Martin Fletcher, retired Tel Aviv bureau chief for NBC News, spent 27 years covering Israel as a place of conflict. By 2008, he was weary of that image.
“People would ask me before making a trip to Israel, ‘Is it safe?’ And I would respond, ‘Of course it’s safe,” he said. “Afterward the same people would get back to me and rave about what a great time they had. That’s what gave me the idea to write a book about this great place that no one had any idea about because the media had always depicted it as a war zone.”
The result is Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation (Thomas Dunne Books), a chronicle of Fletcher’s 110-mile trek down Israel’s coastline, from Lebanon to Gaza.
On Sept. 27, he spoke about the just-released book and Israel’s place in the world before about 100 people at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. Fletcher was the 2010-11 season’s first speaker in the temple’s Keepers of Jewish Excellence Series.
Fletcher, then 61, began his journey in June 2008 at the Lebanese border. He said he chose the coast because 70 percent of Israelis — Jews and Arabs — live, peacefully, in the coastal plain.
“In Israel, we are always looking east,” he explained. “And when you look east from Jerusalem, all you see are the disputed regions. But, the areas adjacent to the coast offer a different perspective.”
Equipped with a backpack, sleeping bag, snacks, and a tent (though he ditched the tent early in the two-week trip, opting to sleep under the stars), Fletcher rose before dawn and walked on the sand until noon most days. He noted that only 40 percent of the coastline is accessible by foot, so he often had to leave the beach in order to make his way around, for example, military installations.
Once he completed the trip, Fletcher returned to the towns and people who interested him. One of his favorite encounters was with an Arab from northern Israel who had converted to Judaism. “When I entered his house, the first thing I saw was a huge photograph of the Lubavitcher Rebbe,” Fletcher said. “Believe me, that was surprising. He told me a story about why he converted that turned out to be untrue. I tried for over a year to get the real reason, but he never revealed it.”
Although Fletcher said he wrote the book to offer an alternative image of Israel from that of a war-torn country, he was candid about the Jewish state’s reputation and its challenges. “The United States is the only place where public opinion toward Israel is positive,” he said. “Elsewhere around the world these days, the outlook is negative.”
Fletcher, who is Jewish, said he is very concerned about the rise of anti-Semitism, particularly in Europe. Born in England of parents who fled the Holocaust, he said he believes that the increase is caused by three factors: endemic anti-Semitism in Great Britain, the huge influx of Muslims in France and their effect on political parties, and the perception that “Israel is a problematic country and Jews are inexorably linked with Israel.”
He did not avoid citing negative aspects of Israeli society; the Arabs in the disputed territories, he said, are not treated equally with the Jews. “The laws that apply to them are not the laws that apply to the settlers,” he said.
He also noted that even though Holocaust survivors are treated with more respect than ever since Israel’s founding, a large percentage of them are senior citizens living below the poverty line.
Fletcher is married to an Israeli woman whom he met in 1974 when he picked her up hitchhiking, and is the father of three sons. He admitted that over the years there have been times when even he was scared in his everyday life. “I would kiss the boys goodbye in the morning when they went to school and hope that they came back safe that night,” he said.