By Joanna Chen
It’s hard to miss the American and Israeli flags flying on the main highway that connects Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Too bad President Trump missed those flags, fluttering bravely in the summer breeze. He went by helicopter up to Jerusalem, but the highway was closed anyway, just in case. Trump touched down in Israel yesterday, and tension was high, more in anticipation for the razzle-dazzle than anything else. “We will get it done,” Trump promised Palestinian President Abbas earlier this month, and I wonder today what exactly Trump thinks he might get done here. What kind of a haphazard, hocus-pocus plan does he have up his sleeve that might succeed where others have failed?
The whole country is buzzing about this historic trip, less because anyone seriously believes Trump will deliver peace on a plate to the Middle East and more because of the disruption to daily life.
Back in November 2016, a small demonstration was held outside the US Embassy in Tel Aviv to protest Trump’s election. “No More Walls!” “Never Trump!” and “Not My President!” were some of the placards held by mostly female protesters standing on the sidewalk. A friend, knowing my opinions on Trump’s racist policies, asked me to join a similar demonstration in Jerusalem. I refused, on the grounds that I’m not American. It’s not that I don’t care or that I think it won’t affect me. Trump’s impulsive ways will surely rock the already unstable Middle East, with me in it. I applauded my friend for going, however, and I told her that I’d consider demonstrating if he were ever to come to Israel.
And here we are, deep into his whirlwind visit. There’s an element of elderly rock star entertainment about Trump and his Middle East tour, without a doubt. When Britney Spears gave a concert in Tel Aviv’s open-air Hayarkon Park back in April, the Labor party postponed its primaries due to the expected traffic jams close to Labor headquarters. Trump’s visit, I feared, was going to disrupt a lot more than that. Operation Blue Shield, designed to provide security for Trump’s trip, involves undercover police, armored vehicles, helicopters, massive patrols, and sniffer dogs. Last night he slept in a bullet-proof, poison-gas proof, bomb-proof room at the iconic King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Even if the entire building were to collapse, Trump’s luggage would be safe.
Much of the media hype prior to his visit was concerned with where Trump intended to stage his show on this 28-hour visit. I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to give a speech on the top of Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking the Dead Sea, and the last stronghold to fall during the Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the first century. I applaud Trump for his sense of showmanship here. What could be a better platform for this master of spectacle?
As I traveled up the highway to Jerusalem last week, admiring those valiant flags, I could already imagine him stepping out of a helicopter in a bronze tie and pale suit, the rays of a dying sun glinting on his coiffed, yellow hair. What a scene that would have been! Elazar Ben Yair, the commander of Masada during the historic uprising, would have turned in his grave at the thought.
There were murmurs that the Masada gig was cancelled due to unexpectedly hot weather conditions, but later Israel openly vetoed the idea of a helicopter landing atop this UNESCO World Heritage site, which is too bad because Trump would really have gotten a kick out of that. The venue was finally switched to something a little more demure: The Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Israeli police immediately issued a warning about this, since security would be tight, and heavy traffic was expected. The roads surrounding the Israel Museum were closed. My partner, Raz, was giving a paper at a 3-day international conference on Bible in the Renaissance at the nearby Hebrew University campus of Givat Ram that very day, an event scheduled almost two years ago. I wish Raz luck getting there today, since Trump is still here.
Trump also visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum perched atop Mount Herzl. He was slated to spend 15 minutes at the memorial, just enough time to walk in, say a few choice words about the Jews who died in the Holocaust and place a wreath there. That’s about 400,000 dead Jews per minute by my calculations. A little more time was allocated to what was touted to as a private visit to The Western Wall of Jerusalem, the first ever visit of a sitting US president. No, Netanyahu wasn’t going to get a photo-op, yarmulke on his head, praying with his American buddy at the wall. This was a family visit, but Melania Trump and daughter Ivanka tagged along — they weren’t photographed standing at the wall alongside Trump either, since Western Wall ethics demands total segregation between men and women. The men’s section comprises a good three-quarters of the wall and is divided from the narrow women’s section by a fence. God forbid any women distract the male worshippers. I couldn’t wait to see Trump, one paw touching the ancient wall, eyes closed, playing the role of pious pilgrim.
Melania got her moment of fame, however, as Trump exited the plane at Ben Gurion Airport, reached out for his wife’s hand, and was rebuffed by her. It was a small moment, a light slap on his sweaty hand, captured with glee by the ever-present cameras.
And then there was the scintillating conversation as they waited on the red carpet, reported by Haaretz.
“We have all this protocol, but we never know what to do,” Netanyahu murmured to Trump.
“What’s the protocol?” Trump asked.
“Who knows?” Netanyahu replied.
“Nobody knows,” said his wife, concluding the discussion.
I’m lucky enough to set my own schedule, so I decided to avoid the crowds and travelled up to Jerusalem earlier this week. I stayed late, went to a poetry reading in the evening and began the journey home. It’s a quick drive back taking what is known as the tunnel road, a highway leading out of Jerusalem that briefly traverses the West Bank, passing through an Israeli checkpoint on either side. Last month, I passed through it on my way to a peace meeting between Palestinians and Israelis. Trump will likely pass close to here as well today, en route for Bethlehem, where he’ll meet with Palestinian officials.
On this particular journey home, we drove past the Palestinian village of Husan. It was pitch black and there were few cars on the road. We drove in silence, both of us tired after a long day in the city. As we passed the mosque to our right, there was a loud thud as a rock smashed into the side of our car. I slammed on the brakes, and Raz got out of the car to check the damage. The door of the car on Raz’s side was dented from the impact of the rock. If the aim had been more accurate, the rock would have gone through the window. Raz surveyed the damage hastily, then got back in the car, and we drove slowly to the checkpoint on the other side. Rock throwers don’t ask questions before they act; they don’t care if their victims believe in a two-state solution or not.
Guiltily, we reported the incident to a couple of Israeli soldiers as we reached the second checkpoint. Perhaps we shouldn’t have driven there. They nodded their heads languidly, and one of them walked off, mumbling into his walkie-talkie. He told us to wait, and I stood by another soldier, who swung back in her chair, the muzzle of her gun pointing downward, resting in her hand. She’d been on duty for a few hours already and looked tired. She told me they caught a woman earlier in the day trying to smuggle a trunk-load of meat into Israel. It had been a pretty quiet day and she was dying to go home. So much for peace.