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Camp Israel

Reporter’s Notebook: Beneath tension and history, reporter finds friendships, familiar ground.

Eating dinner in Tel Aviv, I asked one of my Israeli counterparts about the Golan Heights, the next stop on our itinerary. She told me it is a lush, green region, one of the most beautiful in Israel.

Yes, I said, but doesn’t it have some historical or political significance?

She caught my eye with a look of genuine surprise, paused, and stated the obvious: “Ken, every square inch of this country, every square centimeter, has historical and political significance.”

This was lesson one of my 10-day visit. When you sneeze in Israel, your spittle lands on something holy, disputed, or, most likely, both. Israelis are used to it.

Two days later, I silently approached the Kotel — the section of the Western Wall of the Temple Mount that is one of Judaism’s holiest sites — on the eve of Shabbat. On the plaza in front of the wall, hundreds of Jews were praying, individually, in groups, silently, in song, in languages that I did not know.

The atmosphere on Shabbat was at once solemn and electric, celebratory and sad. Thoughts of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had fallen gravely ill the previous night, magnified that tension.

NEARING THE WALL the crowd grew denser, then almost impassable, stacked six deep against the stones. The throng was dizzying, like a carnival, and when I reached the wall I pressed my head to the stone, and all I could think was that I had just passed through 3,000 years of Jewish history in 50 feet.

I prayed. I do not know how long I was there and I do not remember if I smiled or cried.

Before we left the Kotel plaza, our group joined arms in a circle and sang peace songs in Hebrew. In retrospect, this seems the kind of campy tableau the cynic in me loves to mock, but that did not occur to me at the time. The magic is not just that bystanders did not stare. They joined us.

This, I imagine, was the kind of experience my sponsors hoped I would have in Israel, but not every moment was profound and spiritual.

On the contrary, I was struck by the normalcy of the place. Television reports suggest that the country is all mortar shells and burning effigies. Tel Aviv is modern and European. It reminded me a bit of Prague. The Golan Heights (historical and political significance aside) has become a successful wine-producing region. And Eilat, the Red Sea port at Israel’s southernmost tip, evokes the tacky laissez faire of a Florida beach town.

I never felt unsafe. Our group’s movements were carefully planned and tracked by GPS. We did not use public transportation and we were accompanied around the clock by an armed security guard. But that all sounds more grave than it felt. The security guard was younger than I am (25) and danced and drank with us at Israeli discos. We were told that he would not, for example, pose for a picture holding up his gun, but this policy was not followed. Israelis long ago learned to live on guard against terror the way Americans did after Sept. 11, 2001. The presence of soldiers with M-16s in crowded markets is no more intrusive — but somewhat more comforting — than my having to take off my belt and shoes for the 5 p.m. flight to Orlando.

WE HIKED and we rode camels and we visited the gravesites of Israel’s founders. We ate and drank, and much as we tried to avoid it, we fulfilled every cliché we had heard about bonding. We were the twentysomething version of the most spirited bunk at Camp Timbertops. People back home, we said, just wouldn’t understand.

But Israel — where every square inch of land is infused with stories of conflict and triumph and tradition — has that effect on people.

FREE TRIP

I traveled to Israel with a group of 35 young professionals from the Washington area, a trip organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and a Chicago-based Jewish nonprofit called Shorashim. We stayed in very comfortable hotels and ate kosher, buffet-style meals. I would guess that the trip cost several thousand dollars per person but I don’t know because the total cost to me was the price of a train ticket to New York and more two-dollar falafels than I can recall.

The funding comes from a partnership between the Israeli government, private donors, and local groups like the Jewish Federation, under an umbrella organization called Taglit-Birthright Israel. Birthright participants must be Jewish, under 26, and have never traveled to Israel on an educational trip. (Prior visits with family are okay, though in practice most participants have never been at all.)

When I told friends about the trip, they warned me that nothing is really free, that I would be brainwashed, forced to become a militant super-Jew.

They were wrong. Synagogue was optional. The group consisted mostly of secular Jews who wanted to be more engaged with their cultural and religious identity. Birthright’s lone purpose seems to be providing that opportunity.

If there is one pitch, it’s a subtle nudge-nudge about coming back to Israel, maybe as a tourist, maybe to study or live on a kibbutz, or maybe to “make aliyah” — become an Israeli citizen, the titular birthright.

It’s a compelling case. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is increasingly less about land and more about demography. Being a global minority is nothing new, but there is a palpable fear among Israelis that Jews could someday become a minority in Israel.