AFTER crossing into Israel, I made straight for Tel Aviv-Yafo. Yafo is an old Ottoman city better known in English as Jaffa. Tel Aviv is a new city founded by Jewish settlers in the early twentieth century, on sand dunes outside Jaffa.
For US$25 a night you could sleep on the roof of the Old Jaffa Hostel after being given a mattress (a common practice in the Middle East, in hot weather). But Sarah and I paid for a room, as we needed to lock our belongings away. We had a balcony, and the view was amazing.
It was the time of the World Cup final, Croatia versus France. The Hostel had quaint furniture and a lot of character, including black and white photos from the first half of the twentieth century.
Jaffa is a very famous city, often depicted by Victorian painters.
I walked around the Old Town, soaking up the atmosphere. There are still sizeable Arab and Muslim populations in Jaffa, and several mosques.
Then we moved to the Florentin District and a four-bed mixed dorm, which they seem to do in Israel.
The Florentin district was supposed to be an artists’ quarter. Tel Aviv-Yafo has a long history of the promotion of the arts. But these days the artists must be starving, because the Florentin district was ridiculously expensive. I paid US$300 for highlights, and a hair dye, then to top it off I paid US$110 for leg waxing.
I was told there was one price for locals and another for tourists; but really, I have not even paid these prices in Barcelona. On the other hand, the cafes seemed to be cheaper than in the old town. Most of the people were young, arty, and non-traditional.
I went to Rothschild Boulevard and explored the White City, a large area of pre-World War II modern architecture. The area had been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is really one of the highlights of Tel Aviv.
I met guy from Bavaria who acted like he needed a mother. He liked well-dressed women and said that with my slightly comical sun-hat I looked like a scarecrow. I told him that his hat made him look like a peasant. I had already had moles cut off my face and didn’t want to end up looking like a prune in any case, so I needed to be careful in the sun. (At least I wasn’t wearing a pith helmet, like Glubb Pasha.)
That same weekend, Hamas let off missiles. The Israelis have an anti-missile shield over the city and most houses have bomb shelters. That is seriously a WW2 -inherited way of life.
A new high-speed train that runs between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv has just been inaugurated. Unfortunately, I was just a couple of months too early to ride on it! The train’s route includes Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, Israel’s main airport.
Off we then went to Haifa, another old Ottoman city further to the north, and stayed at the Al Yakhour Hostel. Al Yakhour is Palestinian-owned, and volunteers help out. We met Dancers without Borders there, a troupe made up of Jews and Palestinians dancing together.
I walked parts of the Mt Carmel National Park, opposite the University of Haifa. The National Park looks like a European forest and was artificially planted. Many Arab villages whose inhabitants were driven out lie under the trees and there are others that have become artists’ colonies, such as Ein Hod (formerly Ayn Hawd). They aren’t used to foreign tourists in the hills. I went into an Israel restaurant and everyone stared at me.
That night I spoke to an Australian guy who had fainted in Jerusalem from the heat. You have to look after yourself, that was me in Tel Aviv
The next morning, we did a tour of the Bahá’i Centre. The Baha’i founder Bahá’u’lláh was a Persian born in 1817. He said he was the next prophet after Muhammad and ended up a prisoner in the Ottoman city of Acre, just north of Haifa, where he died in 1892.
The most sacred place in the world to Bahá’is is Bahá’u’lláh’s mausoleum in Acre, and the second most famous is the Shrine of the Báb in Haifa. The Báb was Baha’u’lláh’s teacher and the actual founder of the Bahá’i fath; the Báb was executed by a Persian firing squad in 1844 for Muslim apostasy. His body was eventually transported to Haifa and interred there in a mausoleum built by Bahá’i worshipers.
Oddly enough, the official keepers of the faith won’t accept anyone as a Bahá’i if they live in Israel, apart from those who tend to the shrine and the mausoleum. Bahá’u’lláh feared that the introduction of yet another religious community to the Holy Land and its environs might add to the strife that was already quite serious in the region in his lifetime. There is an organised Bahá’i community in Lebanon these days. But the ban still applies to Israel.
The Bahá’i gardens look directly down on the old German district of Haifa. Before the Bahá’i, German Protestant Christians called Templers — not to be confused with the Templars of the Middle Ages — had come to Haifa and several other places in today’s Israel in the 1800s and built modern settlements to live in, while they awaited the Second Coming.
Overall, the Germans were the first to introduce a number of modern practices, such as a regular postal service, to a region that was at that time somewhat neglected and run-down, one of the most peripheral provinces of an Ottoman Empire that was, at that time, itself in a state of decay.
Old photographs from the Victorian era show much of the Holy Land, even such places as the Dome of the Rock, supposedly the third most sacred site in Islam, to have fallen into a somewhat tumble-weedy condition under Ottoman administration which, at that time and in that place, was probably better described as lack of administration.
Templer colonisation has been described as the template for the Zionist movement that would spring up almost immediately thereafter. Though few in number, the German colonists showed what could be done with the region if people who possessed all the latest technical skills, and enough money to put them into effect, were to show up.
This is not to make excuses for later Israeli abuses. But it is to put Zionism in a wider colonial context in which the colonists often saw themselves as agents of progress, revolutionising the world and transforming it in ways that nobody could have dreamed of a few decades before.
The dramatic effects of colonisation would become a metaphor for other kinds of upheaval. Thus, as the Israeli climate scientist Dan Rabinovitz put it, in conversation with a journalist from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, we should take even the most extreme or seemingly alarmist climate-change predictions seriously, because:
“After all, if we’d been told 70 years ago that the street corner where we’re sitting — Rothschild and Ahad Ha’am [in Tel Aviv] — would have cafes and be a busy thoroughfare, and not a drowsy road along which a camel convoy occasionally passes by, we wouldn’t have believed it.”
There were many Jews in the Middle East already, ‘Mizrahi’ or Arabised Jews:
But the most dramatic transformations were wrought with the coming of the Zonists, such as Menachem Begin, whose designs for Greater Israel at one time included the whole of Jordan as well as the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
And so the Palestinians effectively wound up in the same position as native Americans or New Zealand Māori — pushed aside.
A recent article by Human Rights Watch called ‘Occupation, Inc’ argues that Israeli settlement is big business, that there is money to be made by pushing people off their land. The result is a vested interest in strife, one that helps to explain why peace is so elusive.
The history of settler colonialism is one that rhymes from place to place, in that sense. It follows certain consistent patterns to do with the relationship between politics, the military and land-grabbing, even if it does not repeat exactly.
‘The tale, ’tis told of thee’.
After Haifa, we went to the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret in Israel. The main town next to the Sea, which is also known as Lake Tiberias, is the town of Tiberias. We were warned that the beaches of Lake Tiberias are dirty and full of plastic bottles, but to see people throwing rubbish in the River Jordan (a surprisingly small stream) was another reality altogether. You would think a person would be struck by lightning for that, but the skies were clear.
Walked around Tiberias, we noticed that everything had been shut for the Sabbath at 1 pm on Friday. This was a nightmare as we needed a car to see things.
Apart from that, Tiberias was an interesting area made more pleasant by the fact that were staying at the Tiberias Hostel, where the staff were very caring. It soon became clear that the town was mostly inhabited by Orthodox Jews, which probably explained why nearly everything was shut for the Sabbath. The main exception seemed to be a Bedouin-owned takeaway, where I met a man who defended strict Sabbatarianism while munching on an Islamic kebab, or possibly a Christian one. I thought this was rather hypocritical and told him, in effect, that he was being a Pharisee.
Unfortunately for tourists, the non-Sabbath-keeping Bedouins hadn’t yet managed to gain a toehold in the local motor trade. All the taxi and hire-car yards were padlocked and would be till Sunday. The Bavarian guy had looked forward to hiring a taxi for the weekend and went apeshit about it when he found he couldn’t. He hated the hostel too. He was on vacation for only sixteen days and was probably kicking himself for having fallen in with a bunch of ‘wandering birds’, as the Germans say, who hadn’t arranged transport, proper hotels, or anything like that.
He became unbearable at breakfast, and just criticised me for being useless. One young woman in my room felt sorry for me, and we discussed my going out with her party for the day. And so, meeting new people, I came across a couple of archaeologists named Clare and Lissy from Washington State University in Vancouver, Washington. Vancouver (WA) is a suburb of Portland but, somehow, I failed to grasp this and thought they were Canadians.
Lissy and Clare were taking a break from a dig in the middle of Israel, further south. But they knew about the whole region. They sure taught me a lot about Arbel National Park, which overlooks the Sea of Galilee. Around the time of Jesus, King Herod had also fought a group of rebels who lodged in these extremely steep cliffs atop a very deep valley.
According to one of the leaders of the rebellion, who was pardoned by the Romans and penned an account which has come down to us under the Latin version of his name, Flavius Josephus, Herod eventually defeated the rebels by lowering his own soldiers in ‘chests’ on the ends of ropes — a sort of early special forces operation. More recently, this area came to be occupied by the Druze people.
We walked for about three hours. The heat was unbearable, but we took enough water. We also saw the Sea of Galilee from the Kinneret lookout and came across an ancient bath called a miqveh, also commonly spelt mikvah or mikva. This type of bath serves the purpose of ritual purification among observant Jews. The mikva at this site (to stick with the simplest spelling) was a hanging mikva, meaning that it was on a ledge, a bit like an infinity pool.
Flavius Josephus had said that the rebel cave-dwellers were Jewish rebels: that Herod faced opposition from his own people. The discovery of things like the mikva helps to confirm this important detail. Archaeologists working in the Middle East love to come up with such belt-and-braces proof (or disproof) of the numerous ancient stories about the area.
There was a similar rebellion a little further north at a mountain which was said to resemble the back of one of the local camels, with a hump in the middle. But unlike the Sea of Galilee and its cliffs, which are hard to miss, the exact location of the camel mountain came to be lost. All people knew was that it probably wasn’t in modern Israel. Then one day, after the 1967 war, an Israeli kibbutz-dweller doing an archaeological survey in the recently-occupied Golan Heights saw this mountain which looked like a camel. And it was indeed the one.
In a case like that, there is a risk of the archaeology becoming politicised, with people trying to prove that their ancestors lived in a certain area in order to stake a claim to the land or, on the other side, denying the existence of a cultural site or, worse, blowing it up like the Taliban and ISIS. All that needs to be distinguished from a more objective archaeology, of course.
We went to the Jordan River and had a great swim in the sacred waters, apart from the floating rubbish everywhere. And then we went to Nazareth and explored the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation (there’s also a Greek Orthodox Basilica of the Annunciation that I will visit next time). The artwork inside the Catholic Basilica was amazing. It came from all around the world, with decorations put up by artists in each country.
The Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth (video)
After a successful day I decided to hire a car to visit Safed, an important holiday resort and centre of Jewish culture in the hills. It had lots of Orthodox facilities which women weren’t allowed into.
Then I went to Capernaum, which is near Syria on the northern shores of Galilee. My room shock and I heard bombs going off. Planes were flying everywhere, and really, I could not have been more glad to get out. The sunset from the Hostel in Tiberias shone through a veil of chemicals and smoke from the bombs over the Golan Heights.
Capernaum hosts the modern Roman Catholic Pilgrimage Church of St Peter, erected in 1990 with a glass floor over the top of a cavern which was said to be part of the very first-ever church, where services were possibly officiated by St Peter himself. The town also housed a synagogue, and dates back to Phoenician times.
Inside the Pilgrimage Church of St Peter, Capernaum (video)
I also went to the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha, where Jesus was said to have fed the multitudes with loaves and fishes.
One receptionist was a fanatic, and continually discussed the Old Testament with the devout Christians who, as you might expect, make up a fairly high percentage of the tourist traffic in places like Tiberias. I got a headache and said she should live for this world. She had never met a Palestinian and said that Ramallah is not safe. I said it was, as many people I had met there wanted peace.
Of course, it would be naïve to overlook the numerous acts of terrorism that have been perpetrated against Israelis, including (most recently) the so-called stabbing intifada of 2015–2016, in which several dozen Israelis were killed, and hundreds wounded, by random assailants. The Israeli military said that many of the stabbers were mentally disturbed copycats, and there was probably some truth to that.
But the stabbing craze (as the military deemed it) had petered out by the time I was in Israel. Also, even at its height, hardly any of the stabbings took place inside the Green Line. The stabbings were nearly all of Jewish settlers in the Palestinian territories or in borderlands like East Jerusalem.
All the same, the Tiberias receptionist who had never met a Palestinian seemed to be convinced she would be murdered too, one of these days. That is one problem with these conflicts: people demonising ‘the other’ and being too scared to get together to make peace!
To put things in perspective, the Israeli road toll is about 350 a year. In any given year the number of Israelis who lose their lives to terrorism and low-level armed conflict — soldiers included, and nearly always in places that are beyond the country’s official frontiers— is nearly always less than the Israeli road toll, and generally a lot less.
On the other hand, the butcher’s bill for all these conflicts is higher for the Palestinians, who are killed, in a bad year, in much greater numbers than the Israeli road toll. The Israeli attitude seems to be one of ‘take no chances.’
Consider the latest massacre at the Gaza border fence — a “wholly disproportionate response” to an attempted mass border crossing according to the United Nations’ human rights chief — yet at the same time, an event that is by no means without precedent in Israeli history. As with the former East Germany, anyone crossing the Israeli border illegally can expect to get shot, the only difference being that it’s generally a case of people trying to get in rather than out who get shot.
What would have happened if some of the protestors had got through the border fence, the Israeli border guards and politicans asked, in defence of their actions. We had no choice but to open up, they said — as if they were facing the zombie apocalypse!
Sometimes you can watch too many movies, I think.
It seemed that Old Towns of Jaffa and Haifa were areas where Jews and Arabs could get on, as they often did in old-time Arabia and in the Ottoman Empire. There had been religious and community conflicts and persecutions in Ottoman days, but these had seldom involved the Jews. There had at one time been sizeable communities of Jews in most Middle Eastern countries, such as Yemen. Why were things so different and separated-out now?
Of course, we know the answer; it’s to do with stuff I’ve mentioned above.
The other guy I spoke to in Capernaum had been a soldier in the Israeli military but chose to get out after visiting India. Now he makes music. He really believes that Israel is a democracy and that Palestinians want to live in Israel, and that economic development is the best solution. He fought in Lebanon and trained with Egyptian soldiers.
He believed that United Nations and European Union aid was going into Hamas weapons factories; he believed the money should be spent on education and health and was genuinely concerned. He supported the destruction of tunnels that people were using to smuggle things in and out of the Gaza strip.
I told him about the land confiscations that ordinary Palestinians had been suffering and he said that if that was correct, he apologises.
You’d think the confiscations would be common knowledge. But one thing about Israel is that because of all the separation efforts made in recent decades, many Jews and Arabs lead completely separate lives, to the point that a museum recently put in a virtual-reality exhibition called Visitors, 2018 whereby Jewish Israelis could peer inside a Palestinian home, their first introduction in many cases. The average Jewish Israeli may literally have no idea about Palestinian sufferings and believe the worst kinds of zombie-apocalypse propaganda. The receptionist was a good example.
Having said that, the ex-soldier was fairly critical of the status quo. He said that Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu was being investigated for corruption and that his wife Sara had been indicted already (all of which is verifiable), and that the poor and uneducated Jews were voting for Bibi against their interests. He also said that Orthodox Jews do not have to go to war or serve in the army as they serve God. This was a wrongheaded policy, he insisted. Why should other Jews called-up to serve in the military and the reserves until the age of 35?
Such critical attitudes are by no means unusual in Israel. The left-liberal Haaretz, published in Hebrew and in English and possibly the best-known Israeli newspaper outside Israel, is also widely acknowledged to be the best newspaper in Israel in terms of the average depth of its articles. Haaretz is often fearlessly critical of the country’s leaders and policies and is at the same time, almost entirely devoted to serious and worthy topics. Haaretz’s website is almost ad-free and stuffed with stories of a worthy and intellectually stimulating nature instead. It serves up a real contrast to just about every other newspaper website you’re likely to come across these days.
Unfortunately, perhaps because Haaretz is so highbrow,itsreadership is only about four per cent of the population on weekdays. It’s been quipped that Israel’s population is divided between those who read Haaretz — and those who’ve never heard of it!
Having said that, articles written from a liberal or critical point of view quite often appear in other newspapers as well, such as The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.
To Israel’s liberals (the Haaretz-reading four per cent?) Bibi Netanyahu as a disaster for the country in the long run: a war-hawk who plays the military tough-guy card for all it is worth even when peace is on the table; a hawk who, while he has a serious war record of his own, also might not be where he is today if his dashing older brother Yonatan hadn’t been killed in the raid that freed the hostages in Entebbe back in ’76.
No less than three films came out about that incident at the time; two star-studded American TV dramatisations called Victory at Entebbe and Raid on Entebbe, and a more documentary-like Israeli production called Operation Thunderbolt.
Whether because of the content of these films, or otherwise, many people ended up with the impression that Yonatan was a major leader of the raid who was unfortunately martyred at the moment of an otherwise inevitable success by the invincible Israelis, and thus didn’t live on to become Prime Minister as he should have done.
Entebbe worked wonders for the political career of brother Bibi, the next-best alternative; though, according to a more recent production, Yonatan, had he lived, might have got in trouble for making a stuff-up that greatly endangered the hostages and nearly wrecked the mission. If so, it seems the IDF buried this mistake along with the older Netanyahu.
These days, Bibi seems to be obsessed with confronting Iran: his critics say that this is yet another instance of the politics of fear and distraction. Presumably, he doesn’t want an actual war (we hope). And yet the danger of blundering into a war with Iran seems quite real, particularly so in view of the recent terrorist attack on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard parade in Ahvaz, the capital of the small but oil-rich Khuzestan province. The attack killed 25 (as of the time of writing) and seems to have been the work of Khuzestan separatists.
Khuzestan is located at the head of the Persian Gulf near Kuwait and the Iraqi city of Basra and has a large Arab population. (The Persian ethnic majority in Iran is, of course, not Arab.)
Low lying and coastal, ethnically distinct, and — last, but not least — oil-rich, Khuzestan is at constant risk of an invasion disguised as liberation. A partly declassified CIA document, which seems to have been written after the 1979 Iranian revolution but before Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran, describes Khuzestan as ‘Iran’s Achilles Tendon’. Without Khuzestan, Iran would be much diminished as a regional power.
Whether the West put him up to it or not, one of Saddam Hussein’s aims was to grab Khuzestan while Iran floundered, so he imagined, in post-revolutionary chaos. Ironically, the revolutionary condition of Iran frustrated his scheme. The Arab population of Khuzestan was caught up in the general enthusiasm and remained loyal to Teheran.
It goes without saying that any renewed attempt by Western or regional powers to ‘liberate’ Khuzestan could spark another such conflict. Especially so, given that Iran has officially accused the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates of being directly behind the Ahvaz massacre, and Israel and the United States somewhat more indirectly.
I was to spend one more evening in Tel Aviv prior to leaving. I had a one-hour conversation with another young man about Israel. That was when I found out about the bomb shelters and the missile shield.
This guy was about 28. He’d been in the military too, and to New Zealand, and he said that young people in Israel couldn’t afford to build their own houses. I also heard that the minimum wage was 26.88 Shekels an hour, or only about $7 US an hour. But it was significant to hear that that young people in general couldn’t afford to buy their own house.
This has been the subject of protests, and it also helps to explain why so many people go to live in the government-subsidised settlements on the West Bank. They literally don’t have much choice.
In the same conversation with the young man in the café, he talked about the mis-allocation of resources away from human needs. Specifically, about how Israel was the seventh largest arms exporter in the world, and that we should look at that.
It’s true. The Israeli arms export industry brings in US$9 billion a year in export earnings, about the same as the New Zealand dairy export industry. That’s a lot of money for a small country.
There are all kinds of vested interests in a country, apart from the land-grabbers, and the arms industry is one of them.
If the politicians keep saying yes to arms exports, and displaying sufficient enthusiasm as they do so, a small country with a large, export-oriented arms industry may eventually become hostage to that arms industry as well as to its land-grabbers (if any), in something of the sense of the old saying that Prussia was an army that had a country, rather than a country that had an army. Ultimately, the tables will be turned and the politicians will be drawn into a web of symbiosis with the “military-industrial complex,” just like President Eisenhower said.
Has Israel become the Prussia of the Middle East in that sense? A country in the possession not only of its land-grabbers but also of the merchants of death?
It’s not just the Israelis, of course. Some of the largest weapons exporters in the world have their factories in small countries that don’t even have Israel’s excuse of being surrounded by more-or-less sworn enemies in an admittedly unstable part of the world. I’m talking about countries such as Sweden and, even, Norway here.
But the Israeli industry has a well-known edge in the arms bazaars of the world, in that it can say that most of its systems have been used in actual combat. Whereas with Norwegian weapons — let’s say — the idea that they will stand up to the heat of battle is often a bit more theoretical.
The Israeli liberal press often speculates as to whether the messianic aspects of Judaism and Zionism “[feed] into a sense of superiority and the demonization of the other,” or otherwise contribute to an apocalyptic and militarised sensibility. And that’s on top of Beginism and the great hidden iceberg beneath it all, the trauma of the Holocaust.
How will this be defused?
People say that when money worries come in the door, love flies out the window. In a similar vein, liberal, progressive and democratic ideals also tend to fly out the window once the politics of fear and security takes hold even though, paradoxically, liberal / progressive / democratic ideas are the only guarantee of lasting peace. All that the ‘hard men’ can promise is more tit-for-tat violence, which is the real meaning of George Orwell’s phrase “a boot stamping on a human face forever.”
For, a spiral of violence helps the hard men to say that the liberals (etc) are dreamers, that only the troops and those with shares in the arms industry can defend the people against imminent destruction by the other lot, and to keep their own people mesmerised — just like the Tiberias receptionist, who obviously doesn’t have a subscription to Haaretz.
To get back to the other thing that guy said in Tel Aviv, what investment in wars also tells you is what the government’s priorities are, both in Israel and in other countries.
In ways that don’t just apply to Israel, let’s imagine the housing question was tackled with the same urgency as weapons production (and not in ways that help colonise the West Bank).
Imagine what politics would be like if families without much money had the same degree of political ‘access’ as the arms manufacturers.
Imagine if government was less obsessed with another Israeli dissident has, from memory, dubbed ‘absurd war scenarios’ to do with Iran, and so forth — and decided to make war on poverty, homelessness and climate change instead.
As John Lennon said — Imagine.