For independent-minded journalists, there are better ways to see the world than media junkets. But--and my accounting department will back me up here--there aren't many better ways to pay for it. So two weeks ago, I set out for Israel on the dime of the American Israel Education Foundation, affiliated with the American Israel Political Affairs Committee.
Like the Trilateral Commission and Freemasons, AIPAC gets blamed by conspiracy theorists for controlling everything from the U.S. Congress to the price of yak-fat futures. It's a bad rap, and I'm not just saying that because AIPAC controls the media. Based on my experience, it seems that America's pro-Israel lobbyists are, comparatively speaking, light touches. Just look at the competition. The last time our corporate brother at Fox News, Steve Centanni, was hosted by Palestinians in Gaza City, it was after he'd been abducted, forced to convert to Islam at gunpoint, and made to appear in a hostage video singing Allah's praises while wearing fruity pajamas.
By contrast, I was put up in hotels with heated pools and kosher sushi bars, given a really cool helicopter ride up the Jordan River, and taken to a Dead Sea spa where large Russian women kneaded our haunches with vise-like fingers still over-exercised from working the plow back in Kostroma. When I asked an Arab affairs correspondent from Haaretz how we'd be treated if he brought me down to Gaza to meet his Hamas contacts, he said, "like good barbecue." At the risk of being trivial, here's the score so far: Jews ahead, 40-love.
Israel is a country that turns on tension, since it's never known anything else. If it's not the daily peppering of Islamic Jihad's Qassam rockets or Iranian nutter-butters calling for their obliteration as a state, there's the internal implosions, such as the prime minister being under investigation for sketchy financial dealings, the president being investigated for rape, and a former justice minister being on trial for French-kissing a female soldier. Still, that beats the hell out of last year's war with Lebanon, or "Hezbollahstan" as some call it, when one-sixth of the population summered in bomb shelters. "All told," said an Israeli plane-mate on the ride over, "things are good!"
Here, even the Christians get in on the craziness. Our guide tells us many pilgrims are overcome by "Jerusalem Syndrome," and that, "at least once a year, someone tries to crucify themselves." "How do they manage that?" I ask. "It helps to bring a friend," he says.
Good, clean harmless religious warfare even infects the Judeo-Christian good-times vibe of our group. At the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, six Christian sects are forced to split candle-lighting chores and other upkeep, a rivalry that's resulted in fistfights between monks. As we tour the holy site, my friend and Jewish colleague, Slate's David Plotz, observes, "It takes six churches to manage the place. The Jews could do it with two guys, and they'd hire it out." I tell him not to feel too superior, after all, "we have Mahalia Jackson, you have the Yentl soundtrack." True, he says, "but you also have Christian rock."
In spite of the friction, perhaps because of it, Israelis have mastered the art of living and the resigned shrug. They stay up late arguing in restaurants, they sing lustily with house bands in clubs, and they can drink like there's no tomorrow, since tomorrow isn't always a sure bet around here. One night, at a wine bar in Tel Aviv, my dinner companion is Yair Nitzani, a political satirist who is known as Israel's Jon Stewart. He has a rock star's self-assuredness about him, since he used to be one. He played keyboards for a band called T-Slam, and to this day is instantly recognizable as the guy who used to wear a faucet stuck to his forehead. Think Alice Cooper meets early Steve Martin.
He takes a pox-on-all-houses approach to his comedy, which can sometimes be difficult when, say, your cousin is blown up on a bus, as his was a few years ago. "Did that change your viewpoint?" I ask. "Not really," he says. "I wasn't crazy about [the terrorists] beforehand."
With a lasting peace ever-elusive, and the enemy always at the door, Nitzani is a man for whom life is a jump-ball between romanticism and realism. A few days later, after our late night of whiskey and song, the phone rings on our bus on the way up to the Sea of Galilee. It's Nitzani. He leaves a sobering message for me: "Tell Matt to enjoy himself, but not to walk on water. It's not going to work."