Barbara Abraham, Berthy & Peter Verhage
Sadly much of the world does not see Israel to its advantage – reports and commentaries are often distorted to show our small, threatened country as the big bad boy. During the years that my partner worked abroad in the oil world we made many non-Jewish friends and cemented relationships that we value until today. Many of these oilmen worked in Arab countries too and often their perspectives of the Israel/Arab status quo were thus more sympathetic to the Arab side. Many and often were the invitations that we extended to them to visit, but to no avail – they gave polite excuses but basically fear of the terror threat kept them away.
Shell retiree Peter Verhage and his wife Berthy decided to liven their retirement by taking to the highways and byways of both the northern and southern hemispheres; emails with tales of their coverage of terrain both on foot and on wheels embroidered our imagination for some three years. "Well, no more excuses, come to Israel too," was our response to them upon learning that the winter of 2007 – 8 was to be spent combing the campsites of Southern Italy and Greece. And so, leaving their car in Greece, they came not for a week but for ten weeks, which would give them a real taste of Israel and an experience of our way of life. Like the majority of Israelis we are tired – tired of poor government and third rate bureaucracy; tired of the lack of proper long term planning, promises that are not kept, government committees that just talk and don't do and tired of the non-stop media coverage of depressing news. We are worried about the future and what it might hold. But suddenly some rays of sunlight shone through the frosty winter mists and my days became illuminated by the enthusiasm and enjoyment of our guests.
The Verhages’ final three years in the oil world were spent in Syria close to the Iraqi border. Our first outing together here was a drive up to the Golan Heights where they learnt about the life of early settlers in the Galilee as we drove across the Hula Valley and began to mount the steep winding road. They saw the stretches of well-farmed orchards and fields, they viewed the kibbutzim and the moshavim, they saw barren stretches of earth and rocks and the remains of Syrian occupation. And they understood how essential it was, and is, to have a peaceful border and why Israel had to take the Golan to protect the lives of the members of those farming communities. We were proud to talk of Israel's agricultural prowess and the will to succeed in so many projects – one of which was the development of wine production. Many are the bottles we have since sampled and enjoyed!
On every occasion possible we introduced them to people, people from varied backgrounds – those whose families came to Israel to re-establish a State, those who had suffered as a result of the Holocaust, those who had been touched by the shadows cast by anti-Semitism and those who had lost a loved one in the battles fought to establish or to defend our State. They also met with Christians and Arabs. Part of a day was spent in Kfar Kara where the principal of the Democratic School vigorously supports national service in spite of the opposition of the municipality. Indeed we were invited to drink coffee and discuss these varied opinions with them before visiting the Arab/Jewish school which has grown and developed since my first visit three years ago. They met and were impressed with the enthusiasm and determination of both the Jewish and Arab teachers to make the school an emblem of success –which the children, who obviously enjoyed their school day, symbolized.
Resident in Scotland, our friends have been steeped in Scottish tradition (as we were during our twenty year stay there) and who can think of Scotland without the national poet Robbie Burns. So we took them to the Scots Hotel in Tiberias for the traditional Burns Night, complete with bag-piper (Israeli born), haggis (look it up in the dictionary if you never ate it!) and speeches delivered and poems read in strong, original Scottish accents by the Jewish Master of Ceremonies and his assistant. Around us the tables were filled with Israelis whose enjoyment of the proceedings opened the eyes of our guests to the fact that Israel is cosmopolitan.
As lovers of classical music they were filled with admiration for the rich choice we enjoy from so many talented musicians. One memorable evening was spent listening to the Haifa Symphony Orchestra playing with talented young pianist Tomer Gvirtzman. As the audience rose to its feet to applaud the outstanding performance, the thought, "This is what it is all about" filled my mind and pride brought tears of emotion to my eyes.
They – sometimes with me – walked the trails of the Upper Galilee and Kinneret visiting the past that is enveloped in beautiful scenery. The stunning, unspoilt views from the little-visited Tel Hatzor, one of Israel's largest and richest archeological sites, transported us back in time and we imagined how life must have been as scenes from biblical-era history crept up out of the earth. The sites and trails were clean and well tended and again I was proud of all there is to show and study. One late afternoon in the Hula Reserve we were surrounded by 25,000 cranes preparing for their nightly slumber whilst on their winter break. The cold spell, which had encrusted the Hermon with snow, passed and as the weather warmed, blossoms and spring flowers added vivid splashes of color to the countryside.
As I write this article they still have to experience the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv and spend their final week in Jerusalem where I hope their understanding and enthusiasm for Israel and what it encompasses will be heightened even more.