Are the Jews the Chosen People? Is Israel the Promised Land? I’d have to say Yes. There is something about these people and this land that sets them apart. And yes I do believe that God made an Eternal Covenant with the Jews that is being fulfilled at this very time.
I believe Pope Francis understands this unbreakable bond. His favourite painting is reported to be Chagall’s White Crucifixion, a graphic depiction of the suffering Jew and the link to the Divine.
To be the Chosen People of God carries a heavy responsibility. It requires Jews to act with integrity and justice as an example to all the world. This is especially so here in Israel where the Jewish people have achieved their greatest wish – to be restored to their ancestral homeland.
I do not believe that the Jews in Israel act with integrity and justice. There is a hardness of heart that blocks out the cry of so many, trampled underfoot by those in power. And so I leave Israel with a sense of foreboding, that time is running out.
The last word must go to the Jews’ own modern-day prophet, Bob Dylan. This song, “Not Dark Yet” was recorded in 1997 as part of the “Time Out of Mind” album that won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year. Nearly 20 years have passed and I think these words could have been written with Israel in mind …
“Not Dark Yet”
Shadows are falling and I’ve been here all day
It’s too hot to sleep, time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I’ve still got the scars that the sun didn’t heal
There’s not even room enough to be anywhere
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don’t see why I should even care
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Well, I’ve been to London and I’ve been to gay Paree
I’ve followed the river and I got to the sea
I’ve been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain’t looking for nothing in anyone’s eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
I was born here and I’ll die here against my will
I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can’t even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don’t even hear a murmur of a prayer
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there
Today my friend Ruth Rimon and I set off to find the elusive Gilboa Iris. Every year in early Spring crowds of people head for the hills to see the wildflowers, and in particular the dark purple iris on Mount Gilboa. Israelis just love their wildflowers and in years gone by nearly picked them to extinction. A law had to be passed making it illegal and an education campaign undertaken to change community behaviour. The Society for the Protection of Nature says saving the wildflowers has been one of their greatest successes and has the Gilboa iris as their logo:
Mount Gilboa overlooks the Jezreel Valley to the north and forms part of Samaria in the West Bank to the south. It has been the site of many battles in Biblical times, most famously where King Saul and his three sons perished, causing David to curse thus:
“Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you, neither fields of choice fruits..”
Well fortunately this curse seems to have worn off. The area is a Nature Reserve with a lovely 18-kilometer Scenic Route along the ridge of the mountain with hiking trails, bike paths and picnic spots. It is also popular with hang gliders. Ruth and I headed for the Iris Reserve and saw an abundance of miniature cyclamen amongst the rocks:
As it was the start of March we thought we might be too early to find any iris. But then we got lucky and spotted what must be the first Gilboa iris of the season (and that is quite a feat because people go out searching to be the first to spot one):
It really is the most gorgeous flower, in numerous shades of purple but generally a blackish purple.
Another scenic driving route that I discovered recently also has wildflowers, particularly carpets of red poppies. It is the Swiss Forest Scenic Route near the Sea of Galilee. For anyone coming to Galilee this is really worth finding. It’s not marked on maps as a driving route but just as a bike and walking trail, and even locals that I’ve mentioned it to don’t know it exists. On this map it is accessed just south of the star, by going up road 7677. Half way up the hill is an excellent Israeli Hostel & Guesthouse which would make a great base in the area for people who like peace and quiet (and have a car). Next to the hostel is the entrance to the scenic drive that runs for 6 kilometers along the mountain side to Tiberias, with wonderful views over the lake.
There are some great walking tracks in this area as well. The Poriya Hostel is one of a chain of excellent government hostels throughout Israel that are always well situated and good value. A few tips about staying at the Poriya Hostel:
The best rooms are Nos. 101-106 (top floor) & 201-205 which have balconies looking out over the water.
However, always ask if an Israeli school group is staying at the same time because they are the noisiest thing on the planet. I have known them to run riot all night. If yes, ask to stay in one of the cabins – Nos. 56-58 & 32-36 are best – and be sure to be first into breakfast at 7am.
There can be religious functions held at the Hostel on Fridays and Saturdays.
The greenery on the surrounding hills does not last through the summer so it will be a lot drier then.
And a tip for when you get to the end of the Scenic Route. Take the fork road to the left and continue straight to get to the main highway. If you take the right fork you will be lost in the backblocks of Tiberias for hours.
Last week friends on the kibbutz told me about an International Kabbalah Conference taking place in Tel Aviv, with more than 6,000 people attending from all round the world. Kabbalah is a mystical form of Judaism that has become trendy in recent years with followers such as Madonna, Demi Moore, Britney Spears, Mick Jagger and many others, who can often be seen wearing a red string Kabbalah bracelet. Safed (or Tzfat), a town not far from the kibbutz, is known as the City of Kabbalah and so yesterday on Shabbat I decided to visit.
Safed is the highest town in Israel, spread over hilltops amid pine forests and, on a clear day, with a view of the Sea of Galilee. Jews have been living there continuously for at least 2,000 years and it is one of the Four Holy Cities, together with Jerusalem, Hebron and Tiberias because of the important Rabbinical teachers who have lived there. Its heyday was the sixteenth century when several Rabbis arrived from Spain following their expulsion in 1492, bringing with them Kabbalah philosophy. The newly established Ottoman empire welcomed the fleeing Jews and allowed them to practice their religion in peace.
Basically Kabbalah is a way of interpreting the Torah. The Torah is the law of God as revealed to Moses and recorded in the first 5 books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Kabbalists rely on the Zohar to explain the secrets of the Torah, which is a set of 23 books containing commentaries by eminent rabbis.
Shabbat in Safed is special. Nobody drives a car so the streets are quiet and most of the men are seen wearing a tallit (prayer shawl), or perhaps the Ashkenazi fur hat and white stockings, as they make their way to synagogue. I arrived early at 9am and in many streets in the Old City there were small synagogues (there are more than 20 in Safed) with people gathering for prayer and singing. I didn’t like to take photos, but here are a couple of back views:
I headed for the Ari Ashkenazi Synagogue, built in memory of Isaac Luria who is considered the father of contemporary Kabbala. Known as the ‘Ari’ (lion), he only lived in Safed for 2 years before dying of an epidemic in 1572 at the age of 38. However in that short time many considered him a saint who conversed with Elijah and revived certain traditional Jewish practices. In particular he advocated acts of kindness as a means of perfecting or repairing the world and he placed great emphasis on the observance of Shabbat. Today in Safed it is possible to be invited to a private home for the Friday night meal by contacting the Ascent Kabbala Institute.
The Ari Synagogue is small and unpretentious, seen here on the right:
There are separate entrances for men and women. I joined the women in an upstairs section that was obscured from the main floor by white opaque curtains. It was a small group of about 20 women, in contemporary dress, so I could see they were not Ultra Orthodox. A lovely young woman approached me and offered me a seat. We were able to speak quietly and she explained many things. Her name was Deeshah and I asked her how she felt about being separated upstairs. She explained that the separation was to enable people to concentrate on their prayers which I thought was a reasonable answer. She said that men are obliged to spend more time in the synagogue, praying there three times a day, but women are more spiritual and only need to attend on Shabbat.
I asked Deeshah about non-Jews embracing Kabbalah and the criticism that it is just a superficial fad with no spiritual depth. She said that it could be compared with a person who simply washes their hands because it is required by the Torah and those who know why they are washing their hands. There is no harm in Kabbalah but a proper grounding in the Torah through years of study is of greater benefit.
The singing in the Ari Synagogue was beautiful, at times lapsing into murmuring that reminded me of a charismatic gathering. There was a lightness about the whole experience that made me feel that this Kabbalah really does have something special. At the end a young boy sang and the women peeped through the curtains to catch a glimpse. By 10.30 it was all over and I was so pleased I had come early.
In Safed I saw reminders of the earlier Mameluke and Ottoman periods, restored and put to community use:
It’s nice to see a mosque being preserved and used to support local artists. In Tiberias there are mosques in the middle of town which are fenced off and left to fall into disrepair. It’s interesting to compare these two Holy Towns. In my opinion Tiberias is religious in a heavy way, not particularly friendly or open to outsiders. Safed on the other hand is relaxed and moderate in its religious practice. Kabbalah may well be the secret ingredient. I do need to add that both communities need to improve the living conditions in the towns.
Whilst looking at Kabbalah music online, I came across a wonderful video of a Jewish cantor singing a Prayer for the Dead. No one can capture a sense of mourning quite like the Jews. Here is Cantor Ari Schwartz of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, singing at a 9/11 Memorial on 25 September last year:
For a country that prides itself on being progressive, Israel fails badly when it comes to divorce. The laws governing divorce are based on ancient patriarchal thinking that treats women as inferior to men and ignores the modern right to equality.
Under Jewish law only the husband can seek a divorce and this causes immense suffering to women who no longer want to stay in a marriage. They are powerless to do anything and the courts, both civil and religious, are unable to impose a divorce ruling.
This situation arises because divorce proceedings in Israel are under the exclusive authority of the Orthodox Rabbinical Court. Halacha (Jewish law) applies and this gives sole authority to the husband to grant a get (Jewish divorce). When the husband does not agree to the divorce, or if he disappears, the wife is stuck in the marriage for an indefinite amount of time. Women in this situation are called agunot, which means “chained women”. Living apart from the husband, they cannot remarry, nor can they collect child support or alimony. They cannot even collect welfare payments as single mothers, since they are technically still married.
A poignant movie highlighting the problem caused a stir in 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival. Here is a brief clip of “Get: The Trial of Vivian Amsalem”:
This dire situation is considered one of the great crises in the Orthodox world today. Orthodox women are under enormous religious and societal pressure to conform and to have a large family. When the marriage becomes unbearable they are totally dependent on the husband’s willingness to grant a get. Non-religious women too, who make up the large majority of Israeli Jewish women, are obliged to abide by these religious laws and have no recourse to a civil divorce.
Human rights groups within Israel have been fighting for years to improve the situation. There was an important victory in 2008 when legislation was passed that assets can no longer be used as blackmail by a husband who refuses to grant the get. Until that time thousands of Israeli women were being extorted by their husbands with no protection from the law. The Ultra-Orthodox parties had tried to prevent the bill passing but were soundly defeated. Now the financial aspect of the divorce settlement can be finalised in the civil Family Court even before the giving of a get.
This week in Haaretz there was a front page report about the plight of a ‘chained’ woman, a young scientist who recently completed her doctorate in biology and the mother of two children. For four years her husband has refused to give her a divorce and last month the Supreme Rabbinical Court issued a punitive ruling, instructing him to give his wife a get. It called on the public to avoid the husband until he grants the divorce, invoking sanctions known as ‘shunning’ which the Court said includes not doing business with him, not hosting him in homes, not visiting him if he’s sick, not to allow him into synagogue and certainly not to call him to the Torah or lead prayers, not to greet him or to give him any honour “until he retreats from his stubborness and harkens to the rabbis … and releases her from her chained state”.
The difficulty for the Court here is that ultimately the get must be given of the husband’s free will. If it can be said that the divorce was coerced, then it would be deemed invalid. So the Rabbinical Courts have to tread carefully in imposing sanctions. They do so in the hope that this social isolation will persuade the recalcitrant husbands to divorce their wives. Other available sanctions include confiscation of a passport, suspension of a drivers licence, and restricting bank accounts.
The Haaretz case of the young mother is unusual because the Rabbinical Court allowed the use of social media to ‘shame’ the husband by permitting the publication of his photograph and details of the case. Friends of the wife posted these on Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp and it went viral, reaching the newspapers. It showed that Israelis today are not prepared to tolerate get-refusal.
Head of the Supreme Rabbinical Court, Chief Rabbi David Lau, took other unconventional steps in this case, in addition to allowing the publication of the photograph on social media. He summoned four senior acadamics from Bar-Ilan University and Tel Aviv University and asked them to increase the pressure on the husband, a physicist who earned his doctorate at Bar-Ilan. This proved effective because last week the husband was dismissed from Bar-Ilan and the details posted on Facebook. The wife commented to Haaretz that “I’m not sure that this was the optimal way of going about it, but we had really reached a dead end”. She hoped the social pressure would help in the end because of the high importance her husband put on being regarded as a scholar.
An attorney who heads an activist organisation is not impressed with sanctions such as ‘shaming’. She believes that the Rabbinical Court should not confine itself to compromise but should also consider imprisonment which is an available legal option. She also believes that by publicizing the case on social media, it is a punishment for the children.
One wonders how much longer this archaic divorce system will continue. The sooner there is a separation of Synagogue and State in Israel the better it will be for equality and the protection of human rights. Then perhaps Israel’s claim that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East” may in fact be true.
There’s nothing I like more than a soak in hot mineral springs, so I’m fortunate to be living in a thermal area. Because of its volcanic history, the area around the Sea of Galilee has long been famous for hot springs, with the second largest thermal complex in the Roman Empire at nearby Hamat Gader. I visited there recently, driving about 6 kilometers from the Sea of Galilee to the very edge of the border with Jordan and Syria.
Here is the view driving down to Hamat Gader in the Yarmuk River valley which separates Israel from Jordan:
In the distance is the Jordanian town of Um-Qeis. Over the years it has become a rallying point for Palestinians living in Jordan who travel there to get a glimpse of the Sea of Galilee in what used to be their homeland.
During Greek and Roman times, Um-Qeis was the site of Gadera, a major city on the road going eastwards along the Yarmak valley to Damascus and beyond. It was one of the ten Decapolis cities, possibly visited by Jesus during his travels in the region. The thermal complex was built by the Tenth Roman Legion, comprising 5,000 soldiers, who were posted to the city in the 2nd century AD. It remained in use for 500 years.
In the early 1900’s the Ottomans built a railway from Haifa to Damascus, passing along the Yarmak valley and stopping at al-Hamma village, now Hamat Gader. The service operated from 1905 to 1948 and the old railway station building can still be seen.
Although these Roman ruins have not been fully excavated and restored, those on view look remarkably well preserved for 2,000 years old. In its heyday the spa contained seven pools of varying temperatures:
The pool reserved for lepers had a separate water supply and drainage system. The lepers bathed at night, attested to by the large quantity of oil lamps found nearby.
Next to the ruins is a disused mosque that looks a bit out of place. It belonged to the village of al-Hamma that occupied this site prior to the 1967 War.
Then further along at Hamat Gader is a large and very popular modern spa complex:
People come from far and wide to benefit from the medicinal springs in pools of varying temperatures:
I had been warned not to go on a Friday or Saturday when the place is packed, so chose what I thought would be a quiet weekday. Buses lined the carpark when I got there and every sort of group was gathered in and around the pools, from the old and infirm through to teenage schoolboys. I’ve never seen such a mix of Israelis in one place – Jews, Arabs, including Muslim women in headscarves, Druze. But what amazed me was the lack of inhibition. Men and women, in this diverse religious country, were all in together in various states of undress. Here is one hot pool:
I’m sorry to say that after looking around I decided against going for a dip. The Romans had the right idea of having separate bathing for men and women. And maybe my discomfort at Hamat Gader was partly due to the large alligator farm on the property. 200 crocodiles and alligators may be a fun, added attraction for the kids, but are hardly compatible with a healing spa I would have thought:
More to my liking is the Tiberias Hot Springs & Spa complex which is not so crowded during the week. So mixed bathing is not such an issue. Also I go late in the afternoon when prices are reduced. Its expensive to visit these places, especially as you can’t stay in the hot water for more than an hour I find. Hamat Gader charges $35 adult/$25 senior. At Tiberias Hot Springs its $32/28 and I pay $20 after 4pm. This Spa is just outside Tiberias with a beach frontage to the Sea of Galilee, so you can look out over the water from the pools. As well as three large pools there are dry and steam saunas. Russians seem to be the main clientele, not so surprising because there is a large Russian community in Tiberias. Some people think the place is outdated and needs smartening up, but I enjoy my time there:
I’m really interested in the choice of wheels available to people here in Israel. To get around on the kibbutz, the traditional way has always been on a bike. And whilst this is still a popular option, just about everyone also has a kalinot, which is an electric buggy. These were invented on the nearby Kibbutz Afikim more than 50 years ago, no doubt because of the extreme heat here around the Sea of Galilee during the summer (it is the second lowest place on earth). It’s exhausting getting around and so people of all ages hop onto their buggies – mothers taking the children to school, oldies heading for the clinic, everyone to check the mailbox and pop down to the supermarket.
They come in single seat…
or double seat…
or family size, with a bench on the back…
They can have three or four wheels, with the three-wheelers being easier to turn. During the winter months people still go out, with a zip-up plastic protector…
Downtown in Tiberias I spotted this kalinot outside the supermarket:
Here is a view of the back, with its large storage bin for shopping:
Another kalinot user loading up at the supermarket:
Here is a local making his way up a street on a kalinot:
These electric buggies are not supposed to go on the road. Many accidents happen with drivers not seeing them, but Tiberias seems to tolerate them. Buggies are not registered and no licence is required to ride one.
I guess the kalinot is a smaller version of a golf buggy or an electric car. Costing about $2000 for the single-seater, they are an affordable way for people to get around, particularly the elderly who love the independence they bring. As our population in Victoria ages and the government pushes the policy of keeping the elderly in their own home as long as possible, I can see something like the kalinot having a role to play. For safety they would need to be ridden along the footpath, and at present only people with a disability or chronic illness would be allowed to use one. So a change in midset needs to take place.
Another option are mobility scooters which are becoming increasingly popular as a means of getting around in the UK and US. Kibbutz Afikim makes a fold-up version that older people could carry in the boot of the car and use at places like Chadstone and the National Gallery. Here is Orit at Kibbutz Afikim:
A while back The Guardian published a lengthy article about hostility growing in England because able-bodied people are using electric mobility scooters as an cheap alternative to using a car. These scooters are still regarded legally as medical devices and some people look askance at a person who hops off and goes into a shop. But what is the problem if people are starting to use them as a mode of transport rather than public transport or a car? To quote The Guardian article:
“Over the past decade, the stigma around these vehicles has eroded, and they are increasingly popular with younger people. Manufacturers are responding by trying to take the product away from its staid, slightly mournful medicalised roots and promoting it as a fashionable lifestyle accessory.”
With no tax, licence or insurance requirements, I’d say these electric scooters are a winner. And riding on the footpath should be allowed in the public interest. Here are Chelsea Pensioners moving into the twenty first century:
Yet another option has caught my eye over here. In Akko last week I saw numerous people of all ages whizzing around on electric bicycles:
I’m really tempted to get a fold-up electric bike when I get home. It can be put in the boot of the car and you can go riding all over the place – from along the Yarra to doing the Great Victorian Rail Trail. You can pedal if you want to, so you still get exercise. You just don’t dread the sight of a hill. That’s my kind of bike!
Today I visited two Arab towns in upper Galilee – Ibillin and Tamra – for different reasons.
Ibillin is the home town of St Mariam Baouardy, a young Palestinian woman who was canonised last year by Pope Francis. I was keen to visit her shrine because I had promised my Palestinian friend May in Bethlehem that I would personally go and ask for help. We are having no luck setting up a deal for May to sell Palestinian goods at the kibbutz gift shop and so it is time to seek heavenly assistance. After a lengthy drive to Ibillin, I headed for a large red-domed church that I spotted up the hill and assumed to be the shrine:
However it turned out to be the Mar Elias school campus with its Blessing on the Mountain Church . This I knew to be the home of Abuna Elias Chacour, (Abuna means Father) a well-known Melkite priest, who I had met in Nazareth a few years back. He is quite famous for his efforts in building schools, libraries, community centres and youth clubs throughout Galilee and for his peace initiatives. He has been nominated three times for a Nobel Prize and really deserves one. Here is the school campus that he built:
It has 3,000 Arab students – Christian, Muslim and Druze – from pre-school through to high school, with students coming from more than 40 surrounding villages. There is also a Peace Study Centre that brings together Jewish and Arab students to learn about peace and tolerance. Mar Elias exam results always place the school among the top 10 in Israel, including Jewish schools, and 85% of students go on to University. This is an incredible achievement for the struggling Israeli Arab community and a testament to the years of hard work by Abuna Chacour.
I knocked on the Monastery door but was told by his nephew Michael that Abuna Chacour was in Jerusalem. Michael then showed me inside the beautiful church:
Michael then kindly offered to drive me to the shrine of St Mariam Baouardy because it is difficult to find in the winding streets. It is located at the site of the family home which is no longer standing:
I was surprised and pleased to hear that the Israel Parks Authority paid for all the stonework for the Shrine. Another tick for my employer. I suggested that a small plaque be placed on the wall acknowledging this and Michael said he would pass it on.
For those who do not know of St. Mariam Baouardy, she had the most extraordinary life, filled with miraculous happenings and extreme suffering. She was a lay Carmelite Sister, born in 1846 and dying just 32 years later. Its quite hard to find books written about her. Sister Rita at the Carmelite Sisters in Nazareth gave me a copy of a small book “Mariam, The Little Arab” which they would love to see more widely printed and read. I will see what I can do back in Melbourne. Its not an easy read. What happened to Miriam Baouardy really defies belief. Cardinal Sevin of Lyon said in 1915: “She was, and will remain, unique in the Annals of Christian sanctity.” Sister Rita asked me to say this prayer daily (and I have) – it was given to St. Mariam during an ecstacy:
Holy Spirit, inspire me,
Love of God, consume me,
On the true path, lead me,
Mary, my Mother, watch over me,
With Jesus, bless me,
From all evil, from all illusion,
From all danger, preserve me.
Michael then drove me to the Melkite Catholic Church and showed me the adjoining small Church built for St Mariam. I went in and made my prayer request on behalf of May:
I asked Michael to pass on my best wishes to Abuna Chacour who resigned last year from being Archbishop of the Melkite Catholic Church for the Galilee region. It has been reported in the press that there is a police investigation into sexual allegations against him from a former employee. Michael said that Abuna Chacour is contesting the matter.
From Ibillin I drove to the nearby town of Tamra, a large Arab centre of 35,000 residents. I had arranged to call on Susan Nathan, a Jewish woman who chooses to live there to fight for the rights of Israeli Arabs. She emigrated from England to Israel when she was 50 following a divorce, and has two adult children and two grandchildren back in England.
Susan lived initially in Tel Aviv, with her work in education taking her to Arab towns in the north. She was appalled at what she found and decided to move to Tamra to experience Arab life first-hand. In 2005 she wrote an important book called “The Other Side of Israel: My Journey Across the Jewish/Arab Divide” which sold all over the world. She inevitably upset her Jewish friends and caused controversy.
Susan is now 67 and has health problems, but is totally committed to highlighting injustices she sees being imposed on Israeli Arabs by the Government. I wanted to find out about a second book she was reported as writing but she said she will not be doing another book. She writes for various news outlets and travels overseas to give talks.
She told me she had a big response from Australians and Palestinians living in Australia to her book. She is very keen to come to the Melbourne Writers Festival and wondered if I could help. I will probably put her in touch with Sonja Karkar who is the go-to person in Melbourne for all things Palestinian. I asked if things had improved much in the 10 years since she wrote the book. She said there are 500 laws affecting the welfare of Arabs and the inequality is still entrenched. But there is an organisation now called Adalah that is very strong. It is the legal body for Palestinian Arabs in Israel and has all the information online.
Susan said her father was a South African doctor who later moved to England. The South African apartheid struggle was aided by strong trade unions for the workers. I asked if the Israeli Arabs could have trade unions to help them and Susan said there was no way they could organise themselves. We discussed the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) and I mentioned that the Soda Stream relocation from the West Bank to Israel proper meant that more than 400 Arabs lost their jobs. She agreed that boycotts are not necessarily the best weapon, but she thinks it may be the only way left.
I said that Israel does a good job in paying for all the extra care required for the mentally and physically handicapped children in the Arab community. Years ago I had been told that the prevalence of intermarriage within Arab families results in a much higher rate of birth defects. Susan said the people are now starting to request DNA testing.
Susan did praise the Israeli health system as one of the best in the world. She said she needs to stay close to the Rambam Hospital in Haifa. I said I hope she mentions this in her talks overseas, along with the excellent telecommunications which she was praising. I know Susan’s work is important but I did wonder when she told me she doesn’t drive. In order to report accurately you need to get out and see whats happening on the ground.
Here is her book. It’s still a very good read:
Reflecting on my conversation with Susan, I believe the people who really need support right now are the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They have such poor health cover and social services compared with their fellow Arabs inside Israel. Friends in the West Bank would give anything to have access to Isaeli government services, particularly those with handicapped children. I remember one couple in Bethlehem having to lock their mentally ill 11 year-old in a room all day while they were at work. I was taken to see him and there was nothing in the room because he destroyed everything. There were faeces smeared all over the walls. The parents asked me to take him with me to Australia because they could not deal with the situation on their own. That is the reality for those living in the Occupied Territories.
Today is Shabbat eve (Friday) and everywhere people are food shopping and cooking. For the religious Jews its necessary to cook all food for Friday night and Saturday because no work is allowed on Shabbat. (Shabbat extends from sundown on Friday till nightfall on Saturday). The traditional family meal on Friday night is observed by most Jews in Israel, whether religious or not, because its such a nice idea. (Most Jews in Israel are secular, with about 20% religious). Family and friends travel far and wide to spend time together and discuss their week, listening to the young ones and caring for the oldies. All public transport stops throughout Israel for Shabbat, a thorn in the side of many overseas visitors who are caught unaware. Fewer cars are on the road on Friday night but people are out in force on Saturdays, except for religious Jews who do not drive on Sabbat.
Here is challah bread, traditionally shared at a Shabbat meal:
Tonight I’ll be sharing a Shabbat meal with my neighbours Yossi and Olga, and also Ami Shai who has been giving me woodwork lessons. I’ve bought the challah and have been cooking a red Thai curry, using Pippa Middleton’s recipe which everyone seems to like. Yossi owns the four units where I live and he and Olga have moved in next door temporarily whilst building on to their house facing the water. Olga comes from Moldova and came to Israel nine years ago to care for Yossi’s elderly mother. She has stayed on and is now a couple with Yossi, and I gather they plan to marry when they get the time. This involves going out of the country, probably to Cyprus, because there is no civil marriage in Israel. There are only religious marriages according to one’s religion (eg Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian), a system that operated under Ottoman rule and retained by the British, and then Israel. Interfaith marriages such as Yossi and Olga (Jewish and Christian) are not provided for.
After my curry cooking I hurried off to the Friday ‘parliament’, a quaint English translation used here for a gathering of friends who meet on a regular basis. This particular parliament is held at Yuvi’s sculpture workshop on the kibbutz where there is always a hive of activity:
Then it was time for a break, with people bringing food to share…
Friday is a good time to catch up with housework and I’ve been working along to some of my favourite music. Here’s Bob Dylan who has to be the greatest Jewish gift to the world (after Jesus of course):
And another favourite who has a message in this song for Israel/Palestine:
Last week I caught up with two Melbourne friends who both happened to be on the same 2-week study tour with APAN (Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network). Gaye Paterson and Mary Brabenec were part of a group of 12 who were visiting Palestine, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan, meeting with local organisations and viewing first-hand the Palestinian situation. I drove to Nazareth to meet them at the end of their day tour with Jonathon Cook, a well-known British journalist who lives in Nazareth with his Israeli Arab wife and two daughters.
Gaye has since emailed this comment:
“So what can we do?
Don’t think of solving it with One State or Two State solution nor even the peace process. Not going to work.
Concentrate on the human rights issues: equal citizenship, equal land rights, equal employment and wages, equal education and freedom of movement.
Do not accept the Israeli framework which is security because it’s about control and about recourses.”
I am grateful to Gaye for this insight because instinctively I know she’s right. The real issue is human rights. There is a major divide between Jews and Arabs in this land, both in Israel and in the Occupied Territories. Whilst it’s true that Arabs who are Israeli citizens get basic entitlements such as social security and health care, nevertheless they are never fully accepted as equals. In myriad ways they are discriminated against and treated as second-class citizens. And the Arabs who live in the West Bank and Gaza have been deprived for so long that young people have now taken to physical attacks on Jews knowing they will be shot. It is a form of suicide, linked not to politics but to the hopelessness of their situation.
Israel considers itself an enlightened democratic society, linked to Europe rather than the Middle East. With 75% of the population Jewish, the dominant way of life is Western. Arab influences do exist, in the cuisine for example. And old Arab houses and buildings are prized by Jews. But overall the prevailing culture is Western, with English widely spoken and dress the same as in the West. But despite this strong connection, Israel is not willing to follow the West in upholding basic human rights. It signed up to the UN International Bill of Human Rights in 1991 yet repeatedly refuses to comply with UN Resolutions regarding the building of settlements and other infringements.
This has led groups in the international community to campaign for a boycott of Israeli goods and academic institutions, in the hope that what worked in South Africa will also force change in Israel. The European Union has just succeeded in having fruit and vegetable exports from illegal settlements labelled as such and not simply from Israel, in the face of strong opposition from the Israeli government. Soda Stream, a successful export company, recently relocated from a settlement in the West Bank to a town inside Israel. So sanctions are having some impact.
In my work at Capernaum National Park I am aware of hostility towards me from some pilgrim groups and individuals, presumably because of the Israeli flag flying and because I am wearing the Park uniform. Just yesterday I offered a free cap to a young black American boy who was part of a group that had arrived by boat. A white man in the group immediately intervened and rejected the offer in a rude manner. Then came a large Polish group who had probably been instructed to ignore me because they all made a point of looking away. I felt like saying to them all: You are happy to land at the pier, use the toilets and depart from the carpark, all provided free of charge by the Park Authority. If you have a problem with Israel, then don’t come to this country. Just because you are on a Christian pilgrimage does not give you the right to be rude to the Jews.
More of a surprise yesterday was the reaction of my friend and neighbour at the Greek Church, Father Irinarchos, to my gift of bananas from the kibbutz. He refused to take them saying they are grown on stolen land. I said surely he eats bananas and he replied that he grows his own beside the Monastery. I said that his father would enjoy them and so he said to give them to him, that the land issue doesn’t worry him. So I found this lovely old gentleman doing pruning in the garden and he was happy to take the bananas. But I was taken aback at such a deep seated reaction from Father Irinarchos.
My other neighbours at Capernaum, the Franciscans, invited me to dinner at a restaurant this week to celebrate Chinese New Year. Father Vincent Quek ofm is Chinese and his nephew Michael who works at the nearby UN base took a group of us to Pagoda, a wonderful Chinese restaurant on the water in Tiberias. We were a diverse group with no common language: Brother Luca only speaks Italian, the three Franciscan Sisters from Mexico speak Spanish and a little Italian, Rabbi Abe and his wife Tirtza speak English and Hebrew, Father Vincent and Michael spoke Chinese to each other and English as well. I sat quietly down the end with my sole language, English.
Here is Father Vincent serving the fish:
Father Vincent told me he was raised a Buddist and converted to Catholicism in Australia whilst studying at the University of Queensland. He entered the Franciscans in his late twenties.
Driving in the Golan feels a bit weird. Its a mountainous region that extends eastwards from Northern Israel and you can see towns dotted over the landscape in Syria within a few kilometers of the dividing line. Currently Israel controls the Golan Heights which represents two-thirds of the mountain range, extending from north to south, with Syria occupying the remaining one-third.
The international community does not recognise Israel’s claim to title of the Golan Heights, regarding it as sovereign Syrian territory. Israel captured the Golan during the 1967 War and then refused to hand it back when a ceasefire was declared on the basis that the UN supports the right to safe borders. From 1948 to 1967 Syria regularly shelled the whole of Northern Israel from its vantage point on the Golan, causing Israel to argue that it needed to protect itself for the future. To ease tensions, the UN created a Buffer Zone extending 80 kms along the Syrian side, as shown here in green on this map:
This Buffer Zone has been manned by the UN Disengagement Observer Force for the past 43 years, monitoring the number of Syrian and Israeli troops and weapons in the area. Currently 800 peacekeepers are provided by Fiji, India, Ireland, Nepal and the Netherlands, plus 200 UN personnel, at an annual cost of US$50 million.
The civil war in Syria has caused some countries to withdraw their troops due to rising rebel attacks. The Phillipines has ceased sending soldiers following the capture of 21 Filipinos in 2013 by Islamic militants (later released with Jordanian mediation) and attacks on 40 Filipinos in 2014.
The Fijians are a hardy lot however. They continue to serve despite the capture of 45 peacekeepers in 2014. Here they are being held by Syrian militants for two weeks:
They were released unharmed. Reuters noted at the time: “Since independence from Britain in 1970, Fiji has sent more soldiers on UN peacekeeping missions than any other nation, on a per capita basis, which provides its stalled economy with much-needed hard currency and helps to bolster its global standing.”
Israel effectively annexed the Golan in 1981 by extending Israeli law to the region and attempting to impose citizenship on the locals. Approximately 25,000 Syrians, mainly Druze, live in five villages. Most refused to accept citizenship and were issued with Israeli ID cards. However as beneficiaries of social security and health entitlements, they are significantly better off than their fellow Syrians. And with the civil war in Syria, more younger Druze are now taking up the option of Israeli citizenship.
As well as being of strategic importance to Israel, the Golan is rich in natural resources, particularly water, natural gas and oil. 15% of Israel’s water supply comes from the Golan. There is a major obstacle however to the development of the land. More than 100,000 land mines are spread over 9,000 acres, laid during the 50’s and 60’s by the Syrian and Jordanian armies, and by Israel after the 1967 War. More than sixteen Arab Golanis have died since 1967, mostly children who were out in the fields tending animals. However it was an incident involving an Israeli that brought matters to a head. In 2010 an 11-year old Israeli boy was severely injured and lost a leg after tripping over a mine whilst hiking with his family, causing community groups and activists to demand that the mines be cleared. Bowing to pressure, the Knesset passed the Minefield Clearance Act in 2011 and clearing began in 2012, along with adequate fencing and the marking of existing minefields. There is significant risk for Israeli soldiers engaged in mine clearing and there have been deaths and injuries since the work began.
For residents, hikers and tourists, land mines remain a common and deadly danger and will for many years to come. About 20,000 Jewish settlers live on the Golan in 32 settlements comprising kibbutzim, moshavim (collective farms) and villages. Incentives to move there include special tax benefits, low rents, extra government support and even free plots of land. Agriculture is the mainstay with extensive farming on the wide plateau, the main products being beef, apples, potatoes, cherries, wool, eggs and milk. In 2014 the Ministry of Agriculture announced plans to establish 750 farming estates over the next 5 years. Water allocation is an important issue and Arab farmers are fighting the unfair practice of settlers receiving double what they are given.
In 1967, 134 Arab villages on the Golan Heights were destroyed and 130,000 Syrians forcibly displaced. Peace negotiations between Israel and Syria over the years have involved discussions about returning the Golan to Syria. However any peace deal that surrenders the Golan is subject to a public referendum. With the present turmoil in Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu recently asked the US President to recognize Israeli ownership of the Golan but was rejected.
Here is a view of the Golan taken from Beitsaida Lookout, with snow capped Mount Hermon in the distance: