Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Israel is so much more than the sum of its parts.

This piece was difficult to write. Difficult to digest. Difficult to explain. But I’m giving it a shot because its been on my mind for over two months and I feel it helps me understand why I love this country so much.

Its been a tough summer in our neck of the woods. And that is indeed an understatement.  Now the fighting is over and the negotiations have begun and we hope ‘they’ come to some kind of agreement. Both of ‘them’, Israel and Hamas.

Within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are many sides, many issues of paramount importance that can be argued, discussed and learned, ad nauseum…

But for me, this time, there is one thing that has especially moved, affected and stayed with me these past few weeks. It is a deeper, more visceral understanding of the relationship between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews in Israel; this dysfunctional, co-dependent drama that makes this country so special and worth getting to know.

Fact: 20% of Israelis are Israeli Arabs.

Fact: Israeli Arabs are generally divided into four groups; Muslims, Christians, Bedouins and Druze. All Israelis. With Israeli citizenship. And civil rights. And voting rights.

But what does that mean?

What does it mean to be an Israeli Arab during a war between the country you live in and the extended family and relatives you have across the border in Gaza?

Where do you stand? What do you do? Where do you direct your anger and frustration?

What about feelings of guilt for living in the safety of a democratic Israel, while watching Arabs in neighboring countries being slaughtered, gassed, bombed by their own Arab brothers?

What about Hamas rocket strikes against your own home? Where do you direct your anger then?

What happens to an Israeli Arab soul when at the same time he is fearful of incoming Hamas rockets, angry at Israeli bombings of Gaza, feeling guilty for living in Israel, feeling thankful for living in Israel, frustrated with the Israeli government’s inability to adequately address his community’s needs, upset with Israeli Arab leadership that has lost touch with its voters, furious at the way Arab governments kill their own people, horrified as images of dying Palestinian children are flashed over and over on TV screens as the world media cannot get enough of the suffering of the people of Gaza?

And despite of it all, life goes on here in Israel. Israeli Arabs work, study, shop for groceries, do business, raise their kids. Alongside the Jews.

The complexity of Israeli Arab life in Israel is absolutely fascinating and at times unbelievably ironic.

Cases in point. All from this past summer.


Aug. 24th – Hamas mortar shells fall at the Erez Crossing, injuring several  Israeli Arab taxi drivers waiting to transport sick and wounded Gazans from the border to receive treatment in Israeli hospitals. Three of the taxi drivers were Bedouin and one was from East Jerusalem. (Read more)


 

Aug 4th – The life of a Israeli Jewish soldier seriously injured by an Arab drive-by shooter was saved by an Israeli Arab doctor, Professor Ahmad Eid, head of surgery at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem. Professor Eid insists “There’s no drama here.”

Oh yes, professor, there is. There certainly is.  Read about Dr Eid’s amazing story here.

Prof Ahmend Eid, Head of Surgery at Hadassah Hospital. (courtesy of Haddasah)

 


 

July 20th – Ghassan Alian, an Israeli Druze Arab and Commander of the elite Golani Brigade in the Israeli Defense Forces, was wounded in the first days of the military operation. His demand to be patched up quickly and to return to his troops endeared him to the Jewish majority and made his Druze community proud.  However, not all Israeli Arabs were impressed. Alian was criticized and even received death threats for his role as an Arab commander in the IDF. (Read more)

 

Golani Commander

Ghassan Alian, Golani Brigade Commander (courtesy IDF spokesman)


 

July 29 – Israeli Police decide not to investigate Israeli Arab Member of Knesset Haneen Zoabi’s apparent praise for the kidnapping of 3 Jewish teenagers, whose abduction and murder ignited this summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

In this article, we read of the story of Israeli Arab Mohammad Zoabi, a young, family member of that same MK Haneen Zoabi, who unabashedly spoke out on Facebook against the kidnappers of those 3 Jewish boys. His mother told the media that her son had to escape to a safe house abroad due to the threats to his life.

“My son dared to express his feelings toward the Jews who had been kidnapped,” she said. “As a mother, I am proud of him. I received many threats. One reporter wrote that my son should be kidnapped and raped. With all due respect, I am not impressed with the Israel Police. I am disappointed. They wait until something happens, and only then do they get involved.”

The Zoabi family, a very prominent Israeli Arab family from Nazareth, exemplifies the internal conflict of being Arab, and Muslim and Israeli, all at the same time. Their struggle for identity is certainly not easy. (Read more)


 

Two Israeli Arab Bedouin IDF Army doctors are being court-martialled for desertion. This is the story as far as I understand it: Two Bedouin brothers, outstanding students in school, decided about 9 years ago to follow the ‘Atudah’ program in the Israeli Defense Forces, where top students first attend university with an all paid scholarship from the IDF, then enlist for several years and serve in their corresponding profession. These brothers became the very first Bedouin ‘atudah’ doctors in the history of Israel.  They became officers and served in the IDF as doctors, providing care for all patients, regardless of their background.

This summer, as the Israeli Air Force began bombardments in Gaza after many days of rocket attacks from Hamas, these two brothers, like many other Israelis, became distraught at the media images of dead and injured Palestinian Gazans. As they knew their unit would eventually join the fighting, they became conflicted, didn’t know how to respond and where to turn, so in an act of desperation they abandoned their posts and went home. They deserted.

After a week of gut wrenching soul searching, they reconsidered, decided they had made a terrible mistake and returned to their base, apologized to their commander and asked to return to their duties. However, they were arrested and have been sitting in jail since then.

Although they had abandoned their post, deserted in fact, the story of their pain and anguish and their eventual return and regret has touched the hearts of many Israeli Jews and there are many who petitioned to have their punishment reduced. Read the latest on their ongoing trial here.


 

July 19 – A rocket shot from Gaza towards the Negev desert  landed in an Israeli Arab Bedouin encampment, killing Ouda Lafi al-Waj, an Israeli Bedouin man and seriously wounding his children.  (Read more) Most Israeli Arab Bedouins in the Negev live in towns but there are several tens of thousands who live in unauthorized, unrecognized encampments without adequate facilities. Because the encampments are not authorized by the government, they are considered open areas and are not included under the Iron Dome protective airspace. Crazy.  And painfully unfair.

 


May – The Israeli Defense Forces began sending draft notices to Israeli Arab Christian youth, inviting them to enlist as do their brothers the Israeli Druze and the Israeli Bedouins. This move came after several years of campaigning by Israeli Arab Christian Greek Orthodox Father Gabriel Nadaf, who believes that Israeli Christians should enlist and do more to integrate into Israeli society. In fact, more and more Israeli Christians are joining the ranks of the Israeli armed forces in an act of solidarity with the only country in the Middle East where they are free to practice their religion and are safe from persecution. Its quite scary to be a Christian in the Middle East these days and Israeli Christians struggle to define their role as Israeli citizens. (Read more)


And finally, this past Monday I attended the Galilee Arab Jewish Conference – Fighting Racism and Working for Cooperation. One of the speakers was Dr. Khawla Abu Baker, an Israeli Arab psychologist and college professor, and it was during her talk that I finally realized I was able to put pencil to paper (in this case fingers to keyboard) and write what was on my mind. I now had the words I wanted to say.

Dr Abu Baker’s specialty is the psychology of Arab Israelis, mainly their mental and emotional profile.

As she started her talk, I began to take notes and furiously translated her thoughts into my journal. I want to share some of her words, as they still resonate for me. The following are some of my notes:

Palestinian Israelis suffer from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); they constantly struggle on the outside and from within, always angry and fearful; when the brain is under constant stress, it changes itself and adapts to its environment, always under danger; this causes psychological and cognitive changes that affect thoughts, behavior; this PTSD must be treated and if not addressed gets relived over and over; we don’t have periods of calm long enough (need to be 6 months or more) to get over our PTSD and recover from our trauma; all Israelis, Palestinian and Jewish alike.

In 1948, 85% of Palestinian Arab society had to relocate and build a new life somewhere else; they lost their place in the world; many still carry the keys to the homes they lost; every war reawakens that trauma; every war causes them to relive traumas from previous wars, never ending; leads to depression, helplessness, loss of hope; these feelings of rage bring on the need to take revenge

And now, an important personal note — Her use of the term Palestinian Israelis bothered me. When I guide tourists, I clearly state there is a difference between the Palestinians (which are those who live in the West Bank and Gaza) and Israeli Arabs (who live in the state of Israel). I find this definition helps the tourists understand how complex the situation is.

However, as I was listening to Dr Abu Baker, it dawned on me that MY defining and labeling THEM as ‘not’ Palestinian was part of the problem! They ARE Palestinian and are proud Palestinians, with a Palestinian heart and soul and language and culture, with family across the border separated from them a mere 65 years ago and then again 46 years ago. My problem with labeling them as proud Palestinians was MY problem, and if  Israeli Arabs want to call themselves Palestinian Israelis, who am I to say it isn’t so? I need to get over it. Huge aha moment for me!

And that’s when it struck me. I am also traumatized! So is my family and my community. I started this post by saying how difficult this summer has been. For all of us here in Israel. All of us.

Dr Khawla Abu Baker continued: What we have here is almost identical to a domestic violence situation; it passes from generation to generation and without treatment it becomes a cycle of violence and abuse; victims and perpetrators both develop their own ‘narratives’ to justify their behavior.

Question from the audience – “What is the medicine?”

“both Jews and Palestinians need to understand there are two sides to a coin; both have to be compassionate and accept each other’s pain and injury as real”

Compassion.

Understanding that the Palestinian – Israeli – Arab – Muslim – Druze – Bedouin – Christian is stuck in a precarious, delicate and sometimes impossible situation.

Between a rock and a hard place.

And that Palestinians and Jews will heal from their trauma only after long, long periods of calm, free of violence.

First peace. Then healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

The Jewel in the Negev Crown

As I mentioned before,  Lonely Planet, the world famous travel magazine, picked the Negev as the second most desirable world region to visit for 2013, not only for its sheer beauty, but also for the variety of interesting places, fascinating history, diverse people and the many adventures and quiet meditative moments one can experience here.

And now, after we’ve peeked into the awe inspiring Small Makhtesh, toured Mamsheet‘s ancient streets and Nabatean Market, collected colorful sands in the Large Makhtesh, we come to the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the beautiful Negev Desert, Makhtesh Ramon.

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First and foremost, Makhtesh Ramon is the Grand Canyon of Israel.  Created by erosion of sandstone and limestone layers over millions of years, this makhtesh is the largest such geological formation in Israel, stretching about 40 km from end to end and 2-10 km wide.  The makhtesh has been a thriving habitat for many species of animals and plants and a crossroads for nomadic people for millennia.

For tourism, activities and accommodation purposes, the town overlooking the makhtesh is Mitzpe Ramon, a small community with a lot to offer.

I wasn’t sure how to approach this post due to the great number of options and adventures available in the area.  I finally decided to create a list, a mere sample of the many wonderful things to do near Makhtesh Ramon…

What would YOU like to do?

  • Hike in the gorgeous desert with your family?
  • Sleep in a Bedouin tent and enjoy Bedouin hospitality?
  • Hunt for fossils?
  • Ride a camel along the ancient Nabatean Incense Route?
  • Take a jeep tour through millions of years of the geological timeline?
  • Learn how Israel leads the world in anti-desertification techniques?
  • Study the stars in the pitch black night of the desert?
  • Taste the delicious produce grown here and exported to the world?
  • Stay at a 5-Star hotel with the most amazing view from your personal, outdoor pool?
  • Get cozy with alpacas (?!?) who happen to thrive in the desert climate?
  • Go wine tasting at award winning boutique wineries?
  • Learn about David Ben Gurion’s dream, visit his home and his graveside?
  • Rest and relax in one of the many B&Bs in the area?

Now lets make a partial list of great experiences to be had in the Mitzpe Ramon area, not in any particular order:

1.  (hiking, archaeology) Khan Saharonim– In the heart of Makhtesh Ramon lay the ruins of one of the Nabatean caravansaries (khan) on the ancient Incense Route from Yemen to Gaza. The Nabateans were THE expert desert travelers 2000 years ago, building an empire based on the trade of incense, spices and perfumes, and here they rested their camels and their weary bodies on their months long journey.

IMG_2367(fossils, hiking) Ammonite Wall – Ammonites were large mollusks that lived in the ancient seas and became extinct 65 million years ago.   They moved around by filling their shells with air and then releasing it. When the Ammonites died, they floated and were carried toward shallower waters  close to shore. Thus, great numbers of Ammonite shells collected in one place. One of these Ammonite graveyards can be seen right outside Makhtesh Ramon.

IMG_23353. (modern Israeli history, museum) Ilan Ramon Center – Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, loved the Makhtesh Ramon area so much, that as a young pilot, he changed his family name to Ramon, in honor of this spectacular geological formation. He was one of Israel’s heroes but his life was tragically cut short when he perished with the crew of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003. A museum honoring his legacy was just opened, overlooking the spectacular makhtesh . Definitely worth the visit.

4.  (luxury, location location location)  The Beresheet Hotel –  Situated on the edge of the towering cliffs of the makhtesh and blessed with a breathtaking view, this exceptional hotel is pure luxury. 

room with a pool5. (entrepreneurship, animals, family fun)  The Alpaca Farm – One of the strangest experiences one encounters near Mitzpeh Ramon is at this farm, where one can get up close and personal with a herd of alpacas and llamas … yes, you heard it right.  IMG_2356Straight from the Andes Mountains, these camel relatives are thriving in the Negev Highlands, where the air is cold and crisp at night and the altitude is just right.  Sheep, horses and other critters make for a fun day for the whole family.

6. (astronomy)  Star gazing, anyone? – My friend Ira Machevsky leads guided, customized tours of the starry desert night, the clearest sky in the country.  No astronomy experience is necessary… just bring a warm jacket and enjoy!

DSC_0326-300x2007. (entrepreneurship, wine tasting, food) Rujum Winery – When the Nabateans converted to Christianity in the 3rd century CE, they turned their agricultural efforts to the growing of vineyards in the desert in order to supply wine during the Byzantine Era.  The high desert plain actually produces excellent grapes  due to the loose soil, bright sunshine and extreme temperature differences between night and day and the seasons of the year.

gallery_20-300x2008. (eco-tourism)  Eco Desert Lodge – “We are not a 5-Stars, we are a million stars” is their motto. I love that!  Check out this amazing lodge with different desert accommodation options. Romantic  🙂

camels9. (culture, Bedouins, food)  Bedouin Encounters – If you are interested in the REAL thing, an authentic encounter with Israeli Bedouins, this is the place.  Stay at a Bedouin village, sleep communally in a Bedouin tent, enjoy a delicious dinner prepared in front of you, ride camels, chat with Sheikh Salman, leader of this Bedouin clan.  Spartan conditions, unforgettable experience!

And we haven’t even made a dent in the myriad activities and experiences to be had in the central Negev, let alone in the Arava Valley to the west or the magnificent Eilat Mountains and beaches to the south.

Lonely Planet is right. The Negev is THE destination of choice for the travel aficionado!

Israel’s very own Painted Desert

Negev

As you travel around Israel, you are bound to pick up some sweet souvenirs, the best ones being the ones you either make with your own hands or dig from the Holy ground yourself.

Here in the Negev we have  the Makhtesh HaGadol, the Big Makhtesh, our own version of the American Southwest’s Painted Desert, with its gorgeous, colorful sandstone walls.  You already know what a makhtesh is from my previous post about the Makhtesh HaKatan

This Big Makhtesh is found in the mountain range adjacent and a little to the west of the Small Makhtesh, and is, true to its name, the bigger of the two.

The drive into the Makhtesh (thanks to the College of Wooster’s Geology Department) is quite spectacular, as one enters this gigantic basin with its colorful walls.

These hills,  created hundreds of millions of years ago by ancient rivers that deposited their quartz and feldspar laden silt, have been eroded through time and now bare their colorful sands to us. The oxide concentration in the sand changes their color;  green, orange, purple, white, red, yellow and tan are among the most prevalent.

Mamshit 041

My favorite site  is the Colored Sands, where visitors collect sands of different colors and create for themselves a fun, handmade  souvenir to take home.  This is especially fun for the youngsters, but also great for the young at heart!

For 2 shekels (about 60 cents), a local entrepreneur will sell you an empty glass bottle out of his ice cream truck. You can then spend a good hour or more walking the hills in search of just the right colorful sand combination for your painted-sand art project.  If you bring a straw or a small funnel, you can combine colors and designs in a delightful pattern.  When done, that same ice cream seller/ glass bottle vendor will seal your masterpiece with some  clay and you’re done.

Mamshit 045

From here you may also depart on a couple of lovely hikes to the rim of the makhtesh, choosing the easier hour long walk or the more challenging three hour trek.

If rest and food is what you desire after your adventure in the painted sand hills, you may lounge in the shade of a tree or partake of a packed lunch at one of the picnic tables.

Mamshit 044

All in all, a fun way to spend some time in our very own Painted Desert.