Trip to Israel: A big story in a small place

Israel is small. Really small.

At it’s narrowest, the country is only nine miles wide, and it’s just slightly larger than New Jersey.

Jerusalem is 45 miles from Amman, Jordan. Haifa is about 80 miles from Beirut and 90 miles to Damascus.

The population is about 8.2 million people.

The population of the West Bank is estimated at 2.9 million people, while an estimated 1.5 million people live in the Gaza Strip.

Former AP reporter and author Matti Friedman talked to us about the importance of perspective. In the narrow sense, much of the world looks at Israel as a major power that imposes its will on a smaller and weaker West Bank and Gaza. And that’s true.

But, if you zoom out a litter further, you see a very small state, with its population concentrated in a tiny area around Tel Aviv surrounded by an Arab world with 450 million people, not including another 77 million in Iran.

Despite its small size, Friedman talks about the disproportionate attention Israel, the West Bank and Gaza receive. When he was a correspondent, the AP – the most important and credible news source in the world – had 40 reporters covering Israel and the Palestinian territories. As Friedman explains, that’s more reporters than Russia, China, India or all 50 sub-Saharan countries in Africa.

And this level of coverage means that more stories are written and that the news coming out of Israel and the occupied territories is treated as bigger than news elsewhere. Consider, according to Friedman, in 2013 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict claimed 43 lives.

Meanwhile, in 2013 1,600 women were murdered in Pakistan, 271 after being raped and 193 burned alive, or the drug wars in Mexico that have claimed an estimated 60,000 lives between 2006 and 2012.

Friedman takes a dim view of the way the press covers the Israel-Palestinian conflict. As a former reporter, I know that journalists try to get it right.

But the conflict between Israel and the occupied territories is part of a larger conflict in a rough and aggressive part of the world. And that, compared to other places of conflict, the death toll is tragic, but small. The coverage is anything but.

The Dead Sea from a shoreside resort.

The Dead Sea from a shoreside resort.

On the Dead Sea, literally

Yes. You just float.

The Dead Sea, as everyone knows, is very salty and people just float, no effort required.

The water feels like a very low-quality maple syrup, thick and a little slimy, but with amazing blue and green colors. The bottom is essentially salt, and if you have a cut or a scrape you’ll feel it. Don’t shave the day you’re going in. Don’t get the “water” in your eyes or your mouth.

It takes no effort to float in the Dead Sea. None.

But your mind and your muscle memory will tell you otherwise.

Go slow, sit back and lift your legs, and you’ll float all day.

I did my best to keep a posture similar to sitting in an inner tube. Butt down, knees and shoulders up. But instead of being a carefree float, unwittingly created an ab workout I was still feeling several days later. Call it the Dead Sea mega-crunch.

Just relax and try not to float to Jordan on the other side.


The Old City of Jerusalem.

The Old City of Jerusalem.


Changed forever

I can understand the power of Israel for people of faith, but my visit has forever changed the way I will view the Middle East.

Until now, I looked at the conflict as a matter of policy, a distant intellectual puzzle to be figured out. It was tragic, but impersonal and far removed from the day-to-day. It was easy to take sides or to give in to broad generalizations and tip of the tongue characterizations.

No longer.

When I think about the future and the threat of violence – about car bombs and stabbings, rocket attacks and border walls – there are names and faces attached to the communities in Israel, the Golan Heights and the West Bank for me.

Our guides Ian and Tom, Benny, who drove our bus, the gentle Palestinian farmer and the former PLO negotiator, the soldiers and the politicians, the kibbutzniks and poet, the entrepreneurs and waitress, wine makers and students, my merchant friend in Jerusalem, who may or may note have run a mild scam, and the life-saving doctors and nurses of Ziv.

They all have names. They have spoken them to me. I remember their faces and their voices. I see them. I hear them. I will remember them until we meet again.

I traveled to Israel from Feb. 12-18 with the American Israel Education Foundation, the nonprofit arm of AIPAC. The foundation funds educational seminars to Israel for members of Congress and other political influentials. These AIEF-sponsored trips help educate political leaders about the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship through firsthand experiences in Israel, briefings by experts on Middle East affairs, and meetings with Israeli political elite. Traveling with me was a group of 12 other people from New England.


David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at