I was on one of the most contested pieces of land on Earth, but it was ok because I was in an air-conditioned bus and the guy next to me was holding a rifle.
It was an eleven day tour of Israel, and I hadn't even paid for it. An organization called Birthright Israel sends young Jews on guided tours for free. For eleven days, I hiked, biked, rafted, and rode around in the bus. Sometimes I saw a Palestinian territory through the tinted bus window.
But of course, there was a catch. In exchange for the free trip, we were being taken to something called a Mega Event, which would be a huge Zionist rally on an IDF base near Tel Aviv, attended by the Prime Minister of Israel and thousands of young American Jews. It promised to be the most entertaining and flashy propaganda I had ever been forced to watch.
We were waved into a large armored compound and the driver slowly squeezed us into a spot just big enough for the bus. A long line of identical tour buses curved out to a vanishing point just behind some sort of giant anti-aircraft gun/radar/sentient robot thing (my knowledge of military equipment is a tad limited). Beyond the parking lot was a large stretch of empty, peaceful farmland. My guess is that it was filled with hidden soldiers using complex camouflaging technology to pretend to be small piles of dirt holding guns.
Q: What do you get if you cross the Israeli Prime Minister and a crowd of a thousand American Jews?
A: Arrested by five soldiers disguised as a bush.
After being herded out of the bus and through security (which was a lot like airport security, except everyone was carrying a gun the size of their body), we entered what I hoped would be the best Mega Event ever.
The first thing I saw was a woman dressed as a princess walking around on stilts and taking pictures with tourists. The second thing I saw was a tank. "A tank" also describes the third through fifteenth things I saw. There was a group of them parked above the stage, a much larger group of them parked next to the stage, and, visible in the distance, one tank that had been placed on a pedestal for some reason.
I started thinking what probably many people think when suddenly finding themselves standing in front of a multitude of parked tanks (and one tank inexplicably placed atop a high column): "Gosh, I hope none of those ever shoot at me." For the record, and much to the credit of Israel's hospitality, they did not use their tanks to fire upon the visiting crowd. Apparently they did not want to kill us, only intimidate and awe us with skills such as "owning tanks" and "having bad taste in music." More on that second one in a moment.
A lawn had been transformed into a stadium with a series of enormous temporary bleachers, all facing a broad stage decorated with inflatable Stars of David the size of small houses. There was a jumbo screen on either side of the stage which, as we entered, only had the words MEGA EVENT in blue letters that were taller than I was.
A man got on the loudspeaker to announce that the show was about to start. People continued to mill around and the man made the same announcement again. Over the next twenty minutes, he would make the announcement again and again, always with the exact same wording. His tone became decidedly annoyed after five minutes, and by minute twenty he sounded like he wanted us to understand that if he hadn't been busy with the announcing job, he would have been happy to murder every single one of us with his bare hands, one at a painful time.
Finally we all settled into our metal benches and the show was good to go. Someone came by with handfuls of Israeli flags and offered me one to wave. I declined on the grounds that I had never waved a country's flag in my life, and wasn't about to make an exception for Israel even if all the tanks they had parked around us were making me a bit nervous. As if to make up for my refusal, a guy three seats after me took seven flags and stuck them all into his cheap straw hat. Every time he nodded, there was a loud flurry of patriotism above his head as all the plastic flags snapped against each other like two ethnic groups trying to push each other out of a tiny sliver of land on a very big planet.
And then suddenly on the stage there were FIREWORKS! and DANCING!
He had a yellow inflatable tube around his waist, the kind with a comical duck head. There was a tiny fish in one of his hands, and a trident in the other. In the background a squirrel wearing shades was water skiing.
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