When a democratic country offers a journalist an expense-paid 10-day ''working vacation'' to that nation, one is concerned about the nature of this generosity. As producer and commentator on a Midwest radio public-affairs program, my reservations about going to Israel centered around the objectivity of my hosts. My previous bias about the dilemmas of the Middle East was that Israel was simply a choice between order and chaos.
What kind of Israel did my media colleagues and I experience on our journalist mission to the Jewish state? Our hosts, the Government Press Office, explained that our ''working vacation'' would not exploit the weaknesses, negatives, or ''bad side'' of their country.
Our group of American journalists probed the thinking of immigrants, ordinary citizens, municipal advisers, military officials and enlisted personnel, educators, and international correspondents on their Jerusalem assignments. Our schedule did not include Palestinians or other Arab leaders. Although Arabs were not included, we were not discouraged from talking and making contacts with Palestinians or other Arab factions.
The Israelis want to influence the media with regard to their interests; however, their propaganda, if you call it that, was not the ''stiff-arming, heavy dictator'' type. If one distinct impression was left, it was that the Israelis have a genuine commitment to democracy.
A number of insights into Israeli culture come to mind. There are automatic weapons everywhere. Soldiers carry such weapons in order to protect themselves and others. Americans are not used to seeing such weapons in public.
Yet, the crime rate resulting from the violent use of weapons is quite low and far below the rate of the United States.
Impressions of Israel include military skills and agricultural expertise. Israel is a family society. In a familial culture, ranks are well sensed. When our group discovered that Israeli military personnel do not salute, we were amazed. The agricultural aspect points to phenomena of making the land bloom where there was nothing but a continuous assortment of rocks and rocky terrain.
The acceptance of the role of the military in Israeli society is in contrast with our American culture. American youth know nothing of the role of the military in our society.
As an American visitor tours the land of Israel, one discovers that the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, Ottomans, British, and Arabs did not cultivate this barren, rock-saturated land. The Israelis cultivated the land, removed a variety of obstacles, preserved its archaeological history, and insist that they remain, forever.
An inquiry asked several times was why a people of such rich culture had such a poor image in the United States and around the world. There are several explanations.
The Israelis promote an open society, a democratic one where foreign journalists, under normal conditions, are free to probe. The people of the world do not judge Israel and its Arab neighbors with consistent objectivity. Israelis can be naive and negligent to the hatreds of their Christian allies in Lebanon for Palestinians; at the same time, President Assad of Syria is implicated for slaughtering thousands and no citizen of the world seems to care.
The Israelis do not get their message across to the citizens of the US and the world. The Israelis have good diplomatic skills; from 1922 to the present, they have ''talked'' the world community into an Israeli homeland. The Israelis are equally adept at convincing politicians representing the American people that Israel is a good ally and that it should be stocked with American weapons and financial assistance.
The Israelis are keen at securing support from Jews throughout the world. However, the way that a citizen of the US or another nation feels about Israel is often based on particular associations of Jews known to him. A third group of positive support for Israel includes fundamentalist Christians in the US.
Israel enjoys the support of the American government and its representatives, is good at diplomacy (except in the United Nations), and holds the allegiance of fundamentalist Christian sects. However, does the Jewish state enjoy the moral support of non-Jews throughout the US?
There are some doubts that non-Jewish, non-Christian fundamentalist, average middle-class Americans appreciate the political culture of the modern Israeli nation. If the value of Israel to Western culture and democratic capitalism were more recognized by the middle of the American political, religious, and economic spectrums, there would be less uncertainty in the relations between the governments of the two peoples.