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  • Writer's picturePerspectives: The Yale Journal on Israel and Palestine

The Sounds—and Silences—of Israel

Judah Ellison

On a Friday morning in Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda Market, commonly known as “The Shuk,” bustles with activity. People from all walks of life and religious observances cluster into the open market to purchase their food and drink necessities for the weekend. Fridays in Israel mark the first day of the weekend and, for many Jewish families, include significant meal preparation for the Jewish Sabbath (“Shabbat” in Hebrew), which begins at sundown.

In the Shuk, vendors shout out deals for bread, crowds of people sort through premade food and fully-sized fish, laughing kids dash between small carts used to wheel the day’s plunder back home, and tourists obliviously wander between dessert stores, looking for quick knick-knacks to eat. By midafternoon, the loud debauchery in the Shuk dissipates into a significantly less dense scene, consisting of rushed stragglers speeding between stalls as they try to find unsold challah and the dessert they had promised to bring home. By the time the shrill horn signaling the beginning of Shabbat blares across Jerusalem, the Shuk looks like a desolate remnant of days long gone by with its boarded-up stalls and abandoned passages.

This transition from weekday to Shabbat takes place across all of Israel and marks one of the most distinctive characteristics of Israel—a seamless transition from noise to silence. I have traveled to Israel several times during my life in various capacities. Over the years, I have noticed a glaring discrepancy between the portrayal of Israel in the news and my own experiences.

Israel often frequents media headlines, many times with grim tidings. Based on the news, I would expect to find a country ravaged by war and protest—a country immersed in a microcosm of constant explosions, sirens, screams, and shouts. These headlines largely detail harsh realities—although many claims within these stories drip with bias from both political sides—but in person, the sounds of Israeli culture play a much more prevalent role in the Israel experience than the political noise.

In 2018, I spent the summer working in Jerusalem. My arrival in June came several weeks after the U.S. moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and amidst an escalation of tension and violence on the Gaza border. In the weeks leading up to that summer, news about the embassy and escalation of the Gaza border protests flooded American headlines. Together—and intensified by the extensive media coverage—I imagined a country embroiled in chaos. While the political noise covered very real events, it proved shockingly quiet in my own experience during the stay.

I flew into Tel Aviv, hanging on every headline and anticipating an eruption of war, but from my observations after I landed in Israel, I would not have guessed that the nation was the center of international attention. Everyday life continued normally, conversation revolved around the mundane, and the gunshots and protests only existed in my head as I tried to imagine the events happening less than eighty miles to my southwest. Any sense of danger came only from the news on my phone and my attempts to comprehend how close I actually was to the Gaza border despite the atmosphere of normality surrounding me.

On July 4, during that same trip, my roommate and I visited the new Jerusalem embassy in an attempt to stand on U.S. land (although not strictly accurate according to international law) on its day of independence. Again, we were greeted by resounding silence. It is easy to understand why a closed embassy might be quiet, but it still shocked me to find the epicenter of all that controversy completely silent and peaceful just one month after its relocation.

The soft wind swept over the red, white, and violet flowers in front of the embassy, and combined with the beautiful view of the desert to the southeast, the scene filled me with a sense of tranquility, even as I tried to imagine the endless pages of headlines and furious op-eds that addressed this very site. The noise created by the protests and coverage of the embassy’s move to Jerusalem was—like the escalations along the Gaza border—very real and serious, but the silence that greeted me at the embassy proved striking nonetheless.

I still might define the in-person Israel experience as chaotic and noisy but for different reasons than one might expect. The commotion of horns and swerving cars in Israeli intersections provide good enough reason for any foreign pedestrian or driver to panic. The clamor of forthright vendors and haggling in markets can easily overwhelm the unassuming American with barely passable Hebrew, and the blunt, straightforward method of conducting business in Israel proves quite intimidating for the uninitiated foreign businessman.

During the week, Israeli public spaces throb with activity and noise, and to the American traveler, it almost feels like a battlefield—although, unlike nearly all Israeli young adults, most Americans can only guess what it feels like to serve in a military during a war. A walk down Ben Yehuda Street—a popular pedestrian mall in Jerusalem—brings the sounds and sights of street singers and dancers, a bright display of Israeli culture.

The more secular Tel Aviv displays a similar—if not louder—concert of culture with rowdy marketplaces, thriving beaches, clustered intersections, and booming nightlife. Only during Shabbat—although to a lesser degree in Tel Aviv—does the country quiet down. On a late afternoon Saturday stroll, only the soft hums of families singing Shabbat songs and kids’ laughter in playgrounds drift through the Jerusalem breeze.

I have only glimpsed Israel through small cross-sections of time. Absent from my experiences are important fears, protests, and realities. A popular app will toll out an alert bell every time a missile soars towards an Israeli settlement or city. There have been many days and nights when that bell has tolled non-stop in my American residence. I am sure the missile warning sirens impart significantly more terror on Israelis. I have missed the explosions on either side of the Gaza border, and I have not witnessed the abundance of protests by Israelis or Palestinians (with one exception).

The U.S. lauds its alliance with Israel in part because of Israel’s standing as the flame of democracy in the Middle East, but not all demographic groups in its democracy have representative voices—perhaps this silence stands out above all. Politics in Israel bear more complexity that many people acknowledge; it is much more than Israel versus Palestine. It features other demographic struggles that lead to fraught divides, such as the conflict between the Ultra-Orthodox population and the secular, among others.

The silences and sounds of political and social struggles in Israel deserve to be listened to, but they should not be the only sounds that are acknowledged. The headlines portray Israel in a very politically heavy tone, but you might find that in-person, the vibrancy of Israeli culture speaks loudest.

A rising senior in Branford, Judah hails from Charleston, SC. As a sophomore, he served as the Israel Chair on the Slifka Student Board and Vice President of Cultural Affairs on YFI. He is majoring in history but intends to pursue a medical career after graduation.

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