Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Israel/Palestine 8: The North

Beautiful country, the north.  Dry air, 80's, roman ruins, 2000 year old synagogues, burial chambers, lovely valleys, The Kinneret (aka the Sea of Galilee), and friends to visit.  What's not to like ...

No time to write, but in the meantime, here are some pictures.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Israel/Palestine 7: Ceasaria

A Roman bivouac, even if lasts 200 years, is still a bivouac.  Ceasaria lies on the coastal plain, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa.  A ruined Roman viaduct serves as shade for local beachgoers.  A boombox blasts distorted Beatles music.  The old ruins are hemmed in by upscale gated communities indistinguishable from Indian Wells.  Netanyahu has his personal residence here.  If he’s channeling the ghost of  Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect in charge from 26 – 36 AD, he’s not spendinglavishly enough. 
“Expenditure on Netanyahu's personal home in Caesarea (as opposed to the official residence in Jerusalem) was NIS 183,000 in 2013, sharply down from NIS 318,000 in 2012, and comparable with NIS 184,000 in 2011.” 
What a piker.

Today, the Roman installation looks shabby, the faint remains of a huge villa for the Prefect: mosaics, garden overlooking the turquoise green Mediterranean, hippodrome on one side, amphitheater on the other.  In it’s time it appears there was just enough infrastructure to support the Roman administration.  There are no fundamental land features to preserve the construction.  There was no great city.  What remains is a minor National Park.  A restaurant sits atop the port ruin.  Divers change.  The place smells like urine, waiting for cleansing winter storms—but it’s only April.  The community has just 4,500 residents and the town is managed by the private Ceasaria Development Corporation.  

Friday, April 25, 2014

Israel/Palestine 6: Faultlines

What gives Israel its buzz is that people have rubbed up against each other for nearly 3,000 years of recorded history over the land, over religion, over faith or no faith.  All who visit are instantly aware of and naturally drawn into the heightened level of human drama.  

At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the holiest spot of Christendom, responsibility to open and close the door each day has rested with two Muslim families for 800 years.   The church marks the spot of Jesus’s crucifixion, his burial, and resurrection.  Each day the faithful come and are moved by praying over and touching the unction stone at the entrance to the church.  Jewish tradition teaches that the center of creation began at the spot marked by the foundation stone for King Solomon’s temple, and the second temple; At the Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount, Jews pray every day to the Holy of Holies, the spirit of God that will never leave that place.  Jews from around the world have directed their prayers to Jerusalem and the Western Wall of the Temple Mount for centuries; and the temple will be rebuilt when the Meshiach comes to usher in a perfect dictatorship of peace and justice on earth.  The Muslims, of course, are currently in possession of the Temple Mount.  For them it is the place where Abraham was ordered to slay his son; it is the place where Mohammed ascended to heaven.  They make a point of prohibiting Christians, Jews, and atheists from entering the Dome of the Rock or the Al Aqsa mosque. 

Adrenalin pumps around the Temple Mount.  Yesterday, there was a wedding and many bar mitzvahs at the Western Wall, with much fervent chanting and singing.  On the Temple Mount there were several groups of women sitting in circles in the shade under trees, being lectured about the Koran.  Either that, or they were plotting the revolution.  It’s difficult to say.  A group of men on the other end of the plaza worked themselves up to a prolonged and riotous chant of Allah’u Akbars.  Israeli soldiers in riot gear lounged in the shade at the entrance, submachine guns at the ready.  Less marshall looking groups of police mingled on the Temple Mount plaza.  Josh asked one of them what was going on?  “The Arabs, they have been restless,” said the police officer. 

Today we drove along the separation wall behind East Jerusalem; someplace we should not have been. 

The tensions carry across family and it touches friends. 

Aaron & Elliot & Danny

Aaron Beller was born in New York City, but has lived in Jerusalem for 40 years.  He straddled back to the United States a short time for work, and now lives in Tel Aviv.   He’s a mathematician who made a career in map-making.  Set theory and computers.  He’s retired now, reading great books—currently all of Freud’s writings—and for fun he works on solving a theoretical math challenge that carries a million dollar prize.  “It’s been a while since graduate school,” he says.  “I’m not sure I have the skills now to solve it.” 

Aaron is a middle child, first cousin with Bobbi’s mother.  When he was eight years old he shared a room with his older brother Elliot.  They had religious arguments.  Their father, a lefty atheist, nevertheless sent his boys to Yeshiva.  Why do parents do that?  Is it to give the children exposure so they can make up their own mind? Or, more likely, is it some deeper connection to the religion that transcends a belief in God.  Anyway, the boys did react differently to the material.  Aaron took after his father.  By contrast, “Elliot was an introvert,” says Aaron, “but religion allowed him to become an extrovert; he has a messianic streak.”

The boys reached an understanding early.  “Elliot challenged me: if you don’t believe in God, that means there is no authority, no standards; you have to make it up yourself,” says Aaron.  “I thought about this …, and I told him, I think I’m o.k. with that; I prefer it that way.”  And so it’s been.  Both boys obtained advanced degrees in mathematics; Elliot pursued a career in academia at Bar-Ilan University, Aaron pursued a career in applied mathematics.  Elliot became Eliyahu and orthodox and has been a faithful Jew all his life; Aaron has remained firmly secular.  Aaron studies mathematics in his retirement, Eliyahu studies Torah.  They both live just north of Tel Aviv.

Elliot and Aaron have a younger brother, Danny.  Danny became an ultra-orthodox rabbi, and has nine children.  He lives with his wife Davida in Jerusalem.  He goes by Avraham Dov now.  The brothers all get along, yet Aaron has left Jerusalem for Tel Aviv partly to get away from orthodox fervor. 


Last night we ate with friends in Beit Shemesh. Gabi Unger, a big talkative bear of a man, picked us up at our hotel and brought us to a new Italian family restaurant run by his adopted daughter and her husband in this suburb west southwest of Jerusalem.  Gabi sounds like Arnold Schwartzenegger.  He has enjoyed a successful career as a seed company executive, and now consults with various seed companies.  “GMO seeds are yesterday’s worries,” he says.  “And besides, opposition to GMO seeds only hurts the Third World, which really needs that technology.”

Gabi’s wife, Yaira, was there.  She is a coach for business professionals.  Her sister Nurit was there also.  The two sisters are positive, and assertively secular by necessity because the religious in this country are numerous and pushy (13 percent of the Jewish population is ultra orthodox; one third of the students 18 or younger are ultra orthodox).  “Beit Shemesh is on the faultline of the religious secular wars in Israel,” they explained.

There was an ugly incident in Beit Shemesh two and a half years ago, involving haredi men spitting at a small girl going to school because she was not sufficiently orthodox for them.  More recently, supporters of the ultra-orthodox Shas party were caught cheating and stealing an election in Beit Shemesh.  

Our dinner party was rounded out by Aron.  “And who are you with?” I asked.  “He is my partner,” said Nurit.  There was a slight awkwardness.  It turns out Nurit is a widow.  Her husband died twelve years ago.  “But we won’t talk about that,” she says.  “We can talk about him, but let’s not talk about his death.” 

Nurit’s husband was a professor and research scientist at the Nahal Sorek nuclear facility.  The center conducts research in various physical sciences, particularly the development of many kinds of sensors, lasers, atmospheric research, non-destructive testing techniques, space environment, nuclear safety, medical diagnostics and nuclear medicine. It also produces various types of radiopharmaceuticals for use by health care organizations throughout the country.  The couple has three sons and a daughter.  One of the sons just completed his degree from Princeton in history and has been accepted by Duke.  He entered with perfect scores on the SAT for math and English. All four are wonderful kids. 

Josh and Pamela, our friends on this trip filled us in on the details, and on the internet we found the following report:
“Dec 2, 2001 - Prof. Baruch Singer, 51, of Gadera was killed when Palestinian gunmen opened fire on his car near the northern Gaza settlement of Elei Sinai. Professor Baruch Singer was on his way to pick up his son who is serving in the army in the Gaza Strip. Two Palestinian gunmen dressed in IDF fatigues opened fire on his car. He was wounded, but managed to call his wife and tell her about the attack. Singer also managed to call his son and said, "Terrorists shot me. They are a few meters behind me, I think they are coming to kill me." After lightly wounding Singer in the first burst of gunfire, the terrorists raced after his vehicle and shot him again, killing him. Singer's son was later involved the combat in which the two terrorists were killed. Nurit, his wife, and his children remembered how just two weeks ago they celebrated his 51st birthday. He looked so happy.”
“I was afraid that Gabi would turn hard and right, after his brother in law’s death,” said Josh.  “But he didn’t.” 

The faultlines run deep in this country. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Isreal/Palestine 5: Tel Aviv-Yafo

Jaffa is built on a slight hill overlooking the sea.  They claim it was founded by one of Noah's son's after the flood, and that Jonah sailed to his appointment with the whale from its port.  The municipal website boasts that during the times of King Solomon, Jaffa's port served as a gateway for cedars from Lebanon used in the building of the First Temple.  Today, Jaffa is part of the Tel Aviv-Yafo municipality. 

When we say "port city," we are not talking Long Beach, Rotterdam,  Genoa, or Venice; we are talking a quiet smugglers cove on a coastline with few natural harbors.  In the late 1800's the old city walls of Jaffa were demolished, and the city expanded north along the sand dunes to accommodate successive waves of immigrants.  The result is a modern city with a population of 414,000 and 20 square miles of area.  Tel Aviv has 40 percent the area of San Francisco but 55% of its population.  The increased density makes itself felt in a thriving cafe culture.  [The greater municipal area has a population of 3.3 million]

The Ingathering

The building of Tel Aviv requires some context of the broader transformation of the land of Israel/Palestine over the past 100 plus years.  This table from the Guardian newspaper tells the story (numbers are for all of Palestine):

In 1880 there were
Jews living among
In 1914 there were
Jews living among
In 1922 there were
Jews living among
In 1936 there were
Jews living among
In 1940 there were
Jews living among
In 1946 there were
Jews living among

The ratio that existed in 1946 was essentially reversed during the next six years.  First, during the war of independence in 1947-48 approximately 700,000 Palestinians were driven out.   
The exact number of refugees is a matter of dispute.[7] But around 80 percent of the Arab inhabitants of what became Israel (50 percent of the Arab total of Mandatory Palestine) left or were expelled from their homes.[8][9] The causes remain also the subject of fundamental disagreement between Arabs and Israelis. Factors involved in the exodus include Jewish military advances, attacks against Arab villages and fears of another massacre after Deir Yassin,[10]:239–240 which caused many to leave out of panic; expulsion orders by Zionist authorities; the voluntary self-removal of the wealthier classes,[11] the collapse in Palestinian leadership,[12] and an unwillingness to live under Jewish control.[13] Later, a series of laws passed by the first Israeli government prevented them from returning to their homes, or claiming their property. They and many of their descendants remain refugees.[14][15] Later in the war, Palestinians were expelled as part ofPlan Dalet.[16][citation needed] The expulsion of the Palestinians has since been described by some historians as ethnic cleansing,[17][18][19] while others dispute this charge.[20][21][22]

Today, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA)  has approximately 5 million Palestinian refugees registered, meaning people who were displaced in 1947/48 and their descendants.  Many of those families have found productive lives elsewhere, but approximately 1.5 million continue to languish in refugee camps.  The total number of Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip number about 4.5 million:
Nearly one-third of the registered Palestine refugees, more than 1.5 million individuals, live in 58 recognized Palestine refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. A Palestine refugee camp is defined as a plot of land placed at the disposal of UNRWA by the host government to accommodate Palestine refugees and set up facilities to cater to their needs. .... Socioeconomic conditions in the camps are generally poor, with high population density, cramped living conditions and inadequate basic infrastructure such as roads and sewers.  
Second, as the Palestinian population was cut in half during the war of independence, in the three and a half year period immediately following statehood the Jewish population of Israel doubled with an influx of 688,000 from post-Holocaust Europe and from the Muslim world.  In 1949 alone 249,954 arrived in Israel.  In all this Sturm und Drang, Tel Aviv was built.

Tel Aviv

Based on a recommendation from Bobbi's friend Andi, we stayed at the Diaghelev Live Art Hotel on Mazeh Street, off Rothchild Boulevard in Tel Aviv.  It's modestly priced, has great staff, and spacious suites.  We highly recommend it for your next stay in Tel Aviv.  When you come, call them directly.  The price is less than booking through Expedia or other services. 

Tel Aviv has 4000 Bauhaus architecture buildings and is recognized as a UNESCO world heritage site.  Most of these buildings were built in the 1930's, 40's and 50's.

The concept for a new garden city, to be called Tel Aviv, was developed on the sand dunes outside Jaffa in 1909.[2] British urban planner Patrick Geddes, who had previously worked on town-planning in New Delhi, was commissioned by Tel Aviv's first mayor, Meir Dizengoff, to draw up a master plan for the new city. Geddes began work in 1925 on the plan, which was accepted in 1929.[3] The view of the British Mandatory authorities seemed to have been supportive. In addition to Geddes, and Dizengoff, the city engineer Ya'acov Ben-Sira contributed significantly to the development and planning during his 1929 to 1951 tenure.[4] Patrick Geddes laid out the streets and decided on block size and utilisation. Geddes did not prescribe an architectural style for the buildings in the new city. But by 1933, many Jewish architects of theBauhaus school in Germany, like Arieh Sharon, fled to the British Mandate of Palestine.[5] Both the emigration of these Jewish architects and the closing of the Bauhaus school in Berlin were consequences of the rise to power of the Nazi party in Germany in 1933.
Since their construction, many of these houses have fallen on hard times.  The salt air has eaten away at the stucco facades.  But at this time there is a building boom.  A lot of the existing housing stock is being refurbished and updated.  Tower cranes dot the landscape.

We walked the length of Rothchild Boulevard several times.  Rothchild is a tree lined boulevard with a bike lane, walking lane, grassy and gravel play areas for chess and boules players.  It was laid out after famous boulevards in Paris, but today somehow the scale seems too small. Yet, if this reflects a certain lack of confidence by the early city planners, it has served the city well.  The scale is intimate and young and old are milling about the length of the boulevard night and day.  Parking is impossible.

Boulevard Rothchild runs from Allenby Boulevard, named after the British General who ended the Ottoman era in Palestine during World War I, in the South, to the Bronfman concert hall and the Tel Aviv Playhouse, in the north.  The grassy strip was the site of three months of peaceful protest by a wide cross-section of Tel Aviv during the summer of 2011, protesting unaffordable housing prices.  As a result, measures have been taken making it easier to add stories to existing buildings, and adding to the housing stock by building more residential tower projects.  Meanwhile, prices in Tel Aviv are not falling.

From Allenby Boulevard down towards Old Jaffa runs Shabazi Road through Neve Tzadek, the newly gentrified Soho of Tel Aviv.  This area is filled with artist studios, cafes, restaurants and boutiques.

North of us, in the center of Tel Aviv along Shaul Hamelech (the first Jewish King) Boulevard, lies the headquarters for the IDF.   Young Israelis in uniform walk in pairs and groups on the surrounding streets.  Several sport kippahs and tzizit, even as they walk, flirting, next to women in uniform.  It's a sign of hope for the future.

Just behind the IDF headquarters lies a major performing arts center and the Tel Aviv Art Museum, designed by Preston Scott Cohen from the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  There we saw a fascinating short film, Invert, by Ben Hagari.  The film inverts color, speech, and plays on the concept of freedom with a caged parrot.

With Bobbi's cousins we went up to the Tel Aviv's amusement attraction by the old harbor.  This harbor is even more pathetic than Jaffa's, so much so that they abandoned the whole thing, built a boardwalk and converted the warehouses to restaurants, shops, and a market space.  It's adjacent to the Yarkon river, which makes the Charles look like the Mississipi.  But there is a 20 km park that runs along its shores, and the whole project is a huge success.  It's like Venice beach;  everyone's out enjoying it.  Alas, it's not worth jumping on a plane for.

In fact the whole coastal strip of Tel Aviv leaves a lot to be desired.  There's a major road along the beach, and the hotels there are like those outdated monstrosities on the Las Vegas strip.  The beach is nice, and popular, full of beachgoers happy to slather on sunscreen and roast in the sun, or huddle under umbrellas.

The life and charm of the city begin a couple of blocks off the ocean, in Old Yafa, Neve Tzadek, Rothchild Boulevard, the upscale Dizengoff Boulevard, and in countless restaurants, cafes, and night clubs where all of Tel Aviv seems to party late into the night, every night.  The place hums.



Sunday, April 20, 2014

Israel/Palestine 4: Sabra

Sabra—a term for Jewish people born in Israel. The term alludes to a tenacious, thorny desert plant with a thick skin that conceals a sweet, softer interior; a native Hebrew speaker.
Newark airport is quiet, except for 300 of us gathering at Gate 138 for the red-eye to Tel Aviv.  It feels like we are already in Israel.  Although everyone has passed through TSA screening, the Israelis have set up a secondary screening at the gate.  And whereas TSA lines have the look and feel of a make work program these days, this screening is all business.  "Put your bag on the table and step back, please."  No guns, but all check-point.

There's a certain prickliness in the air.  Is it the crowd, or is it us feeling foreign surrounded by a language we do not understand.  A solitary young Arab holds back during boarding.  He looks Israeli, but speaks Arabic on his last cell phone call.

The entire crowd, with a smattering of exceptions like us, are native Hebrew speakers.  Secular Jews returning from holidays abroad.  No religious garb; the religious are all staying put, close to the hearth, until the conclusion of Passover Tuesday night.  

We sit next to a young  Sabra, a 26 year old woman retuning from holidays in Mexico.  She has taken her year of travel ("We all do it, it's a cultural thing"), works part time as a flight attendant for El Al, and is finishing a BA in East Asian studies.  She hopes Chinese will help with  business.  It's a good bet.  The Israeli Ministry of Economy has an extensive website for Israeli businesses hoping to pursue business in China.  IsCham is an Israeli Chamber of Commerce active in China, and the Chinese are investing heavily in Israel.  Israel-China economic relations is a growth industry.

Lendner Bakery in Mea Shearim District
Dana (with an Ahhh) Eldar, that's her name, lives in Tel Aviv, right near our hotel off Rothchild Blvd. it turns out.  Her great, great ... grandparents from 10 generations ago immigrated to Palestine from Poland, Latvia, and Tunisia in the 1880's.  One of these great grandfathers, Moshe Dov Lendner, was a rabbi and famous baker, who founded a bakery in the Meah Shearim ("Thousand Gates") district of Jerusalem in the late 1800's.  Today, there is a street named after this grandfather.  The bakery still exists, baking legendary Challah just around the corner from Moshe Dov Lendner street.  You'll find us there next week.  Bring on that Chametz!

Dana has completed her initial military training.  "I'm a warrior, so I had to serve three years like the guys," she says.  "I was a sniper, and I also drove a Hummer.  It was dangerous at times, exhilarating; the best period of my life.   When I'm finished with my studies I definitely want to give back some more."  I do not press her on specifics; the foe, the occupation, night raids, checkpoints, did she shoot anyone as a sniper?

There is pride and confidence that exudes from this young woman.  It is the pride of an energetic young traveler, student, hard worker, and warrior.