A Writer Writes: The Peace Corps in Israel

 [According to former Peace Corps Evaluator and historian Stanley Meisler (PC/HQ 1963-65), author of When The World Calls: The Inside Story of the Peace Corps and Its First Fifty Years the Peace Corps did go to Israel, at least briefly. Stan wrote to me: “To punish India for battling Pakistan over Kashmir, LBJ held up a group of PCVs heading there in 1965. They shuttled from Israel to Guam to the Philippines for six weeks until LBJ gave in to Shriver and allowed them to go to India.

Before that event, PCVs in Ethiopia went to Israel. Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962-64) reminds me that a number of Ethie Is did their 1963 summer project in Israel working on a kibbutz. This was arranged by Harris Wofford (Ethiopia CD 1962-64).

In this “A Writer Writes” essay, Bob Cisco writes about his recent trip, last month, to Israel and what he found after all these years.]

The Peace Corps  in Israel

 By Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966-68)

 Like many former Peace Corps Volunteers, I’ve never lost my wanderlust or my curiosity about the rest of the world. My latest venture abroad was a month in Israel and, as frequently happens, wherever I go the Peace Corps is never that far away. My first visit to Israel was in ’68, on my way home after two years in Africa. Israel was confident and euphoric at the time following triumphant victories in the ’67 war. In 2013 Israel was anxious and insecure, surrounded by unstable Arab countries, threatened by Iran and deeply divided by domestic politics.  

Bob in Israel

Bob in Israel

After checking into my hotel in Tel Aviv, I stepped out onto a small patio and scanned the neighborhood. High on one of the nearby rooftops I recognized the green and white stripes of the Nigerian flag flapping in the afternoon breeze blowing in from the Mediterranean. The young woman working at the front desk told me the Nigerian embassy was half a block away. Laura, a twenty-something French Jew, left Paris and her family seven months ago to do aliyah (the right of return.) During my month in Israel, I would meet many young adults from different corners of the globe, doing aliyah.

Later at the hotel, I heard a stocky black man talking on his cell phone and immediately recognized the musical tones of Igbo. When he put the phone down, I looked over, smiled and said, “Kedu?” Reflexively, he immediately answered “A dim ma,” then did a quick double take and broke into a hearty laugh and a megawatt smile that could have lit up a dark room. “Ahhh,” he said, “You know Nigeria?”

George, a successful businessman, lives in Onitsha and was visiting Israel for the fifth year in a row. After both his parents were killed in a horrific car accident, he vowed to come to Israel every year to pray for them. George is a devout Christian and makes a pilgrimage to the holy sites saying prayers for his parents. It was a little odd seeing him wearing a yarmulke when the hotel hosted a ceremonial Shabbat dinner that Friday night but he was clearly an ecumenical good sport.

In Haifa, I met Ian, a young, exceptionally fit-looking Brit. He was in Israel doing research for an adventure tourism business he was starting up. While we talked about our work and our travels, I noticed a tall thin man sitting nearby reading a book.

The next morning, the tall thin man came up to me at breakfast. “Did I overhear you say you were in the Peace Corps?”

Bill served in both Kazakhstan and Bosnia in the eighties. He remains an inveterate traveler and cultural explorer. I thought I was adventurous until he told me about some of his quirky experiences traveling through Azerbaijan and Armenia.  

I went to the resort town of Eilat, not to lie on the beach or go scuba diving as many Israelis do, but to cross the border into Jordan, only fifteen minutes away. I wanted to go to Aquaba, see Petra and spend a couple of days in the Jordanian desert where I had arranged to sleep in a Bedouin tent. Walking through the streets of Eilat, I was struck by the number of people who looked like they came from sub-Saharan Africa, some of whom I was convinced were Igbos. Later on, when I overheard the cleaning people at my hotel talking, I was certain they were Nigerians. So I shocked another Igbo with my one-word command of “Kedu?” and within minutes he was rounding up the other Igbos who worked there to meet “the man who lived in Ishiagu.” Many African immigrants made their way north to the Middle East looking for work but there seems to be a clear distinction however, between black Ethiopian Jews and black “goyim.”

Two days after leaving Eilat, I was reminded of the risks traveling in the Middle East. Three rockets were fired into the city from the Sinai. Fortunately no one was hurt but someone who was there later told me, “Everyone ran from the beach looking for the nearest bomb shelter.”

I decided to visit the West Bank on my own with plans to stop in Ramallah, Nablus and, the often-volatile Hebron. I took the Arab bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and checked into a hotel near the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Christ is said to have been born. Walking through the square, I caught a sideways glance of a blond woman about my age snapping pictures with a large camera. Something about her struck me as familiar. Later walking through the Arab quarter, I realized it was Alice, a Peace Corps Volunteer who was in eastern Nigeria when I was there. I didn’t know her then but I had met her a few years ago at a Peace Corps reunion in Boston. Ironically, I had heard about Alice for years from her sister, Ruth, with whom I had worked earlier in my career.

Once our connection was established, Alice and I forgot about our plans and spent the rest of the day talking about Nigeria, our lives and Israeli politics. Alice had been in Israel with a group that was looking into the problems Palestinians faced in Israel and the West Bank. Our time together was an extended “schmooze” that went on for hours and passed like seconds.

After Alice left, I arranged to participate in an all-day program in Hebron. This involved riding on a bullet-proof bus into the heart of the Israeli and Palestinian disputed areas. Hebron has five micro-settlements in the center of the city, all built after the ’67 war and which now block residents from passing through streets in their own neighborhoods. Two thousand Israeli soldiers protect about five hundred settlers. The settlers say they are only reclaiming territory that belonged to them before the Jews were killed and chased out in 1929. The Palestinians say that the Jews are intruders who occupy and over-control their land and lives. The program involved spending half a day with a Palestinian guide and touring the troubled neighborhoods, then going to a Palestinian home and hearing their story. The second half of the day involved doing the same with a Jewish guide and then going to a settler home to hear their point of view. We also visited a synagogue, a yeshiva, a mosque and stopped at religious sights important to both groups.  

Though too much of the day was about propaganda, it was transparent propaganda. The real value for me was just being there and observing the problems of daily life for both groups, going through numerous and intimidating checkpoints, meeting individuals with a firmly held point of view and, most of all, having the opportunity to ask questions to the residents themselves.

“Do you live in fear?” I asked a settler woman whose grandfather had been killed in the massacre of 1929.

“No,” she replied. “I know God wants me to live here.”

What would be your first wish if things could change,” I asked a man in the Palestinian home.

“To return to the ’67 boundaries,” he answered.

For me, the ’67 war also referred to the war in Nigeria when I was there. Throughout my day in Hebron I was reminded of parallels between Israeli-Palestinian and Igbo-Hausa issues: the religious and tribal loyalties, the stereotypes, the grudges, the suspicious fears, the eye-for-an-eye mentality, the breakdown in communication and the complex and the tangled knots of history that continue to surface generation after generation. I also thought about how tribal we all can be, something we see played out in American politics and international affairs.  

My month flew by and I left Israel feeling over-stimulated but better informed. I didn’t leave feeling optimistic about anyone finding a solution to the problems in the near future, given how both sides have dug in and how many other countries have become players behind the scenes. One encouraging sign was the surprising number of Israeli, Palestinian and international groups that work cooperatively to improve communication between the two sides. A joint Israeli-Palestinian group had arranged my visit to Hebron.

Flying home, I realized how fortunate I was to have had the experiences of living in Nigeria and Somalia. It was the Peace Corps, after all, that first opened the door for me into the big world beyond the small place where I grew up.

Bob Criso worked as a psychotherapist at Princeton University Counseling and Psychological Services and also had a private practice in Princeton. Now retired and living in New York City, he currently reviews plays and works on a memoir when he is not traveling.

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