Israel 2018: Friends, History and Politics

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As I walked through the courtyard of my hotel in Eilat, a lady reclining on a lounger by the pool said something to me in Hebrew.  In gestures and English I replied that I did not understand that language.  A man next to her translated in a heavy Israeli accent “she is asking if you are Shimon’s brother”.  I smiled politely and said I was not.   When I arrived in Tel Aviv a week earlier, I was surprised to notice its diverse population, people with darker skin than the indigenous Jews and Arabs.  I was told many of them were Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen, other middle-eastern countries and India, and others were guest-workers on time-limited visas.  

I have been intrigued by Israel ever since I was at college in England in the early 1960s when I heard of kibbutzim from friends who had visited and worked in them.  That was not long after India’s independence when I was eager to find examples of people building a nation.  For one reason or another, I did not get there during my younger years.  As time passed, Israel’s ill treatment of Palestinians made it more and more difficult to justify a visit.  Because the region has been at the crossroads of major civilizations through history, as an experienced and aging traveler, I decided that I must visit before it’s too late.  Besides, I had friends there to welcome me and advise me on how to see their country. 

About twenty years ago, when I was in Jordan for work, on a weekend I took a trip to the Dead Sea and stopped at Mount Nebo on the way.  In legend, it was from there that Moses first saw the Promised Land and led his followers in that direction.  Indeed, it is possible to see Jerusalem from that hill, but in between there is barely a shrub visible.  I wondered what Moses had in mind when he was leading his people to a barren land.  Israel and the West Bank still look barren, except for the northern region near Lebanon and around the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River.  Added to that, there isn’t much of value under the ground either, such as oil or gold.  Despite this, people, indeed civilizations, have fought over this area through history. 

When Moses brought Jews to the area in about 1250 BCE, it was inhabited by Canaanites and Philistines (Palestine), but through time it was captured by Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Macedonian-Egyptians, Macedonian-Syrians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Kurdish-Muslims (Saladin), Mamluk-Egyptians, and Ottoman Turks for four centuries, the longest continuous rule, and finally the British, before it became the modern state of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.  With all this to and fro, modern Israel is also home to three major religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Judaism is the oldest, Jesus was born in Bethlehem and preached around Galilee, and Islam arrived soon after Mohammed’s death. 

Tel Aviv (Hill of Spring) is the modern Jewish city built along the coast just north of the ancient Arab port of Jaffa, which has a rich history stretching back to the second millennium BCE.  Tel Aviv started as a Jewish colony in 1909 and has grown through ups and downs to now house just over 400,000 people.  It is also known as the “White City”, for its large stock of Bauhaus buildings that were painted white, and more recently as “Silicon Wadi” for its prowess in technology.  Although connected, Jaffa and Tel Aviv are distinct in architecture: Jaffa retains the alleys and mosques of an old Arab town; and Tel Aviv goes from third world simple shop-houses to first world skyscrapers in two blocks, symbolic of Israel’s rapid economic ascent.   

Tel Aviv Bauhaus

The beach was a convenient few minutes walk from my friend’s apartment.  Miles of deep sand with lounge chairs outside café’s and restaurants and an inviting, calm sea for a dip or swim to cool off after a walk or jog on the boardwalk. The city offers walking tours of some of its main attractions.  On the Sandemans Bauhaus tour, we walked along Rothschild Avenue’s broad median, strewn with cafes, and streets off it on both sides to look at some of the best structures.  This modern style was pioneered by the famous German architects Gropius and Mies van der Rohe and brought to Palestine by Jewish architects fleeing Nazi Germany.  They built about 4,000 structures, mostly painted white, but many fell into disrepair.  When the area was declared a UNESCO heritage site in 2003, about 1,000 were identified, and most we saw were painted other colors when they were restored. 

Another older German connection is from the Templars, a Christian community that established an agricultural colony in 1871 on the banks for the Ayalon River, a couple of miles north of Jaffa, but now squarely in the center of the expanded Tel Aviv.  The colony was named Sarona and its experiments in growing new crops and plants influenced Israel’s modern agricultural development.  Unfortunately, its residents supported the Nazis and they were interned during WW II and later deported to Australia in 1943. The historic buildings in the compound were recently restored and developed as a thriving commercial center (shopping, offices, art galleries, cafes, and an institute for continuing education for entrepreneurship and innovation) surrounded by lush grounds with some of the original vegetation.  A visitor’s center and museum remains to tell the story. 

From there, I walked along side streets for a few kilometers, in and out of modern and third world areas to Jaffa’s Clock Tower, the landmark for meeting my friend for lunch and the tour of the old town.  While asking directions to the restaurant recommended in my guidebook, a lady suggested a small café nearby instead.  Eager to stick with local food, we ordered a falafel plate with low expectations. But it was simply delicious, the best I have ever tasted. The hummus was delicate and creamy, made with fragrant olive oil; the falafel was freshly made, crisp on the outside and soft inside, and when broken with a fork, it gave off a steamy aroma of roast garlic, coriander and cumin; the salad of greens, tomato and parsley with a tahini sauce was fresh; and the pita bread was also the best I have eaten, warm, thick, fluffy, rather like an Indian Batura.  Being a foreigner, what do I know, but my friend agreed that it was the best meal of its kind she had ever tasted.

A group of about 15 tourists walked with a Sandemans tour guide along surprisingly clean stone alleys, under stone arches, through markets to pass the main sights of the old town such as the: Al-Bahr Mosque; St. Peter’s church; Old Seraya; British Mandate; lighthouse; and the Ajami district, established long ago as a Maronite Christian settlement. It witnessed fierce battles during Israeli independence when Palestinians were forced into the enclave, but subsequently fell into disrepair and is now being gentrified.  We ended on a promontory that had a great view of modern Tel Aviv and its beaches. 

View of Tel Aviv from Jaffa

One morning I met another friend from graduate school in California in a modern neighborhood near the city’s center.  We caught up over breakfast at a neighborhood café where I tasted for the first time a colorful dish of Shakshuka (sunny side up eggs in an onion, tomato, pepper sauce laced with parsley, cumin, garlic and paprika).  From there I walked to the Museum of Art, starred as a must visit in my guidebook, but it was closed for renovation. 

The drive from Tel Aviv to a Jerusalem suburb, where my friend lived, took about an hour on a highway. The climate was cooler and the surrounding hills had trees and plants, the vista no longer just desert brown.  Indeed, to get to the center, we had to drive through what looks like a forest in these parts with a decent number of trees and other plants.  I noticed that all the houses in the suburb were made of a creamy-brown stone.  I learned the next day that all buildings, old and new, had “Jerusalem stone” facades because of a regulation passed during the British Mandate, as if to regain a desert look or blend into the surroundings.  

View of the Countryside

Jerusalem is Israel’s most populous city with about 850,000 people or one-tenth of the country’s total.  It is chock full of religious history–Jewish, Christian and Moslem.  Even though religions are not my interest, I am fascinated by their history, and worked hard to cram in the main sights in three days, and still have a day left over for a tour of the West Bank. 

Indeed, there is so much to see that I needed an expert guide, Avner Goren, to walk me through the main sights of the old city on my first day to get my bearings.  As he is one of Israel’s leading archeologists, I got an informed commentary.  We started at the Jaffa Gate near the Citadel, originally Herod’s palace, but used by the Romans and Crusaders and refurbished by the Mamluks and Ottomans.  Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to be crucified here.  It was formidable fort and the remains are impressive.  It houses a museum of Jerusalem’s history and an outdoor auditorium in the courtyard for sound and light shows about King David and the city’s history that I saw with my friend on another night. These stories are told with giant virtual reality images that cover the tower and most of the fort walls surrounding the seating area, making the stones come alive with people and scenery.  The accompanying music enhanced the drama, but the story-telling didn’t quite match the quality of the imagery. 

From Avner, I got detailed commentary as we walked by the Western Wall outside and inside, where it was busier with Jewish worshippers reading by the wall or at desks facing the wall.  The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built at the site of Jesus’s crucifixion, was crowded with pilgrims at the Stone of Unction where Jesus was anointed before his burial and the Tomb of the Holy Sepulcher.  We walked in and out of the Christian and Muslim quarters, through the market selling tourist kitsch and restaurants catering to tourists, and along sections of the Via Dolorosa, the route Jesus is believed to have carried the cross.  Avner pointed out architecture from different periods, especially Mamluk, and took us to a window with a great view of the Dome of the Rock where non-Muslims are not allowed to enter.  We took a break at the Austrian Hospice for coffee in its peaceful garden surrounded by ancient monuments.  During the walk, we stopped to chat with the owner of a Palestinian antique store and got his views on the political situation, which I will touch on later. 

Dome of the Rock

On the next day, I visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum, with a powerful and personal presentation of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, moving and disheartening to read, to see and hear what humans can do to each other.  In the afternoon, my friend drove me to Beit Jamal monastery in the Judean Mountains just outside Jerusalem, a small complex built by Salesian catholic monks with a lovely chapel that had an artistic mosaic nave and nearby also a mosaic exterior wall.  Not far from there was the larger Latorun Trappist monastery, but instead of visiting it, we chose to taste its wine at Domaine de Latorun, which has been producing wine since 1895 from vineyards tended by monks.  It still produces 300,000 cases, but the taste did not match the spiritual tending.

Avner accompanied me to the Israel Museum starting at the art garden designed by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi as a synthesis of many cultures with a backdrop of the local landscape. It has stones of different kinds and sizes, exposed concrete, water, and paths with local plants and trees.  The sculptures include works by world-renown artists including Rodin, Moore, Picasso and Kapoor.  The museum’s centerpiece is the Shrine of the Book, a separate pavilion where the Dead Sea Scrolls are exhibited.  Found in 1947 and written by the Essenes, an ascetic sect, they date back to the 2nd Century CE and include discussions of religious and secular matters.  Avner being an archeologist, concentrated on the museum’s extensive collection dating from pre-history to the Ottoman period, leaving me no time to visit the Jewish and Fine Arts wings. 

I raced off to join another Sandemans walking tour of the City of David with about ten others. We walked through the tunnels that could have been used by David to capture Jerusalem.  They were also used to provide water for Jerusalem from the Gihon Spring.  We came out on to what may have been David’s palace from where he looked across the valley and saw Bathsheba bathing naked, sent her husband off to war to be killed, and then took her as his wife.

Having followed the political turmoil in the region for 60 years, I would have been remiss to not visit the West Bank.  Although it was a token gesture, I took a Green Olive day-tour of Ramallah and Bethlehem.  The guide warned us that passing through the checkpoint may take time, but we got through quickly.  Ramallah was destroyed during the Second Intifada in 2000, but it has been rebuilt and is a thriving city, the economic and political heart of the West Bank.  We stopped at Yasser Arafat’s memorial and again near the main square to walk along the prosperous streets and bustling market. From there, the drive to Bethlehem passed through visibly less prosperous towns with litter on sidewalks and water tanks on top of dwellings.  The guide informed us that water and other services were unreliable for Palestinians, but readily available for the Israeli settlements that he pointed to in the distance. 

Ramallah Market

In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, marking Jesus’s birthplace, built by Emperor Constantine and rebuilt several times since, it remains a major attraction for pilgrims.  After lunch at a restaurant on the main square, we stopped briefly so see Banksy’s murals on the side of a building and for longer to see more murals by him and others on the high concrete wall that separates the West Bank from Jerusalem.  Our final stop was at the Aida Refugee Camp. It was originally a tent encampment, but now has brick structures housing more than 5,000 refugees.  The services are poor, there is no health clinic and unemployment is over 40 percent.  Not a pretty picture.

Mural on Bethlehem Wall

At the end of the tour, the guide asked if any of us wanted to walk through a checkpoint on our own.  Four of us put up our hands.  He took us in his private car and let us off near the crossing.  Noticing a Palestinian woman ahead he thought was heading to Israel, he suggested we follow her.  She was and we did, walking along switchback concrete paths through turnstiles at corners while hundreds of Palestinian workers coming home streamed in the other direction, in a hurry to get home. It was nerve-wracking.  As we got through the control point, we noticed that the lady we followed was held up.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to go through this experience daily. 

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I felt a cloud of political tension in Jerusalem.  Both the Palestinian shop owner I mentioned earlier and our West Bank tour-guide were frank about their views.  The shop owner was adamant that Palestinian refugees be allowed to return as citizens and reclaim their property.  Our guide hoped that BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) would relieve them from Israeli apartheid as it did for Africans in South Africa.  But according to a long and thorough article I read in the Guardian newspaper before coming, BDS is not likely to succeed here and may even be counter-productive.   The lawyer-friend I stayed with agreed that, short of a two state solution, the situation would come to fit some legal definitions of apartheid. Although, with Palestinian Israelis elected to the Knesset and integrated into every aspect of Israeli economic and social life, this situation is not the same as it was in South Africa.

Mural on Bethlehem Wall

The political situation is fraught and complicated and has little prospect of resolution anytime soon. The Olso Accord and its two state solution no longer seems feasible or likely. With about 230 Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem housing over 600,000 people, and Palestinian refugees now spread across many countries, the logistics of creating two states are formidable.  And Israel’s ruling coalition of right wing and religious parties is unlikely to agree to one state with equal rights for all citizens as they prefer to have a Jewish state rather than a state in which Jews would barely be in the majority. Both my friends think the situation is untenable and Israel could implode in a couple of decades. 

Heading from Jerusalem to Eilat on a well-maintained highway and easy traffic flow, except for a hold up to remove a breakdown, we passed through the Judean desert and hugged the Dead Sea.  On the desert side scenery varied from craggy hillocks to undulating dunes; and on the seaside there were occasional beaches and spas, but visibility was poor because of haze.  The Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at 1400 ft below sea level, has visibly lost water and Israel’s government has plans to pump some in to restore its level from either the Mediterranean or the Red Sea.  We did not stop to take a dip because I had already done that on the Jordan side years ago.  We stopped in Masada to walk through the ruins of Herod’s and Flavius’s palaces atop a hill, the site of the last stand of the Jews against the Roman legions where the remaining Jewish fighters committed suicide rather than surrender.  We could see the Legion’s camps below but the haze obscured the further view. 

View from Masada

We continued south through the Negev desert to Eilat on the Red Sea, passing a sign for Lot’s Wife, who in the Bible story, having been warned not to look back on burning Sodom, did so and was turned into a pillar of salt. At a rest stop for lunch I had a tasty Sabich, a local sandwich made with eggs and eggplant, at Aroma, a café chain.  Eilat is a substantial town with many resort hotels hugging the sea.  On its east, the Jordanian resort Aqaba is visible, and on its west, the Egyptian resort Sharm-el-Sheik is a little further south.  Driving through 200 miles of desert, I wondered what it was that Jordan, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinians have been fighting about for 70 years.  A visit to my friend’s daughter and her family was the main reason for coming to Eilat, but we enjoyed swimming and lunch at Bar Beach and an evening drink at Moshe Beach, watching the sunset colors on the desert hills behind Aqaba.  The beach was stony so rubber shoes would have helped getting in and out of the water, but once in, it was clear and warm, wonderful for swimming.  

Sunset at Eilat and Aqaba

I took an early morning short flight from Eilat to Ben Gurion airport where I picked up a car from Hertz and set off for the north of Israel and Galilee.  Avner had emailed me a detailed itinerary, but I was unable to cover it fully because my GPS was not connecting consistently.  Although frustrating, I got see more places and talk to people after asking for directions.  In Haifa, I stopped to see the Baha’i Gardens.  Driving towards them from the highway, they appear as a broad rectangular green strip rising up the hill cut in half by steps and bordered by beds of colorful flowers.  I parked near the entrance at the bottom and decided to take a bus to the mid-level quite high up, and walk down.  When I got up there, I found the garden closed to visitors.  I trudged back down to the main entrance and was able to walk up just two levels that were allowed for visitors.  From photographs, I realized it wasn’t enough to get the full flavor, but I did get a taste.

I managed to find the old city of Akko and my hotel in it surprisingly easily.  It was early evening and I had time to walk through a section of the old town to the see young people walking along the shore listening to Arab music from a loudspeaker with the sun setting over the sea.  Later, I walked to the main square and randomly picked a restaurant and sat outside for dinner while colored lights came on and music continued to blare. 

Akko

All the famous invasions into the region through history also came to Akko.  Some of the rich detail is displayed in mixed media (video, textile, mosaic and print) in the Knight’s Halls, imposing stone structures built eight centuries ago.  They connect to a tunnel leading to a bazaar and then to the underground passageway called the Templar’s Tunnel that leads to the sea.  Above ground, I walked along the city wall to visit the Wall Museum that exhibited artifacts and furnishings mainly from the Ottoman period and Okashi Art Museum devoted to works a painter by that name who lived in Akko.  

Leaving the coast, I drove towards the Sea of Galilee through greener, hilly terrain and found my hotel close to the shore in Tiberias, a city named after the Roman emperor.  Nearby, Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187 and the Egyptian Mamluks decisively defeated the Mongols in 1260, their first ever loss.  Earlier my friend had mentioned that a smidgen of Chinese ancestry popped up in her DNA analysis.  I wondered if that started here. 

Although seeped in Jewish history, this area is popular for Christian tourists as well because of Jesus’s ministry around Galilee.  I started my tour at the northern end and worked my way south back to Tiberias.  At Capernum, which was Jesus’s base and where he recruited his first disciples, the archeological site, on a small hill overlooking the sea, has a synagogue and churches; the Mount of Beatitudes, with a great view of the sea is where he delivered his sermon on the mount; Tabgha nearby is where he multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed his listeners; and Magdala, the birthplace of Mary Magdalene, has an archeological site of an ancient synagogue and marketplace where frescos show Greek and Roman influences.  It also has a modern church with a model boat at the alter to commemorate Jesus preaching from a boat. 

On the next morning, I drove up the mountain at the north end of the sea to Safed for a short visit, walked around its old town and up the long flight of stairs that divide the artists and Jewish sections of town towards the citadel to get a view of Galilee, but what may have been spectacular was shrouded in clouds.  I stepped into a few galleries, but the paintings and statues were tourist kitsch and expensive as well.   Driving down and around the sea, I took a detour to Ramot where my hotel’s receptionist told me that I would find a good winery.  Although it was fairly remote, because of my eagerness to visit a Galilee winery, I persevered only to find out that the winery had closed a few years ago.  

Disappointed, I drove south to Beit She’an, where I was not disappointed at all.  Settlements there go back to the fifth millennium BCE, but the ruins are mainly of the Romans and Byzantines who started building there in the 1st Cent. CE.  It has a theater, temple, market with a colonnade and a bathhouse, and several Byzantine mosaics.  The site reminded me of Petra, past the Treasury, and Jaresh, both in Jordan. 

Beit She’an

I made my way to Nazareth, a substantial metro area with the largest Arab population of any city in Israel.   My plan to get there early in the afternoon was foiled by the name of my hotel being the same as a school at the other end of town.  I eventually reached my hotel late in the afternoon at the end of a branch-road in the old town.  Anyway, there was enough daylight to walk though the market area to visit the main sights along with many pilgrims: the impressive Basilica of the Ascension, a modern structure built on the site of Mary’s home in legend with an outer wall that has mosaic panels donated by many countries in their native styles; St. Joseph’s church nearby, built in legend on the site of Joseph’s carpentry shop; the synagogue-church; and the ancient Roman bathhouse and Mary’s Well that feeds it with water. 

Tired from a long drive and much walking, I decided to have a take out meal from Tishreen restaurant recommended by the innkeeper.  I ordered eggplant and cauliflower salad and a plate of hummus.  Both were excellent, the first somewhat better than the second, which was almost as good as my first Israeli hummus in Jaffa.  I stored the left-overs in the fridge and had that as my lunch the next day at Ben Gurion Airport where I had a long wait for my flight to London.  My first and last meals were the best local food of my trip. 

Food

I have mentioned a couple of outstanding meals of local cuisine, but I also ate very well on international cuisine because my friend knew of good restaurants. In Tel Aviv we ate at: Tchernihovsky 6, with a Portuguese-Israeli chef where I had an unusual fried Bachalau; Oasis with a Jewish-Mexican chef from San Francisco where we shared octopus carpaccio, Bangkok risotto with soft shell crab tempura, Asian herb sauce, coconut milk and fresh mango, and a fillet of sea bream with a Vietnamese sauce made with shallots, lemon grass, caramel and black pepper; and Dallal in the historic Neve Tzedek district where I had a fillet of sea bass with egg yolk linguine, truffled pasta and saffron cappuccino.  

In Jerusalem we dined at: Orchids where I had a sumptuous fettuccini with a creamy mushroom sauce; and Mona in the city’s center, where we shared a tuna carpaccio, salad with goat cheese, and I had a vegetable risotto, while my friend preferred a sumptuous steak. In Eilat we ate at the Whale where I had grilled sea bass, green curry sauce, pac choi, kale, water chestnut, bamboo, peanuts.  We had Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet’s from Galilee with our meals that were pretty good, with a taste and structure of new world wines. These restaurants would thrive in San Francisco and were at about the same price level

The service at these international restaurants was attentive, sometimes informal and at others formal.  Elsewhere, however, service was gruff at times and non-existent at others.  I stopped to ask a policeman for directions in English and he shooed me away with a hand gesture and told me to “go away, I’m busy”.  At Ben Gurion Airport, although there is a Customer Service counter, effective service was not their strong suit—I got “sorry, I can’t help you” or misinformation.  Both Arabic and Hebrew are harsh sounding languages, which sometimes conveys an aggressive and unwelcoming posture. 

Lodging

I needed hotels for just the last three days of my visit.  Akkotel in Akko’s in the old city, embedded in its ramparts, had thick stone walls that made it look like a small fort. Conveniently located close to the historic sites and the shore, it worked well for my short visit and my modern room was comfortable. In Tiberias, Emily’s Hotel was modern, close to the city center and the road that hugged the Sea of Galilee.  The Al-Mutran Guest House, an old mansion fronted by a square in the old city was close to the main sites, but had an uncomfortable bed, the shower flooded the bathroom, but the manager was friendly and helpful.  Hotels were relatively expensive for the facilities they offered, lesser value than the restaurants.