Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Effortful Friendliness of a Militarized Country in Perpetual Danger

This blog previously described Singapore as a country perpetually insecure but achieved prosperity nonetheless.  To say that Israel is the Middle Eastern equivalent of Singapore in this aspect may easily draw agreements from the local populace.  Despite peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, the country still face attacks from Hezbollah and Hamas, and face threats from likes of Iran and ISIS further afield.  "To defend the country," here, is not just an empty patriotic statement taught to students in school, it is a very real duty required of every citizen.

And such sentiment is mirrored by reality on the ground.  Never in his travels has the author seen so many rifle-toting soldiers in daily life, in groups on trains, standing guard at highway checkpoints, and just walking about in malls, tourist sites, and wherever large numbers of people congregate.  And never in his many difficulties in land border crossings has he faced so much scrutiny on his previous travels, his personal backgrounds, and even future plans in life.  Even for the most hardened travelers, such experiences is bound to make one somewhat tense and nervous.

It is all for good reasons.  Especially in mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhoods, tensions are ever-present.  The author, on his way in from Jordan, met an Israeli Arab from Jerusalem, on summer vacation from university.  He spoke of restrictions on Muslims praying at Jerusalem's holiest sites, and the unequal treatment given to Arabs in Israeli society.  He had no qualms cynically calling these problems something unique to "life under the occupation."  Surely he is not the only one holding such thoughts, considering Israeli population is now quarter Arab, and still growing.

Yes, the military presence and border security in Israel is serious business, but that does not mean that the underlying friendliness is not present.  If anything, female Israeli soldiers are probably the most beautiful group of people the author has had the fortune to see in the Middle East (right up there with the young Beirutis) and that beauty is not simply because of physical looks (which, by the way, is on average, superb).  More memorable are their smiles toward tensed-up travelers not used to the military presence, used so wonderfully to soften up the image of Israelis as a war-hardened people.

And the female soldiers are not the only ones trying their best to make people, especially foreigners, feel welcome while adhering to the needs of their profession.  Armed police regularly put down their rifles and play with little kids on the streets; curious locals, with their proficient English, curiously inquire the origins of all foreigners.  Even hasslers are polite enough to bargain prices for "services" and thoughtfully bless the travelers in whatever religion they adhere to; finally, unique to the region, local drivers actually yield to pedestrians crossing the roads!

It is these little things that show the resilience of the Israeli civic society.  The fact that the country is perpetually under threat is not used as valid excuse to skimp on niceties of everyday life.  Conversely, perhaps because the external relations of the country is so unstable and at times fragile, the people place so much emphasis on ensuring that the internal-facing society is as stable as possible.  Making sure that all civilians, foreign and local, receive the respect and politeness they deserve, may be the best way to help create sense of normalcy in a turbulent region.

By such logic, the fact the society is militarized by constant presence of uniformed personnel with firearms actually help the society make greater effort at trying to be peaceful.  After all, all the soldiers visually present in daily lives is a constant reminder that the peace to be had is extraordinarily valuable, and everyone has made and will continue to make sacrifices to maintain it (all the more so since all citizens are required to serve in the military for some time).  Friendliness to strangers is probably the most basic way to appreciate the hard-earned peace.

As ludicrous as the statement might sound, it may be good for all societies to go through what Israel goes through just so they can learn to appreciate peace so intimately as the Israelis.  For a people that has not seen war, conflict becomes romanticized and glorified, allowing them to feature prominently in interpersonal relations in everyday life.  Friendliness is less valued over pride in winning such conflicts.  The Israeli experience would teach such people just how ridiculous they are to not respect the value of peace and how stupid to seek conflict in the first place.  

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