I have gone to Israel many, many times. My first visit was in blistering heat in July 1978. I then spent seven months living on a small radical kibbutz less than two kilometers from the Lebanon border in the Western Galilee, from late 1978 to 1979. Returning to Israel most years, up to the present day, the biggest gap between visits was when I was studying to become a rabbi at the Leo Baeck College, from 1984 to 1989 – having chosen the rabbinate over making aliyah.
So, you could say I’m a seasoned traveler to Israel. Except: it’s never possible to say that about going to Israel; each visit, in my experience, has been utterly unique – even when I have returned to the same places. Because the same places are never the same: because the geological fault-line between two continents that runs through the heart of the land seems to be mirrored in perennial instability within the society as well: the political and economic circumstances always in flux; the bruising interactions between all the different Jewish constituencies, classes, ethnicities, and cultures – secular, religious and political – generating multiple conflicting loyalties; the relationships between Jewish and Arab Israelis – also a diverse people; encompassing Druze and Bedouins, town dwellers and farmers – shadowed by loss and mistrust; the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, which vary, depending on the Israelis and the Palestinians concerned – as well as, on whether we’re talking about Gaza or the West Bank – defined by an exhausting perennial contest… One land; so much diversity and complexity; so many competing narratives; so impossible to grasp – and yet so fascinating and inspiring – which is why I have returned, again and again.
And so, no surprise then that, despite having been in Israel so many times, the Israel tour I co-led with Rabbi Charley Baginsky of Kingston Liberal Synagogue and Dana Friedman, the Liberal Judaism Sh’lichah (Israel Emissary) was also a completely new experience. It would have been more straightforward to have stayed in three main centres and taken trips to various sites of interest. But we wanted to do something different. All Jewish tours to Israel are like pilgrimages; but we wanted our tour to be a real journey in and through the land, so that all the participants, whatever they already knew about Israel, and whether or not they had been there before, could really discover the country – a bit like, the leaders of the tribes, commissioned by Moses to reconnoiter the land beyond the Jordan in the second year of their journey through the wilderness (see Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13ff.).
It would have been ideal if we could have flown to Eilat, and then worked our way up the land from the southernmost point. As it was, we flew to Ben Gurion airport, stayed the night in Jerusalem at the Rabin Youth Hostel, and then left the next morning to go down south, to the Aravah desert. Our destination was Kibbutz Lotan, which is part of the progressive movement, and is on the border with Jordan. Israel is 60% desert and the Aravah is one of the most intense deserts in the world, and is, technically speaking, unable to sustain life. And yet, the Zionist pioneers and their descendants have created life there – as the saying goes, they ‘made the desert bloom’. It’s not a myth; it’s true – and it’s also the purist part of the Zionist story: because there, in the Aravah, the pioneers really did create something out of nothing. And so, today, not just date-palm plantations, but flowers for export, and one of the largest dairy farms in Israel: Yotvata. Yes, milk cows in 40+ degrees of heat! It’s all a bit crazy – which is why Kibbutz Lotan has become an ecological centre, recycling everything, including transforming rubbish into buildings. Of course, it’s hard to live in the desert – Kibbutz Lotan is small, and the fifty or so members rely on Thai workers to help them with their agricultural tasks, which must be conducted on a large scale to make economic survival possible. Idealism versus realism: It’s a balancing act all over Israel.
After a fascinating stay in Lotan, which included a muddy hands on experience of ecological farming in the desert, the following morning we set off, northwards, our coach climbing through a very different and startling terrain: the upper Negev desert. There, we took a hike in over 100 degrees of heat in the centre of Machtesh Ramon – the site, eons ago, of a sea – which takes the form of a massive basin of rock, 9 kilometers wide. We didn’t all go on the hike, of course – the sensible ones went to a shady place on the northern rim of the Machtesh, by the development town of Mitzpeh Ramon, and waited for us.
After lunch in that desert shade, we continued our journey northwards to S’deh Boker, the kibbutz where the first Prime Minister of Israel David Ben Gurion spent a lot of his time, modeling the life of the ‘new Jew’. Home now to Ben Gurion University, here we learnt some more lessons about ecology, and were shown some of the ecological investigations being conducted at the University, which has become one of the world centres for such research.
The Northern Negev is an important area for the Bedouin nomads, and skirting the city of B’eir Sheva, where Abraham and Sarah settled 4000 years ago, we saw many Bedouin encampments on our way to Arad – one of the cities built in the desert after the establishment of the State of Israel. Arad is home to a number of artists – as well as the writer, Amos Oz, and we ended our day by visiting the studio of an artist who worked in glass, before sleeping at Arad’s Youth Hostel.
The next morning we set off for the Dead Sea, and a tour of the Dead Sea Works at its southern tip – a large factory, established in 1934, that mines potash and other minerals for agricultural use throughout the world. Like the kibbutzim in the Aravah, the Dead Sea Works bring home what it means to transform a natural landscape into an environment, shaped to meet the needs of large-scale human habitation. I love the Dead Sea, but it’s always a shock to see it, because it is shrinking each year – by 1 to 2 meters – as the water sources that feed it are diverted to support the growing populations of Israel, Jordan and nascent Palestine.
The Dead Sea region, the lowest point on Earth, 450 meters below sea level, is famous for its densely salty sea, and for its wadis – or ravines. While, like the Aravah, very little rain falls there, the rains, which descend on the Judean Hills above it in the winter, rush down the crevices, briefly flooding the landscape. There are also springs, and those who walked up Nachal David, at Ein Gedi, experienced the pleasure of the fountains and pools of deliciously cool water in the intense heat. As the Bible tells us, and archaeological finds confirm, King David built ‘strongholds’ at Ein Gedi, and those who visited the ruins of the second century synagogue saw clear evidence of community life in ancient times. Booked in for the night at the Ein Gedi Youth Hostel, another day’s exploits in the desert concluded with a relaxing float in the Dead Sea.
The following morning, we began the day by visiting Masada. I went with the brave group that got up at four o’clock in the morning to walk up the famous landmark and see the sunrise. The site of a huge palace built by King Herod, Masada is best known as the refuge where the Zealots held out against the Romans after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem for four years, and then, chose to die – all 960 of them – rather than succumb to their enemies. How did they survive all those years? They managed to draw on the water sources deep in the rock. Leaving Masada, on our way northwards, we were given another reminder that despite the heat and the barren mountains, people were able to live by the Dead Sea: the caves of Qumran where the scrolls were discovered in the late 1950s, confirming the existence of the Essenes, the all-male monastic Jewish sect that lived in that area during Roman times.
After leaving the Dead Sea, we traveled up the Jordan Valley, the Palestinian territories and Jewish settlements to the west, Jordan to the east, making a lunch stop at the site of the old Kibbutz Gesher, whose members held the line against the Jordanians in the 1948 War of Independence. Continuing northwards, we arrived at the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee, where we visited the cemetery, which is the final resting place of many of the pioneers, including those who established the first kibbutz, Degania, and famous Israeli figures, like the poets, Rachel, and Naomi Shemer. The day’s touring ended with our arrival at Karei Deshe, the Youth Hostel on the northern shore at 4 p.m. – which gave us time to enjoy the beautiful location, including a swim before dinner.
On Friday morning, we set off, still northwards, to the Hula Valley. Originally drained by the pioneers because it was a malaria-ridden swamp, in recent years the Hula Valley has been re-watered and restored to its former role as a wildlife habitat. So the valley includes lakes, which provide an essential stopping off point for the half billion birds, whose route from Europe to Africa and back, takes them down the Jordan Valley, from the source of the Jordan at the most northern point of Israel, through the Hula valley, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea, and through the Aravah, to the Red Sea. Half a billion birds! A staggering natural wonder to sit alongside the sociopolitical history of this remarkable land on the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean, this bridge between East and West, North and South; which was such a magnate for the empires that disrupted Jewish life again and again long before Christians and Muslims arrived on the scene: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans.
Leaving this little Hula Eden behind us, we continued our journey northwards to the Lebanon border, before traveling south-west through hilly terrain that includes Arab villages, kibbutzim and moshavim – communal farms, where people work together, but live privately – to the ancient Mediterranean seaport of Akko. Akko is home to both Jews and Arabs, and so we visited the Arab-Jewish centre, which is located in a poorer part of the city. There we met the Director, Mohammed, who established the centre 25 years ago, and is passionately committed to Arab-Jewish co-existence. After speaking to us, he showed us round. Because it was lunchtime, and school was over for the week, we were fortunate to encounter some of the children who come to the centre after school, to have a meal, to play and to learn. In one room, a young Arab boy agreed to let us observe his violin lesson – and his eager and yet shy demeanour, brought many of us to tears. In a larger room, several children were playing games and sitting at computers, and were very accommodating of the strange visitors, who assailed them.
After lunch and a tour of parts of the old city, we set off for Haifa, another place inhabited by both Jews and Arabs, going straight to Ohel Avraham, the progressive congregation, based at the Leo Baeck Centre, for the Erev Shabbat service. The service – all in Hebrew, of course – included an array of familiar and unfamiliar tunes, accompanied by guitar-playing Rabbi Ofek, who later, after dinner, came to our hotel and led a programme of songs on the theme of ‘holy time and holy place.’
Having traveled non-stop for six days, thankfully, the seventh day, Shabbat, was a day of rest! After our own Shabbat morning service, which I co-led with Rabbi Charley, the afternoon was an opportunity to visit the famous gardens of the Bahai Temple, walk around, or, simply, relax, before setting off in the early evening down the coast to Tel Aviv – and more free time to eat and explore the centre of modern Israeli Israel.
The next morning we went to Beit Daniel, the largest progressive synagogue in Israel, where Rabbi Talia spoke to us about what it means to be Jewish, as an Israeli Jew. Paradoxically, apart from the Orthodox, Jewish Israelis identify less and less as Jews. What are the implications of this, she asked, for Israel as a Jewish state? In what sense, is Israel a Jewish state? Searching questions to consider; alongside the knowledge that well over 20% of the population of Israel is Muslim or Christian.
Following a speedy bus-tour through Tel Aviv, we were left with these questions and our own thoughts, as we took the road up to Jerusalem. There, after a period of free time, we gathered together at the Jaffa Gate of the Old City for a walk through the Christian quarter, via the relics of Roman habitation, to the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall – the outer wall of the Temple, built by King Herod, which is all that remains of the centre of pre-rabbinic Judaism. We arrived as dusk was falling and green lights came on in all the minarets of East Jerusalem, some of which – including the green light in the minaret of the Al Aqsa Mosque that sits opposite the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount – are visible from the Jewish Quarter; a reminder, if we needed one, that Jerusalem is sacred not only to Jews and Christians, but to Muslims, too.
We probably had enough to think about already, but before our last dinner in a lovely literary cafe called T’mol Shilshom, we went to Beit Shmu’el, the headquarters of the World Union of Progressive Judaism, which is situated just outside the old city, opposite the Jaffa Gate, to meet a representative from the Israel Religious Action Centre, which campaigns for human rights and justice on behalf of all the different disadvantaged groups in Israel – including, the progressive movement, which is struggling for recognition, and whose rabbis do not have the authority to officiate at weddings and funerals. And so, our last full day ended, as it had begun, with food for thought about the nature of Israeli society.
That could have been it – but somehow, like the delicious food we ate throughout the trip, we found room for one more stimulating morsel. And so, on the last morning, before leaving for the airport, a visit to the ‘Museum on the Seam’, so-called because it is situated in a villa once owned by an Arab called Tourgeman, located on the Green line, the ceasefire line agreed by Israel and Jordan at the end of the 1948 war, which became a military outpost between 1948 and 1967. So, a museum dedicated to peaceful coexistence, on the 1948 border between Israel and Jordan; the seam which still separates East and West Jerusalem. But that’s not all: situated next to the ultra-orthodox neighbourhood of Mei’ah Sh’arim to the West, the Museum also sits on the seam between the religious and secular Jewish worlds of this complex city. The museum is a statement in itself. Meanwhile, the current exhibition on ‘The Right to Protest’ spoke directly to one of the most pressing issues in Israel today: the steady erosion of democratic rights, as the Israeli government presses on with its agenda of promoting a strong and secure fortress Israel, at all costs. Interestingly, that morning, when we went down to breakfast at the Rabin Youth Hostel, where we had begun our trip, the dining room was occupied: a large banner informing us that it was hosting ‘The Public Commission to Examine the Maritime Incident of 31 May 2010’ – that is, the one involving the Turkish flotilla on its way to Gaza…
There is so much more I could say. But I’m aware that I’ve taken up much too much time already. Before I close, I want to mention, briefly, the missing element in my account of the Israel tour: the people. So many of the people we met – including our indomitable tour guide, Efrat – radiated pride, in the best sense of that term, as well as commitment, and a passion to engage and communicate. I’m sure that their enthusiasm inspired ours: and so, finally, a word of thanks to all the participants, who took this amazing journey, enthusiastically, every step of the way – despite the heat and the hectic pace – embracing all the challenges; without whom it would never have happened. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah