In October 2022, Marie and I went on a trip to Israel organised by the Landeszentrale für politische Bildung (State Centre for Civic Education) of Rhineland-Palatinate and the German-Israeli Association, which included a fairly tight schedule of visits to cultural and educational institutions, with discussions and presentations involving a wide variety of people of all sorts of backgrounds. This was a fascinating and very informative trip to a country that is full of history, contradictions, conflict and – in spite of it all – an undercurrent of hope and optimism, with wonderful and hospitable people everywhere, and it will probably take us quite some time to process everything we've seen and heard. In the meantime, here are some pictures, impressions, and thoughts from that trip.
I tried to keep the amount of photography kit manageable, so all I took was the PEN-F camera and the 8–25mm/4 and 12–100mm/4 lenses in my Thinktank Retrospective 5 bag. (I also had the 17mm/1.8 prime lens which I only used during the Tel Aviv “nightlife” excursion, and the 25mm/1.8 lens which I ended up not using at all). Looking back, the PEN-F with the two zoom lenses was a very powerful and convenient combination for lightweight travel. All in all I took some 1,300 photographs during the 11 days of the trip.
Click on any picture for an enlarged view.
17th October – To the Promised Land
(Well, they did promise us that the trip would take place, at the preparatory workshop last Saturday.) Having left our suitcases with Lufthansa yesterday we have an easy ride to the airport on public transport today and arrive there well in time, with only a slight delay, at 10.40am. We're supposed to meet the rest of the group at 11am, for the flight at 2pm, but once at the airport realise that the location where we're supposed to meet them was only vaguely specified. After some walking up and down the concourse we decide to proceed to the departure gate under our own steam and indeed there are a few people from the group already there, so that's good. The security checks start a little later. People ahead of us keep getting turned away for no obvious – to us – reason so we're becoming a bit uneasy even though we believe that we have dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. But in fact we and our cabin baggage seem to be acceptable and get to go on to the actual gate.
Boarding begins after a while – the flight is overbooked, so the gate attendants spend some time trying to find somebody who is willing to go on the 6pm flight for a €400 reward; not us! – and eventually everybody, their small children, their huge cabin-baggage suitcases and assorted stuff, etc. are neatly stowed away on the aircraft, so we manage to leave only a few minutes later than originally advertised.
The flight itself is uneventful and proceeds straight from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, across Bavaria, Austria, Croatia, North Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the east end of the Mediterranean. There's a scrumptious late lunch in the shape of an Emmental cheese sandwich. We have the feeling that on a comparatively long trip like this one the cheese sandwich is a little bigger than the ones Lufthansa serves on flights to the UK, but of course that may be just an illusion. Also to be sure we're dealing with Allgäu Emmental here, not Swiss Emmental; this is the economy class after all. Later on everybody gets a small piece of chocolate for (late) teatime. Such opulence. (Incidentally, Pro-Tip: If you plan to join the Mile-High Club, don't do it on an Airbus A321neo; the lavatories are so tiny that it's best to enter them backwards because once you're inside there's no room to turn around. No way would you fit two people into one of those.)
In Tel Aviv (where the international airport takes its name from the founder and first president of the state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion) we end up at an apron position and need to take a bus to the main terminal building. This takes a little time (especially since our seats are towards the rear of the aircraft) but after that, everything – obtaining the visa from an automated machine, passing immigration, picking up our bags, and meeting the rest of the group, including local manager Joel Bloch and our tour guide, Naomi Erlich, in the main hall – proceeds so smoothly and quickly that we are amazed (having heard all sorts of stories from people who had to answer various questions about their stay, etc.). Even the people in our group who travel to Israel more frequently seem to be surprised.
From Ben-Gurion airport it's a 50-minute bus ride on the main motorway (no. 1) to Jerusalem. The bus can't stop in front of the hotel so there's a few minutes' worth of walking before we end up at the Jerusalem Centre IBIS and are given our room cards, together with an exhortation to not go to the room right away but to go to the restaurant instead, where the hotel staff have kindly held dinner warm for us. There's a selection of salads, vegetables, cheese, bread, and cake; also some fish, but if the restaurant is indeed kosher like their web site claims, it's obviously on the “milky”, not “meaty” side of things. After dinner we pick up our suitcases, which have magically materialised in the hotel lobby, and find our room, where we're making ourselves comfortable after a long day of travelling.
18th October – Around Jerusalem
Today we need to get up early because we're meeting at 8am to get on our bus and go to the Mount of Olives. This is very popular with tourists because of the great panoramic views it affords on the Temple Mount and so it comes as no surprise that we get stuck in the Jerusalem touristic rush hour (Naomi assures us that it gets even worse later in the day). The Mount of Olives is in the Arabic part of Jerusalem which has a completely different feel from the Jewish part.
Having spent some time marvelling at the sight of all the famous holy places from a distance (plus a ginormous Jewish cemetery right below the viewing point, a number of other tour groups, and a few members of the tourist industry who sell camel rides or various trinkets with “Jerusalem” on them – surprisingly, the sellers are much less obnoxious than their colleagues in, say, Paris), we get back on the bus and continue to Auguste Victoria Hospital. This was founded by Auguste Victoria's husband, German kaiser Wilhelm II, and today caters exclusively to Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza strip. Part of the same complex is the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology (GPIA to its friends; the full German name, Deutsches Evangelisches Institut für Altertumswissenschaft des Heiligen Landes, is even more catchy), and we meet researcher Selma Born who is showing us around. She tells us that the institute was also founded by Wilhelm II; apparently he was told during his visit to the Holy Land in 1898 that most other European nations – the French, English, Italians, and so on – all had their own research institutes in the country, and His Majesty took very little convincing that the absence of a German archaeology outfit was a national disgrace that ought to be corrected fortwith. Nowadays the institute, with a second office in Amman, Jordan, takes part in various digging expeditions around the country, both in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and is committed to doing evidence-based science without viewing things through the lens of a religious establishment, even though its day-to-day funding still comes in large parts from the German Protestant Church (EKD). (This would be my tax Euros at work if I still was a member of the church.)
We get a quick tour of the premises including a nice little museum in the basement, and are then shepherded through the institute's laundry to the very nice back garden, which has breathtaking views on the outskirts of Jerusalem and the desert down to the Dead Sea.
Next on the agenda is a visit to the Ascension Church, again a product of the Kaiser's visit – Wilhelm II was looking for another building project to widen the German footprint in the Holy Land, but of course Jesus' birth (the orthodox Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem), death and resurrection (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) were all fairly well taken care of by then. It turned out that there was a small Russian Orthodox church on the Mount of Olives that celebrated Jesus's ascension to Heaven which had purportedly taken place from there, but of course here was an event in the Son of God's CV that could be covered more appropriately, hence the huge Ascension Church with its austere-looking neo-Romanesque exterior and opulent inside decoration. (In fact, the church is technically no longer on the Mount of Olives but on neighbouring Mount Scopus, a fact that the Kaiser deigned to overlook because there was no suitable real estate available on the actual Mount of Olives.)
The secrets of this place of worship are explained to us by Kathrin Kruse, recently-retired dean, before we break for lunch; Marie and I aren't really feeling hungry and we prefer to climb the steeple instead (230-odd steps for one of the most spectacular views on the city – certainly the highest up). Having arrived back down we make the acquaintance of the resident feral moggy, which seems to be fascinated by a strap connector on my camera and can only be convinced with some difficulty not to try to eat it.
From the Ascension Church we proceed to the main campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, again on Mt Scopus, where we're being shown around by Dr Matthias Schmidt, who came to the university for his ancient-history PhD in the 1980s and then after getting the degree apparently never left again. The university was founded in 1918 after some back-and-forth between the various Zionist bodies, the British administration, etc., and eventually officially inaugurated in 1925. It is not the first institute of higher learning in the area but the first where classes were taught in Hebrew – Technion in Haifa is somewhat older but since its faculty mostly came from German-speaking Europe, lectures tended to be in German (and Hebrew now apparently contains lots of electrical-engineering terms that are derived from their German equivalents). Nowadays it is the largest university in Israel and caters to both Jewish and Arabic students, although the university officially keeps no statistics on the relative proportions of either within the student body. The buildings on the campus are a mixture of the original from the 1920s (of which there are few left) and more modern buildings from the 1970s and 1980s – the university had to close once East Jerusalem was taken over by Jordan in the late 1940s and couldn't reopen until the Israelis took the area back in 1967. There is another open terrace with spectacular views of the city, plus an “amphitheatre” (pictured on the huge mural celebrating the university's official inauguration) with a vista across the Judean desert (including Palestinian villages and Jewish settlements) all the way to the Dead Sea and the Jordanian hills on its far bank. After a brief stroll through the botanical gardens and a quick look (from the outside) at some Greco-Roman burial caves we need to go find the bus for a ride to the last official sight to be seen today, the Israel Museum.
Having arrived there we're told that the “Shrine of the Book”, which contains a few of the famous Dead Sea scrolls, is closed today, so we have to make do with the regular exhibition, which like with many national museums is too big to see completely even if we were to spend a whole day there. Instead we have 90 minutes, which is enough for a brief look at part of the “Jewish Life and Ritual” section including a gigantic collection of Hanukkah candle holders and a number of reconstructed synagogue interiors from places all over the world, including India and Suriname.
We're back at the hotel around 6 o'clock (having found an ATM on the way from the bus, so now we're finally holders of Israeli currency) for a short rest before we go down to the basement restaurant for dinner, only to find that the basement restaurant is in fact closed today. On the way to the reception we meet one of our tour bigwigs who tells us that today dinner is on the 8th floor (9th floor for our American readers), which is fine with us. One consequence of this seems to be that we get to eat meat (among other things) because the 8th floor is apparently not quite as kosher as the basement. Anyway, the food is (again) very nice.
Of course we're not done for the day because after dinner there is a talk by David Witztum, noted foreign correspondent for Israeli radio and TV and based in Germany for a number of years in the 1980s, on “the current situation in Israel”. This turns out to be a description of the party-political landscape leading up to the general election on 1 November, which is interesting even if somewhat limited in scope. We learn that the basic question that all of the election is about is whether one is in favour of Benjamin Netanjahu (generally referred to as “Bibi” hereabouts) as prime minister or not. Party politics in Israel is not driven by what the parties' goals are, but by identity – there are parties for all sections of society, from ultra-Orthodox Jews to secular inhabitants of places like Tel Aviv to up-and-coming Israeli citizens of Arab extraction. “What one is” determines one's political allegiance, so there is very little movement between parties and, given that coalition options also seem to be fairly ossified, elections these days tend to end in stalemate. Witztum's claim is that “Bibi” could solve this problem very quickly by retiring, which according to him (Witztum) would instantly enable a coalition of 80 or so members of the 120-strong Knesset (Israeli parliament). We will certainly watch the results of the upcoming election with particular interest!
After that it's up to the room because tomorrow we need to be ready even earlier for our trip to the Temple Mount and the West Bank, which is also promising to be very interesting!
19th October – Past and Present
Today we're up and about even earlier, because we need to be ready to go to the Temple Mount at 7.15am! Fortunately the hotel serves breakfast from 6.30am (and at least according to Naomi, getting this very early start today will make 8am tomorrow seem positively luxurious).
The bus leaves us near the Flower Gate to the old city, and we make our way through throngs of Muslim school children to the Lion's gate, which is where we meet our tour guide, Mehdi, and near where we'll later enter the Temple Mount (unusually so, since tourists are normally supposed to use the Bab al Maghariba gate near the Western Wall, but then this is not the only unusual thing that will happen to us today). In point of fact, what we casually refer to as the “Temple Mount” is more properly called the “Haram Ash Sharif” because today it is mostly a Muslim holy place – Jews are only allowed there with police protection and are certainly not allowed to pray there. Incidentally, while the Haram Ash Sharif is administered by the Palestinian Muslim authorities, the Israelis are still in charge of security there, and they seem to enjoy playing little games with tour groups such as ours; we spend quite some time waiting outside the gate until the guards actually deign to let us in. Mehdi uses this time to ensure everybody is dressed appropriately modestly (which means head scarves for all of the ladies in our party, and some of them need to don sack-like floor-length “skirts”, kindly provided by Mehdi, over their normal attire). Finally we get to go in and make a direct beeline for the Dome of the Rock with its distinctive golden cupola.
This is definitely one impressive piece of architecture not to mention civil engineering – especially once one gets a chance to have a close-up look at the very ornate external decorations. These used to be mosaics but as it turned out they didn't stand up too well to the sun so were eventually replaced with Turkish faience tiles under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century. The Dome itself was initially put up by the Caliph Abd al-Malik in the late 7th century; the oldest archeologically-attested religious structure built by a Muslim ruler, it is octagonal and the central dome is 20 metres in diameter (incidentally almost the same as the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The Dome of the Rock is technically not a mosque but a monument: it contains (or more accurately, was built around) a humongous rock which according to Jewish tradition marks the centre of the world, and according to Muslim tradition was where one night the prophet Mohammed, having been whisked here from Medina on his magical steed, Buraq, started his ”night journey” to Heaven where he got to meet and pray with all important religious people who preceded him. There are also people who claim that this rock is where Abraham didn't quite sacrifice his son Isaac (good for both of them). In any case, its religious significance totally justifies building a magnificent edifice over it in order to keep it from what rocks do when they're exposed to the elements.
Normally non-Muslims are welcome to marvel at the Dome of the Rock from outside but they're not allowed to go in – except when you're on an especially booked and duly arranged guided visit like we are, so we get to take off our shoes and enter through the main portal. The interior is, if anything, even more stupendous than the outside; every square centimetre seems to be lavishly decorated with marble, faience, or mosaic. The Dome of the Rock is said to be the first instance of written Arabic used as decoration – various suras from the Quran are ornately written around the inside of the cupola (among other places). The actual rock is monstrously huge, certainly much bigger than we expected. We even descend a short flight of stairs to end up below the rock in what amounts to a special devotional space.
Unfortunately we, and particularly Mehdi, are in a bit of a hurry now (thanks, Israeli security police) and so we only get to see the al-Aqsa mosque briefly from the outside; the inside is also taboo to casual non-Muslim visitors. But we're not complaining, having already received much more than we had hoped for. In Arabic, “al-Aqsa” means “the farthest”, because according to the Quran, Mohammed travelled to “the farthest mosque” for his night visit. There are obviously places that ought to be conveniently reachable by magical steed which are way farther from Medina than Jerusalem, but we won't quibble; Jerusalem had been an ongoing religious concern way before Mohammed was around, and there's enough stuff from Judaism and Christianity in the Quran to make it a prime venue for Something Important as far as the prophet was concerned. And of course the actual al-Aqsa mosque wasn't yet there at the time – it was also put up by Abd al-Malik and has several times since been destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt. (According to various authorities, “the farthest mosque” in the Quran refers to the Haram Ash Sharif area, including the sites of the future Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa mosque, rather than the eponymous structure.)
We leave the Haram Ash Sharif via the “cotton seller's gate” (Bab al Quattanin) and make our way past various shopping stalls and several stations of the Via Dolorosa to the Damascus Gate, where our tour bus picks us up for our trip to Ramallah, in the West Bank. Forty minutes later we end up at the “Darna” restaurant, where over a delicious lunch we meet Mr Küsters from the German diplomatic mission to the Palestine autonomous areas. “We do everything that an embassy does, but we can't call ourselves an embassy”, he says, because the German government, unlike 150 other countries all over the world, doesn't recognise Palestine as an independent country, and only independent countries rate actual embassies. In spite of this, Germany, via the EU, is the second-largest donor to the Palestinian authority. Mr Küsters talks very interestingly and entertainingly about the work of the diplomatic mission and also answers a long series of questions from our group. It is sobering to hear that the “peace process” that was supposed to begin with the Oslo accords of the mid-1990s has not only come to a complete stand-still but is actually making steps backwards, so a solution to the conflict becomes, in fact, less likely with time.
While Mr Küsters needs to rush back to his desk (a mixup had apparently resulted in him thinking our visit would happen tomorrow, rather than today, so it's great that he could find the time after all), we welcome our next guest, Sam Bahour, who is a Palestinian who was born and brought up in the USA but came to the West Bank in the mid-1990s in order to found a telecommunications firm. He is now partly doing business development and partly raising awareness about the Palestinian situation in various places all over the world. Mr Bahour, too, is talking very eloquently and while he, like everyone else, has no ready-made solution to offer, he tells us that his two daughters (both graduates of top US universities) made the following point: What would happen if the Palestinians simply went to the Israeli government saying “OK, you win; you get all the land and we'll have peace, but in addition you'll also have to take us, with all the rights that Jewish Israelis have”. But non-Jews now outnumber Jews in Israel-plus-Palestine, so at that point Israel would then need to decide whether it wanted to be a democratic state with everyone, Jew or Palestinian, being equal, or a “Jewish” apartheid state where Palestinians remain second-class citizens. Suddenly a two-state solution doesn't look so bad anymore by comparison. Food for thought.
From Ramallah we continue to Ein Kerem, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem which according to tradition was the birthplace of John the Baptist. It's a pleasant little place only moderately overrun with tourists; we spend half an hour walking around before going on to the town of Efrat (near Bethlehem – the bible talks about “Bethlehem Ephrata” but today's Efrat is a modern foundation) to meet Joop Waterheim, who is a Jewish orthodox (not ultra-orthodox, though) settler who originally came from the Netherlands in the 1980s, according to him because he wanted his two daughters to marry nice Jewish men and in the Netherlands the risk of them turning up with nice non-Jewish boyfriends instead would have been too great. This is the other side of the coin from Sam Bahour's Palestinian views; we're not entirely satisfied with Joop's notion that “there are Arab villages in the neighbourhood but we're 15,000 people and they're only 5,000 or so, so what are they going to do?” or that after the war in 1967 King Hussein of Jordan was happy to get rid of the nagging problem of his West Bank real estate (we used to think that Israel simply took them over as “spoils of war”, but we're certainly not going to argue with the guy in his own living room). As far as I'm concerned the Palestinians have won this round on points.
By now it is dark outside and we have a rather long drive home in front of us – not that it's all that far from Efrat to Jerusalem on the map, but one huge traffic jam follows the next, and in a bus this is slow going. In the process we are, however, treated to an unexpected detour through the town of Bethlehem, which wasn't on the original schedule and which looks nothing at all like the place one imagines from the biblical nativity stories. It's more like a wild conglomerate of garishly lit shops and fast-food restaurants with a church thrown in here and there, and of course cars, cars, cars. We do make it back to our hotel in Jerusalem by 8pm or so – just in time for dinner in the 8th-floor restaurant and a relaxing evening in our hotel room.
20th October – The Old City and Yad Vashem
Today we're back to the Old City, via the Jaffa gate and through the Muslim quarter to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church looks not that special from the outside (apart from its size) but on the inside the amount of ornate decoration is staggering. The church is mostly operated by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian faiths, but other denominations such as the Syrians, Copts, or Ethiopian Orthodox are also making claims. All of this is governed by a decree promulgated by the Ottoman sultan Abdülmecid I in 1852/3 (upholding an earlier decree of 1757) which regulates which parts of the church can be used by which congregation, most of whom have monks on site acting as custodians. (None of the churches are in charge of the main door, which is why representatives of two prominent Muslim families unlock the door every morning and lock back up late at night. To put things into perspective, these families were nominated to the job by the famous sultan Saladin in the late 12th century.) These monks watch one another for infractions with eagle eyes, and as late as 2008, differences of opinion between various orders of monks have led to violent brawls. (The reason for a fistfight between holy men can be as simple as Franciscan brother X sweeping a part of the floor which the Greek Orthodox monks believe belongs to them, or Coptic brother Y moving his chair from its normal spot to a different one in order to get out of the hot summer sun. In 2002, the Ethiopian monks took exception to brother Y doing exactly that, and the resulting melee left 11 monks hospitalised.) Unfortunately we have to make do without such entertainment, but it is still fascinating to watch how visitors to the church apparently think nothing of sticking their hands into a dark hole below the Greek Orthodox altar of the crucifixion in order to “touch the rock of Golgatha”, or of queuing for what must be hours to have a look at the purported grave of Jesus. (Archaeologists tell us that the site of the church was, in fact, used for crucifixions, but of course whether a single person called Jesus ever actually existed and did everything the Gospels claim he did, culminating in being crucified and rising from the dead, is anyone's guess – there is no evidence for this other than what's in the Bible, a propaganda piece if there ever was one, although one would at least imagine that the Romans, who were fanatical record-keepers, would have mentioned trifles like a sudden solar eclipse and zombie apocalypse in their official dispatches. But we digress.) According to some, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the most important church in Christendom.
From the Church of the Holy Sepulchre we proceed to the Church of the Redeemer (Erlöserkirche), which is basically across the street. This is another church that was erected at the instigation of Kaiser Wilhelm II (in fact, its consecration in 1898 prompted Wilhelm's trip to the Holy Land in the first place) and is now owned and operated by the German Protestant Church (EKD). We're greeted by Propst Joachim Lenz (who proudly explains that according to the Kaiser's instructions, the senior clergyman in charge of the Church of the Redeemer should be called “Propst” – provost –, and that this makes him the one and only Propst in the EKD, where the title isn't otherwise used). He tells us about the activities of the church and the challenges of running a Protestant church at the spot where the Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Armenian quarters of the Old City all meet. For example, the EKD owns the roof of a souk next to the church (but not the actual souk below), and this roof is also a public thoroughfare. This means that any alterations – including essential repairs for safety – need to be cleared with the clerical leaders of all the local faiths in order to ensure that nobody objects. (A recent sound installation bringing together the music of all the faiths in the area was apparently vandalised by supporters of the local ultra-orthodox Jewish synagogue, who objected to having to listen to Christian and Muslim music.)
Our route next takes us into the Jewish quarter and to the Yeshivat HaKotel, which is a Jewish religious college combining (for many students) education in Torah, Talmud, etc. with military service in the Israeli Defense Forces. (A significant proportion of the attendees are from abroad, which means they're not forced to serve in the military but they can volunteer.) Rabbi Ari Kotler, an energetic American – if you're familiar with the 1990s Frankfurt Scottish Country Dance Club, imagine Jack Campbell as a rabbi – tells us about the philosophy and workings of the yeshiva before inviting us up to the roof terrace, which offers amazing views of the Jewish quarter, the Temple Mount, and the Western Wall. The yeshiva accommodates up to 500 students, most of whom also live on the premises; it is orthodox but not “ultra-orthodox”; according to the rabbi, he agrees with much that his ultra-orthodox brothers say but also disagrees with a lot of it. So, no mandatory black suits and hats here – but the students are still very dedicated and are, in fact, selected for their zeal. The yeshiva receives many more applications than it has places available, but they apparently like to keep things small and exclusive.
The next stop is the Western Wall (which many people, especially in Germany, like to call the “Wailing Wall” – Klagemauer – but the Jews point out that it is a place for all sorts of prayer, not just lamentation). In any case the story goes that prayers said at the Western Wall, which takes its name from the fact that it is part of the western wall of the Temple Mount and the closest that Jews can get to the site of the actual Jewish Temple, are particularly effective. When this part of Jerusalem was under Jordanian control after 1947, the wall was only accessible via a fairly narrow alley, and after the Israelis re-took East Jerusalem in 1967, they got rid of most of the buildings in front of the wall to create the huge plaza we see today. Access to the actual wall is divided into a fairly small women's section on the right and a larger section for men on the left (men apparently need an opportunity to pray without the annoying distraction of ladies present). This is the holiest place in the world for Judaism and it would already be quite busy on that account, but today is a Thursday, which means that people are eligible to book time at the Wall for their sons' bar mitzvah (Jewish confirmation, where a boy of about 13 becomes a full member of the Jewish congregation). This in turn means a virtually endless sequence of family groups conducting their scions to the Wall under a canopy (often made out of an Israeli flag, complete with star of David), with balloons in the national colours, and with a loud klezmer band in attendance, so the bustle and noise about the place is almost indescribable. But all the music, singing, and dancing illustrates that Jews certainly know how to celebrate.
We finally manage to catch our tour bus (or it manages to catch us) for a ride to Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. This is west of the city on the back of Mt. Herzl, which itself features a military cemetery that also includes the graves of various famous politicians such as Yitzhak Rabin or Menachem Begin (it's basically the Israeli version of Arlington National Cemetery). To be exact, Yad Vashem is not a single memorial but a collection of museums, memorials, and research and educational facilities dedicated to various aspects of the Holocaust; it was originally started as a place to collect the names of the six million Jews exterminated between 1939 and 1945 but then took on additional parts over the years. We meet with Gior Shefi, born Georg Spiegelglas in Berlin in 1931, who tells us the story of his life: being the only child of a single mother he was sent from Germany to England at the age of 8, where he grew up first in a clergyman's family and later the family of his Jewish physics teacher before moving to the USA to live with an uncle of his and finally emigrating to Israel in 1949. He spent some time in a kibbutz and the Israeli navy before studying engineering and becoming an entrepreneur; at 91 he is still very spry. He considers himself non-religious (“my religion is to help other people in need”) and seems happy to look back on his life which, with professional success and lots of children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren apparently worked out very well for him in spite of the trauma of losing his mother early in life (his mother and aunt were apparently transported to Auschwitz; nobody knows what exactly became of them there but it is safe to assume that they were killed.)
Of course we also take time to wander the grounds and look at the various monuments and memorials (not having huge amounts of time on our hands, Marie and I decide to skip the museum because we consider ourselves reasonably well-informed about our forebears' atrocities already, thank you). Particularly impressive are the Hall of Remembrance, incidentally the first memorial constructed on the site in the early 1950s, with its constantly-burning flame – although we agree that it looks completely different in reality from how we remember seeing it on TV – and the Children's Memorial, an underground site where a set of cleverly placed mirrors turns a few small candles into a virtually infinite universe of tiny specks of light in an otherwise completely dark surroundings.
Our bus takes us back to the hotel and Marie and I take the opportunity for another brief walk around the immediate vicinity before we return to the hotel for dinner and a well-deserved rest.
21st October – From Jerusalem to Regba
Finally it is time for us to leave Jerusalem and go north, with a few interesting stops along the way. First is Givat Haviva, which is the oldest and biggest educational establishment in Israel dedicated to further the understanding between Jews and Arabs, under the banner of “shared society”. Mohammed Darawshe (“My family has been living in my town for 800 years, and by now we make up half the population. If you just count the Mohammed Darawshes, you can narrow it down to 350”) explains to us that their approach used to be based on “coexistence”, but that didn't go far enough – after all, “a horse and rider also coexist, but after the ride the horse goes to the barn and eats hay, and the rider goes to the castle and eats a steak”. The current philosophy is based on “mutual interests”. For example, one problem is that while many Jewish women work, most Muslim women don't – and that is a problem because it means that Arab families don't have the benefit of a second income, and are more likely to end up below the poverty line. There are various reasons for this: There are very few bus lines that go from Arab villages (where the Arab women live) to Jewish towns (where the jobs are); Arab women have much less access to daycare than Jewish women; and Arab women often lack Hebrew and computer skills that they would need to hold down jobs in Jewish companies. It is obviously as much in the interest of Jewish companies to avail themselves of the Muslim-women workforce as it is in the interest of Muslim women to have good jobs, so this is an area where improvements might be made. There are also cultural workplace issues that stem from a lack of awareness of religious customs, for example around the various rules about food or fasting on Jewish and Muslim holidays. Givat Haviva operates two schools – one for 600 Arab children and one with 150 students of mixed backgrounds leading to the International Baccalaureat – and also runs ongoing programs for Arab and Jewish schools throughout Israel that attempt to bring classes from different school together for a few days, or one day per month for a number of months, to further mutual acceptance and respect. They are also training facilitators for outreach – there are now more than 180 organisations in Israel which are working on Arab-Jewish understanding, and most of them are run by people who at one time worked for Givat Haviva – and encourage Jewish and Arab schools to swap teachers.
In addition, Givat Haviva operates programs that give artists (frequently Arab women artists) space to work and exhibit. They are about to launch a residency program where six Arab and six Jewish art school graduates will work together for three months, in the hope that they will continue with joint projects when they enter the art industry.
From Givat Haviva we continue to the town of Caesarea, founded by King Herod and formerly the administrative capital of the Roman province of Judea after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The city had its greatest importance during the Byzantine period (4th to 6th century), but after the Muslim conquest in the 7th century it started to decline until the time of the crusaders, who captured and fortified it. When the crusaders eventually left, Caesarea was abandoned. After an extended (at the insistent request of some members of the group) break for lunch we start by visiting the Roman theatre, still in use as a venue for concerts, and continuing from there to the ruins of Herod's palace (splendidly situated on a promontory right next to the sea) and the equally ruined Ben-Hur-style chariot track. This started out as a “hippodrome” but eventually its far end was converted into an arena that was better suited to gladiatorial games and having wild animals eat Christians, activities that presumably were more popular with the crowds. Beyond the chariot track is the crusader town (or more precisely the ruins of same), and we inspect some of the remaining fortifications such as a gate and moat before rejoining our bus.
Next on the list is Israel's only artist village, Ein Hod on the slopes of Mount Carmel. Ein Hod was founded in the early 1950s by architect and Dadaist artist Marcel Janco, who came across it as an abandoned Arab village while researching sites for possible national parks. He wanted to preserve the place and eventually encouraged other Israeli artists to come and live there. We visit two elderly twin sisters who produce very beautiful glazed pottery and then drop in at the Janco Dada Museum, which is very interesting indeed but which we have hardly any time to look at, thanks to the extended lunch break earlier in the day. We do get to sneak a peek at the basement “Dada Lab”, where (mostly) children are encouraged to experiment with Dadaist art techniques – a unique facility in Israel and probably the rest of the world.
From Ein Hod we go past Haifa and Akko to Regba, which is a nondescript place containing our place to stay, the “Aqueduct Hotel”. We have a fairly big room (good) on the ground floor with direct access to the swimming pool (good in principle, but bad because we can't leave the room's only window/French door open overnight for air without encouraging burglars); the food is great (good) but the WiFi is lousy (bad). It's Shabbat, which means that every table in the dining room gets a complimentary small bottle of wine for a Kiddush blessing (it's just as well that it's a small bottle because drinking too much of that wine would be a direct route to diabetes); the hotel is apparently popular with large Jewish families out for a good time because after dinner the lobby transforms itself into a big, boisterous party space (which kinda sucks because the lobby seems to be the one place where the WiFi actually works).
After dinner we meet Zouheir Bahloul from Akko, a radio/TV personality, sports presenter, and former member of the Knesset (he left in 2018 after the Knesset passed the “nationality law”, effectively making Israeli Arabs into 2nd-class citizens), who talks about his experience trying to address conflicts between Arabs and Jews both practically and politically. After the optimism of Givat Haviva's Mohammed Darawshe in the morning this is something of a downer because Bahloul's overall conclusion is “I failed”. But in a display of the spirit that seems to be typical for all the Muslim activists we have met on this trip, this doesn't appear to stop him from trying further. He suggests that at the root of the problem lies Israel's education system, which features separate schools for Jewish and Arab children, with different languages and curricula (the Jewish schools also tend to be way better funded than the Arab ones).
We retire to bed after yet another day full of fascinating and insightful experiences.
22nd October – Nes Amin, Acre, and Rosh Hanikra
We spend this (quite beautiful) morning in Nes Amim (“the wonder of peoples”), which is only a stone's throw from our hotel. Nes Amim, sometimes referred to as a “Christian kibbutz”, was founded in the early 1950s by some Christians from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany who wanted to make amends for the atrocities committed on the Jews during the Nazi regime. At that time, visitors from Germany were not allowed in Israel, and while the first presence at Nes Amim was a group of three Swiss living in a surplus Swiss bus, it took some time for the first Germans – a couple who had already been declared “Righteous among the peoples” at Yad Vashem for their efforts to save Jews during WWII – to arrive.
Nowadays Nes Amim no longer produces roses and other flowers (its main source of income in the 1970s and 1980s, but no longer economically viable due to competition from places like Kenya – also, the Israeli government has made it a lot more difficult to bring in Europeans as temporary volunteers) and instead operates as a facility for furthering understanding between people of various religions, e.g., by arranging encounters between Arab and Jewish children. In that respect Nes Amim very much appears like the poor cousin of Givat Haviva, obviously a much bigger operation. We're being shown around by Daniel and Maaike, who are both Dutch (except that Maaike was actually born at Nes Amim); later on Maaike is joined by Taqir, an Arab Israeli who together with Maaike is in charge of the encounters programme. What he tells us is a mixture of what was said yesterday by Mohammed Darawshe and Zouheir Bahloul – bringing Jewish and Arab kids together is helpful, but overall the outlook seems to be bleak as far as lasting improvements are concerned. Taqir mentions that his wife is from the West Bank and can only stay in Israel based on a permit from the military administration which must be renewed yearly – there is actually a law which prevents Palestinians from becoming naturalised based on marriage to Israelis. She is not allowed to drive a car in Israel, nor is she entitled to statutory health care. “You will understand that we were very careful to make sure our children were born in Israel”, Taqir explains; this made them Israeli Arab citizens with at least some rights, which is better than being West Bank Palestinians with no rights at all. “Even my life is political!” says Taquir.
From Nes Amim we go to Acre (Akko), a very old harbour town which in the Middle Ages became the main port for pilgrims and crusaders reaching the Holy Land. Acre is mixed Jewish/Arab (with lots of Arabs) and offers the ruins of the crusader-era town – a UNESCO world heritage-level sight) which we duly inspect, from the knights' refectory and “beautiful hall” to the church undercroft (reached through a very narrow and, at least in part, uncomfortably low tunnel; the church itself is gone) and the 35-seat latrine (we were wondering how a crusader knight goes to the bathroom; chain-mail armour and a padded undergarment must have been something of an inconvenient obstacle to relief). Then we have lunch in an Arab restaurant (falafel, hummus, and the usual large array of side dishes) before strolling through the Turkish bazaar with its very eclectic mixture of stalls selling anything from food and spices to modern electronic toys to humongous Native American-style dream-catchers (one wonders …). This takes us down to Acre harbour, where we're witnessing the arrival of both a colourful passenger launch and a few no less colourful horse-drawn carriages for tourists, complete with large loudspeakers blaring Arab music. The youths operating these carriages seem to have a complete disdain for the rules of the road as well as the laws of physics, as we find out walking back to the bus while being overtaken every so often by one of these loud juggernauts. A few of us let themselves be enticed to visit a souvenir shop (we suspect that our tour guide is getting a kickback), but Marie and I simply enjoy sitting outside in the shade for a bit and watching the town.
Our final destination for the day is Rosh Hanikra (“the head of the caves”), which is in the far north of the country, right next to the Lebanese border. It is famous for its sea caves, which can be visited by taking a short hop (less than a minute) on a cable car and then walking a few steps to the cave entrance. There's a well-maintained (if slippery or odd underfoot in places) path which takes the visitor to some spectacular holes where one can see the ocean waves rush into the caves – sometimes with enough energy to cover the onlookers with a spray of droplets. Emerging from the other end it's another brief walk back to the cable car station for the ride back up, and it's convenient to walk another 50 metres or so to the actual border with Lebanon. Of course there's a war on between Israel and Lebanon, and has been since 1947, even though there has been a state of armistice for 20 years or so, so this is not something people seem to worry about too much in daily life. The border crossing itself can only be used by UN peace-keeping forces, and the location of the actual border is merely a convenience; an eventual peace treaty should detail its official course but for the time being we need to make do. Lebanon by itself isn't a huge threat to the state of Israel; the real problem comes from armed militias such as the Iran-controlled Hezbollah, which have thoroughly infiltrated Lebanon and whose hatred for Israel is unbounded.
From Rosh Hanikra we go back to the hotel and a relaxed evening. Once more it is time to pack up everything since tomorrow we'll be leaving for Tel Aviv.
23rd October – Haifa
Today we're going from Regba to Tel Aviv by way of Haifa, Israel's third-largest city (and twinned with Mainz since 1987). In former times Haifa was an Arab village but with the advent of Zionism, gradually more Jews moved in and eventually (in the late 1940s) as many Jews lived in Haifa as Arabs. Nowadays of course the Arabs – incidentally mostly Christian Arabs, who tend to be better off than Muslim Arabs elsewhere in Israel – are in the minority, but people in Haifa are quite aware of their shared heritage and relations are generally quite good (for Israel, anyway).
Unfortunately our visit to Haifa University is canceled at very short notice (apparently some sort of scheduling issue) and Marie and I are very glad that we didn't arrange to meet Ariel (an acquaintance of Anselm's from very long ago and now a professor of philosophy at Haifa University) there! That would have been a big disappointment for everyone. Instead our tour of Haifa is brought forward and we begin our visit near the top of Mt. Carmel, which offers amazing views not just of the city of Haifa and the Mediterranean, but in particular the splendid Bahá'í gardens which stretch from below the viewing point all the way down to the top of the “German colony”.
Haifa hosts the main Bahá'í sanctuary, the “Shrine of the Báb” (i.e., the golden-domed building in the pictures below). The religion started out in Shiraz, Iran, when Sayyed ʿAlí Muḥammad Shírází (1819–1850) proclaimed himself “the Báb” (“Gate”), a “messenger from God” heralding the arrival of a new prophet. His idea was that all major religions are essentially the same and that their founders – Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, … – are all part of a sequence of “manifestations of God” revealing that religion to the world. This of course was not at all popular with the Iranian government at the time, which considered “Bábism” an affront to Islam and eventually executed the Báb for his trouble. His ideas, however, were taken up and refined by his successor (and presumably the next “manifestation of God” that the Báb was on about), Mírzá Ḥusayn-ʻAlí Núrí (1817–1892), who came up with the basics of the modern Bahá'í faith and became known as “Bahá'u'lláh” (“Glory of God”). Bahá'u'lláh fared somewhat better than the Báb with the Iranian government, which instead of killing him outright merely exiled him first to Iraq, then Istanbul and Edirne, and finally to Acre, where he died and is buried. According to tradition, Bahá'í faithful arranged for the remains of the Báb to be taken to Haifa and buried there in 1909. The current domed building was erected over his grave from 1949 to 1953 and paid for by Bahá'í around the world. The gardens themselves can only be visited by special appointment on guided tours and our programme doesn't extend to that, but we do get a good look from the top (and later from the bottom). Incidentally, the Bahá'í gardens and shrine, as well as the Bahá'u'lláh's shrine in Acre, are part of the UNESCO World Heritage programme.
The bus then drops us near the bottom of the Bahá'í gardens, which is at the same time the top of the “German colony”. This was established by the 19th-century Templer movement (not to be confused with the medieval Knights Templars), which was a Protestant sect from the south of Germany. The Templers believed that if they lived in the Holy Land, that would accelerate the Second Coming of Christ, and they were eventually allowed to settle in Ottoman Haifa in 1868 (incidentally the same year that Bahá'u'lláh ended up imprisoned in Acre), the first of several Templer colonies in the Holy Land. With typical German efficiency, the Templers built German-style houses, introduced modern agriculture and local industries according to modern techniques, and established the first regular transportation and mail services between Haifa, Jaffa, Acre, and Nazareth. Many of the houses are still visible; they're easily recognised by their red tile roofs, numerous large windows, wooden shutters, and other architectural peculiarities normal in Germany but completely unsuited to the Middle East. The “German Colony” is now a trendy Arab area full of restaurants, cafés, and small shops centred on “Vineyard Street” (now David Ben-Gurion Ave.), which runs from the bottom of the Bahá'í gardens – where before those were built, the Templers used to grow grapes – down to the sea. We're taking a stroll down the main street and back up on the other side before the group stops for ice cream at one of the cafés (Marie and I think it is still a little early in the day for that, so we decline).
The next agenda item is a visit to Beit HaGefen, a joint Arab-Jewish cultural center. Located not far from the top of the German colony, it features among other things meeting rooms, an art gallery, a library, a theatre, and the “Third Space”, where we're meeting Asaf Ron, the executive director of the facility. He explains about the shared Arab/Jewish history of Haifa and Beit HaGefen's efforts to provide “common and equal spaces that encompass the variety of identities and cultures in Haifa in particular and in Israel in general”. The notion of “shared culture” sounds suspiciously like something we've heard in Givat Haviva the other day. The “Third Space” especially offers a number of activities through which people can examine various aspects of identity and of living in a multicultural society. We're astounded by something that at first glance looks like the floor plan of a flat cut out of some type of colourful carpeting but then turns out to be entirely made by arranging ground spices of various colours (28 kilograms in all). Asaf says “That air conditioner there hasn't been run for four years, and those windows haven't been opened, either”. He does admit that they had to redo the thing once because it had begun to emit an unpleasant odor – but the current version smells quite nice. We're encouraged to consider whether we associate “home” with a particular smell. Similarly, a shelf full of domestic objects is supposed to prompt more questions about identity. It looks like a very interesting place that allows for a lot of thought.
From central Haifa we proceed to the National Institute of Oceanography, which, situated on the outskirts of Haifa in a Brutalist concrete building that is purportedly designed to resemble a ship but really doesn't, is Israel's premier research establishment for oceanography (the study of the sea) and limnology (in case you're wondering, the study of bodies of water which are not the sea). After a brief introduction to the general mission of the institute, we split into two groups to meet with individual scientists. Marie's and my group first goes to see a biology researcher who is an expert on animals in sediment such as decapods (i.e., tiny crabs and shrimps). Her group is conducting regular surveys along the coast of Israel to ensure that aquatic ecosystems aren't harmed by pollution. We all get to peek into a microscope to see a fascinating multitude of strange and wonderful creatures among large and colourful grains of sand. Then we're visiting a physical oceanographer who introduces us to his “toy”, a €200,000 torpedo-like autonomous “glider” submarine which can take a sensor package into the ocean for days or weeks on end. Being a glider, it has no active means of propulsion but can control its depth and heading by clever manipulation of its oil ballast and moving its (massive) battery around just slightly. The glider can operate on its own for an extended time, and if something strange happens or if it needs new instructions, it can surface and contact its home base, giving its GPS coordinates. The researcher says “it is like having a baby at sea” – when the glider surfaces, possibly in the middle of the night, he needs to check by remote computer connection whether anything has gone wrong. Usually, whatever is the problem can be fixed remotely, but in 5% of cases someone must go out in a boat to find and repair the glider and send it back on its mission. All universities in Israel which are doing oceanographic research have chipped in and now the Institute has three of these gliders; the one we're looking at is currently undergoing testing and is supposed to go out again a couple of days from now. We're also being shown a new, very cheap and simple method to grow coral at four times the normal speed, something which should come in very useful for regenerating coral reefs all over the world.
After another stop for food (again not that interesting to the two of us) we're on our way to Tel Aviv, which owing to the usual Israeli rush-hour traffic jams we reach after more than an hour, around 6pm. At the “Leonardo Art” hotel we're greeted by a large pink rhinoceros (we know about pink elephants, but this animal, incidentally in a particularly lurid hue, is something we haven't seen before) before checking into our room, which even has a view of the sea!
We don't have very much time to rest because after dinner we're meeting Maya Schwartz (no relation of Marie's – just a “name cousin once removed”, i.e, once the extra “t” is removed), the CEO of the Israel Startup Association. Everybody knows (apparently) that Israel is the nation of startups, and this organisation is supposed to speak for startups' interests to, e.g., the government as well as help individual startups which have problems. Maya Schwartz sings the praises of the Israeli entrepreneur (she is embarrassed when someone points out that her slides refer to them as “he”) and then explains the SCAMPER approach to innovation (“substitute, combine, adjust, modify, put to other uses, eliminate, rearrange”). We're not entirely convinced that innovation for the sake of disruption – as exemplified by, e.g., Facebook, AirBnB, Uber, or Amazon – is always desirable but unfortunately don't get around to discussing this with her. We do note that out of 5,500 startups founded in Israel between 2016 and 2021, only 10% have survived their first year – but according to Maya Schwartz this is not a problem because in Israel, if an entrepreneur fails, nobody minds and they just do something else instead. All in all it seems that she sees the industry through glasses that are perhaps a little too rose-tinted for our taste, but then of course that probably comes with her job. Ms Schwartz happens to be Joel Bloch (our tour organiser)'s neighbour in Caesarea, which is presumably why she is taking the time to talk to us in the first place.
24th October – Tel Aviv and Jaffa
This morning's attraction is the “Museum of the Jewish People”, at Tel Aviv University. This used to be called “Museum of the Diaspora”, but has recently received a complete and very expensive makeover (with lots of videos, interactive displays, and so on) and reopened 1½ years ago under its new name. We're met by Naomi's friend Meira, who works at the museum and shows us around the exhibitions – a collection of detailed scale models of synagogues from all over the world; a brief presentation of Jewish life, holidays, and rituals; the history of the Jewish people from antiquity to the present; and a look at what being Jewish means to Jews from various places. While most of the others go to the cafeteria for belated elevenses, we go back to check out a special exhibition on Jewish humour, which is hilariously funny. It would be easy to spend a lot more time at this museum but unfortunately that isn't on the cards.
From the museum we go to south Tel Aviv to visit the Bialik-Rogosin school, which was established to provide education for underprivileged children like the children of refugees, asylum seekers, or migrant workers. This school has been active since the early 2000s and at the time featured students from more than 50 countries, but more recently most students are refugees from Eritrea (and other places in Africa) or the children of migrant workers from the Philippines. The main problem is that migrant workers can enter Israel for a period of five years but then need to leave. However, many of them don't because wages in Israel are a lot higher than in their countries of origin. This is tolerated in certain sectors such as live-in geriatric care (where the migrant workers do have to leave if the person they're caring for dies), but the only other line of work available to former migrant workers is cleaning. The people concerned are, of course, in the country illegally and have no access to healthcare etc. If they have children, these are obviously born into very precarious circumstances. Israeli immigration law makes it impossible for children of migrant workers to become naturalised, so the Bialik-Rogosin students usually have no prospect of citizenship and, for example, can't join the military and then later avail themselves of privileges that the state extends to veterans. The Bialik-Rogosin school – which is the only one of its kind in Israel – at least tries to give them an education, plus one hot meal per day and the feeling of being accepted into a caring community. The idealism of the teachers and volunteers at the school is infectious and the kids are totally cute, but the whole thing does leave something of a bitter aftertaste. [Editorial note: On this blog there are no pictures of the school because in Israel you're not supposed to take photographs of other people's children without the permission of their parents.]
The next stop is the town of Jaffa (Yafo, in Hebrew), which unlike Tel Aviv has been around for a very long time – 4000 years or so vs. somewhat more than a century. “Old Jaffa” still features many buildings from the Ottoman period, and we spend a couple of hours exploring, including St Peter's Church (which is Roman Catholic and has been restored using money from Spain, which is why it looks suspiciously like churches in Spain) and the “artists' village” in the really old part of town. In the 1970s, artists were encouraged to buy houses there at cut-rate prices on the understanding that they would then pay for internal refurbishments while keeping the exteriors unchanged (except for repairs). This means that the area is now full of art galleries and artists' workshops. After stopping briefly on the top of Jaffa's hill for a group photograph (which we may or may not end up receiving from whomever has it on their mobile phone now) we go back down into town to have ice cream from a shop offering a variety of alluring flavours (even if the ice cream, like everything in Israel, is a little on the expensive side).
Last on the programme is a visit with Doris Rania, who according to herself is “Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli”, a successful businesswoman, and apparently something of a local celebrity. She receives us in her lavish house and treats us to coffee, baklava and a rapid-fire standup-comedy routine version of her life and times in Jaffa, how to use coffee as a language, and how Christian Arab families work (in English). She does come across as a fascinating and wildly extroverted person whose visitors include Sarah Jessica Parker (“we didn't clean the rest room for two days”) and the head mayor of Frankfurt, Peter Feldmann (Frankfurt being twinned with Tel Aviv, so this is not implausible – but perhaps somebody should break the news to Doris that Feldmann is a somewhat unpopular person in Frankfurt these days).
We're back at the hotel in time for dinner, and afterwards take a little stroll along the beach before turning in.
25th October – Founders, Food Market, and Bauhaus
Tel Aviv was originally conceived as a modern “garden city”, and one of its enduring attractions is the large number of Bauhaus-style buildings in the inner city.
The Bauhaus was an architectural and art school founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, and is considered the most influential educational establishment of the 20th century in the arts. Associated with famous names such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe or Hannes Meyer, it operated first in Weimar, then in Dessau and Berlin, until 1933, when it closed under pressure from the Nazis. In the 1930s, Jewish architects in Tel Aviv, some of whom had studied at the Bauhaus in Dessau and many of whom had been forced to leave Germany, started constructing buildings in the styles associated with the Bauhaus, resulting in the “White City”. There are more than 5000 Modernist-style buildings, inspired by the Bauhaus as well as other architects like Le Corbusier, in Tel Aviv's city centre.
We start our exploration at Habima square, site of the Habima theatre and the Charles Bronfman Auditorium, home of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. The Habima building was originally started in 1933 by the Jewish-Hungarian architect, Oskar Kaufmann, and rebuilt and enlarged from 2007 to 2011 by the Israeli Brutalist architect Ram Karmi, a move that was not universally approved of. From Habima square, we walk along Rothschild Boulevard, which features various Bauhaus-style buildings, some of them recently renovated and others in various stages of dilapidation. Property prices and rents in central Tel Aviv are sky-high, even compared to other places in Israel which is quite an expensive country to live in general, but renovating these old buildings is also hugely cost-intensive. One approach is to add another story or two to a building that needs renovation, and finance the renovation effort from the proceeds of selling or renting the additional space – but of course not every building is suitable, and any additions must be made in a way that does not detract from the appearance of the original.
Near the end of Rothschild Boulevard is “Founders Square”, an area dedicated to the memory of the 60 families who decided to move out of Jaffa and start the new city of Tel Aviv. A large monument lists their names (in Hebrew) on its back, and on its front carries a picture showing the founders hard at work constructing their new home, plus some of the most prominent landmarks of the city. From there it is not far to the home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, which is currently undergoing renovation. This is also where on 14 May 1948 David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the new state of Israel, which is why the building is now also referred to as “Independence Hall”.
Next on our list is a visit to Neve Tzedek, which used to be a suburb of Jaffa that was founded by Sephardi Jews in the 1880s but was added to Tel Aviv when Tel Aviv became a mostly-autonomous township within Jaffa in the 1920s. In the early 1900s it attracted writers and artists, but with the development of Tel Aviv many of the more well-to-do inhabitants moved north and the area became neglected. However, instead of being demolished for high-rise buildings, preservation work was started on Neve Tzedek starting in the late 1980s, and this led to gentrification. Neve Tzedek is now one of the more fashionable and trendy areas of Tel Aviv and features cafés, restaurants, artists' studios and small shops. This includes the Suzanne Dellal Centre for Dance and Theatre, which is one of the premier establishments for dance in the country and occupies three late-19th-century buildings, including the Yechiely Girls School and the Alliance School for Boys.
A short bus ride later we alight at the north end of the Carmel Market, a large bazaar-type area which is famous for its offers of victuals – it's where the celebrity chefs go to shop, and of course Tel Aviv, being one of the foodie capitals of the world, has more than its share of those. We meet Yeela, who is a specialist Carmel Market guide and shows us around the area, plus we get to sample some of the delights the market and its surroundings have to offer. These include filled pita breads from Tripoli, Libya, hummus (a staple food in Israel but best when made really fresh, which most hotels and restaurants won't do) with various additions from “Indian” to “Mexican” style, and malabi, which is a milk-pudding dessert popular throughout the Middle East (elsewhere it is called “muhallebi”). In Israel, it is usually served with chopped pistachios (or, in our case, peanuts), coconut flakes, and a rosewater-based syrup which is dyed bright red. Yummy!
The final item on the agenda is the “Liebling house” – nothing to do with the 1990s legal-drama series on German TV, but the abode of the Liebling family designed by Dov Karmi and built in 1936. Its defining feature are the recessed balconies, a first in Israel at the time and inspired by Le Corbusier's strip windows; we convince ourselves that they are good for catching the breeze from the sea and providing shadow from the sun. The Liebling house is now a museum documenting the preservation of Tel Aviv's Bauhaus-style architecture – on the ground floor there is a small exhibition giving an overview of Tel Aviv's architectural history while the top floor features a flat (or set of flats, we're not sure because almost every door frame seems to feature a mezuzah, or prayer scroll container which pious Jews will touch when entering the apartment – but then we hear that very pious Jews will put a mezuzah on every room in the flat except bathrooms, which are not considered living spaces). The flat also includes a “Frankfurt kitchen”, the first fitted kitchen which was developed for a social housing project in Frankfurt in 1926. From the roof there is an interesting view on the city with its mixture of Modernist buildings and skyscrapers.
We return to the hotel for a rest and dinner, but then reconvene for a tour of nighttime Tel Aviv with another specialist guide, Evi. Tel Aviv is considered second only to New York City when it comes to “cities that never sleep” and features a very vibrant nightlife. Evi shows us around a few street corners but then lets himself be talked into cutting the sight-seeing short in favour of visiting a bar, and he takes us to his favourite place, “Sputnik”, off the intersection of Rothschild Boulevard and Allenby Street. Marie and I aren't experts on bars but this looks reasonably down-to-Earth; according to Evi it is a “neighbourhood bar” and doesn't try to be especially trendy. After a while, Naomi declares that it is time to leave because the bus has been ordered to take us back to the hotel, which is fine with Marie and me, but a more party-affine part of the group wants to continue to a “rooftop bar” for (presumably) more studies of Tel Aviv nightlife. This of course means that they will need to make their own way back to the hotel, and the next morning we hear that they walked, which doesn't sound unreasonable to us – it's not so far and it's presumably what we would have done if the majority had decided to continue. But we prefer getting a good night's sleep because tomorrow will be another early start!
26th October – Weizmann Institute and Kibbutz Nirim
Only two items are left on the programme for the trip: We meet in front of the hotel at 8.00am and strike out south in the tour bus, first to Rehovot, which is 25km or so south of Tel Aviv and home to the world-famous Weizmann Institute. Named after Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann, who was a chemistry researcher by profession, it is one of the finest science research establishments in the world. It turns out that we're early – we're not expected until 10am –, so we get an extra look at Weizmann's private home, which happens to be on the premises and was designed by the famous Jewish architect, Erich Mendelsohn. After that we're off to the visitors' centre for an introduction to the various types of research done at the Institute and a multi-media ode on how wonderful it is to be able to do science in general and do science at the Weizmann Institute in particular. It seems to be a great place (a friend of mine from way back when spent some time here as a post-doc physicist and ISTR that he rather liked it) but as at the universities we've seen, one gets the impression that every single building has the name of a philanthropic donor (or donors) attached.
From Rehovot we go even farther south-west, all the way to Kibbutz Nirim, whose agricultural fields abut the Gaza strip. We're greeted by Adele Raemer, who is originally from the USA but has been living in Israel, and specifically at Nirim, since the mid-1970s. The main issue she tells us about is the constant threat of rocket attacks from inside Gaza. Given that the distance between Gaza and the living area of the kibbutz is approximately 2 kilometres, people in Nirim get all of 10 seconds' warning if the Hamas decides to lob some rockets or mortar grenades in their general direction. These 10 seconds must be spent racing to a shelter and hoping for the best. (Israel's famous “Iron Dome” missile defense system can't be used here because the rockets from Gaza fly too low for it to engage them.) After the first set of attacks in the early 2000s, the Israeli government, at great expense, added fortified shelter rooms to all the houses in all the kibbutzim, which mitigates the problem somewhat. Additional free-standing shelters are scattered around the kibbutz, and the day-care centre – where it is impossible to herd all the children into a shelter in time – has a protective concrete “sleeve” around it which basically turns the whole building into a shelter. Sometimes rockets fail to explode but it can take weeks for a bomb squad from the military to get around to cleaning them up. Other types of attack include smouldering coals tied to gas-filled balloons which are intended to cause crop fires, or balloons with booby-trapped toys. Given that Hamas is largely sponsored by Iran, the new “kamikaze” drones that Iran apparently supplies to Russia for the war in Ukraine might eventually turn up in Gaza, too. In addition, there used to be issues with elaborate tunnels dug from Gaza to Israeli territory which have been used for armed incursions and to kidnap Israeli soldiers; this has mostly been mitigated by constructing a fence which extends all the way down to the local aquifer (at 60–80 metres deep underground) and makes it impossible to tunnel through. Adele believes strongly in raising awareness of the situation and runs a Facebook group and Twitter feed to inform people inside and outside Israel about what it is like to live in what amounts to a war zone. She points out that there is very little the Israeli military can do to cut off the attacks at the source because the rockets are often fired from residential areas. Asked why the inhabitants of Nirim don't simply pack up and move elsewhere, she explains that nowhere in Israel is really safe from terrorism: the larger Hamas rockets reach from Gaza all the way to Tel Aviv, and of course there is always the risk of suicide bombers, etc. Nirim was one of the “11 points in the Negev”, a set of kibbutzim that were established in the Negev desert during the years before the founding of the state of Israel in order to stake a claim on the area, and as such it plays an important role in Israel's early history.
We also ask Adele and Aviva, a German who emigrated to Israel in the 1970s to experience “real voluntary communism”, about life on a kibbutz in general. It turns out that very few kibbutzim actually still follow the practical communism that was typical in the beginning, based on “everyone contributes according to their abilities, everyone receives according to their needs”. Like most kibbutzim today, Nirim has been privatised, which basically means it operates like a village: everyone lives in their own house that they're supposed to maintain at their own expense, and instead of a modest stipend that is the same for everyone from the head of the kibbutz all the way down to the lowly agricultural workers, people earn typical wages which are taxed in the usual way (although there is a hefty “local tax” that the kibbutz charges, to pay for the shared resources that still do exist). Also it is not uncommon for people to just live in the kibbutz and work elsewhere, including at professional jobs like lawyer, doctor, banker, …. In spite of this and the persistent threat of rocket attacks, there is a waiting list for people who want to move to Nirim. Adele says that as far as she is concerned, Nirim is “95% Heaven, 5% Hell”, and that makes it worth staying there. Nirim itself derives all of its direct income from agriculture, growing peanuts, avocados, wheat, etc. for export. Irrigation is of course a problem, but not as much as it used to be; recycled water is used a lot, there is rain between November and April as well as a rainwater reservoir, and the kibbutz also has access to water collected in the hills above Hebron. The place certainly does not look like a desert.
We're having a late(ish) lunch at the kibbutz dining hall and then take a short walk around the area. Adele shows us one of the free-standing bomb shelters (there's a project to decorate them with cartoon-style paintings to make them look less menacing), plus the place where a rocket attack in 2014 killed two kibbutzniks and seriously injured a third. Finally we get a peek through the fence to the Gaza strip in the distance, where we can clearly make out the minarets and dome of a mosque from whose vicinity (we're told) the Hamas like to shoot rockets towards Nirim.
We leave the kibbutz with mixed feelings; the people there seem to actively enjoy their life, but the constant threat of attack does not appeal to us. Adele has told us that she is in touch with people inside Gaza who are also working towards peace, but also that apart from symbolic projects there is very little the kibbutzniks and their counterparts in Gaza can do to effect real change. One project that Nirim participates in is a shuttle service for Gaza inhabitants who are allowed to go to Israel for medical treatment (remember the Auguste Victoria hospital in Jerusalem, which we visited at the start of our trip and which is the only oncology centre that is available to the people of Gaza). They are picked up by volunteers at the border and delivered to wherever it is that they need to go.
At 5pm we're back at the hotel and have some free time before dinner to re-pack our suitcases. After dinner the group meets in the otherwise-deserted rooftop bar for a session looking back on the trip. In spite of some minor complaints everyone seems to have had a great time, and the selection of visits and people we met was generally lauded.
27th October – Shalom ve le hitraot!
In the morning there is the strange feeling of not having to get up very early to go on some excursion – the only appointment we need to keep today is to be in the hotel lobby with our luggage at 12.15pm for the transfer to the airport. Marie and I spend the morning actually getting together with Ariel, who has volunteered to drive down from Haifa (more than a small inconvenience given Tel Aviv morning traffic and an acute shortage of parking spaces). But we sit in front of a beach-side café drinking smoothies and talk about our trip, the situation in Israel, our time in Edinburgh in the late 1980s, Ariel's family, and so on. Time flies, and far too soon we need to say goodbye, fetch our suitcases, and catch the bus to the airport.
At the airport everything proceeds reasonably quick and without the intensive questioning by security officials people told us we'd have to expect when leaving Israel. It's sad to have to say goodbye to Naomi and our bus driver, Modit, but by 2pm we're installed in front of the departure gate ready for the flight home – which is officially delayed by half an hour and actually leaves the ground at 5.10pm or so. The flight itself is unremarkable (cheese sandwiches and chocolate, again, but this time there are two drinks services, not just one); the aircraft is a lot less crowded than on the way out, which is nice, and we end up safely in Frankfurt shortly after 8pm (German time). The only snag is that in the airport we need to wait almost an hour before everyone's suitcases arrive on the conveyor belt, but we eventually make it home by taxi by 10pm.
What a trip! We've seen and learned a lot and it's not unlikely that at some point we'll come again in order to fill in some of the inevitable gaps that even a very intensive programme will leave. In the meantime, there are lots of impressions to process, and it is safe to say that we will see news from Israel with different eyes now.