Fabiola Santiago

The beachfront promenade inspires awe and envy. The walls? Anguish. Welcome to Israel

If this were a short story, I told myself as I dealt with a big suitcase, a backpack and an open umbrella in Tel Aviv’s midday drizzle, the title might be “Pay the man his 50 shekels.”

Oh, stubborn me.

Rather than be ripped off by passing taxis honking to signal their availability and then refusing my 30-shekel offer, I walked the Google map’s alleged 3.7 miles between my quaint vintage neighborhood hotel near Gordon Beach to the mammoth Dan Panorama hotel, where I would start a two-week tour of Israel and its neighbor, Jordan.

The effort, however, paid off handsomely.

Walking I felt that I was making Israel’s hippest city mine — and nothing was more grand than discovering the tayelet, the splendid promenade that lines Tel Aviv’s beachfront along the Mediterranean Sea for miles, starting on the north end at a beach near the Tel Aviv Port and running south all the way to the old city of Jaffa.

Tel Aviv’s oceanfront promenade runs along the Mediterranean Sea for miles, starting on the north at a beach near the Tel Aviv Port and running south all the way to the old Jaffa. Fabiola Santiago fsantiago@miamiherald.com

I spent the entire day, New Year’s Eve, exploring the series of linked boardwalks in the company of locals and visitors until the sun set in a glorious spectacle. All the time I cursed under my breath: Why can’t we have this in Miami? Why were we ripped off of this communal lifestyle by the sea?

The two cities have so much in common, including a real estate boom that has turned Tel Aviv into one of the most expensive cities in the world. And this promenade, which also serves to protect the city from rising seas, was built in pieces, the most modern parts during the 1980s and 1990s when we, too, were defining what Miami and Miami Beach would be.

Israelis chose to protect their sea views.

We blocked our ocean with concrete. We turned over our bayfront to private development of skyscrapers and to concrete monsters like the AmericanAirlines Arena — and we’re planning on adding more! Sacrilege.

In the process, we may have lost forever what Tel Aviv created: Community.

People gather to watch the surfers, to view sculptures and wall paintings, to grab a bite at small-scale restaurants that don’t block the views. People bike, jog, stroll. People rest on benches and boulders as the melancholic call to prayer echoes.

Old walls and new walls divide Israeli and Palestinian-held territories as you approach Jerusalem. Fabiola Santiago fsantiago@miamiherald.com

A visit to Israel also inevitably invites reflection on the walls that separate us.

Days later, as I watch from afar news of the U.S. shutdown over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion-plus for a border wall, the drive into Jerusalem brings into view various walls.

Old walls and new walls erected to separate Israeli and Palestinian-held territories, walls like the one Trump is selling, also raised on the premise that they provide security and protect Israel from acts of terrorism.

But when I cross a West Bank checkpoint to visit Palestine-held Bethlehem, birthplace of both Jesus and David, I hear a different story from Palestinians.

The most controversial new wall in the West Bank runs through newly constructed Route 4370, which connects Jerusalem to the settlements, and physically divides the road into one side for Israeli drivers and one side for Palestinian drivers. Israelis say the walled road strengthens connection to settlements and helps ease traffic. But Palestinians are calling it “apartheid road.

Palestinians tell me they’re being “choked” economically and emotionally by what they call “the wall of separation” — and by that I sense they mean more than a physical barrier. Walls and checkpoints make it difficult for them to commute to jobs in Israel, which has an enviable unemployment rate of 2.9 percent.

They feel, most of all, isolated.

One of the new walls separating Israeli and Palestinian-held territories as you approach Jerusalem. Fabiola Santiago fsantiago@miamiherald.com

“Before the wall, I had Jewish friends. After the wall, not so much friends,” laments our Palestinian-side tour guide, Issa Badawi, who describes himself as an Arab Christian and practicing Greek Orthodox.

Our conversation — and the pleas of a vendor as we leave, “please, Americans, support Palestine!” — leave me more convinced than ever: We don’t want to live by the rule of walls and checkpoints in the United States.

Having lived most of my life in the multicultural cocoon of Miami, and so often in the company of Jewish friends, colleagues and readers, I came predisposed to love Israel.

And I did, in all its complexity.

Israel is a stunning country whose history dates back to ancient times. I hold no credentials to opine on the conflicts that separate these lands, but I left with an indescribable mix of awe and somberness.

Walking the same terrain as prophets and kings and the miracle-maker called the son of God is overwhelming, even as commercialization of biblical sites and the visiting throngs made spiritual contemplation and meditation almost impossible.

Modern-day lessons, on the other hand, abound in the Holy Land.

Award-winning columnist Fabiola Santiago has been writing about all things Miami since 1980, when the Mariel boatlift became her first front-page story. A Cuban refugee child of the Freedom Flights, she’s also the author of essays, short fiction, and the novel “Reclaiming Paris.”