Reflections on our Trip
By Heidi Katz
Thursday, May 3. Travel theme: Start Up Nation. Before the day began, one might have wondered about any logical connections between what was on the day’s agenda: a scientific research institution on the cutting edge of exploration and innovation; a 1940s underground bullet factory; the graffiti of Tel Aviv; and a meal in the home of an Arab-Israeli woman.
First stop: The Weizman Institute of Science. A VIP tour (special thanks to Harold Adler!). Founded by Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president, the Institute is extraordinary in offering some of the world’s foremost researchers the time and space to think with the ultimate goal being innovation that leads to new solutions and, importantly, their application and implementation; Weizmann’s explicit goal was to foster an environment that would lead to practical improvements that will make the world a better place. Most special was the time spent with two female doctoral students—learning not just about their research but also about being a woman in the scientific community in modern Israel.
Second stop: The Ayalon Institute. Hidden 30 feet under a kibbutz in pre-state Israel (1940s) was a Palmach bullet factory. Designing, building, and running the facility, as well as distributing the thousands of bullets produced daily took extraordinary ingenuity on the part of the Palmach. Every day a few dozen workers would secretly descend to the noisy, dangerous factory. They carried on their work amidst not just their friends (who had no idea what was going on beneath their feet and homes) but also the British military. This underground start-up was a great success, solving problems of production and supply that contributed to the successful formation of the state of Israel.
Third stop: For those who still had a bit of energy, a tour of the graffiti in the Florentine area of Tel Aviv. Tags and pieces, many by internationally known street artists, as public statements of global issues of human and environmental justice.
A full day already, but there was still more.
Fourth stop: Alia Dassuki, an Arab-Israeli woman served us dinner, an overwhelming spread of dozens of traditional dishes, in her Jaffa home. Alia, the grandmother of the family, started to live a religious life at the age of 52. At about the same time she starting her business of serving meals to visitors. The purpose of the meals is to facilitate discussion between the various stakeholders — not primarily international visitors but Israelis of different backgrounds, e.g., Jewish. These mega-changes in her way of life have given her a sense of empowerment; she has become a new woman in her family’s eyes. Alia’s granddaughter, Lila, a law student at Tel Aviv University, told us a bit about their lifestyle, their successes, and their challenges. Only at the end of the evening did she tell us that her grandma’s home is in a neighborhood that is likely slated for demolition and replacement by high-rise development.
Our first stop on Friday morning was essentially a capstone on Thursday’s itinerary. We went to the Tel Aviv Bus Station. While the bus station serves as what it sounds like it should, it is actually much more — a disaster in urban design. Seven stories—most of which are underground—stretch the size of about 10 football stadiums in the shape of a Chanukiah, 1500 storefronts sold in the 1960s have never been able to open. Nobody has ever had any reason to enter the building. Except for a few isolated areas that house a handful of businesses due to unusual happenstance, miles of corridors remain empty since the building opened in the 1990s. We spent a couple hours walking through this ghost town under Tel Aviv.
Walking the campus of the Weissman Institute, we were ebullient with the optimism of Israel’s founders and contemporary scientists and researchers. In the Ayalon Institute, we were buoyed by the spirit of the men and women who fought for the founding of the State of Israel. Tel Aviv’s graffiti reminded us of the complexity and diversity of Israel today. The aspirations and dilemmas of an Arab-Israeli family forced us to think about how difficult it will be to arrive at a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at a large scale. The dilemma of the Tel Aviv Bus Station is in many ways symbolic of the intricate challenges involved in working with all of the stakeholders in the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma.