How Can This be Israel?
I have just woken up in Galilee at the Mitzpe Ha Yamin organic farm and health center and had my first morning glimpse of Israel. I walk out slowly onto the veranda, which overlooks the Galilean hills. Horses graze on the hillside and I absorb the peace and quiet that extends for miles in all directions. I was expecting to hear the distant sound of at least a few explosions and maybe some smoke on the horizon over my morning coffee. The only smoke to be seen is from construction sites not far from the Sea of Galilee. I was to have this sense of surprise, which gradually grew into an awareness of reality versus television’s inadvertent distortion of that reality throughout my ten days in Israel. I ate splendid food, met wonderful characters and walked safely wherever I went, but the constant broadcasting of violence from the West Bank into American homes has rendered the Israel of imagination a frightening place somewhere between Watts in the nineteen sixties and Black Hawk Down in the early nineties.
Even now in this time of great tension, most of the military activity, aside from a spate of suicide bombings, is in the West Bank. What most people don’t realize is that the West Bank is not typical of Israel as a whole. The country’s airport security is still legendary, as is that of its airline El Al. As long as you don’t visit the Gaza Strip or some of the towns in the West Bank, or any other questionable neighborhoods you will have a marvelous time â€” even now! Visiting Israel is like visiting America. If you go to bad neighborhoods, you’ll be sure to find trouble. If you stick to the tried and true destinations, you’ll have far less trouble than you are likely to encounter on a visit to any major American city. Palestinian suicide bombers certainly add an element of unpredictability, but then, so does road rage and drive-by shootings back home. But I digress with political analysis – back to Galilee.
Galilee has been known since Biblical times to be a hotbed of social change, free spirits, fierce independence and wine making. Didn’t one of the greatest Galileans turn water into wine? (It is no accident that Jesus was a Galilean; he probably wouldn’t have been tolerated anywhere else.) The Bible says that the wedding party had run out of wine and that the subsequent Jesus vintage was superior to anything yet consumed. Surely, Jesus knew a thing or two about wine that he had absorbed from watching the activities of the local vineyards. It is in this spirit, so to speak, that I tear myself from my musings and take myself to the local wineries with a tour group. The Kibbutz Amiad is situated in former swampland at the base of the Hills of Galilee and is one of the smallest wineries in Israel. The wine master is, curiously enough, a Scotsman – a frightening thought for a Frenchman but as an American, I take this as a good sign that Israel, like America, is a melting pot of cultures and individuals.
A fascinating number of fruit wines and liquors are produced at Amiad. Their original fruit wine was made out of Kiwi fruit and tastes, I am told, very much like a California chardonnay. Unfortunately, I am unable to sample the wines as our tour guide drags us off to sample goat cheese and visit the olive press at Ein Carmonium. I could be on a farm in California, as I view the repast on outdoor tables spread out in front of me under a Ramada made of olive branches. I make noises appropriate to the connoisseur and make small talk with the hosts. My mind is elsewhere however. I am pondering eternal questions: What sort of wine would Jesus have drunk at the local tables of his village? Did he feel mellow after a glass (the Romans had plenty of glassware) or what wine did he prefer with lamb, with beef or with cheese? Did he have a vintage in mind at the Last Supper? These are the things people really want to know. I am disappointed to find out that the original vineyards of Israel were destroyed after the fall of Rome. Islam of course prohibits the consumption of alcohol, so it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century when Baron Edmund de Rothschild established wineries that wine began to make a comeback in Israel. The newest vineyards have risen Phoenix like over the past twenty years on what is really an ancient vine growing land. Where there is wine there is civilization. It is perhaps no accident that Arabs and Jews get along better in Galilee than in any other part of Israel.
One of the older vineyards in Galilee is now owned by Tishbi in Zichron Ya’acov. The original vines were planted 120 years ago under the Baron Rothschild’s supervision. The present owner, Golan Tishbi, and his son are extremely hospitable and offer us yet more food and of course wine. Tishbi produces four series of wines, each offering a solid value. Their chardonnay 2000 is excellent and tastes like a pinot grigo, but as I hoist my glass, I again have the feeling that I am in Napa Valley or Bordeaux. The brotherhood of wine, I think to myself, was indeed a wise choice for Jesus to graft the branch of his new religion onto. My quasi-religious thoughts are interrupted by our host who wants to take us to their liquor distillery. I go in for a quick look and am transported. The distillery equipment is exquisite 1920s vintage brass and copper that look very much like something Aladdin would have built for his own private stash. The Jonathon Tishbi Special Reserve Brandy is worth buying just for its association with this splendid equipment.
I hasten to a goat farm at the cave village of Satef in the hills outside of Jerusalem, complete with satellite dish and cell phones. Shai Zelter is a world famous maker of rare goat cheeses. If you think goat cheese is inferior to cheese made from cow’s milk, you must try these rare cheeses. They are unlike anything I have ever had before, excepting perhaps the finest of French country cheeses. The scent on the outside of the cheeses is extraordinary. Shai had me rub the rind of the cheese and then smell my hand. You can actually smell what the goats were eating at the time the milk was produced. At the third winery on the tour, I am still half expecting to see some sign of trouble but of course no such thing is to be found – unless of course the neighing of horses and the sighing of the wind frightens you.
The wines of the Domaine Du Castel winery in the Judean Hills are exquisite â€” to be compared to the best of French vintages in the same class. Their grand vin made with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and a little petit verdot was almost divine. After a glass, and a bite of excellent local cheese, I floated through the cellar linking myself metaphorically to wine drinkers of all ages. The wine master is of course French and the location of the winery in the small town of Ramat Raziel high in the proverbial hills of the New Testament makes it an extraordinary place to visit.
Later that evening, we go to Tiberius and visit Decks, a restaurant the size of an airplane hanger on the Sea of Galilee. There is something utterly magical about dining by the shores of this most fabled of inland seas. We are seated at a waterside table by the son of one of the owners of the restaurant. He is acting as headwaiter tonight. He doesn’t say much but moves with authority. I am immediately intrigued by him. He shaves his head skinhead style (this is popular with young Israelis) and is handsome, rugged and engaging. His mother, a delightful and attractive woman in her late fifties, whispers to me that her son is very modest. I take him to be a man of few words, internally approve of his virtue and settle into my meal. As a waiter he is very attentive and begins to engage us in conversation. Within a few minutes, I am struggling with my own credulity and laughing out loud to myself with admiration at the mother’s hilarious con, for in fact, her son is a megalomaniac. He informs us of his plans to build a jet ski facility on the Sea of Galilee, and informs us loudly that it is impossible to do business in Israel. This is of course additionally amusing, as he has just informed us that he built his restaurant without the appropriate permits and could have his business license revoked at any time. He is going to do this and he is going to do that; his plans unfold at manic pace. My Israeli dining companion turns to me and says quietly with a perfectly straight face that he is like a young elephant in the jungle shouting that he wants to eat. We dub him the elephant and are caught up in the increasing velocity of the grandeur of the plans he unfolds before us. Ultimately, I am taken with his sincerity and his desire build and to create. In America, he could build an empire. Here in Tiberias he is perhaps just another eccentric Israeli.
The following day, I take a day trip to Tel Aviv and the neighboring Arab town of Jaffa. The Mediterranean waters and the avenues of Tel Aviv remind me vaguely of Miami. I’ll take a vacation here any month of the year. Restful, ancient and cosmopolitan at the same time Tel Aviv delivers the goods. I am traveling with a Chilean beauty queen and wine critic, Paola Embry-Gross, and photographer Brent Madison. We have nicknamed our Chilean beauty “Barbita” and tease her mercilessly. She in turn poses for photos that could be in any fashion magazine. In America, I can’t help but think of the catcalls that Barbita would be getting with her poses. There is none of that here. Arabs and Israelis alike pay little attention to our antics.
Somehow in the middle of our photos and fantasies, we are invited in for coffee with Ilana Goor at her restored castle in the artists’ quarter in Jaffa. She quickly bemoans Israeli-Palestinian relations – particularly as it affects the children – and she decries local work ethics. She tries to teach respect for work wherever she goes and her own artwork is extraordinary, powerful and creative. (You can actually buy Ilana Goor originals in the castle shop.) Her respect for work is not surprising as many businesses in Jaffa were started by German Jews. You may have heard the saying: Jaffa works, Jerusalem prays and Tel Aviv plays. Later her multi-millionaire husband leaves bread for me at the hotel that Ilana had recommended I try from a local Arab baker. I am touched by the graciousness of his actions.
The following day, I rise early and jog along the beaches of Tel Aviv. Israel seems much bigger than I thought it would be. There are lots of beaches, mountains, plains and great highways. Why aren’t there more tourists visiting this place, I wonder, but then I recall the Infitada and think how insane it is that tourists are not visiting because of Moslem lunatics running around with guns in the West Bank and occasionally splattering themselves and others in terrorist attacks here and there. We have similar violence all the time in America – why should it bother us over here? I felt far safer in Tel Aviv than I do, for instance, in Los Angeles. If you look at the statistics there are many more senseless murders every year in New York City than in the whole of Israel. (Indeed, one might argue that many American cities should be occupied by the military due to the enormously high crime rate.) So what is the big deal? Is it because it is personal – Arabs killing Jews, Jews killing Arabs – or is the whole thing just overblown? I suspect that in America, we have become horribly desensitized to domestic and social violence and that we assume an unsightly moral posture in relation to violence when it appears in other countries, as a way of balancing the deficit of our own moral checkbooks. The reality is that Israel is safer than America overall – even on a bad Arab day.
On my last day in Israel, I take a road trip out into the Negev Desert, intent on visiting Masada, the Dead Sea, and Quumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. As we ride through the ancient and eroded land of the Bedouins, I can’t help but think about the most peculiar thing of all that I discovered about Israel: there is actually more land here than one might imagine but much of it is unusable due to the lack of readily available water. I live in the American Southwest, which would be impossible to do without the waters of the Colorado River. The Sea of Galilee already supplies most of Israel’s water needs and is declining in volume year after year. I can’t help but think that the Negev could be settled with benefits for both Israelis and Palestinians, if the Israeli government and the Palestinians were to invest substantial sums of money in massive desalinization plants. The Dead Sea cannot be used as a source of drinking water as it is so dead that nothing can live in it – and nothing does. I dove into the water (not noticing the signs warning against diving) and came up spluttering with horror. The water is so salty and loaded with other minerals that it tastes like acid and will burn any cut or abrasion like rubbing alcohol. If you drink it you are advised to seek medical attention.
The vast ruin of Herod’s summer palace on Masada is surely one of the ancient world’s engineering wonders. Here on top of an ancient massif, Herod could loll in steam baths and enjoy 360 degree vistas while he drank whatever his equivalent of coffee was in those days. His summer palace actually extended over the edge of the cliff in a series of cascading levels and must have been an extraordinary sight to those down below. It would be an astonishing landmark if it were new even today. Here like many aspects of life in Israel, the reality of the place outstrips the myth. It is true that Jewish Zealots killed themselves rather than let themselves be taken by the Romans but it is also true that Masada was not just inhabited by Jews. Indeed, this explains the Roman’s particular determination to conquer Masada: it was a hotbed of political intrigue consisting of religious zealots of all types from Quumran and political activists from other areas, who much as they do today, hide out in the desert when they are not welcome elsewhere.
The remains of the Roman siege ramp are still visible from Masada, as are the outlines of Roman encampments. The Jews and the others with them would have known for certain when the Romans were close. They knew what slaughter the Romans would wreak upon them by way of vengeance, and so, rather than dying at the hands of the relentless Romans, they collectively took their own lives. There is little doubt that they left the Romans gnashing their teeth at their final escape. It is, I suppose, one of those unresolved cultural curiosities – the stubbornness of the Jews that earned both Roman respect and enmity. My mind flashes back to Yad Vashem, the national memorial of the Holocaust, which I had visited the previous day. So many dead for such miserable reasons. It is almost as if the collective stupidity of mankind is a migrating disease that leaves no mind untouched on its travels. Let us hope that this toxic cloud of stupidity that is rapidly descending on all sides of Arab-Israeli relations does not bring about more needless suffering. There is enough land in the region, if water can be made available through modern and scientific means. All parties need to make a real compromise on what they want knowing full well that each side wants what the other does. As one Israeli told me, “we just want an amicable divorce from the Palestinians.” That ultimately, may be the best solution but all sides will really have to give something of value to make it happen and stop trying to play shyster games at the negotiating table. Listening to Israelis and Arabs talk about the peace process and then tallying up who is guilty of what and when, and who is worse than the other is like listening to, as Borges once said of the Argentine-English war over the Falkland Islands, “two bald men fighting over a comb.”
Well, maybe I exaggerate a little. The appalling and devolving lunacy of suicide bombing ups the ante for new standards of stupidity and spiritual depravity. Not since a small man with a moustache announced a moral enlightenment that required poison gas and death’s signature for its perfection have we seen anything like this. However, every time we allow our travel decisions to be made based on the activities of lunatics, we give them power. Fight back. Visit Israel and see for yourself what is going on. You will be very pleasantly surprised.
Editor’s Note: At the time of this article publishing, there have been increased tensions in the Middle East, including fighting between Israel and Lebanon. Please research the current political situation when planning a trip to the area.
Sean O’Reilly is editor-at-large for Travelers’ Tales. He is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and prison instructor with a degree in psychology. Widely traveled, Sean most recently completed a journey through the islands of the South Pacific and Malaysia. He lives in Virginia with his wife and six children.