Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Second Exodus

I’ve never visited the Sinai. And now I fear I never will.

The nearly simultaneous bombings that killed 33 last week at the Taba Hilton and the beaches at Ras al-Satan delivered destruction to a destination regarded by many Israelis as a refuge, an oasis in the desert where one could get away from the stress of life in pressure-cooker Israel and luxuriate on one of the most fabulous beaches in the world with the some of the best scuba diving and snorkeling around.

Or so I’m told.

But the bombs also had the effect of closing the world off just a little bit more to Israelis. Sinai now joins other former Israeli tourist havens that have seen their symbols of public Jewish life targeted in the last few years and as a result are no longer perceived as safe.

Places like Mombassa, Kenya where an Israeli-operated hotel was bombed in November 2002. Or Istanbul, Turkey where attacks at two synagogues killed over twenty just under a year ago. These days, just wearing a Star of David in Paris can be dangerous.

But Sinai...there was something special about the place that called to me more than all the others, even though I’ve never been. Maybe it’s because you can drive there, in your own car even. To give you a sense of proportion, you can get to Taba from Jerusalem in less time than it would take to drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Or New York to Washington DC.

Then again, maybe it’s our history. Tradition has it that Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah. The Jews wandered that same desert for forty years after leaving Egypt.

It’s no wonder then that perhaps the most striking image from the aftermath of the bombs in Sinai was not the pictures of rescue workers digging through the rubble for bodies and survivors – we’ve seen that too many times before right here in our own neighborhoods in Israel.

Rather it was the mass exodus from Egypt. The buses that were sent into Sinai to bring some 15,000 Israeli tourists home in a matter of hours.

The symbolism and religious irony are unavoidable.

And one more thing: we were supposed to be in Sinai. We actually had plans with two other families to make the trek during the intermediary days of the Sukkot holiday and go camping…on the very beach that was bombed.

We chickened out only after the Israeli Foreign Ministry in September issued an unprecedented warning based on “concrete” information regarding terrorists targeting Israelis in Sinai during the high travel season.

Would that everyone had been so cautious.

And yet, how can you live like that? Tourists stopped coming to Israel because they said it wasn't safe. Now Israelis can’t travel abroad because it’s too dangerous. It’s not possible to guard and protect everything. At what point do you draw the line and say “it’s out of my hands.”

Is canceling vacation plans giving in to terrorism? Or is it just plain prudent?

Shortly after the bombs in Sinai, I received an email from a colleague...in Egypt. We had often joked that we’d meet each other at the half way point between Jerusalem and Cairo where he lives. That is, on the beach in Sinai.

In his letter he wrote:

“I am so sorry for what happened in Egypt yesterday in Taba. I understand that many innocent Israeli people died, which is for sure very bad, and not acceptable by anyone or by any religion. Let's hope together that God brings peace in our region.”

His words of heartfelt concern struck a deep chord inside of me, saying that, even as this world becomes increasingly perilous, there is still hope. Even when the borders are closing tighter and tighter, and when it would seem that no Israeli would be crazy enough to ever visit Egypt again, there can still be understanding between people.

I still hope to visit Sinai someday. And sip tea with my friend from Cairo.

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