Quite separate from having actual opinions (usually strong ones) on political issues, I must confess to enjoying politics as a spectator sport, going all the way back to watching the 1988 debates ("Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy") on TV during elementary school.
I've been to DC 22 times, but most of those trips have been during weekends and/or congressional recesses, so it wasn't until summer 2004 that I finally had the opportunity to see Congress in session. After going to Sen. Clinton's office to get a gallery pass and waiting in a long line, it turned out to be a disappointing day to be there. The Senate chamber was silent most of the time, and empty except for pages sitting on the sides trying not to fidget, and a series of back-bencher Republicans taking turns sitting in the front with a gavel wishing they were somewhere else. (The actual President of the Senate was presumably on a hunting trip, and the President Pro Tempore was surfing the series of tubes.) Sens. Dorgan and Bingaman, in turn, gave speeches to the empty chamber, addressing a variety of topics, and left. I think the trick is that the TV cameras and the Congressional Record don't know that the chamber is empty. It's not like it was a slow week either -- it turns out that I missed, by one day, the floor debate on a number of Bush's controversial appellate court nominees. (Yes, those nominees -- you may recall that the cloture vote failed, leading to threats of the "nuclear option". But in the end, the filibuster survived, making it all worthwhile.)
So this week, since it was my last week of retirement before classes start (even if there is a strike next week, neither Rothberg nor Havruta is participating), I decided this was an opportunity to go visit the Knesset. On Tuesday afternoon, after visiting the Museum on the Seam with feygele, LastTrumpet, KC, and SL (dude, that was some disturbing shit, but you have to check out the view of East and West Jerusalem from the roof), I went over to the Knesset, which (according to the website) was to be having an open session at 4:00. As I approached the visitors' entrance, the first security guard stopped me and asked what I was doing. I said I was just going to visit. He said tours are only on Sundays and Thursdays. I said I wasn't going on a tour, just going to watch. He let me go on ahead. I had a similar conversation with the second guard (still outside), but the third guard said the Knesset was only open to visitors on Sundays and Thursdays. No matter how many times I tried to tell him what the website said, he wasn't convinced, and I wasn't going to press it too much, since he had a gun. So either the website lied, or the guard wasn't aware of the schedule (and a possible corollary is that they don't get a lot of visitors outside of scheduled tours and organized groups). With tears in our eyes, we rode off into the sunset, and I went down the street to the Bible Lands Museum instead, where I had the whole place to myself apart from an American father and two children. (The Israel Museum would have been the more obvious choice, but I've been there done that.)
I decided to try again on Wednesday, when they were supposed to have a public session at 11. (EAR says that I should mention that the most direct route from my apartment to the Knesset involves a dirt path. I guess I've adjusted so much to Israel that this didn't even strike me as odd! But, as she correctly points out, can you imagine this with the U.S. Capitol?) Once again, I was dressed in accordance with the Knesset dress code as I understood it (no shorts, jeans, or tank tops), but this time I came more prepared: I brought a printout of the "Visit the Knesset" page from the website, clearly stating that the Knesset was supposed to be open to visitors at that time. This time I was stopped by the first guard again, I showed him the printout and said I was going to the visitors' gallery, and he let me go ahead, and no one else stopped me between there and the actual entrance. I'm sure there's lots of profiling going on, so it probably also helped that I wasn't carrying a backpack this time and wasn't wearing a T-shirt.
When I got to the door, the guard was arguing with a family of American tourists (mother, father, and son) who were wearing jeans. He was saying it was against the dress code, and they were saying it was their third attempt in three days, and the previous day they had been told to come back the next day and weren't told anything about a dress code, and they had lots of nice clothes back at the hotel but they didn't know, and he was saying it was against the dress code. As I approached, I was about to feel all superior for following directions, when the guard told me I couldn't go in wearing sandals.
WHAT? It doesn't say anything about sandals on the website! I brandished my printout, which had the dress code on it.
Sorry, no sandals.
The Americans asked me if the website said anything about jeans. I averted my eyes apologetically.
At almost the exact time that I showed up, an Israeli showed up wearing sandals (but otherwise conforming to the dress code) and was also turned down. The Americans continued arguing, saying that they had traveled 9000 miles. "We can't come back tomorrow, we're going to Tzfat tomorrow." The guard said he couldn't do anything about it, but they could talk to the general manager of the Knesset. They said fine. He made a phone call, and they waited. The Israeli put on a pair of socks, and offered me an extra pair. (Always carry around not one but two pairs of socks -- you never know when you might need them!) I said thanks, and put them on. I went back toward the door and attempted to enter, and was turned down again. Sandals with socks are still sandals. Meanwhile, some other Israelis approached wearing jeans, were turned away, and left.
Some important-looking people walked in. The guard said something to one of them. The Americans asked her "Are you a member of Knesset?". (This was all in English.) She said "Yes, I am." They said "Can you let us in?" She said to them "No, you can't go in dressed like that", and said to me "and you can't go in wearing sandals." It turns out that it was MK Colette Avital herself, a runner-up for the Presidency of Israel, who told me I couldn't go into the Knesset wearing sandals. She said "This is a working day; we are legislating. I couldn't go into the US Congress dressed like that." They said "Well, we can, and we have!" They're right (regarding the visitor's gallery, anyway, not the actual floor); I'm sure I wasn't wearing anything particularly presentable when I visited Congress.
Given that, can we pause for a moment and note how ridiculous it is that the KNESSET has a dress code? In ISRAEL???
Finally, the call came in from the proper authorities, and the guard got permission to let all five of us in, and we entered the Knesset grounds. Presumably for security reasons, there is a large buffer zone between the Knesset building itself and the fence that goes all the way around, so there was a long plaza to walk across. We passed a perpetual fire that serves as a "גלעד" in memory of Israel's fallen soldiers. If there was another sign labeling it as a "יגר שהדותא", I didn't see it.
So then I got into the Knesset visitors' gallery, and it was AWESOME. But it's getting late, so I'm just going to post this, and tell the rest of the story in the next post.