Israel’s future becomes focus of PBS feature

For the past several years, my attention has focused a little more sharply whenever I see the word “Israel.”

The word popped out at me recently as I was perusing the Panhandle PBS program guide for December.

On Tuesday, Dec. 10, the embattled nation will be the subject of a PBS special report, “Israel: Facing the Future.” The program airs at 8 p.m. that day on Panhandle PBS.

I will watch it with keen interest.

Why the intense attention on such a small nation?

Well, for starters, Israel is this nation’s most reliable, staunchest ally in the Middle East. It’s also pound-for-pound probably the world’s pre-eminent military power. With a population of some 7.5 millions residents surrounded by countries that have at various times in the past 65 years gone to war with it, Israel is ready at a moment’s notice to defend itself against any future aggression.

It has an army and an air force that are second to none in the region.

The real reason for my intense interest in matters dealing with Israel are, shall we say, more personal.

I spent five weeks there in May-June 2009 as part of a Rotary International Group Study Exchange team. I was the team leader. The four young people I accompanied to Israel were there as part of an exchange with the Rotary district that covers the entire country. We lived with folks who took us into their homes for four weeks; I spent the fifth week as a tourist with my wife, who joined me when our exchange ended.

However, during that four-week exchange I got to see virtually the entire country. We traveled from Be’er Sheva south to Eilat the country’s southern tip. We then traveled north to Tel Aviv, Haifa and all the way to Nahariya, at the country’s northern border. We traveled inland to Nazareth, Karmiel, the Golan Heights, Tivon, Benjamina and Zachron Ya’Akov. We visited Old Acre, Caesarea, the Sea of Galilee. We toured the Dead Sea and Masada, the ancient fortress overlooking that desolate landscape.

Perhaps the most stunning places were Ashkelon and Sderot, just outside the border with Gaza, where several months before our arrival forces unfriendly to Israel were firing rockets into neighborhoods. The Israeli army took matters into its own hands and put down the rebellion. It wasn’t pretty, but the Israelis said it had to be done.

Our hosts took us to neighborhoods that had been shelled by Hamas fighters. We saw the damage done to homes.

Our exchange concluded in Jerusalem, the holiest of places. We toured the Old City, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the activity inside. The Mount of Olives beckoned, as did the Via Dolo Rosa and all the places where Jesus walked. We received an impromptu blessing on the Mount of Olives from a Catholic monk, Brother Leo of Santa Barbara, Calif. We were moved to tears over that moment.

And all along the way, we heard from Israelis about their resolve to resist those who would do them harm. They peppered me with questions daily about our nation’s resolve. A new president had just taken office in the United States and by that spring, many Israelis were questioning whether the new guy would be as friendly to them as the man he succeeded had been.

I remain confident that Israel’s future will be secure as long as the nation stays strong and resolute.

PBS will examine that future in a few days.

I’ll surely be among those watching with intense interest. I’ll also be thinking about — and praying for — the many friends I have in Israel.

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