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Independence Day: Seeing Israel through an outsider's eyes - opinion

Sometimes it is precisely the outsider who gets it, and only their perspective can inspire jaded insiders.


The Jerusalem Post

By YONI ZIERLER

APRIL 13, 2021


Between Israel’s 72nd and 73rd birthdays, my love for Israel was rekindled by a group of people who had never been here.


Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I didn’t love Israel before. In fact, I vividly remember the moment I fell in love with this country. I was a young American eighth grader visiting the country for the first time who awed by this place where one could order kosher pizza on every corner – and in Hebrew no less! In high school, I counted down the days to my family’s annual visit and the chance to again explore the land of my ancestors.


But ironically, something changed after I moved here.


When I made aliyah at the age of 16, my friends back in the United States often asked me how many times I had visited the Western Wall since landing. A seasoned Jerusalemite of a few months, I would proudly boast that I “only visited occasionally.” Only those living outside of Israel, I felt, who cannot visit the Wall whenever they want to, dream of praying there each morning.


“An outsider wouldn’t get it,” I would explain. “But the greatest excitement is when you stop getting excited because you’ve gotten used to the Western Wall being right around the corner.”


Nearly a decade after those boasts, I began my journey as a tour guide. Since then, I have proudly lost count of my visits to the Wall. But the challenge of not taking Israel’s treasures for granted remains tremendous.


Good tour guides cannot become complacent. A guide whose heart stops beating with the energy of the Holy Land will never electrify the souls of tourists. But after so many visits, it’s only natural for the magic to dissipate, making it hard for one to breathe life into the country’s ancient stones.


Although this is a professional hazard for tour guides, I assume this syndrome exists throughout Israeli society, as Israel is a country that suffers from a surplus of history and all the symptoms that come with that surplus.


IT IS EASY to get used to the blessed abundance, especially if you grew up with ancient views in your backyard; hung around famous churches, mosques and synagogues as a child; and visited virtually every historical site during your 12 years in the Israeli school system.


This year, with travel limitations turning every local excursion into a trip abroad, I hoped to rediscover the magic I felt in eighth grade. As I walked around the different locales, I made a mindful effort to put on my “tourist shoes” and recreate the wonder of seeing everything for the first time.


Fortunately, I had a little outside help.


Not long after the end of the first lockdown, I began guiding live Zoom tours for international groups on behalf of StandWithUs – the Israel education organization I work for. Since then, we have broadcast live and in real time on almost 100 different occasions, bringing Jerusalem’s familiar sites to virtual tourists around the world.


Except, as I discovered, the familiar sites were often far from familiar for many of the thousands who joined us, and even those who had been to Israel before were anything but bored by the so-called backyard views.


Zoom-fatigued sixth graders suddenly woke up, fascinated by stones and pillars from thousands of years ago. Cynical eleventh graders sent notes to be tucked into the stones of the Western Wall, and even the expatriate Tel-Avivian cried when we sang “Hatikva” at the site.


The virtual tourists thirsted to know the Old City from up close, to stroll through its alleyways, encounter its history, and even to meet its street cats.


And their thirst was contagious.


Sometimes it is precisely the outsider who gets it, and only their perspective can inspire jaded insiders to remember that until 73 years ago, taking all of this for granted was a luxury that did not exist among the Jews who raised their eyes to the East and prayed “to be a free nation in our Land” and to walk in “the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”


The writer is the chief tour guide and director of Discover, the tourism department of StandWithUs, an international nonprofit and non-partisan Israel education organization that works to inspire and educate people of all ages about Israel, challenge misinformation and fight antisemitism.

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StandWithUs (SWU) is an international and non-partisan Israel education organization that inspires and educates people of all ages and backgrounds, challenges misinformation and fights antisemitism.

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