Report #9 - June 1999 - Yishuv Alon, Israel

Greetings friends - Here is the monthly report from Israel. It is a mix of personal impressions from our experiences here. Please feel free to send your comments, critiques and suggestions. Feel free to forward these reports, and equally free to ask that I remove you from our list.

We are returning July 1. This will be our last report. We look forward to the last upcoming month to be a time for last visits with friends, reflection, packing and timeout. We also expect some good friends to visit from USA which will allow us to tour a little once again.

The Galil and the Golan
are the names of two adjacent regions in the north and northeast part of Israel known for the beautiful woods and landscape. We recently finished our last trip of the year with a big excursion into this interesting section.

The Golan was captured by Israel from Syria in 1967. It is a mountainous region looking down towards the west on settlements and kibbutzim near the Sea of Galilee (The "Kinneret"). The Syrians used to shell the Israelis from these heights. Capturing it in the 6-day war enabled Israel to better defend its borders and citizens. The area is not well settled. There is one Jewish city built up within the last 30 years on the ancient site of Katzrin, with that name. There are a dozen or so small Jewish settlements, and the rest of the area consists of 3-4 pretty large Druze villages (they decided to stay after Syria withdrew), and a great deal of fenced off areas with the warning "land mines". It is expensive and dangerous to clear this previous battle zone, so much of the area is left off limits except for the brave and stupid. Even the national parks in the area, among the most beautiful in the country, are surrounded by such signs and fences. There are many abandoned Syrian army posts including the now ghost city of Kuneitra, which sits in a UN administered demilitarized zone between Israel and Syria.

Many people feel that the Golan is important to Israel's security, and do not consider a trade of the Golan for peace with Syria to be worthwhile. Bumper stickers from last election, "HaAm Im Hagolan", "The nation with the Golan", are still everywhere. However, Barak (newly elected prime minister--see below) has stated that he is willing to consider negotiating with Syria. Time will tell.

The Galil is interesting because it is here that most of the Israeli Arabs live. In the Galil it is much harder to distinguish Jewish and Arab grocery stores. There is a much higher percentage (albeit small) of Arab-Jewish marriages. There is an accepted mutual dependence that relieves much of the tension that hangs in the air in Jerusalem - where so many fanatics on both sides exist.

Nevertheless the Galil has the hottest border in the country, that is the border with Lebanon. We drove along this border a long way, once accidentally stumbling onto a road that was open only to military vehicles; we quickly turned around. People (mostly soldiers) die over the border in Lebanon from terrorist attacks at a steady rate. It is a nervous place for a soldier to serve. The Egyptian and Jordanian borders are not wide open, but at least they resonate a cool peace. The Syrian and Lebanese borders are scarier.

There are many beautiful sections of the Galil including the coastal cities of Haifa, Akko and Naharia, the Christian city of Nazareth, the mystical city of Tzfat, and the modern planned city of Carmiel. I will spare you the LONG list of things we did here but... One area worth mentioning in detail, because you won't find it described yet in the guide books, is a new cable car ride in Kiryat Shemona.

Kiryat Shemona is on the border between the Galil and Golan, at the far north end of the country. It is geographically reminiscent of Lincoln or Woodstock, NH.

The city sits in the valley, with mountains towering 2500 feet above it on the west side, and the 6500 foot Mount Hermon in the distance on the east. On the west ridge is the Lebanese border along with scattered kibutzim. Even this month, on election night, katyusha rockets were fired from Lebanon down onto the city. Citizens spent a night in shelters for safety, and no one was killed, but there were some minor injuries and property damage.

With all this, some entrepreneur built a state of the art cable car from the city to the ridge 2500 feet up at a 45 degree angle. At the top is a kibbutz, a border road open to the public but rarely used, and 300 mountain bikes. A 20 kilometer dirt trail well groomed leads down the mountain to the city. This attraction is less than a year old and many Israelis haven't yet heard of it, yet it is very popular among those who have. It is really worthwhile as a tourist site for the view, and the recreation.

The leisure class of this attraction juxtaposed with the hottest border in the country is really hard to describe.

The Holocaust Museum at Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot

is a museum focusing on the positive aspects of the Holocaust if there is such a thing. It documents the Resistance, as well as the Righteous Gentiles of the world, and focuses on survivors. We decided that our children were ready to see this museum, and we are glad that we did. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Muesum in Jerusalem is a more depressing if more "real" presentation. At Lohamei Hagetaot, there is a special exhibit for children, whose best feature is the many "testimonies" shown repeatedly on videotape of Israeli survivors  who were children at the time of the Holocaust. The stories range greatly from the heroic to the tragic, to the depressing, to the pathetic, to the lucky but the mosaic painted by the collection of these story tellers, allowed my kids (and me) to see a picture that otherwise is impossible to tell. Every story was unique. We never heard it all. Every story was real, and colored by the personality of the teller. There was plenty for the kids to empathize with, and plenty for them to be scared about too. But they learned what happened in a productive positive way. They listened to a half a dozen stories, waiting sometimes for me to translate, but always asking good questions and acting more mature than I thought they knew how.

Lag Baomer

This day commemorates the end of the plague which killed many of Rabbi Akiva's students in the second century CE. It is celebrated by lighting bonfires all over the country. There is a connection between the fires and the end of the plague, but I forget what it is. Here in the desert and elsewhere, people collect wood for weeks in advance. Even on this small Yishuv, there were at least 4 or 5 bonfires. In Zosh's school, the 5th grade, on their own, invited the first grade to come to a bonfire, run by the 5th grade! There were no parents officially supervising, and there were just 3 or 4 parents at all, who came to keep their first graders company. To the 5th graders credit, they organized a fun and safe event. Zosh liked the hot dogs and especially the marshmallows.


took place this month. A quick review of the political system for those who care...

(Note -- anyone reading can get MUCH better info and explanation than I will provide by checking Nevertheless, here's the quick story for those who don't want to bother AND who know very little about Israeli politics.)

The system is a quasi-parliamentary system. There are 120 members in the legislative "K'nesset". Each member represents some party. During elections each person votes for a party. That party based on its raw votes, gets some number of the 120 seats, with some minimum number necessary to get one seat. There are some dozen+ parties including the two major parties: Labor (slightly left)and Likud (slightly right), two Russian parties, three+ religious parties, two+ Arab parties, Meretz (far left), a new Central party, a few fringe parties on both the left and the right, and a few special interest parties like the handicapped party, and this year perhaps the most interesting... Penina Rosenblum. She was THE Israeli model 15 years ago - a sexy blonde woman, who moved up from a tough childhood and youth into modeling and then later into business. Now she is championing rights for woman and minorities, and toting the anti-fascist line.

The parties often split and reform and realign.

The people simultaneously vote for a prime minister among a group of candidates nominated by a subset of these parties. The PM needs 50% or more of the vote to be elected, or else there is a run-off election between the two highest vote getters. The PM elections and K'nesset seat elections are independent (it didn't used to be this way - Previously the party with the most seats organized a 60+ seat majority coalition and appointed the PM). Now the PM is elected separately, can be from any party, and he gets 45 days to organize a majority coalition of 60+ Knesset members. He does this by trading minister portfolios and power for the smaller parties' membership in the coalition. This gives the little guy bargaining power. Each party has their own favorite portfolio list they hope to bargain for.

For example, SHAS, a right wing religious party, currently has the Minister of the Interior Portfolio. One of this department's current jobs, is to determine who is Jewish and who is not, which in turn determines many other rights and privileges of citizenship. They would often give a hard time to new Russian immigrants who could not easily "prove" their Jewishness, using this power to bargain and influence. Now one of the Russian parties is lobbying strongly for that Portfolio.

The ads got very heated in the last couple weeks. As in the USA, once a tactic that works is found, it is used shamelessly and without any attempt to conceal it or make it subtle. The main issue is the upcoming talks with the Palestineans. The tactic used by every candidate is to present himself as a past war hero, and as someone who through that experience knows how to make peace without being bullied. Old army photographs (before the candidates developed their campaign bellies) are shown. The other guy is portrayed as   someone ready to sell the country out. Popular army generals are shown endorsing the candidates. The bad guy is in B/W and the good guy is in color. The fact is that all the candidates have war credentials. A "professor"'s endorsement is like the kiss of death. It will be many years until a doveish intellectual will be prime minister.

One ad that backfired, is when Netanyahu compared the number of children killed in terrorist attacks during the period of the current administration versus the number killed in different times, presumably in order to show how much safer it is during his period. The families who lost these children were quite vocal in there displeasure with this exploitative maneuver.

Election Day

On election day there is no school, so we went to a crafts museum that shows kids how to weave, do frescos, mosaics, ceramics, build flutes, make bread, press olives for oil, dye wool, etc. It is a beautiful outdoor shady place on a hill opposite (ironically) the huge Jerusalem Mall. It is arranged like an ancient city with the crafts done out of old stone buildings, and areas connected by stone covered paths. During the week it is usually opened only to school groups, but election day they opened to the public. It was a big success, and now we have a homemade flute and a hand-woven mini-rug of which Zosh and Yair are very proud.

All day long, one radio station played the favorite songs of current Knesset members. It reminded me when AL Gore and Bill Clinton had Fleetwood Mac play at the Victory party. There was a great variety of songs and it was fun to hear the choices that were real and the ones that were politically motivated. No less than 8 members chose famous "peace" songs. The army radio station said - forget the elections, let's vote for the best song of 1999!

And the winner is...

Ehud Barak (One Israel - a coalition party which is essentially the old Labor party), who now has 45 days to set up a coalition. Many people hope he will lead the country to a new age of peace and prosperity in the path of Rabin.

Binyamin Netanyahu (likud) and current PM, has resigned from politics.

The only surprise in the results was in the Knesset results, where SHAS, whose leader was recently convicted for taking bribes, and misappropriation of government funds, increased it number of seats 70% from 10 to 17. This sends a clear message from the religious right that they could care less for the secular courts and laws of the nation, a frightening message reminiscent of Marion Barry getting reelected in DC, or perhaps the OJ Simpson trial. A big question that remains is whether SHAS will end up in Barak's coalition or not.

Politics on Yishuv Alon

Perhaps the only thing I can provide that really isn't available in the world news is the political views of the members of this yishuv. Although the yishuv sits in an area well past the "green line" border of 1967, and is subject to possible negotiation with the Palestineans, the opinions and voting habits of the members is not at all uniform. This is despite the fact that the area's "council" sent out a strong "scary" letter, endorsing Netanyahu, and implying that anyone in Alon not voting for him would be risking his home and lifestyle.

The political and religious views of the members here range from right to left. There are people who vote for the party that wants to expel the Arabs, and there are those who vote for the party that wants to expel the Haredim (Ultra Orthodox).

Heat Wave

The elections were followed by a bad heat wave here. Temperatures for 5 days straight around 100+, (115 in Eilat), which caused everyone here to be very tense. It is not a good time for teasing people. Despite the fact that they are all used to the hostile environment, and that most have desert coolers, and/or air conditioners, the constant heat still takes a toll. Our house has neither a cooler nor an air conditioner (we still have portable heaters from winter though :) ), but indoors is not so bad. I thought of wrapping the portable heater in a wet towel and setting in on just "blower", to simulate a desert cooler. This idea was not well received with saner members of my family, so instead I hung a big soaking towel up in the window, which served to block the meager breeze rather than cool off the room.

On some nights, the sandstorms blow our hanging laundry 50 meters down into the ravine and make walking around really unpleasant. The good news is that the laundry dries really fast. Summer also brings various infestations  of insects. Sandflies that can't be easily seen leave many itchy painful bites.  Ugly little black bugs crawl in through any tiny crack and congregate at night near any light they find. When they accidentally hit the light  they fall with a little clink to the floor. There can be hundreds in a pile in a matter of minutes. Luckily they do NOT bite. The consensus here is that are simply disgusting ("magIl"); they are a common chitchat topic. Luckily the disgusting bugs stopped pestering after a week or so. Sandflies still come and go.

We had our first and only scorpion in the house. It was a little one, and we killed it before it stung anyone.

Our Kids

Zosh is looking forward to the end of school which is in just one more month. Since locquats have come in season, he has started eating a lot of them (I never ate one until this year -- there's a tree of them on campus). He and other kids save the pits which are very smooth oval shaped marble sized objects, and are used for a variety of games. Watermelon is in season and the kids love it. I am amused to see many faculty and students taking a HUGE piece for lunch and sitting down with a knife and fork, with their head buried in the monster sized fruit. No main course or no dessert, depending on how you look at it.

Zosh speaks a broken but usable Hebrew. I took him and his best friend Paz to the new mall at the nearby town. They were thrilled to get to slide on the brand new floors and get their kid's meals (with a toy!) at Burger King. His class went on their annual class trip for a day, to a medley of caves and underground attractions, most of which Zosh has already visited. He seemed scared about going at first, but in the end seemed to have a good time. He said that one of the caves had hundreds of bats. For Shavuot, the Jewish holiday celebrating the Torah, he received his own Humash B'rashit (First book of Old Testament) along with the rest of his class. Zosh has been going to private English reading lessons twice a week in Kfar Adumim, the town where his school is. He has learned a lot, and also has developed a very nice relationship with his tutor. I think that his experience with her has given him a big confidence boost.

Yair went on yet another field trip where he visited the Wailing Wall, the Jewish Quarter, Ammunition Hill, and the Montefiore Wind Mill, all in one morning! He had been to all of these sites, and remembered that this time the door to the Windmill was open (when we had gone last it was locked). He still loves Fridays because he gets to bring home all his projects. Sometimes he gets to be Abba (daddy) for Shabbat. Then Fridays are really special. He also has a usable but small Hebrew vocabulary, and feels very comfortable in his Gan, where he is among the youngest kids. Before Shavuot, he dressed up all in white and  marched with his class to the Beit Knesset (local house of prayer) to learn about the Torah. He came home with a special decorated crown for the holiday. Lately, Yair has been practically inseparable from Chen, a girl in his Gan. They walk home from school holding hands, and today for example, they played together until we went and told Yair it was 7:00 and he had to come home for bedtime. There is a lot more freedom for kids to roam around town here on the Yishuv than in a "normal-sized" town. Today, Chen and Yair played at our house, her house, and then went to the park and the makolet (corner store) by themselves.

Yona continues to move solidly into his terrible twos (he's 16 months), destroying most things in his way and seeking out the rest. He likes to try to answer the phone even when he hears one ringing on the radio or a tape. He has started to be able to clumsily run, and is very cute when one of us pretends to chase him. He also likes to play catch (or fetch). He knows how to climb up the kitchen chairs to the table, where he can get to the fruit basket or whatever toys, books, knives, or whatever else happens to be there. He's exhausting to be with during the day, but fortunately, he goes to sleep between 6 and 7.

Language and Friends

As many people here independently confirmed, it seems to take about 6-8 months for a young child coming from abroad to start speaking in Hebrew and feeling like they can get along. Of course the process is gradual and subtle, but the time frame held true for both Zosh and Yair. They have completely internalized the local culture. Examples include: leaving the house to go to a friend and coming home themselves; running up to the Makolet (general store) sign for things for themselves and for the house; walking over to school and/or the bus in the morning. In general, the kids here are more unsupervised than in the USA, and our kids happily adapt to that. Yair walked home with his friend after kindergarten, and stayed there for two hours, without letting us know where he was. We keep reminding that he must stop off at home first, or call. His friend's parents didn't even think to call or remind him to call.

Even Yona has his small share of words, which are mostly Hebrew. He says "zeh" (this) and "kach" (take) when he hands us something, and refers to himself as Na. He understands his babysitter (in Hebrew) and us (in English) somewhat. Unfortunately, I don't think he will be retaining any of the Hebrew once we get back to Sharon.

My Work

I am finishing up my work with my 4th paper this week, and a lecture the week after. I will be glad to move on to new things, and look forward to teaching again. I have started to inch back into shape after a year of sitting at a terminal and typing, by running every morning before the sun really hits hard. I have a long way to go to get back to 7:30 miles :-)

Andrea's Work

I (Andrea) finished my volunteer job at Hadassah a few weeks ago. I met nice people there, and helped them organize some (hundreds of) donated hearing aids. My last day at my "real" job will be this Sunday. Even though I spend much of my time there reading books, it was a very worthwhile experience for many reasons: I did get to do some hearing tests (maybe an average of two/week), I interacted with many people in Hebrew, and thus improved my Hebrew, and I got to know Yehoshua, the store owner, who comes from Iraq originally. He has a very warm personality, and I often observed him being honestly chummy with both ultra-Orthodox Jewish people and Arab people (sometimes simultaneously). Hearing loss does not discriminate between cultures and neither does he.

One Last Story of Life in the Desert

We often contemplate the peace process, trying to envision how these intermingled societies can share or divide the land that they both claim rights to. No one has very good ideas about how to end the cycle of hate in this region, and indeed the random collections of circumstances that contribute to it make it hard to apportion blame. This story is a good way to end this yearly journal. It captures the essence of what I mean by random.

There are a couple of guys on the yishuv, that run a tourist business about 500 meters away on a hill called "Eretz B'reshit" (Genesis Land). There they have 20+ camels, and they provide rides in the desert with commentary on the landscape, just as "Abraham saw more than 3000 years ago", etc. They are pretty successful, but with their business comes a story that reflects the "street life" of the desert.

The day after they first bought their camels, the woke up to find that all ten camels had been stolen. A camel costs about $2500, and as the story goes, their insurance had not officially kicked in yet, hence this was due to be a serious loss. Many people in the yishuv volunteered and covered the countryside in search of the camels. A friend from the army who is a professional "tracker" was asked to help, but he too came up empty handed.

This is at a time when there had been an incident of a young woman being murdered in the wadi, and a local Bedouin tried and convicted. (You can find the news reports of this brutal ambush on the internet, under "Kfar Adumim"). That Bedouin since then had been forcibly moved to locations further from the Yishuv.

Nevertheless, one of the owners of Eretz B'reshit, an Iraqi Jew, who knows enough Arabic to make his way around, decided to take matters into his own hands. He proceeded to visit every single local Bedouin clan, one by one. When he arrived at each, he was greeted with the standard warm welcome and strong sweet coffee. He told each clan, that he did not want any trouble, and that he was sure that they did not want any trouble either. He simply wanted his camels back. Well each clan distrusts the next, so little by little word of this man traveled to the group who actually had his camels. He continued his travels all day, traveling alone without a gun or knife.

The next morning, at the entrance to the city of Jericho, he found all ten camels tied together neatly, waiting for him. The guard at the gate "had no idea" how they got there.

This owner believes that if he had come with a weapon, or a friend, or even worse with a Jeep and a few army officers, that he would have never seen his camels again. Coming from an Arab culture, he claims that in such matters the most important thing is to show that you are not scared. If they sense you are scared, then they know they have free reign. He attributes the last few years of no incidents at all at his establishment, as a direct result of this episode. He speaks with confidence, knowledge, experience and success. He is believable.

It is a great story, a little reminiscent of the old West in the USA. Yet I couldn't help wonder what a bad story it would have been, if the ending was that a frightened Bedouin stuck a knife in the owner's heart and sold the camels to the slaughterhouse in Jericho. No evidence being available, the result was a slightly wealthier Bedouin, a wife and 3 kids without a husband and father, the forced displacement of all the Bedouin in the area, their homes razed by bulldozers, and one more generation of hate.

Best wishes to all our friends and family,

Shai and family,
Yishuv Alon
Sivan 5759