After visiting Israel four times between 1974 and 1988, I had not been back for two full decades. What I saw during my two-week visit in late June and early July was, in aspects large and small, a different country than the one I remembered.
Tel Aviv has become a cosmopolitan city that is more Israeli than Jewish. No longer the neurotic little village I remembered from a semester in university there, it is a Hebrew-speaking European style-city with a Mediterranean accent. Sure, it has the assorted black hat walking around, and maybe a few of the restaurants are kosher, but I could not get a reservation at Goocha--a fish place with magnificent goose liver-wrapped grilled shrimps--on a Friday night.
The days when Israel was a culturally isolated, near-garrison state are over. However disappointingly it may have ended, a fruit of the Oslo peace process has been an opening to the rest of the world. If the Arab boycott of companies that did business with Israel is not over, it no longer matters. Add to this the not incidental (and near simultaneous) boom in high-technology industries and suddenly, you've got a new kind of country here. From its initial founding, Israel is a country of many miracles, but this new modern country that has somehow arisen in the desert in just 60 years is surely another one.
Israel is also experiencing a remarkable cultural explosion in virtually every area of the arts--something also driven, in part, by its sudden thrust into the world and the multicultural base that has developed inside the country itself. One Sunday night, I attended a party at the home of David Broza, who is to Israel what Bruce Springsteen is to America, both a rock star and a cultural symbol of the nation. He travels the world singing in Hebrew, Spanish, English and a little Arabic, moving among these cultures with remarkable facility. Joined by dozens of musicians and artists at his house, Israelis of myriad cultural origins sang and played folk songs, reggae songs, and even a folkified rap originally by Dr. Dre. (I had to Google that one on my Blackberry to figure out what I was hearing.)
It was a cultural melting pot of the kind that most American cities can only aspire to emulate.
On the other hand, there is something a little unstable, a little spooky about all this happening, as it does, in the middle of the chaos and horror that remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel is a hybrid society, with European bourgeois culture mixed up with the Levant and plunked down in the desert. Visit the main art museum in Tel Aviv and you'll see the kinds of Old Master and Impressionist masterpieces you'd see in New York, London or Paris. But if you take a taxi across town to the Museum of the Land of Israel and look at any of the archeological pavilions, you see evidence of the thousands …