From the much lauded author of Breaking News comes a version of Walking the Bible just for Israel.With its dense history of endless conflict and biblical events, Israel's coastline is by far the most interesting hundred miles in the world. As longtime chief of NBC’s Tel Aviv news bureau, Martin Fletcher is in a unique position to interpret Israel, and he brings it off in a spectacular and novel manner. Last year he strolled along the entire coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, observing facets of the country that are ignored in news reports, yet tell a different and truer story. Walking Israel is packed with hilarious moments, historical insights, emotional, true-life tales, and, above all, great storytelling.
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Martin Fletcher is one of the most respected foreign correspondents in television news. He has won five Emmys, a Columbia University DuPont award, and several Overseas Press Club awards. He spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
WALKING ISRAEL1 In the Beginning
It is said of Abraham that in his wanderings over many lands, he came to Mesopotamia where he saw the inhabitants spending their time in eating and drinking and in all forms of frivolity. Therefore he said: “May I never have a share in any of these lands.” When he came to Erez Israel and arrived at the ladders of Tyre, he saw the inhabitants of the land ploughing and tilling the soil at the appointed time and sowing and reaping in due course. Therefore he said: “This is the land that I would ask of the Lord as my portion.” And the Lord said to him: “Unto thy seed have I given this land!”
—ZEV VILNAY, Legends of Palestine, 1932
June 21, 2008. I, too, stood at the Ladder of Tyre, and I looked down upon the Promised Land. And it was wondrous, although most of the inhabitants plowing and tilling the land today were from Thailand. Below me lay Israel, locked in conflict all its life. And I thought, If Abraham knew what a mess he was starting, he may well have turned right around and legged it back to Mesopotamia.
Abraham did continue into the promised land, whether by way of the coast, as the legend tells, or by following the more likely hilly trail out of Mesopotamia and across the Jordan River. In Canaan, it is written, the Lord then promised Abraham that at the age of a hundred he would have a son, and “you . . . will greatly increase your numbers.”1 His descendants did indeed multiply but the land that is Israel today is far smaller than Abraham’s biblical portion—three hundred miles long and barely seventy miles at its widest—smaller than El Salvador.
On his grumpy travels through the Holy Land in 1867, Mark Twain claimed to have been taken aback by its humble proportions: “The state of Missouri could be split into three Palestines.” He’d expected “a country as large as the United States . . . I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so much history.”2 But as well as an unrivaled biblical legacy and history, ancient and modern, Israel includes in that small space an astonishing geographical diversity.
Israel’s borders range from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, whose water level is sinking at the alarming rate of three feet a year, to the Red Sea’s sparkling azure waters in the south. Northward, the border tracks the Jordan River along a crack in the earth’s crust called the Jordan rift valley to the mountains and waters of Galilee, ending at the wooded foothills of Mount Lebanon. There the frontier wends westward along mountain ridges, cutting fifty miles through cypress forests and olive groves until the Ladder of Tyre, where it plunges down to the Mediterranean, or, as it was known in Abraham’s time, the Great Sea. From here, it follows sandy beaches straight south to Gaza. Inland, half the country is desert.
Israel also packs a rare amount of cultural diversity into its tight borders. Jews account for some 80 percent of Israel’s population, yet the Jewish population is far from homogeneous. Although a handful of Jews trace their lineage back to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, most landed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, answering the Zionist call to reclaim the land God promised to Abraham, or fleeing persecution in Europe and Arabia.
They’re a noisy bunch, gregarious and excitable, spontaneous and combustible, a vivid mix of the orient and occident—hummus meets Kartoffelsalat. They’re also a bundle of contradictions: selfish and generous, bigoted and tolerant, arrogant and—well—maybe not so humble. Their national character is that there is no national character. They are too varied. The only accurate generalization is that they are, in my opinion, the worst drivers in the world.
The clearest cultural divide among Israel’s Jews is religious. Black-garbed Orthodox Jews obey every ancient kosher law and as many of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, as are feasible. The laws of Moses determine every aspect of their lives today, from diet and sex to education and prayer rituals. Their lives are anchored in their history, and they wear their odd black clothes and fur hats specifically to set themselves apart from secular Jews. The latter set their own rules, and their dress and customs would seem equally at home in New York, London, or Rome. Yet they, too, cling to their Jewish traditions and roots. The loudest and longest argument among Jews is reserved for their most basic dispute: Who actually is a Jew? And who decides?
Mark Twain found the Holy Land’s landscape unimpressive, calling it “rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary,” but he repeatedly emphasized the link between the people and their past. He was right. Here, history is not merely something you read about; it’s ever-present.
When I called a government spokesman to ask how many people had been murdered in the past calendar year, his defensive reply was: “Which calendar is that? The Jewish calendar, right? Not the Muslim calendar or Gregorian?”
For many, the Bible is as familiar as the daily newspaper. A friend of mine loves to tell the story of his first Israeli taxi ride. He was nearing his destination, a part of town with a street named after the biblical Judean king Hizkiyahu, and another street named after Matisyahu, the leader of the Hasmonean revolt. The driver called in to inquire about his next assignment. The dispatcher told him to pick up an old lady at her apartment in King Hizkiyahu Street. But the driver couldn’t hear over the crackling taxi radio and asked, “Did you say King Matisyahu Street?”
The dispatcher snapped: “Hizkiyahu, Hizkiyahu! Matisyahu was never king!”
Another enduring distinction among Israel’s Jews is that between Ashkenazim, Jews of mostly European origin, and Sephardim, Jews from mostly Muslim countries. For decades, the difference was stark and easy to spot: Ashkenazim have light skin and money and get their way; Sephardim are dark-skinned, poor, and don’t.
I saw tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim play out in the sunset years of such prejudice at a wedding in the Tel Aviv Hilton. A matchmaker had brought a poor Sephardi girl and a wealthy Ashkenazi boy together in a traditional shidduch, and now they were getting married. The Sephardim brought their own band with Mizrahi, Middle Eastern music, while the Ashkenazim insisted on their own Klezmer ensemble, whose music harked back to the Polish shtetl. The Sephardim gave in and their band went home, but the bride’s party was left muttering and frustrated.
The dispute turned violent after the marriage ceremony. The bride’s uncle had brought his seven-year-old niece to dance on the floor reserved for Orthodox men, who celebrate separately from the women. Her presence so outraged one bearded man in a black coat that he kicked the little girl’s bottom. This infuriated the girl’s uncle, who tried to punch the Orthodox man. The groom shouted, while the bride locked herself in the bathroom. Finally she stormed out of the hotel with her furious and humiliated family hot on her heels. I don’t know what became of the married couple, but I would guess they didn’t enjoy much bliss that night in the bridal suite.
Sephardic Jews complained of their lowly status for decades. Today, thanks to education, intermarriage, and common sense, the issue is moot: Sephardic Jews populate the government and the ranks of senior army officers and business leaders in almost equal numbers. More important, marriage celebrations run about fifty-fifty in Klezmer and Mizrahi music.
Differences run just as deep, though are more muted, among Israel’s Arabs. They divide into four groups—Muslims, Christians, Bedouin, and Druze—each of which breaks down further along clan and regional lines. Each local Arab community has its own values, morals, and loyalties. The communities unite only in a marriage of convenience in their struggle for equality with the Jews, and usually, in a more discreet manner, in support of the political goals of their Palestinian cousins.
Much has been written about the Arabs’ inevitable victory over the Jews, not in the battle of the bullet or the ballot, but of the womb. Arab birthrates worry many in Israel’s government, and individual reproductive feats on the Arab side are startling. A Palestinian friend sat in our kitchen with another friend of his, and my wife asked him how many children he now had, as he always seemed to have a bag of diapers in his car. “Seventeen,” Abed answered.
“What?” my wife said. “Do you know what a condom is?” Then she asked Abed’s friend how many children he had.
He smiled proudly. “Twenty-two.” Each had three wives.
Although the birthrate remains sky-high among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, it has plummeted among Arabs who live inside Israel and who are exposed to secular values. Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, average around eight children per family, while ten or more is common. Apart from fulfilling their religious duties, many Orthodox Jews speak openly of outbreeding the Arabs. Demographers differ in their analysis of the statistics: Some predict Arabs will soon claim a majority in the Holy Land; others say that this will never happen. But there’s another side to the baby boom: By 2050, some analysts anticipate, half of all Jews in Israel will be Orthodox, leading to a subversion of the state’s secular nature.
If the Arabs wield their large families as a weapon, the Jews rely on immigration. Recent immigration from the former Soviet Union has profoundly influenced Israeli culture and created new tensions between Jews and Arabs, as I experienced firsthand during the late 1990s, when I hired two Arabs and four Russians to renovate my home.
The two Arabs, Abed and Suleiman, were fairly typical Arab construction workers, poorly educated but nice enough fellows hailing from the Israeli town of Taibe. The Russians had to have been the most educated and accomplished group of construction workers on the planet. Pyotr, the chess master, mixed and poured the concrete. Sasha, the architect, built the walls. Shimon, the actor and writer, laid the tiles. His friend Leonid, the movie stuntman, did the heavy lifting.
Actually, a crew like this was hardly unique in Israel during the 1990s. Many of the million Soviet immigrants who arrived in Israel lacked jobs, and few were fortunate enough to find immediate employment in their professions. Doctors worked as kindergarten teachers and scientists as night watchmen. So many professional musicians stepped off the planes clutching violins, flutes, and guitars that when one man appeared without an instrument, people joked—oh, he must be the piano player.
Initially, the work at my house proceeded without incident. Then one day the Arabs argued with two of the Russians about who would use the wheelbarrow. Leonid, the stuntman, was a kung fu expert, but Abed wasn’t to be messed with, either; his muscles rippled from carrying bricks all his life. Their argument became louder until one pushed the other. Suddenly they were rolling on the ground, wrestling and punching each other in the face.
Suleiman, tall and powerful, grabbed Shimon from behind, holding him fast so he couldn’t intervene. As these two shouted and struggled on the sidelines, Abed and Leonid kept grunting and swinging at each other, drawing blood. At one point, Abed had Leonid in a headlock. In a sudden kung fu move, Leonid hurled him over, landed on top of him, and smashed him in the eye.
“Please stop,” I shouted feebly. “I’ll buy another wheelbarrow.”
Eventually my wife jumped in the middle and pulled them apart by the hair. They cleaned up and, as is often the case after mindless violence in Israel, shared a plate of hummus and a good laugh. Later, pondering their juvenile escapade, I realized it wasn’t about the wheelbarrow but rather about who languished at the bottom of Israeli society, the newly arrived Russian immigrants or the local Arabs. I didn’t buy another wheelbarrow, and as time passed it became clear who the losers really were. The Russians eventually found work closer to their professions, while the two Arabs remained construction workers.
Immigrants’ education and drive have strengthened Israel from the beginning. Whereas other countries struggle to incorporate immigrants of different ethnicities, Israel has largely succeeded: It has created jobs, built homes, and educated newcomers at a rate unmatched in modern times. Even the million-strong Soviet immigration of the nineties pales when compared to Israel’s achievement after the 1948 War of Independence. In the forties and fifties, the Jewish population doubled in size within four years and tripled within ten. Not to be outdone, Israel’s Arab population grew eightfold in sixty years. Today there are 7.4 million Israelis, of whom 20 percent are Arabs.
Of course, Israel’s rapid growth was far from painless. Israeli bureaucrats, mostly Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany and Poland, routinely assigned poor Sephardic Jews from North African countries to distant development towns while finding comfortable accommodations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the more familiar European Jews. In 1991, Israel’s secret “Operation Solomon” spirited fifteen thousand largely illiterate Ethiopian Jews out of their country in thirty-six hours aboard thirty-six jets and crash-landed them into the twentieth century. It was a triumph for Israel’s ingathering of the Jews but hard for the Ethiopians. Brought from their mountain villages, ignorant of modern plumbing, dependant on handouts, facing racial prejudice, their social hierarchies overturned, the Ethiopians became confused and lost. Before long, they were committing suicide at an unprecedented rate.
Over time, the Ethiopians’ absorption has improved, with the young growing up fluent in Hebrew and slowly filtering into all areas of life. Yet despite the overall success of absorption, difficulties for individual immigrants persist. Even newcomers from developed countries such as Britain and the United States complain about how hard it is to make it in Israel, where ties formed in school and the army last a lifetime and protekzia, personal contacts, win the day.
Still, Israelis, old and new, stand united by an overarching sense of shared struggle and pride. Little more than sixty years old, pressured by immigrant needs, Israeli Arab demands for true equality, Orthodox Jewish demands for the dominance of their laws, and the still-unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has shown extraordinary resilience. In a number of areas, it has even scored some remarkable successes.
For its size, Israel stands in a league of its own in science, agriculture, weapons industries, and high tech. In 2008, more Israeli companies were listed on NASDAQ than companies from Europe, China, India, Korea, and Japan combined.3 Half the exhibitors at international high-tech fairs in New York often hail from Israel. And the rush for patents from Israeli medical research facilities such as the Weizmann Institute dwarfs those of countries ten times Israel’s size. Within a year of the global economic collapse of 2008, Israel’s stock exchange re...
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