Jewish predilection for Chinese food (which Jews traditionally eat on Christmas day) and on the Chinese side with the tendency of Chinese immigrants to look for Jewish suburbs to move into, on the grounds the schools are good. (My own high school was two-thirds Jewish when I went there, and about half Korean and Chinese today.)

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