+972 Magazine » Yuval Ben-Ami http://972mag.com Independent commentary and news from Israel & Palestine Sat, 01 Nov 2014 12:07:55 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.8 The Beaten Path: Fishing for the real at the Sea of Galilee (part 5) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fishing-for-the-real-at-the-sea-of-galilee-part-5/97580/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-fishing-for-the-real-at-the-sea-of-galilee-part-5/97580/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 15:02:13 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97580 In an over-mythologized, pre-imagined land of promise, the Sea of Galilee is a dream waiting to be shattered. Here it is, deconstructed. Part five of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey. 


Ruthie, My girlfriend, hates movie spoilers. Tell her so much as one detail of the plot, any detail, and she’ll pass on the entire film. I joke that even knowing the genre would kill her fun. Actually, it’s worse. We once decided to watch “The Long Goodbye.” While waiting for it to download, I hummed the theme song, and she yelled: “don’t ruin it for me!”

Oddly, the very same Ruthie isn’t bothered at all by travel spoilers, which are my pet peeve. I avoid looking at photos of towns and monuments before reaching them, hoping to view them “afresh,” and I get upset when an image of the site appears on the entry ticket. Ruthie devours guide books, I flip through them only after exploring a bit on my own, for fear of swapping my first impression with somebody else’s.

One place where a travel spoiler does come in handy is the Sea of Galilee, if only because its name alone creates a major false expectation. This is not a sea; it’s a lake that wouldn’t even stick out from the maps of most U.S. states. It is called “sea” because the word, “lake,” or rather its Hebrew equivalent, “agam,” was not yet in use when the Bible was written and compiled. Any body of water was “sea” to the Biblical authors, in the same way as any human settlement, no matter how tiny is a “city.” The term “village” was coined only later.

The Sea of Galilee has a long history of surprising visitors. Poet Rachel Bluwstein, who arrived here early in the 20th century from Russia, expected neither the climate nor the beauty nor the sort of peasant lifestyle she would assume. In one of her finer poems, she questions the very reality of her experience.

And what if none of this had ever taken place
What if I never rose up to the garden,
To work it with the sweat of my brow.

Never, in long, hot days of harvest
Have I burst in song, atop a hay-cart
Never have I dipped in the quiet azure and innocence

Of my Kinneret?

Kinneret is the lake’s Hebrew name, and its mention conjures a well-defined set of associations in the Israeli mind. It was in the Jordan Valley that the first Kibbutzim were founded, and the lake’s shores are revered as a major cradle of Zionism. We identify the lake with Bluwstein on her haystack, not with Jesus. The Israeli school system offers little if any exposure to the stories of other faiths.

For much of the world, however, the Sea of Galilee is all about the man who walked on its waters. For them it may be small by size, but it is spiritually vast. In short, I’m arriving today at a lake that appears in many dreams. All who arrive here — come with a ready idea of it.

What better a recipe for surprise?

Fans of the lord, not of Lorde

I wonder if there is any site along the lake where the two histories meet, and realize that it would be Kibbutz Ginosar. The members of this old-time kibbutz found a 1st century wooden boat on the lake bottom. Their kibbutz soon became the focus of pilgrim traffic, as the boat could very well have been St. Peter’s own. The kibbutz had everything to gain from opening up to Christian content. Today it is home to a large scale visitor center, where the boat is showcased.

To get to Ginosar, I must go through the town of Tiberias. Look at a single historical image of Tiberias, a labyrinthine city of black basalt, and you have yourself a shattered expectation. Old Tiberias was largely demolished following the war of 1948. It was replaced with several large, mediocre hotels and a brutalistic shopping center overlooking an abandoned mosque.

This isn’t the worst of it. Many beaches around the lake are privately owned and charge entry fees. Those that aren’t, especially on the far shore, often get horrifically polluted by careless domestic vacationers. Pilgrim groups seldom see this. They are taken to carefully-maintained Christian sites on the northern shore: Tabgha, Capernaum, and the Mount of Beatitudes. From there they sail to the dock of Ginosar, which is likewise neat. This is probably best for everybody.

Various and diverse groups make landfall on the dock. There’s a South African group, a Danish one, a group of Indians from Kerala and two entire boatfuls of Finns. Another boat is flying a blue flag with a Union Jack at its corner. I expect Australia, but on closer inspection the stars turn out to be red.

Twenty Kiwis enter the visitor center and pause to shop for souvenirs. I chat with them, confessing my love for their musical compatriot Lorde (described here in a recent post). I expect them to be very proud of Lorde, but they seem too devout to favor pop music, regardless of how intelligent and subtle it is. I switch to a question: what was your best experience on the trip so far?

“It would probably be this,” one gentleman from Wellington gestures back to the dock, “the Sea of Galilee.”

“Nice! and what did you like about it?”

“Well, I guess it would be what I experienced here when sailing it,” he points to his heart, “I mean, I didn’t know what to expect when we came.”

Oh! “And what did you expect anyway?”

“I expected this, I guess. I mean, it’s all about worship, isn’t it?”

The Israeli in me is eager to argue. No, it isn’t all about worship! it’s also about poets on hay carts!

I resist the urge. “And so your expectations were met?”


A miracle on the sea of Galilee! An expectation was met. In a land of countless overlaps, the key must be focus. This gentleman sought a specific spiritual experience and found it. He came for Jesus. I came for both Jesus and the kibbutz movement. I cursed myself with eternal bewilderment.

Too many promises

The 2,000-year-old boat is situated behind a wall of dark glass. I walk in and distracting a guide addressing a group in Hebrew, I tiptoe past them to the wreck. It is more impressive and better preserved than I had expected (okay, enough of that). Illuminated displays line the walls, telling tales of its discovery, its physical makeup and possible beginnings.

While pacing about, I eavesdrop on the guide. She is telling a story from the New Testament, in Hebrew. Another miracle! I’m no born-again, but would like for my compatriots to have some idea why that New Zealander likes our country so much.

“They thought he was a rabbi,” she says of the disciples. “They didn’t know he possessed supernatural powers, and when he stepped off the boat and walked on water, they didn’t expect it!”

Now, this is getting to be too much. The thematic rod I picked in order to fish the Sea of Galilee for meaning is working well. There really are expectations everywhere, but what does that mean? What am I supposed to deduct? Would I find just as many expectations, disappointments and surprises had I chosen to write this post about Pensacola?

Just as I struggle with this, the guide says something unexpected. “This isn’t the actual boat, in a sense” she confesses, “None of this is organic matter. The wood was replaced with artificial wax, just as they did with the corpses at the “Bodies” exhibition.

My eyes dart back to the boat. A moment earlier I used an illuminated chart to decipher which planks were cedar and which carob. I was misled. It is all wax.

Which is when the satori arrives. Above all expectations, one is supreme. Wherever we go, we expect the real. This quality is extra elusive on the shores of a lake so over-mythologized, so pre-imagined. Those who put their trust in Christ or in Zionism need very much for this place to be real, and this is why they tend to overlook the absence of historical Tiberias and the state of the beaches.

I, who believes in neither, navigate instead through rough seas of broken and fulfilled hopes. This is the Promised Land, and promises create expectations. It was promised not only to one group, nor in a single sense, and not all promises were kept, to say the least.

Take Rachel Bluwstein’s fate. She stayed a mere four years by her beloved Kinneret, then moved to France and then back to Russia. She did return in 1919, filled with new hope, and joined Kibbutz Degania, but was soon expelled after being diagnosed with Tuberculosis. “You are ill, and we are healthy, so you must leave,” a member of the kibbutz informed her. She wrote the poem quoted above on her death bed in Tel Aviv, far from the Sea of Galilee, a dream that became real, and then turned into a dream again.

Read parts one, two, three and four of ‘The Beaten Path’.

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The Beaten Path: The unholy hierarchies of Nazareth (part 4) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-nazareths-unholy-hierarchies-part-4/97577/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-nazareths-unholy-hierarchies-part-4/97577/#comments Mon, 27 Oct 2014 13:41:31 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97577 If the heart of Nazareth is sacred, its outskirts are very much the opposite. If anything, they provide a perfect example of a system that stubbornly preserves a hierarchy of communities: Arabs below, Jews on top. The third stop on the reconstructed tourist trail.

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami Nazareth

There is a painting by an Italian master, the great Pierro della Francesca, called “Madonna del Parto.” Two angels hold up the folds of a tent in which Mary stands. She is pregnant, wearing a blue gown with a crack in it, just where her belly pokes out the furthest, allowing for a white undergarment to show through.

The eye, when looking at this painting, follows a carefully crafted trail. It first sees the white cloth at the heart of the matter, then moves out to the outskirts, discovers the tent and the angels, and then begins its journey back inwards, to the very center of the painting, to the hint of things to come, to the soon-to-be born son of God.

There is a church by the eccentric 20th century Italian architect Giovanni Muzio. It stands in the middle of the city of Nazareth, and is the only thing most tourist see of the town. The church is concentric. The bottom level of this massive 20th century concrete monster is a large empty space, centered on the grotto of the annunciation and the ruins of three earlier churches that once stood on this site. On the top floor a large hole gapes over that same central point. This is where all eyes are drawn.

Comparing the Madonna del Parto with the Basiliaca of Annunciation would be an injustice to both. I wouldn’t dream of doing that. Instead, I am comparing the Madonna del Parto with all of Nazareth. When architecture says “Look this way!” it’s a good idea to oblige before looking another way, then looking that way again. The same applies to touristic conventions point anywhere.  With your permission, I will explore Nazareth and its church today following the pattern designed by Pierro: Starting from the white glimpse of divine motherhood, moving on to the outskirts, and then moving back in.

City on a hill

In the middle, then, is a large black cone, towering over the site in which a unique encounter between divinity and humanity is said to have taken place. Muzio, who designed the basilica in the 1950s, is just short of being notorious. His most famous building besides this one is a Milanese office building known as “Ca’ Brutta” – i.e. the “ugly house.” He infused the basilica with symbolism; bas reliefs that represent the four elements stretch along the façade, beneath more bas reliefs that represent the four Apostles. Repeating triangles are meant to recall the A and M of Ave Maria. The entire cryptic code would take days to explore, but as promised, we are looking outwards.

Nazareth is situated in a natural bowl, a crater of sorts, encircled by Galilean hills. It is rimmed by another city – “Nazareth Illit” or “Upper Nazareth,” a town conceived at the same time as the church. Nazareth Illit is a serpentine. It winds around central Nazareth and its northern neighborhoods, yet it is not a suburb per se, as it was designed to serve a different ethnicity.

Historical Nazareth is a mixed Muslim and Christian community. Its residents are Palestinian citizens of Israel. Nazareth Illit, meanwhile, was conceived as a Jewish town to counterbalance the Arab one. The towns strategic vantage point, overlooking an Arab town that developed around a lower-altitude spring, recalls the layout of West Bank settlements.

While Nazareth Illit, an industrial town first populated largely by Mizrahi Jews and later by Russian immigrants, is hardly Israel’s answer to Beverly Hills. Nevertheless, it enjoys far better services than Nazareth proper. Up on top there are parks, sidewalks, good education and medical services. Down below, there is hardly any of this. All government functions are situated on the hills, with the monumental regional courthouse overlooking Arab Nazareth from above, in the fashion of Kafka’s “Castle.” The current mayor of Nazareth Illit, unhappy about Arab Nazarenes moving to his more attractive town, has launched various openly racist campaigns against them.

If the heart of Nazareth is sacred, its outskirts are very much the opposite. There is nothing wrong with Nazareth Illit’s residents, and their town truly is a nice place, despite its awkward sprawl around the Arab city. It does, however, provide an example of a problematic system – one that stubbornly preserves a hierarchy of communities: Arabs below, Jews on top. This hierarchy extends further, keeping the Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopian Jews and others from soaring further, into the well-guarded enclaves of Ashkenazi society.

Mission of Burma

The outlaying neighborhoods of Arab Nazareth are a joy. Nazareth is a culinary powerhouse most famed for its sweets, and here is where the secret pastry shops are to be found. Everyone knows baklavas, but I prefer the dark crispy burmas (rolls of baked kadaif noodles stuffed with sugared nuts). I start my day by shopping for a few of these, but not too many. It would be a horrid mistake to kill one’s appetite before lunch in a city that boasts some of the best restaurants in the country, from the famous Diana, which offers an exquisite take on the traditional Palestinian grill, to that secret place where they sell you shrimp in a pita pocket.

Stop. Here I am, the Jewish-Israeli, experiencing a Palestinian city as a mere restaurant. I know Nazareth well enough to identify it as a cultural and political powerhouse. My first exploration of the city came in 2006, when I wrote an article about its bohemian life. Nazareth had a great art house operated by the Israeli Communist Party, ever powerful in the urban Galilee, a good literary circle, a theatre (closed since), and an “author’s house” which combines a library and an art gallery. It was, and still is, yearning for the one establishment that stirs the artistic and intellectual life and keeps a city young: a university. Alas, the Israeli government again and again votes down this initiative.

As the circle narrows into the downtown, the city’s unique religious history is already apparent. The Latin Basilica is hardly the only church worth exploring here. In fact, it isn’t even the only church of the annunciation. The Eastern Churches recognize a different site, where the Greek Orthodox church of St. Gabrial stands. The waters of Mary’s spring, Nazareth’s original source of water, flow at the far end of its nave.

No less lovely is the chapel of Mensa Christy, a small structure roofing a massive rock. Tradition has it that Jesus and his disciples used this rock as a table while picnicking on the hillside. My guess is that it was held sacred long before the most famous Nazarene was born, perhaps before the birth of Judaism. Of all the tourists that visit Nazareth, about 0.001 percent enter the chapel, its petite interior dominated by mystery, the massive key that for years one had to borrow from the neighbors (it is now kept at the basilica). The rest see only the center. That hole in the ground.

This is not a city to be bussed into and out of. It’s a city that deserves at least one night. I am writing this on the breezy balcony of the Fauzi Azar Inn, a guesthouse with an extraordinary story, born of an unlikely cooperation between a Jewish Israeli entrepreneur and a Palestinian woman. In the kitchen behind me, surrounded by huge jars of dried herbs for the guests to brew tea with, sits a German woman who cannot believe that she is leaving tomorrow. She is headed for Jerusalem.

The cloister

Then, as close as one can get, hugging the basilica in the same way a mother’s arm embraces a tender baby, is the most wonderful place in town. It is the cloister enclosing the church’s yard, and it is full of art. Catholic communities around the world sent basilica mosaics and painted tiles depicting the Madonna and child. Each creation reflects something of the culture and essence of its origin. The Irish Madonna is standing in a moor, an Irish church behind her. The Thai Madonna wears a Siamese crown, her shoulder is exposed.

There are more tiles inside the church, along the walls of the second floor. The Japanese Madonna’s shawl is made of real pearls. An image from Benin transcends all familiar notions of the repeated theme. For many people around the world, the first association to the idea of the event commemorated by this church is art. From Fra Angelico to Leonardo da Vinci, the greats loved to paint the angel’s arrival at Joseph and Mary’s home. Today, in the heart of Nazareth, and despite all faults of the building, art is triumphant. It is art that says the final word. Art holds ajar the flaps of the tent, allowing us to look in both directions.

Read parts onetwo and three of Yuval Ben-Ami’s series, “The Beaten Path.”

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The Beaten Path: Baha’i Haifa, Banana St. and the ultimate Other (part 3) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-bahai-haifa-banana-st-and-the-ultimate-other-part-3/97525/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-bahai-haifa-banana-st-and-the-ultimate-other-part-3/97525/#comments Tue, 21 Oct 2014 15:59:03 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97525 From afar, the flight of the fancy complex and the boxy city appear rather harmonious. It is upon close inspection that they are revealed to be made up of entirely contradicting notions. The second stop on Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey to deconstruct Israel’s well-worn tourist trail is something of an exception, in every sense of the word. Welcome to Haifa’s Baha’i Gardens.

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami Haifa

The view from the Baha’i Gardens (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Osnat had an interesting experience on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. It happened when she came to visit the famed Baha’i Gardens: an astounding pillar of greenery rising up from Haifa’s port district, crowned by the golden-domed Mausoleum.

The group climbed down the higher tiers of the garden, descending toward the Tomb of the Bab – the Baha’i faith’s major prophet. There are 18 tiers in all. They reflect the pillars of faith as described by the Bab, and also provide a fairly nice framework for a guided tour. A basic introduction is given at the top, with a splendid view of the bay. A few steps down, features of the garden can be pointed out, and one or two tiers later it’s time for a Q&A session.

Osnat asks: “So say I would like to become Baha’i, how would I go about it?”

This was a real conversation killer. The tour was in Hebrew, and Jews are deeply sensitive about proselytizing, while the Israeli state frowns on it severely. Consequently, all religions besides Judaism practice extreme care not to offer a pathway to the light. Osnat says she heard the group fall uneasily silent. Some may have suspected that she was “planted” to bring up the question. The guide had to quickly make clear that this is not the case. “The Baha’is do not accept Israeli converts,” she said, “so as to not meddle with the already complex fabric of this country.”

Fair enough. To the best of my knowledge, Osnat has no real inclination for becoming Baha’i (she beautifully described her very real journey of identity as a second generation Russian-Israeli here). She is, however, an authentically curious person. And so a few tiers down, on the central platform of the garden surrounding the tomb, she came up with an even more risqué question:

“There are all sort of stories about things that are inside the mountain,” she said, “Some people say they keep rocket launchers there. Where do you think these stories originate?”

This would have been more easily answered had there been nothing inside the mountain. But a television exposé released nearly a decade ago showed the mountain below the gardens to be largely hollow. The producers obtained footage of a large scale auditorium and something resembling a supermarket.

“It’s a shelter,” the guide explained, She added that “people have wild imaginations,” that she has heard many conspiracy theories and that some people believe the Baha’is keep live dinosaurs in subterranean caves.

The mystery component

I muse on this anecdote as I ride the train to Haifa. It provides a fine key for unlocking the second stop of the journey. To the naked eye, the Baha’i complex in Haifa is first and foremost a breathtakingly beautiful place, but there’s so much more to it. It is also an extraordinary study in “otherness” within the Israeli and Palestinian framework. It is a bastion of the ultimate outsider, one that forces us to reevaluate our own identities.

The Baha’is are Middle Eastern but they are neither Palestinian nor Arab. The religion originated in Iran and the aesthetic of the Haifa gardens, as well as those in Akko, betrays the love of symmetry found in Persian gardens. The Baha’is are also Western but they are not Ashkenazi-Jewish, nor is their presence part of a global consumerist culture. When we meet one, he or she is often American. The Haifa complex, complete with a library and a conference hall, is strongly reminiscent of Salt Lake’s Temple Square or the Boston headquarters of Christian Science.

Then again, when do we ever meet one? The elders of the faith forbid Baha’is from living in the Holy Land, so as to prevent them from getting involved in its religious wars. The guides are most frequently not Baha’i, though the guards are. My only real conversations with Baha’is took place abroad. It was overseas that I learned of their religion’s tolerance for all other faiths (apart from atheism), its unique history, the plight of Baha’is under the Islamic regime in Iran and more.

Those who are absent can only be seen as a mystery, and every visit to this embassy of a nonexistent country is an attempt at cracking the mystery a bit further. The train arrives at Haifa’s waterfront and I take a bus to the mountaintop, hoping to make it to the noon English-language tour, which is the last of the day. Unfortunately, my new status as a tourist seems to be getting to me and I find myself on the wrong bus.

I call Ruthie, my girlfriend, to moan. “If you’re only five minutes late, they’ll probably let you join late,” she suggests.

“Do you think so? I think they’re pretty tough.”

“Who knows. It’s in Israel, maybe they won’t start on time anyway.”

Yes. The “others” are so foreign that we don’t even know by what sense of time they function.

I end up arriving 20 minutes too late. Past the locked gate is a member of the staff, a Palestinian citizen of Israel. I ask her if I may join the tour in the middle, and mention that I am working on a series dealing with tourist attractions in the Holy Land.

“No you may not join the tour in the middle,” she says, “and you may not write anything about the Baha’is without permission of the Baha’is.”

“You know,” I smile, “the rule of the thumb is that so long as libel is not involved, a journalist may write about any group or organization freely.”

“Not the Baha’is,” she states firmly.

Very well. I walk away. The topmost tier may be visited without a guide, and the same goes for the shrine of the Bab itself. I take some photos at the top, then follow the streets down to the temple, only to find out that it is already inaccessible. The opening hours of the Baha’i grounds are even shorter than that of a typical Israeli government office. I come to wonder whether the Baha’is consciously preserve their status as mysteries through unwelcoming policies such as this, or whether being a mystery in this land is such a bad idea in the first place.

How Banana Street came to be

For want of a tour or a community to engage with, I take in as much as I can of the gardens’ extraordinary aesthetics, especially enjoying the large-scale stone eagles that overlook the steps. The bones of the Bab were brought to the Holy Land in 1909, the same year the first kibbutz was established. A decade or so later, Zionism began to adopt modernist aesthetics, and it is modernism that defines today’s Haifa.

Interestingly, when viewed from afar, the flight of the fancy complex and the boxy city appear rather harmonious. It is upon close inspection that they are revealed to be made up of entirely contradicting notions. Looking down toward the port and the neighborhoods at the foot of the Carmel Mountain, I am reminded of an incident in which these notions clashed.

It happened sometime during the 1990s when the city of Haifa decided to renovate the “German Colony,” a lovely strip of stone dwellings built by the Templars — a German Christian society that settled many corners of the land in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

When the Baha’i establishment caught wind of this, they approached the municipality with a request. It turns out that the street running between the German Colony’s houses points almost directly from the tomb of the Bab to that of Bahá’u'lláh, the faith’s holiest figure. Bahá’u'lláh is buried in the city of Akko, across the bay. It would only take a slight shifting of the street, a 10-degree shift to the east, in order for a symbolic finger to point precisely from the tomb of the prophet to that of the messiah.

Sorry, said the city of Haifa, we are not shifting a street that is part of a coherent grid and is lined with historical buildings. As a matter of fact, we are not shifting any street.

I had the pleasure of interviewing a member of the city council on the issue, for the sake of my book, Wonderland, an exploration of oddities in Israel. The council member said that she does not recall a more demanding negotiation in all of her years in office. The Baha’is wanted their finger and were not taking no for an answer. The compromise that was eventually reached is either absurd, genius or both. The street was lined with roundabouts and at each roundabout it shifted ever so slightly, invisibly, to the east. The final tilt comes up to less than one degree, but if this newly-formed arch were to extend across the bay, its tip would touch the resting place of Bahá’u'lláh.

Say what you will of this country. Along a single axis, extending down a single mountain, it gives you a banana shaped street, a mountain of live dinosaurs and the most beautiful gardens west of Isfahan, so much devotion and so many potential misunderstandings.

Read parts one and two of Yuval Ben-Ami’s series, “The Beaten Path.”

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The Beaten Path: The Western Wall as military parade grounds (part 2) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-the-western-wall-as-military-parade-grounds-part-2/97518/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-the-western-wall-as-military-parade-grounds-part-2/97518/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 21:08:11 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97518 It’s still beautiful and moving, but recent decades have done something strange to the ‘Kotel,’ our first stop along the deconstructed tourist trail. What happens when a site is the object of both religious longing and military identity?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami

(By Yuval Ben-Ami)

There are so many advantages to not being a tourist. For one, I know the best way to get to Jerusalem from Tel-Aviv. Busses only reach the main terminal, which is located on the western outskirts of town and requires a further trip by the light rail. The Sherut minibuses, however, go all the way to the city center, a mere five minutes’ walk from the Old City’s ramparts and the beauty therein.

I actually hop off earlier, because, not being a tourist, I know a good little hole in the wall Mizrahi restaurant in which to stop for lunch (“Ta’ami” on Shamai st. Their menu hasn’t changed since 1957). Not being a tourist, I also know a shortcut, so within 15 minutes I make it all the way from the restaurant to the Western Wall, and walk my very full stomach through the metal detector.

From this point onwards, however, I would much rather be a tourist.

The religion of longing

It’s perfectly alright for a historical site to come with baggage. One would be hard pressed to find one that isn’t in this country. Still, I’m a little more sensitive when it comes to the Western Wall. I guess I just deeply love it. It is an authentically Jewish symbol, and I love Judaism.

I love Judaism for the same reason I love the blues. Picture the cliché of an old timer blues musician, taken to an extreme. He’s poor, he’s blind and he’s the victim of a severly racist system. His girl left him and his drinking habit won’t. What does he do with all that? He makes art, beautiful art. Here is what Judaism has been for over two millennia: a creative response to a being extremely unlucky.

There once was a religion that centered on a temple, where sacrifices were performed by priests. The last and finest of those temples was destroyed in 70 AD and left the people irrecoverably scarred. Rather than die out, the Jewish nation reinvented its practices, moving them into the synagogue and the home. The new Jewish religion focused on the very sense of grief and longing, as well as the hope for a mystical undoing of the disaster. It expressed this by poetry and prayer, and a broken glass at each wedding.

The sole and humble ruin left of the temple became an important symbol. It is not even a piece of the temple itself, but a shard of a retaining wall. Herod the Great put four such walls around the hill, in order to reshape the temple’s natural pedestal into a massive shoebox-shaped structure.

Over the years, more retaining walls came to be exposed in excavations: a southern one and an eastern one, as well as a much more vast stretch of the western one. However, none received the same degree of attention and reverence as the portion of the wall that remained visible over the centuries. It is the very modesty of the wall that made it what it is. A good blues tune has four verses and is accompanied by a single guitar.

Enter the red berets

It’s still there, and is mind blowing. The enormous stones tower over the pavement. Doves flock among bushes that have taken root among the cracks. Still, something is missing, something crucial: that modesty.

The temple may be in ruins, but it is in Israeli hands. Since June 1967 and Israel’s conquest of the city, the Wall has become an Israeli national symbol, and by extension, a military symbol.

Military symbols need square footage. Until 1967, the houses of old Jerusalem nearly reached the wall. This was the city’s “Moroccan Quarter,” home to a Muslim community. The neighborhood was knocked down to make room for an enormous plaza. I’ve never gotten a straight story about the fate of its residents, where they went or what kind of reparations they received, if any.

The plaza, a fan of white tiles that spreads out from the wall itself, is maintained by The Western Wall Heritage Foundation as a de-facto Orthodox synagogue. The area nearest the wall is split by gender, while the larger part of the plaza, to the west, is a tightly watched territory. Writing and photography are banned on the Sabbath, the men’s and ladies’ rooms are situated about 200 yards apart, and marked by multiple huge signs, to prevent confusion. For hundreds of years, the “Kotel” functioned perfectly well without any gender separation or religious policing. Those days are over.

The complex is secured by Israeli police and all visitors are screened and profiled. There is so much that’s difficult about this structure of control, especially in the disputed territory of East Jerusalem. There are the political issues, such as the closure of the area to the city’s Muslims, which creates a huge “Palestinan-free-zone” situated between the Muslim quarter and contested Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. There are the religious issues, as reflected, for example, in the struggle of progressive Jewish women to pray according to their tradition. There are countless issues, but what troubles me whenever I’m here is mostly the sun.

You see, there is no shade on the plaza, nor a single proper bench on which to sit (save for a low wall at the very back). The place is not at all hospitable to visitors, which makes one wonder: why is it so vast and what in the world is it good for?

For one thing: it is good for military ceremonies. Thousands of soldiers are brought here every year following their various training programs to solemnly swear their allegiance before the wall. The ancient wall sees more weapons than any other wall around, besides perhaps Jeruslem’s more recent famous wall – the concrete one.

A symbol of tender emotions was turned into a symbol of might. To many Jews, this is the fulfillment of an aspiration. Zionism saved the Jewish people, some would argue — but there is a cost.

The postcard project

For 2,000 years the Jewish people longed for the temple. Today I find myself today longing for the longing. No ceremony is held before me in the plaza, yet nearly everyone present is in uniform. Ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem appears to be taking an inter-holiday break; the tourists are elsewhere and no bar mitzvah drums are beating at the moment. I have arrived at the parade grounds of a military base.

I pass a rare group of civilians: a family of Orthodox Americans, and overhear the mother instruct: “Don’t go to the Arab Souk!”

The soldiers themselves are all members of the artillery corps, here on an educational excursion. A few are training to become guides themselves and take other soldiers on tours. This is only the second site they visit, the first being Independence Park in the heart of West Jerusalem.

I ask what they learned there, and am again struck by how young these soldiers are.

“The instructor said something…” one mumbles, “Hertzl met the Sultan there, no, the Kaiser, something like that.”

“That’s interesting. Did she mention the fact it used to be a Muslim cemetery?”

The soldier mumbles something that could work either as a yes or a no. I decide to let him be. The Wall is enough of a site to deconstruct in one day.

A few feet away, a tourist is shooting a group photo of about 20 soldiers, all of whom are holding up postcards. The soldiers tell me that the tourist is named Sara or Sarah, and that she presented the cards as a gift. I follow her to the next group of soldiers. She explains to them that she is a long time European traveler who is deeply fond of Israel, and particularly of the IDF.

“I asked people around the world to send me postcards addressed to you, to Israeli soldiers,” she explains. “People around the world don’t know what you are going through. They know nothing about the kind of love and mutual support that you share. You are beautiful in the heart, so don’t believe the blah blah blah the politicians say. Stand strong and be proud,” she says as she hands the postcards around.

I wait to speak to Sara and learn more about her and the project but there’s no shade and it’s getting too hot to bear. She is too engaged with the soldiers to be disturbed. I sense that she is close to tears. She is having a religious experience, and as I wait, I realize that I have just witnessed the Wall go full circle: from a place where god is worshipped to a place where the military is worshipped.

Of course, Sara is not the first to arrive here with letters. The most well-known tradition attached to the wall is that of sticking notes with prayers and wishes among the stones. Many people send notes with friends or family who are traveling here, to be folded and placed in the cracks on their behalf. There’s a certain beauty in seeing letters delivered here into human hands instead of into stone cracks, and I can’t help but ask myself: has the wall, that powerful symbol of the Jewish nation’s unrequited love for god, indeed become unnecessary? Should we stop longing? Have we arrived?

Is our destiny truly war?

Read part one of The Beaten Path, ‘An introduction, or how to ruin a good story’

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The Beaten Path: An introduction, or how to ruin a good story (part 1) http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-an-introduction-or-how-to-ruin-a-good-story-part-1/97503/ http://972mag.com/the-beaten-path-an-introduction-or-how-to-ruin-a-good-story-part-1/97503/#comments Wed, 15 Oct 2014 21:07:18 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97503 In a new series of adventures, travel writer Yuval Ben-Ami sets out to deconstruct the Holy Land’s most famous and heavily trodden tourist attractions. To begin, he deconstructs the entire country.

Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami 13 mhuzak

(By Yuval Ben-Ami)

The Holy Land has no history. I mean it. It is a land without any history at all, insofar as “history” can be said to describe what is past. The wheels of history keep turning, of course, but the past, you will agree, is what most people mean by the word, especially when they travel. Rarely will someone roll into a town and say: “I’m here for the history. Where is your newest high-tech industrial park?”

In the conventions of tourism, history is what is over, and here nothing is over. Wars fought five millennia ago are still being fought. Old beliefs die hard. It is also a land without archeology. Where there is a ruin, people weep over it; where an ancient monument stands, it stands shrouded in controversy.

True, we have managed to encircle a few sites with fences and we demand entry fees, creating the semblance of touristic normalcy. But more often than not, even those sites are still in the midst of their own stories. Ethnicities claim them, scholars debate them and clerics denounce their status as attractions. Ideologists demand more excavations. Families are evicted, bulldozers trample walls, stones are thrown, blood flows.

Tourists have little choice but to ignore much of this. A short visit to the country hardly permits dealing with its countless political complexities, scholarly debates and philosophical paradoxes. Almost everything that lies outside the anticipated experience must be overlooked — is overlooked.

This project is meant to cut a small window into that reality. Over the next few weeks, I intend to visit a number of the country’s most famous and heavily trodden tourist sites, and jollily deconstruct them. I will attempt to observe them with an open mind and offer fresh perspectives: an atypical political point of view, a new aesthetic notion. One take may be religious, a second social, a third historical. I’ll even look for new ways to view the geography itself — anything that isn’t part of the typical tour guide gab.

Of course, those gabs vary. Several tourist trails intertwine here, from the Russian or Italian or Nigerian pilgrim trail to that of the Hassidic family to that of the young human rights enthusiast. Some tourists explore only the biblical. Others see nothing but the occupation. Some tourists see a land that is entirely Jewish, others an Arab land colonized by Jews. Very few foreign tourists focus on nature and the environment, but some do. Others are here for family, others still, for the beach.

Filling in the voids of one trail with input from another is deconstruction galore, as contradictions naturally arise. For several years now I have been involved in dual narrative tours, a concept crafted largely by tourism entrepreneur, National Geographic Explorer and +972 blogger Aziz Abu Sarah. On these tours, which feature both Israeli and Palestinian guides and shift between the Kibbutz and the refugee camp, I have learned just how constructive such deconstruction can be.

There’s no point in ruining a good story, unless you ruin it with an even better story. In the end, both stories are one’s own to contemplate. Emerging from this country confused makes so much more sense than believing that we’ve figured it out. It is a land full of stories, contradicting stories, and we would be fools to suffice with preconceived notions — to miss out on its mind boggling complexity.

Great thinkers such as Barthes and Baudriard have produced works of philosophical travel writing. I never studied contemporary thought and my knowledge of such works is sporadic at best. I am not even sure whether my use of the word “deconstruct” is legitimate, so don’t expect a scholarly analysis rich with references. These here are the local layman’s reflections.

Finally, I may appear aloof at times, and indeed, I may already have. In truth, I am humbled by tourists and their fresh point of view. Mine is as old and worn as the reception desk of a fading three-star hotel. I may be cynical about tourism itself at times. The concept of selling the world as a consumer product does baffle me, but I also believe in tourism deeply.

I believe that sharing with the world the beauty and power of this land is the true key to solving its many problems. We all have everything to gain from making Israel and Palestine attractive to visitors, and nothing would make it more attractive than peace and justice. Ultimately, this land without any history has one great resource from which to draw: history. Its various sites are unmatched, which is exactly why they deserve that we explore them openly.

Read part 2 of The Beaten Path, ‘The Western Wall as military parade grounds’

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WATCH: The boy who put equality back on the agenda http://972mag.com/watch-the-boy-who-put-equality-back-on-the-agenda/97346/ http://972mag.com/watch-the-boy-who-put-equality-back-on-the-agenda/97346/#comments Sat, 04 Oct 2014 19:45:43 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=97346 Reuven (Rubi) Rivlin did what no other Israeli leader is doing. He heeded the call of a tender Arab boy – and followed him in support of tolerance and equality. This is how George Amireh and Rivlin pose an alternative to an entire society,

We were presented with a pleasant surprise this week from the Presidential residence in Jerusalem: A video of Rubi Rivlin and a boy from Jaffa named George Amireh sitting together and silently presenting, through placards, a message of tolerance and denouncement of bullying. Amireh recently became famous for producing a similar video, in which he used the same Bob Dylan-like method to expose a series of harassments he is subject to at his school. The video with Rivlin is a re-enactment and continuation of the original video’s success. (To turn subtitles in video on, click on icon on the bottom right bar, to the right of the clock.)

A few positive things stand out: Amireh wasn’t necessarily suffering from racism. He was attacked for being a boy with gentle mannerisms and a soft voice, for which he was labeled, among other things, a “koksinel” (derogatory Hebrew word for transvestite). This issue isn’t highlighted in the video, resulting in a confluence of struggles against various forms of discrimination. Amireh confronts the camera not as an Arab but as a human being, though in the context of our society he is obviously facing it also as a Christian Palestinian Arab from Jaffa (if I am mistaken and he’s a descendant of Slovakia’s Jewry, correct me).

Harassing an Arab and harassing a “koksinel” derive from the same place that breeds misogyny, hatred of Mizrahim (Jews of Arab descent), hatred of refugees and migrant workers and hatred of Orthodox Jews – if only to name a few – which all feed into the dehumanizing of the occupation and the siege on Gaza. It is this infected place that needs treatment. Tolerance is exactly what this country requires, and up until the notably loquacious Rubi Rivlin took the presidential seat, no one bothered to spread the word; not the previous president, the part lover, and certainly not our prime minister, who promotes fine values such as “revenge.” I almost could not believe it when Rivlin held up a poster reading “equality.” Equality!!! Forget tolerance, equality! Try to imagine someone in the government speak of equality, a value which the State of Israel expunges from our memories on a daily basis.

The video received a variety of criticism. Why do the sentences start on the left and end on the right? My guess: Because the staff at the presidential residence has a background in communications and they know that it’s more eye-catching. In fact, apart from the sentimental soundtrack, the video is worthy of praise. The way in which Rivlin and Amireh carry out the same exact gesture makes them comparable and highlights what they share in common, not in word or declaration, but in action. We already managed to forget that such a mode of communication exists. The use of Amireh’s model emphasizes the fact that he is proactive, who is demanding respect in his own way. By impersonating George Amireh, the president gives the boy’s initiative the respect it deserves.

“Koksinel” versus ISIS

Rivlin was impressive in a previous speech to the nation, in which he tied the murder of Mohammad Abu Khdeir and the murder of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank by referring to them as “our children.” Uniting Israelis and Palestinians rhetorically is necessary and admirable, but a certain degree of caution is required. Concepts of unity in this country have always been dictated according to the conditions that the hegemony finds suitable. The rule is: You can be one of us – as long as you conduct yourself like us and yield to our dominance.

As demonstrated in this video, Hebrew is the only language used, and the mention of “our country” therefore seems a set stipulation: tolerance yes, but within the confines of the status quo. George Amireh’s original video was also restricted to Hebrew. However, it conveyed only one dimension of aggression. Should the presidential video not have incorporated Arabic as well? Why not?

It might well be that the idea came up and was abandoned, perhaps out of fear of criticism. It’s a shame. On the other hand, the video resonates with the experiences of so many other communities in this country, that even the engorged security budget wouldn’t suffice to hire enough translators. It involves the worlds of Amharic, Russian, Tagalog and Yiddish speakers as well. Of toddlers who cannot yet read and comprehend the words, and of the blind who cannot see them. Blessed are those who will take on themselves the production of subtitles in various languages, and let us all hope that in the future the Presidential Residence will realize how indispensable the issue is.

One more statement on Arabs and koksinels, and then on Israelis and koksinels: In an era where the bearded men of ISIS are presented to the world as the prototypes of the people of the Middle East, Amireh’s delicate demeanor provides a stark contrast to this dangerous propaganda. Netanyahu just claimed at the UN General Assembly that ISIS and Hamas are equivalent; the Israeli public doesn’t differ between Hamas and others Palestinians and since “all the Arabs are one and the same”, it only makes sense that they are all testosterone-ridden thugs who demolish cities and decapitate heads. Amireh, a young and gentle boy, presents a necessary antithesis to this depiction in his Arabness, and yet the antithesis that he projects on to our self-image as Israelis is no less important.

I’m writing this on a bus, to the boisterous sound of a group of teenagers, just barely teenagers, sitting in the back seat. They compete against each other in raised voices and coarse language, boasting in the revulsion they experience towards their studies, conversing in military jargon (“Fuck man, I’ll tear you to pieces”). If the world is ISIS, we have no choice but to become even more brutish than ISIS; koksinels, meaning sensitive boys, not to mention young girls, have no room in this back seat. Our society cannot accommodate them.

But it can. Their place is at the Presidential Residence in front of the cameras. Their place is in the videos that reach thousands of viewers. The sensitivity within us must surface, it has to be recognized as heroic, it must triumph. Well done to Amireh, to Rivlin and to all who contributed.

This article was first published on +972′s Hebrew-language sister site, Local Call. Read it in Hebrew here.


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Good Lorde! Now we’re fighting New Zealand! http://972mag.com/good-lorde-now-were-fighting-new-zealand/96476/ http://972mag.com/good-lorde-now-were-fighting-new-zealand/96476/#comments Mon, 08 Sep 2014 13:30:45 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=96476 In the world of Israel’s ‘anti-diplomacy,’ anything is possible — including the extremely improbable.

Maori warriors (Image by Wikimedia Commons)

Once were worriors… soon once more. Maori presentation at an NZ Navy base (Photo by New Zealand Defence Force)

There comes a time in every Israeli’s life when he or she must undertake a great challenge on behalf of the Zionist endeavor. This morning I learned that my country has found itself at the center of a diplomatic debacle with New Zealand, and it appears that I may have to be the one to tie the bungee rope around my waist, step into the ravine of international relations, and resolve it.

First, though, let us ask: how in the world does one run into conflict with New Zealand? It must take so much imagination and innovation to even start to ruffle kiwi feathers. Of course, the French sank a boat in Aukland harbor in 1985. It was the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior, which threatened to temper with the Republic’s South Pacific nuclear experiments. Les Français actually ran a commando operation on New Zealand soil, killing one activist. Indeed, they are known for being avant garde, and that fiasco is up there with Duchamp’s Pissoir.

But how did we, a far more conservative nation, get the New Zealanders mad? We are experts on fighting our immediate neighbors – but they are so far away, and so famously peaceful to begin with. What could we have possibly done to irk them? Or how did they manage to irk us?

It fits right in with most of our famous cases of faux pas; it has to do with refusal to share. In this case: the refusal to share an ambassador. It appears that, in a is not at all unusual arrangement, New Zealand’s ambassador to Turkey also serves as its ambassador to Israel. He is based in Ankara and is in charge of contact with several regimes of the Levant, including Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

As new Ambassador Jonathan Curr arrived in Turkey recently, he was due to present his credentials to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. In addition, he was due to present a letter of introduction to the PA. New Zealand does not recognize Palestine as a sovereign state, hence the lesser ceremony.

Upon learning of the Ramallah engagement Israel cancelled the Jerusalem ceremony and announced that it will not recognize Curr as an ambassador – unless New Zealand appoints a more “minor diplomat” to deal with the Palestinians (who of course always deserve less than we do). Since Israel controls all movement to the West Bank, Curr could literally be barred from handing the letter to the PA.

Wellington reacted with outrage, and a western diplomat explained to the Haaretz daily that, “Israel scored a massive self-goal”. I’ll be the first to agree. For years now, Israel has been dealing with the world in what can only be described as “anti-diplomacy.” Five years ago we gave the Turkish ambassador a short stool to sit on to make him feel short and belittled. A few weeks ago we called Brazil a “diplomatic dwarf” and refused to apologize (President Rivlin finally did, of his own accord).

Are our diplomats senseless idiots, or this this deliberate policy? I would pick the latter. Israel is severing and hurting its ties with as many countries as possible, including historical allies. As a result, the Israeli public feels isolated and huddles around the calming figure of Netanyahu, a solitary companion in a world with no friends.

This is where I come in. I do have a friend in this world besides Netanyahu. Well, of course she’s never heard of me, but I’m a loyal friend to her, ever since first listening to her album “Pure Heroine.” My friends all know that despite my years, I am prodigious New Zealand musician Lorde’s number-one fan between the Jordan and the sea. Not only did I dress up as her for Purim but I translated three of her songs into Hebrew, and sang two of them on IDF radio. The IDF would likely prefer to forget this peaceful incident once the war erupts and we start bombing Nelson.

My adoration for Lorde is indeed such that I am willing to represent all of her nation’s interests in Israel and relieve Curr of his Canaanite duties. I will be more than happy to share my responsibilities with an equally enthusiastic Palestinian Lorde fan, and I know there are many of them out there. Chances are we may set a fine example of diplomacy, one that is far superior to the joke offered by Avigdor Liberman’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  We’ll never be royals, but we can be honorary chargés d’affaires. Why not?

Addendum: Minutes after this post first appeared, my dear friend Michelle Bubis, an Israeli with Kiwi roots and a lover of both countries, reminded me that this isn’t Israel’s first bad brush with New Zealand. in 2004 two Israelis were arrested in Auckland and charged with passport fraud. The Mossad was never openly implicated, but the relationship between the countries suffered and the bad memories linger. Perhaps we are simply jealous of those who dwell in peaceful green islands and bug them as a young boy pulls on the braids of the girl he finds pretty.

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A voice calling in the wilderness: A journey to the ‘Castle of the Jews’ http://972mag.com/a-voice-calling-in-the-wilderness-a-journey-to-the-castle-of-the-jews/91528/ http://972mag.com/a-voice-calling-in-the-wilderness-a-journey-to-the-castle-of-the-jews/91528/#comments Thu, 29 May 2014 18:06:01 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=91528 Five hundred words and three photos from one place. This time: a church in the middle of a minefield, water you can walk on, an international border with no soldiers and a legal limbo that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else.

What is the strangest place in the world? Depends how you define “strange.” In English, one must differentiate between strange, weird, bizarre and my personal favorite: eerie.

If there ever was an “eerie” place in this delusional country between the river and the sea, it can be found close to the Jordan River. In the following photo one can see tourists waving hello at a site called “Qasr el Yahud” (“Castle of the Jews” in Arabic). These women are sitting in the Kingdom of Jordan, but the photograph was taken from the West Bank of the river, under Israeli control.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Two years ago, Israel began granting access to the river east of Jericho, once it realized that many tourists could visit the place Jesus was baptized by simply going through Jordan. There is already a road leading to the river between minefields, and once a year the Greek patriarch leads a procession through it. All that’s left to do is grant access to anyone who wants it, build a parking lot for buses and place a soldier to ensure that nobody walks across the river to the other side.

Yes, I wrote “walks.” There is no need to swim. The depth of the “river” at this point is approximately a meter and is, on average, only five meters wide. It is surrounded on both banks by one of the less predictable views this world has to offer. John the Baptist was, in the words of the Gospel, “a voice crying in the wilderness.” The desert remains, flat and rocky, full of churches removed from any city, town or village. One is made of fortified concrete, while three others have sparkling, golden domes. An onion-shaped Russian dome decorates a large building as if it were uprooted from St. Petersburg and gently placed here.

Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

Another church, near where the buses park, is entirely surrounded by mines. The small, destroyed chapel is surrounded by a rosy, stone wall. Near it are signs that read “beware of mines.” Not a soul has stepped into the garden since the sixties. Its tall, iron gates are locked. The palm trees that used to stand here are now trunks.

Photos from Qasr el Yahud. (Yuval Ben-Ami)

The beauty of a religious soul is its ability to skip over the strangeness and jump right into the water. Like the worshippers at Rachel’s Tomb, who ignore the fact that the place has turned into a bunker at the edge of a narrow fjord in the shadow of the separation wall, the white robe-wearing pilgrims immerse themselves in rancid water, filled with sewage and waste. Girls from the religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva stare at them from the bank of the river (according to tradition, this is where the water split in two and the Israelites followed Joshua to the promised land), while American Protestants singing and guitar accompaniment fill the air. “Michael, row the boat ashore,” they croon, while those sitting on the wooden deck in the kingdom across the river respond: “Hallelujah.”

To me, this is the eeriest thing here, this echo coming from another country. The soldier patrolling the border is nowhere to be seen today, and his Jordanian counterpart is missing too. It seems so simple to cross the river, yet it is forbidden. Should the soldier appear out of nowhere, it could end in shots being fired. An imaginary line in the shallow area of  the river and a keen sense of danger keep us at a distance. For me, the Israeli who cannot cross Allenby bridge, reaching the other side means spending many hours driving and waiting, as well as hundreds of shekels for visas and customs. Once it was totally inaccessible. Perhaps one day it will be so once more.

More strangeness: the line in the water is not the internationally-recognized border. Jordan does not recognize Israel’s control over the West Bank, and the Temple Mount still appears on the former’s currency. Even according to Israeli law I am not in Israeli territory. So where am I? Which inaccessible place are these women waving at? Nowhere? To whom are they responding “Hallelujah?” Without answers, I wait in the heat for Acheron, the the river of souls, to sail my soul on its raft toward a more logical reality.

Read this post in Hebrew on Local Call.

More journeys by Yuval Ben-Ami:
Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya
Bringing the Green Line to Sir Paul McCartney

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Between elegance and desolation: A short journey to Qalqilya http://972mag.com/between-elegance-and-desolation-a-short-journey-to-qalqilya/90580/ http://972mag.com/between-elegance-and-desolation-a-short-journey-to-qalqilya/90580/#comments Wed, 07 May 2014 04:52:41 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=90580 Eight hundred words and three photos from one place. This time, the city from which the muezzins sing over the rooftops of the settlements of Kochav Yair and Nir David.

Here is the closest thing that I will have to a Passover vacation: a hop for one morning to a city that is not especially attractive, though pleasant, smiley and delicious. The separation wall, hated by me as it is, split me from my obligations. So I submitted to sweet tea and pastries (sinning with hametz), to the atmosphere in the street, and to the interaction with this close, yet far away place.

Actually, it’s inaccurate to say that Qalqilya is unattractive. It may not feature many fine buildings but it does have, for instance, wonderful greenery: both banana trees and large patches of grass – two things one won’t find in the better known, mountainous Palestinian urban sprawl. It’s fascinating to peek into the small orchards in each home’s courtyard.

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A courtyard in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

The city boasts an elegant topography: it possesses patience atop a moderate hillside, and its slope fans the densely populated urban cluster. The streets intertwine interestingly, the market is cute, and the similarity of several of the neighborhoods to parts of Jaffa and south Tel Aviv makes one wonder. “Yesha” [the Hebrew acronym for the biblical names of the occupied territories, Judea, Samaria and Gaza, also meaning “salvation”] – is truly here, for better and for worse.

>Read Yuval Ben-Ami’s ‘Round Trip’ travel series through Israel and Palestine

The depth of the tranquility found in the side streets, contrasted with the commotion found in the minds, also generates a form of beauty. I was reminded of Ocosingo, a sweet and unique city I visited in Mexico. Both cities are graceful – Qalqilya even more so. Like Ocosingo, Qalqilya is poor. It was once slightly less poor. Residents of the Israeli city of Kfar Saba and other towns in the Sharon region, along with settlers from the area, used to come here to do their shopping. The signs in Hebrew remain; the customers have disappeared. The Second Intifada created a total disconnect; the separation laws and the ensuing threatening red signs, stating, “they will kill you here,” completed it.

Qalqilya became a place that one sees but does not experience. A sort of menacing Emerald City. We may forget most Palestinian cities, but not this one and not Tul Karem, both so close by. This is precisely why it is so interesting to take a closer look at the city, even if only briefly, and even if there is fairly little to see as a tourist. I deliberately avoided the one attraction, the zoo, after passing a small poultry market where I saw a tied-up owl.

A leashed own in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

A leashed owl in Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

It saddened me, and I was not sure I could withstand the sorrows of a zoo in a destitute city. I continued to other sites: the new mosque, the golden dome, the park and the adjacent monuments. And of course the giant wall, the leash that restrains the wild bird that is Qalqilya itself.

The wall seen from Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

The wall seen from Qalqilya (Photo by Yuval Ben-Ami)

Even those who have seen the wall more than once must see it here, five minutes from Kfar Saba, crawling on its belly. Here, the separation barrier’s walls and fences brush up against the actual Green Line, but it tears away from it and encircles the city almost 360 degrees. It leaves only a narrow corridor out of which juts a highway heading eastward. The highway is dominated by an IDF base. It would be no feat to block the highway and complete the circle.

Qalailya is a seaside city that could not be further from the sea. Likewise, there is no city in the world more disconnected from its suburbs than this. In fact, this city has anti-suburbs. Nearly all of the surrounding land has been seized by communities that do not visit it: West Bank settlements on one side and Jewish towns inside Israel on the other. The wall is just one foreign casing.

On the one hand, the wall is almost unseen. A dense row of trees hides it from travelers on Highway 6 inside Israel. In Qalailya itself it can be seen from almost every window above street-level. When one reaches the last row of houses, the soul is confused because the view is seemingly normal. So many cities, from Avila, Spain to Diyarbakir, Turkey, are surrounded by wide city walls enclosing them. It’s just that the wall is usually homemade and less grey. “History hates walls” is written here on a slab of concrete, and it is not entirely true. History actually loves walls; what it hates are blockades, and eventually, sooner or later, they all become history.

Yuval Ben-Ami’s ‘Round Trip’ travel series through Israel and Palestine

Read this article in the original Hebrew here.

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The world’s only ethnic time zone http://972mag.com/the-worlds-only-ethnic-time-zone/81006/ http://972mag.com/the-worlds-only-ethnic-time-zone/81006/#comments Sun, 27 Oct 2013 21:43:25 +0000 http://972mag.com/?p=81006 For the past month, the Holy Land was the only place in the world where time zones are delineated not by geography but by ethnicity. 

World time zones (By Shutterstock.com)

As of this morning, for the first time in a month, all the residents of the Holy Land are living in the same time zone. In late September, the Palestinian Authority switched to winter time, but the West Bank’s Israeli settlers continued living in line with Israel’s clock, which only made the switch today. Thus, for one month, the West Bank became the only place in the world where time is not delineated by geography but rather by ethnicity: different people went about their lives on different clocks, despite the fact that they live in such close proximity to each other within the same territory.

In other words (For the sake of clarifying such strange reality, I add here with thanks a point used in the comments by reader Haifawi) a visitor to the West Bank would be in a different time zone, depending on whether he or she was with Jews or non-Jews.

Settlers today make up over 15 percent of the West Bank population. This means that about every sixth West Bank resident thought an hour ahead of the other five. Drivers passing each other on Route 60 drove in different time zones, depending on to the color of their license plates. Meanwhile, while Israelis on both sides of the Green Line shared the same clock, the Palestinian people was divided in, and by, the dimension of time. Palestinians in Israel and East Jerusalem continued to live according to Israeli time, while Gaza went with Ramallah, switching off daylight savings on September 26.

The lives of West Bank Palestinians who work in settlements or with Israelis, or who have any connection at all with Palestinian citizens of Israel or East Jerusalem residents, became highly complicated. Some of them moved between time zones a few times a day. Many had to wake up at unthinkable hours in order to travel to work across the wrinkle of time. Palestinians who live on one side of the separation barrier and work on the other must anyway calculate the travel time to the checkpoint and the wait at it; this month they were forced to add an extra hour to that.

Ironically, the PA’s early change to winter time was meant to provide synchronicity with Israel. In recent years, Israel’s religious Jewish parties pushed for summer time to end ahead of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, in order to shorten the fast and ease the lives of the faithful. This year, with no ultra-Orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s coalition, the date was changed at the last moment. The Palestinians did not adhere to the change, perhaps fearing that a further Israeli change of heart would force them to switch the date once more, and the bizarre delay was created.

In my work as tour guide, I moved between the two clocks all month. Often I was joined by dozens of tour participants, headed from Jerusalem to meet a speaker in Hebron or Nablus, at an hour on which no one was clear. The experience was annoying at times, funny at others. It was far more tolerable than other phenomena of the occupation, but around these parts we long ago learned to cheer the tiniest changes for the better. Today, with the synchronizing of the clocks, such change has occured: the rate of absurdity dropped by a tick.

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