In the novel, “The Ugly American,” one character, a Burmese journalist, notes that “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves… They’re loud and ostentatious. Perhaps they’re frightened and defensive, or maybe they’re not properly trained and make mistakes out of ignorance.”
In recent months, journalists have taken notice of the “ugly Israeli” travelers in Asia.
The Times of India observed graffiti, “clearly Hebrew,” in India’s Kullu valley. Along the cafes of the Beas River, “thousands of Jews annually migrate for an uninterrupted treat of drugs, rock ‘n roll and nirvana.” From April to September, one waiter told the Times of India, “This place is so packed with Israelis that no other tourists want to
Last summer, Yediot Ahronot reported that the behavior of young Israelis on a train to New Delhi so “disturbed the other passengers” that it led one Indian woman to rebuke them: “Do other passengers in your country behave the same way?”
The Jerusalem Post headlined one essay on Israeli travelers, “The Breeding of Israeli Louts.” According to the reporter, “most Israelis are just fine…. However, there is a disproportionately large minority of Israeli boors…. most blatantly on display in Sri Lanka, India, Thailand and the other cheap Third World spots where Israelis go to ‘clear their heads’ after the army.”
Yediot also reports that Israelis in Cyprus were in a boorish world of their own. The residents of one Cypriot town “go on high alert every time a busload of Israeli youths drives in.” Young Israelis were known for “breaking hotel furniture, drinking themselves senseless, badmouthing the locals, driving wildly,” turning the Cyprus town into “the Israeli vandals’ heaven.”
In December, JTA reported (Dec. 11) that a 2-year-old Hebrew-speaking girl was found “wandering the streets of the Indian town of Varanasi.” According to reports, her parents, an Israeli-Finnish couple “had been forcibly hospitalized after suffering a psychotic episode brought on by hallucinogens. One witness said the Israeli father had tried to dump all of the family is belongings into a river.”
Young American Jews have off-beat foreign adventures of their own. The Commentator, Yeshiva University’s student paper, reported (Feb. 11) that during this winter’s intersession, some students went to Thailand with American Jewish World Service. “After touring severely poverty stricken areas,” the Commentator tells us, there was some “difficulty removing the group after teenage prostitutes began a dialogue with the Jewish activists.” And then “several YU undergraduate students were photographed wearing condoms on their heads,” at an AIDS awareness event.
Of course, the YU students were considerably better behaved than their Israeli contemporaries who, reports Agence France Press, “have a reputation for visiting Nepal to party hard and smoke dope.”
Micha Odenheimer, the South Asia correspondent for Haaretz, and an Orthodox rabbi ordained by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and trained by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, decided last year to offer an alternative for some of the 50,000 Israeli post-IDF backpackers trekking through Nepal. Odenheimer, who has traveled widely as a journalist – from Haiti to Ethiopia, writing for The Washington Post, the Times of London, as well as Haaretz — founded Tevel b’Tzedek (the “Earth — in Justice,” a phrase from Psalms), a volunteer organization that harnesses the adventurous spirit of the young Israelis to assistance projects in South Asia. The first 14-week session kicked off last spring, with 12 Israelis and four Hebrew-speaking North Americans.
As he explained in an essay in Guilt & Pleasure, “the South Asia route, with its ‘Israeli’ outposts like Parvati Valley, Goa, Rishikesh, and Dharamsala, has become a movable feast of friendships and romances, a peregrinating eternal summer camp of love, the perfect fusion of lust and wanderlust. My assignment, self-imposed, was to try to figure out how to add another dimension to the trip for young Israelis.”
Aside from journalism, Odenheimer, 49, was the founding director of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews and served as its chairman until his venture into Nepal’s Kathmandu.
Odenheimer, visiting the offices of The Jewish Week, far from Tevel b’Tzedek’s Kathmandu base, said his volunteers, after spending several weeks learning about Nepal and studying its language, immerse themselves in assisting the local people: working with an NGO aiding child laborers; helping a school in the local slums; setting up rural environmental projects, and urban ones too, cleaning up the polluted Bagmati and Bishnumati rivers that run through Kathmandu.
“We’re looking to bring Israeli expertise and local knowledge to develop great projects,” said Odenheimer. “But we’re not coming in just bringing our expertise but to learn, as well. We’ve had Israeli nurses and dentists come over. We’re in conversation with the kibbutz movement to demonstrate [agricultural] techniques, everything from fishponds to advances in the honey industry. We want our younger volunteers to be embedded with the older experts.”
In a reverse twist, Tevel b’Tzedek has been advising a migrant worker’s organization trying to secure the rights of 10,000 Nepalese who are foreign workers in Israel.
On one trip outside Kathmandu, said Odenheimer, “about 20 of us went to a remote village, over several rivers, hiking for five hours, beyond where cars can go. It was like Shangri-la, the most beautiful place imaginable. We spent five days there, including Shabbat.” In a way, it was always Shabbat, no telephone, no electricity, sensing God’s closeness amidst His rarely seen creation.
As distant as it was, it was closer than any of the Israelis imagined. “In this tiny place,” said Odenheimer, “there was a villager who had a brother in Haifa, a home-care worker for a couple of old Holocaust survivors.”