Israel at 6:00am [UPDATED]

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It’s now almost 6am in the morning, and I’ve been up since 5, and I am
grumpy and can’t fall back asleep after last night’s dinner with a
group of Israeli Anglo bloggers. It’s day three of our visit to Israel
with a group of American bloggers and videobloggers to attend the
first Israeli “Blogference
under the auspices of the Interdisciplinary
Center
of Herzliyya (Israel’s first private university) and Israel21c (a nonprofit group that
seeks to make sure the media covers the Israel “behind the
headlines” — i.e. all the amazing technology being invented here and the
realities and richness of daily life). I’m tossing and turning because
the biggest attraction of this trip, for my 13-year-old son Jesse, who
has joined me for this week and a half of business and personal travel
in Israel, was abruptly pulled out from under us. It was supposed to
be a helicopter ride to the south later this morning, to visit the
border town of Sderot and see how civilians living next to Gaza have
been shelled by Hamas. The helicopter they were planning to use is in
repairs, we were told, and the smaller one they are using doesn’t have
room for Jesse (and thus I am not going either of course), but I am
also aware of the fact that it was always kind of an odd deal being
offered (come on our wonderful propaganda tour–the Israelis call it
“hasbara,” meaning information–and say nice things about us in your
blogs) and I wonder if something I said in the last two days offended
our hosts.

At the same time I am thinking that’s nonsense, don’t be paranoid,
you’re not that important and it’s entirely reasonable for them to say
the helicopter they originally managed to reserve needed repair and
the one they’re using is too small to take Jesse along (and thus
neither me). [UPDATE: It turned out that one of the folks in our
little delegation wasn't feeling up to it, and so there was room for
both me and Jesse to get on the helicopter! It's been a whirlwind of a
day and while I am quickly posting this at 6pm, I don't have time to
get into details about the trip, I will as soon as I can. I think the
rest of this post still stands... and seeing both the "security fence"
from the air, the geography of the conflict, and the battle around
Gaza playing out now, I've got plenty more to chew on...]

I am also frustrated that despite my efforts last night at a delicious
Ethiopian restaurant to draw out the Israel21c people and the Anglo
bloggers they invited to join us for dinner, I couldn’t really get
them to engage on the issue of how they deal with what is
euphemistically referred to as “the situation” or “the conflict” and
in particular what it does to Israel to be continuing to be occupiers.

When I described for them David Grossman’s effort in his book The
Yellow Wind
, which I am re-reading and savoring on this trip, to
get Israelis and Palestinians alike to take one moment to empathize
with the suffering of the other, and his failure to get anyone to do
so, I got no meaningful response. Maybe they were tired. Maybe they
were tired of being asked such questions. I know I’ve gotten tired of
them at times.

Blogger Lisa Goldman,
who had been involved in a fascinating dialogue with Lebanese and
other Middle Eastern bloggers starting last year, and who had just
come back from Lebanon, didn’t really respond and if anything seemed
frustrated at my effort to raise the issue. “Don’t you understand that
we are exhausted of the conflict and just trying to get by and raise
our kids?” she asked. We have a government that is at 4% popularity in
the polls (makes Bush look popular!), everyone is under indictment,
and we’ve tried almost every option for peace, she added. Actually,
there are some things we haven’t tried, she said in passing, but
didn’t want to get into it when I asked. (But you just came back from
Beirut and sat on the beach with a Syrian blogger, what else can you
tell us, I thought to myself.) She just must have been tired. I can
understand that!

David Brin, the head of Israe21c who hosted our dinner, casually
mentioned that, in fact, he lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, which is a giant
settlement of 40,000 people east of Jerusalem, but he insisted, with
no rancor at all, that it really wasn’t considered a settlement any
more, just a part of Jerusalem, one of its neighborhoods. I had in
front of me a perfect example of how the settlement movement had
succeeded in making its zealotry part of Israel’s “normal life”, to
borrow from the “This Normal
Life
” title of blogger Brian Blum’s autobiographical blog, and I
didn’t have the heart or gumption or will to challenge him further.
(My dear departed friend Robbie
Friedman
was right, I thought to myself, the settlement movement
has succeeded in dragging Israel into an untenable situation, a cancer
on Israel’s soul.)

Brian, who was sitting across from me and who was the friendliest guy,
and who has a really cool business in the works helping bloggers turn
their best posts into cyber-books, had also told us that he started
his blog five years ago, after a cousin of his was killed in a suicide
bombing, and out of respect for his loss I didn’t really want to probe
too hard what is after all an unacceptable tragedy for him. I also
kept sensing how badly these Israeli-Anglo bloggers want us to accept
them and embrace them as part of the larger political blogosphere (Allison Kaplan
Sommer
, a blogger here who works for Pajamas Media, told us during
dinner how she felt uncomfortable being totally rejected by the left
side of the blogosphere and totally embraced by the right, even though
that wasn’t where she thought of herself, and I couldn’t help but
empathize with her)…the same way the Israeli techies we met over the
last two days want to be (and in many ways are) seen as Silicon Valley
(Middle) East and not necessarily as part of the “situation” that is
still festering and threatening to explode once again. (No, we haven’t
spent a second talking about that!) But when you meet people
face-to-face over a nice meal, the last thing you want to do is get
into an argument.

I am also grumpy because so far I feel like we’ve been visiting a
bubble, that we’ve had little to no contact with “real Israelis” but
instead are being handled, with the greatest of finesse, by
Professional Israelis, people who have made it their job, either by
day or by avocation, to “represent” the country to outsiders and make
sure we get a varnished view while claiming they are giving us a
rounded picture. Out of politeness again, and a sense that, hey, after
all, they invited me and paid my way, I bit my tongue when David Brin
said that Israel21c had organized a post-Blogference touring itinerary
that aimed to give us a balanced experience–seeing the border fence
(with an IDF guide), visiting Sderot (a border town being regularly
shelled from Gaza) and also meeting an Israel Arab economic
development group. I should have said, and what about a meeting with a
Palestinian, or one of the Israeli human rights groups? Are you so
sure every option for peace has been tried? You say that the
Palestinians rejected a two-state solution at Camp David, but what
about the fact that after Oslo in 1993 Israel doubled the size of its
settlement population and kept demolishing Palestinian houses (built
without permits from the occupying authority) at a prodigious rate?
But then again I am not staying for the full tour, as Jesse and I have
various family and friends to visit around the country over the next
few days, so while we are going to get spend the next two days with
the group in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which we are very much looking
forward to, we will miss the trip to the border fence and the economic
development group.

I don’t feel good about biting my tongue…but at the same time I don’t
need to make a stink, this isn’t my passion any more, thinking about
all of this gets me depressed and angry, and why should I upset
Jesse’s experience of the country? (And hey, the Jerusalem Post just
did a story
yesterday about the Blogference where I am cited as having written
“several books” on the Internet and politics–if only this were true!)
I am wondering also what I should do with the time we have to make
sure that Jesse does get a more rounded view of things–can we somehow
squeeze in a meeting with the Seeds of Peace people, since
after all we’ve been sending the kids Tzedakah donations to them for
years. Or should we try to go parasailing, so he has a great story to
share with his friends back home. But how can I take him on such a
privileged activity when, after all, here were are in the Middle East
and just a few miles away from us things are not gleaming and bright?
So, that’s what is keeping me up this morning when I should be
sleeping…

And at the same time I am also still chewing on and savoring the
conversations with all the interesting and creative people I met over
the last two days, both from among the Israeli techies and bloggers
who came to the Blogference and sought me out in the hallways for a
conversation, and also the other members of our little delegation,
like Andrew Baron and Joanne Colan of Rocketboom, and Doug Racine
and Kent Nichols of Ask-A-Ninja, and Garrett Graff and Jessica Coen and
Om Malik. Yesterday, I met one
Israeli entrepreneur, Eran Reshef, who has started a company called Collactive that helps individuals
and groups amplify their voices on social media sites…and another,
Yaron Charka, who has started a company called Speakitz that enables anyone to add
their voice or comment to any site on the web…and a woman named Taly
Weiss with an absolutely brilliant if still not-fully-baked idea to
create an international “United Nations 2.0″ on the web and invite
people from around the world to join and group them, by their IP
addresses, to their own countries and enable them to vote on how their
country should vote on issues actually coming before the UN. Imagine
that, an Israeli who wants to think of a way to get the UN to actually
work!

Dr. Noam Lemelshtrich-Latar, the organizer of the Blogference and Dean
of the Sammy Ofer School of Communications at the IDC, also impressed
me with his knowledge of how search technologies and personal tracking
systems were being deployed, without our knowledge or consent, in all
sorts of business settings, and his anger and concern for the mass
invasion of privacy taking place was real and urgent. The School of
Communications itself is an impressive new facility that should be a
major draw for the IDC. The two thirteen-year-old pre-pubescent
Israeli boys who sat in the back of the Ask a Ninja’s workshop,
furiously scribbling notes while the Ninjas spoke about how they build
up their videoblog, wowed me completely. “Oh, we’re really enjoying
the event,” they told me. “We’re learning so much. We have our own
blogs, you know.” Same with the first year Israeli students at the
IDC, Tammy Berger and Dorin Bornovski, who were interviewing all of
us for a documentary they are making about the event. Same with the
Israelis who came to my and Garrett’s workshop on blogging and
politics, and who genuinely seem to be searching for a way to foster
the rise of an independent Hebrew political blogosphere that might be
able to do for Israeli politics what the netroots movement in America
has done for the left there (more on that topic maybe later). Their
questions and enthusiasm and hard work were infectious.

Ach, I hate to feel so conflicted with myself. No wonder I can’t sleep.

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