Sunday, December 29, 2002

Nation Under Construction

On Sunday morning, the new Trans-Israel Highway became Israel’s first and only toll road. But for the past few months, I, along with 50,000 other drivers, have been riding the road also known as Highway 6 for free and it’s been quite a thrill: wide open vistas; fresh concrete as yet unblemished by the mangling of a million tailgating trucks; that special status of being one of the first to do something new in our small country.

Now, I shouldn’t exaggerate: as adventures go it's still a very small one, and the highway itself is very much a work in progress: traffic on the segment from the Ben Shemen interchange with the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway to Nachshonim (near Petah Tikva) only flows in one direction: North. Everyone else has to crawl on the chronically under-construction Highway 444 with its notorious curves and potholes.

Some of you are probably thinking: Big deal. It’s just a road. It goes from here to there. End of story. But it’s more than that.

Despite the economic downturn and the war and all of our other maladies and discomforts, this country has somehow been able to mount massive public works projects in every which direction. Indeed, Israel these days feels like one giant construction pit.

The Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway alone passes no fewer than four major building projects: the interchange with the Trans-Israel Highway to start; the new entrance to the city of Jerusalem which will straighten the treacherous Motza curve before linking up with the Begin Highway near Ramot; the extension of the train from Tel Aviv to Ben Gurion Airport, which has required an entire highway to be moved to the left to accommodate an underground rail tunnel; and of course the massive new terminal at Ben Gurion Airport, dubbed Ben Gurion 2000, although clearly by a cursory look at the calendar, they’re running just a tad late.

Here’s a confession. It’s totally politically incorrect, I know. But I love construction. I love the process of building something from nothing, of transforming a landscape from one mode to another. Sure, I should be standing up and defending the land, demonstrating against the defamation of the countryside, the destruction of vital resources and open space, and the Trans-Israel Highway in particular which, it is said, will lead to unnecessary suburban sprawl and contamination of coastal aquifer.

But, I can’t help it. I’ve always been like this.

Growing up, I remember when the then-new Interstate 280 was being built just around the corner from my house on the San Francisco Peninsula. It obliterated an older road that had leisurely wound past several small storefronts, a horse stable or two. I remember the bulldozers, the new on and off-ramps slowly snaking towards us, and the great green exit signs going up. It was thrilling.

Despite the exhiliration, I never felt any real ownership over that Insterstate. In Israel, though, connection with the land is an integral part of the national ethos. That’s my lamppost, my traffic circle, my security checkpoint, my big pile of mud.

But there’s another element to the connection. It’s what all the construction going on says about where we’ve come to as a country. We’re no longer building the infrastructure of the state. The initial roads and buildings and institutions have been laid down. We have reached the stage of adding to the base, improving on what we started with.

You see, it’s already possible to drive from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Now we’re widening the road and taking out the dangerous curves. We can take the train from Haifa to Tel Aviv today. Now let’s make it better and extend it to the new and improved airport.

This is more than a state of construction; it’s a state of mind:

We have the shops; now we have to improve customer service.

We have the synagogues and the mikves and the religious courts; now let’s bring them more in touch with 21st Century reality while promoting respect for tradition without coercion.

We have the Jews; now’s the time to move past the surly sabra exterior and fully actualize that compassionate core we all know is lurking somewhere inside.

And perhaps most important: we have a state; now we have to strengthen it, make it more secure, reform our political system, weed out corruption, and grant respect and freedom for all citizens as well as those under our protection and care.

Many years ago, before I had ever visited Israel, I imagined a land filled with sand dunes and shantytowns, a struggling third world nation. I’m sure there are some, despite the images they see on television and the Internet, who still think this way. How wrong I was and they still are.

We are a thoroughly modern nation at our most crucial juncture, the point where we grow from simple survival to maturity and confidence. Despite everything going on, there is no more exciting and worthwhile time to be here.

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