HAIFA, Israel — My first day as a visiting professor at the University of Haifa, I was given a key to the room with the copy machine. My host, the department chair, escorted me to the door, passing by a large black barrel which, he explained, was for drinking water in the event of an attack. The copy room, I learned, doubled as the department’s shelter against incoming rockets from Hezbollah, a scant 25 miles to the north, in Lebanon. Inside the room, my eyes fixed on a large and unfamiliar contraption that I was told was to filter out poison gas, so that the gathered faculty, huddled within, could breathe. It was all explained to me with the casualness one might use to describe the workings of the copy machine, which frankly, I failed to even notice, so distracted was I by the secondary uses that surrounded me.
On the way back to my dormitory apartment, F-16s screamed overhead. One could not set foot on the campus without first passing by a guard. Abandoned or forgotten bags, I was told, would not be turned in to lost-and-found. They would be blown up, once a reasonable blast zone had been cleared. The door to my bedroom was steel and had the feel of a bank vault or bomb shelter.
But if those precautions suggest that somehow there was tension or fear on campus, I would be presenting an utterly untrue portrait. Here was the same measure of laughter, jocularity and serious scholarship that one might find on any American campus.
It was a fitting introduction to Israel, framing daily life just as my train ride from the airport in Tel Aviv to Haifa had introduced me to the many teenage Israeli Defense Force soldiers finding seats for themselves and their loaded assault rifles that swung from their shoulders — as common a sight as book bags.
The irony of my visit as a Fulbright Specialist was only just beginning to dawn on me. I was here to offer students an intensive one-month course in secrecy, much of it focused on the tension between national security and the transparency that oxygenates democracies. I soon found myself living the cliché of “bringing coals to Newcastle,” speaking to students who had been steeped in such concepts from their earliest years. With the exception of three foreign-born students and one Arab student, they had all been in the military. Three had served as intelligence officers. A couple were not at liberty to say what they had done during their years of service. There was a knowing nodding of heads when they sidestepped my question.
They had all grown up reading newspapers where military censors had been empowered to make the final decision on publication, and where gag orders and travel restrictions on reporters were part of the terrain. They spoke of Dimona, the site of Israel’s not-so-secret secret nuclear program, knowing the invocation of the name alone was all that needed saying.
It is a given here that geography defines life and death. On a clear day, from the 30th floor of the university’s Eshkol Tower atop Mount Carmel, one could see Lebanon to the north. Just beyond the Golan, some 40 miles to the east, lay Syria. I had a student who lived close enough to the border to hear the shelling. Another had relatives across the border who had been abducted by ISIS.
I often took the city’s Number 37 bus, the same route that a suicide bomber took in March 2003 before he set off his explosives, killing 17 and wounding 53. I swam in the Haifa surf by the restaurant Maxim, a popular spot for Jews and Arabs alike. It was there, that same year, that a woman who was to become known as “The Bride of Haifa” entered, sat down, had a meal, smiled at her fellow diners, then set off her explosives. Twenty-one died, another 51 were wounded. I walked past the house in the Arab quarter that a Hezbollah rocket had leveled, killing three Arabs — the city promptly rebuilt it. In 2006, during the second war with Lebanon, nearly 100 rockets targeted Haifa.
So no, there was nothing academic about our classroom discussions, nothing abstract. My students had a visceral understanding of secrecy and the compromises that had been made in the name of national security. I showed them the German film “The Lives of Others,” which chronicled the impact of East Germany’s secret police, the dreaded Stasi, on the lives of one artistic couple. It featured an East German intelligence officer who electronically listened in on the couple’s every word and was so touched by their humanity that he became their secret protector. For one of my students, the film was anything but fiction: He had been trained to tap into the conversations of Palestinians who had caught the military’s eye.
But if my students grew up in an environment in which national security was paramount, they never relinquished their ability to question, nor surrendered themselves to blind acceptance. Quite the contrary. They understood only too well the fragility of the relative peace they now enjoy (in Israel, all peace is relative). But they constantly asserted their right to seek answers to questions that had been denied them, such as: Was such secrecy justified on the basis of national security? Was secrecy used to veil mistreatment of Palestinians? Why did secrecy still attach to events decades earlier? Their final papers were an array of challenges to a system of vetting and censorship that straddled the line between patriotism and the gnawing awareness that the perfection of democracy was not theirs to be had. Their choice of topics for final papers revealed a deep sense of the costs that Israel has paid for maintaining itself — assassinations by Mossad, the treatment and execution of Palestinian prisoners, military censors in the press room, the complex and secretive relationship between Israel and Iran.
My classroom was a kind of microcosm of the city of Haifa, just as the city was a microcosm of Israel itself — an implausibly robust democracy, rife with contradictions, a raucous and free-thinking society upon which has been engrafted a virile security state whose co-existence, like all co-existence in Israel, defies easy explanation. By all rights, such expansive secrecy should have smothered so young a democracy. And yet, imperfect as it surely is, Israel is not wanting for internal critics, domestic protests or barbed editorials.
One afternoon, I visited Haifa’s Beit Hagefen Arab-Jewish Cultural Center, which was featuring an exhibition by Israeli Arab and Palestinian photographers whose work captured the excesses and abuses of Israeli authorities, chronicling instances of Arabs and Palestinians manhandled in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Even more remarkable, the center is sponsored by the municipality of Haifa and the state of Israel. For all its secrecy, Israel was literally paying to put on public display its own sullied human rights record. Tolerating such an exhibit does not excuse the underlying offense, but it does demonstrate an essential quality of democracies, all of which are flawed. Even Israeli military censors reviewing the work of journalists have been known to put press freedom above the discomfort of their superiors. Israel is nothing if not a land of anomalies.
Many of those tensions and contradictions surfaced in my students’ papers and discussions. I found it impossible not to give them high marks, given their insights, their research and, yes, their courage in struggling with their country’s unresolved and, perhaps, unresolvable conflict — not that between Israeli and Palestinian, but between secrecy and transparency. I was more than sad to say my goodbyes to them, in part, because I had truly become their student. At times, it was hard for us to remember whether we were speaking of their “Administrative Detention,” or our Guantanamo, their harsh interrogations or ours. On returning to America, I found our own post-9/11 landscape of secrecy at once more familiar and yet more unsettling. I could see now how comfortable we, too, had become with a changed reality — how seamlessly we, too, had made our compromises.