Seeing how we’re celebrating Thanksgivukkah this week—Thanksgiving and the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah coincide for the first time in more than a century—I thought I might share my experience in September driving around Israel in a 2013 Mazda 6 wagon. The tiny country is a great place to tour by car, provided one can survive the other drivers.
Rather than hit up the popular tourist spots—the Dead Sea, the Western Wall, the Galillee—I invited Israelis of various backgrounds and political leanings to get in the car and show me the country through their eyes.
Disclaimer 1: The Israeli-Arab conflict is complicated, and this piece is not intended to cover every aspect and perspective on it. The views presented by those quoted here are not necessarily my own, and not necessarily those of Automobile Magazine.
“If you go straight here, you get to Gaza.”
Tel Aviv teems with an almost frantic energy. The locals call it “Pinuiy Binuiy” (“destruction construction”). Getting around here is a master class in defensive driving. Motor scooters—and sometimes buses—weave at speed through microscopic gaps in traffic. Every intersection presents a game of chicken to see who cares the least about getting in an accident. I’m bound to lose every time—I’m an American tourist and care very much about preserving the Mazda 6 wagon I’ve borrowed for a week. A truck speeding in the opposite direction buzzes so close that it slaps in my side-view mirror with a sudden, “twack!”
I ride along the sun-soaked Mediterranean coast, dotted with perfect looking palm trees and perfect looking people, until I reach the Dolphinarium, an aquarium turned nightclub that was bombed in 2001, killing twenty-one. There I meet up with Maya Peretz.
“I prefer actually German cars,” she notes.
Still, Peretz, a busy activist with OneVoice, an organization that promotes coexistence and dialogue in Israel and in the Palestinian territories in order to achieve a two-state solution, has graciously agreed to ride around in the Mazda to show me a slice of Israel that doesn’t make it into the newspapers or group trip brochures. We’re driving south, to a place where the conflict feels much more immediate than it does in Tel Aviv.
Peretz says her biggest challenge in advocating for peace these days is getting people to pay attention to what she’s saying.
“I can live with people who disagree with me,” she says. “Most of the people are not active. In general people…just pass me [by] and don’t talk to me at all.”
Most Israelis, like most Americans, care more about domestic and economic issues. Recent elections here turned on the cost of housing and a desire for greater support from the government. Peretz cares about those issues, too—she proudly identifies as a socialist—but argues the conflict deserves more of the spotlight.
“If we don’t have the two-state solution, we’re at least looking to ten to twenty years that will be horrible.”
After about an hour of driving, we arrive at our destination.
“Turn left here,” she says. “If you go straight, you get to Gaza.”
“Here” is Sderot, a city of about 20,000. Sderot has always been a hardscrabble place. It was established as a development town for Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries, who have traditionally faced discrimination from the European Jewish establishment. In the last half decade, it has also become the most frequent target for rocket fire from the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, at the worst point seeing some 30 per day. The bus stations, rooms in private homes, and even a playground are reinforced to serve as bomb shelters. The Mazda 6 is not a bomb shelter, but Peretz, who grew up in Sderot, says we’re safe, given the uneasy truce that presently holds between Israel and Hamas.
We park at the edge of town and climb to the top of a bluff. In the dusty horizon, one can see Gaza high-rises. The city of Beit Hanoun is 3.7 miles away. It has borne the brunt of Israeli army incursions and artillery fire (intended to stop the rocket fire). Not surprisingly, many of the people who live in Sderot are not particularly disposed to sympathize with their Palestinian neighbors or to support peace initiatives, but Peretz thinks there’s no choice but to try.
“If we don’t have the will, it won’t happen.”
“You’re a settler right now.”
Having conquered Tel Aviv traffic, I graduate to parallel parking on the streets of Jerusalem. The technique, taught to me by an Israeli cousin who parlayed his experience in army tanks into a career as a driving instructor, is to put two wheels up on the sidewalk. That way, your car has an extra few inches of protection from reckless bus drivers.
Inches matter in Jerusalem, as Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent for the English language Jerusalem Post, explains.
“You’re a settler right now,” he says, noting the fact that the burger joint we’re patronizing, situated in the high-rent neighborhood of Arnona, technically falls outside the armistice line of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. It’s bordered on the east by several large Arab neighborhoods. Israel annexed all of Jerusalem following its victory in the 1967 Six Day War, but the international community, including the United States, has never recognized this move. All the issues that define the Arab-Israeli conflict—territory, religion, security—come to a head in this city, Hoffman says.
Hoffman loads his two children into the back of the Mazda for a driving tour of the booths Jerusalemites have built for the coming Jewish festival of Sukkot. We drive from stone alleyways near Mahane Yehuda, an enormous open-air market, to the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Geula, which is packed wall-to-wall with people shopping for holiday accouterments in heavy black suits. We head west to Motza, a charming neighborhood built along a steep series of switchbacks called the Seven Sisters. I slide the shifter into manual mode (an honest-to-goodness manual mode) and enjoy the precise, nicely weighted steering as Hoffman’s kids snooze in back. That’s a station wagon doing its job.
All the locations we visit are in the Western half of the city, within Israel’s internationally recognized borders. But the truth is these borders presently exist nowhere other than a map. Many areas are “swiss cheese” says Hoffman—Jewish neighborhoods encircled by Arab neighborhoods and vice versa. But these “facts on the ground,” as Israelis call them, raise more questions. Questions such as, if the city cannot be divided, how can there ever be a peace agreement with the Palestinians? And then what to do with the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who live in Jerusalem?
These are tough questions, made even tougher because this is, in fact, Jerusalem. “It’s the heart and soul of the country,” says Hoffman.
“Politics—what’s that have to do with cars?”
Throughout the week, I’ve been staying in Jerusalem with my Israeli cousins. They are incredibly hospitable, but can’t quite wrap their head around why I’m driving around with activists and journalists.
“Politics, what’s that have to do with cars?” asks Eitan, a 24-year-old student at Hebrew University.
It’s not that he’s worried about what I might see and hear; he just can’t imagine why I care. Odd as it sounds, many Israelis, especially young Israelis, have no interest in the affairs that keep Israel in the headlines. They’ve grown up with the interminable peace process, the intermittent terrorism, the existential threats, and are bored with it all. Eitan is more interested in studying for exams, finding an affordable apartment in Jerusalem (nearly impossible), and zealously protecting his Sköda Fabia from city buses.
He is, however, duly impressed with the car I’ve snagged for the week. Mazdas are extremely popular in Israel, and this one, which lists around $48,000 after onerous Israeli taxes, is a really nice Mazda. So, he gets into the passenger seat and guides me to a hummus bar in Jerusalem’s gentrified downtown district. He finds the 2.0-liter, 155-hp four-cylinder rather powerful. I’d prefer the 184-hp, 2.5-liter four that’s standard on U.S.-spec cars, but not if I were paying $8.50 a gallon for gas.
The last time I was here, during the Second Lebanon War, shopkeepers posted signs in their windows thanking the few tourists who hadn’t split. Now, on a weekday night shortly after Yom Kippur, the area around Ben Yehuda street is packed with locals and visitors alike, and I’m hard pressed to find a spot for what by now feels like the largest car in Israel (by the end of the week, my relatives refer to it simply as “the Jeep”).
“It’s almost like Europe,” says Eitan. Of course, we’re not in Italy or France—we’re 135 miles from Damascus. But he’s right. It’s easy to walk outside here in the cool desert breeze or to drive along in the Euro-style Mazda 6 wagon and forget this beautiful, troubled place has any troubles.