Sunday, July 22, 2007


Vivian and Eric at the Mitzpe Ramon crater in the Negev Desert
We're home!

In memory, I will express the four week vacation with one word: "Family".
Eric, Vivian and myself spent hours together in close and often intense experiences and related at levels that can only occur when you live together, closely, in hotel rooms, taxis, airplanes and buses for a month.

We didn't starve. Israel's free hotel breakfasts are truly incredible -- enough often to satisfy hunger until dinner time (we often packaged a lunch sandwich from the breakfast buffet). The airlines got us where we wanted to go, mostly on schedule, at off-season fares (I used Air Canada points to get us to Boston, and Alitalia -- which got us where we needed to go properly despite all its labour and business problems -- to get us to and from Israel).
We learned. Guide Moshe Ben Baruch proved to be worth every cent of his daily fee. He provided us an in-depth perspective of the country.

We communicated. Verbally, yes, but also on much more non-verbal levels. As a family we played with our humour, or distinctiveness, and our shared values. I ruined a pair of shoes rafting with Eric through "rapids" on the Jordan River. Vivian and Eric spent hours in swimming pools together. And I and Vivian shared our thoughts on Israel's politics, history and economy.
I think our views and perspectives about Israel's place in the world are similar to the great majority of, for want of a better word, secular but observant Jews in North America and Israel.
We love the country, are proud of its accomplishments, and impressed by its progress. But we are troubled by some very difficult questions because the story here is not defined by our Western values, but by the extremists on both sides of the equation.
On the Palestinian side, we find Hamas, bent on Israel's destruction, and determined to impose Islamic religious values and rules on the population. Some Hamas spokespeople are careful in glossing over their anti-Semitism, but it isn't far beneath the surface. Hamas won a democratically fair election in Gaza and the West Bank, so, whether we like it or not, this organization represented the Palestinian majority opinions. (I'm sure some of its election supporters would change their mind knowing the cost of this hateful organization to the Palestinian economy, but on the other hand, we must not forget those images of Palestinians cheering the Al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the Israelis have their own challenges, including the "One Israel" settler movement which avoids the biggest problem in their vision that Israel should not give up an inch of the Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza -- that Israel cannot occupy this territory without either giving up its democratic values, or its Jewish identity.
Throw in corruption, cynicism, and greed on both sides of the fence, plus international meddling (especially by Iran and the U.S.) and you have a story that might seem hopeless.
But there is hope. Israel's new president Shimon Peres said that Israel knows it cannot occupy the West Bank without compromising its values and identity. See this Jerusalem Post editorial -- and read the comments for another perspective). Meanwhile, his counterpart in the West Bank, Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has renounced terrorism and supporters within the Fatah movement are (at least temporarily) giving up their arms and coming out of hiding. Israel is not starving Gaza -- allowing humanitarian aid to cross the border -- but rightfully is insisting that Hamas must give up its hateful attitudes (or be deposed) before things can return to 'normal' there, and so far the International community accepts this reasonable position.
And the Israeli economy is booming, with the creative, innovative, and talented individuals making their way and creating business, opportunity, and growth.
So I'm cautiously optimistic. Maybe most importantly because of Eric and Vivian. We laughed. We gained some weight. We learned a little about the world and a lot about ourselves. We grew. I think Israel is capable of growth and maturity, too, and that reasonable Israelis and Palestinians -- while respecting their own identities and values and not being afraid to fight for what they perceive as being right -- will reach an understanding with each other and ultimately find peace.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Heading home

We're at Milan's Malpensa Airport, preparing for our fight to New York and then onto Boston for a final night before returning home.
Milan has reminded me of the depth of culture and achievement in Italy. We visited Italy's national Science and Technology museum where you can see working models of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings, and saw Castsello Sforzesco, an amazing palace and the residence of the Sforza court in the 15th century. While there, a local opera company was rehearsing for an open-air performance; we could sense the quality and artistic talent in this rehearsal far surpasses much of what we see professionally in Canada.
Alitalia has also proven itself surprisingly reliable and convenient -- though we have a long flight to New York with a connection to Boston tonight.
I am still absorbing the Israeli experience and will file a final report when we return home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Milan

We arrived safely in this northern Italian city -- despite strike threats, our plane left just a little late, the airline remembered our special food orders, and our luggage arrived first off the carousel.

This is my first time in Italy. We have just a day here tomorrow -- the ticket allowed the free stopover, and while I really am looking forward to returning home, it is a good opportunity to add to perceptions and understanding.

I'll write some detailed post-travel observations about Israel, probably a day or two after we return home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Etzel" -- Ze'ev Jabotinsky

On our last planned full day in Israel, Vivian took Eric for the day (I went with him to the Tel Aviv "Safari Zoo" yesterday) and I took some time on my own to explore Israel's political history, especially the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

This stuff will definitely be arcane to someone unfamiliar with Israel's political history, but Jabotinsky's legacy is important today in connecting the dots for the peace process and potential future conflicts.

I went to the main Jabotinsky museum to be entertained with four video presentations; then headed to a second museum near the entrance to Jaffa, the formerly Arab port town now part of Tel Aviv, depopulated by a mass departure just before Israel obtained independence in 1948. Jabotinsky's followers take the credit for this depopulation, though the explanations of how it happened differ. Interestingly, the Jaffa-area museum in a modern building is operated by the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

Jatbotinsky could be considered the founder of the 'right wing' of Zionism. Born in Odessa (Ukraine), he started out as a journalist/writer, but evolved to a more activist approach to Zionism. His "Betar" youth group has disturbing similarities to the similar style uniformed youth oriented groups on the right -- specifically, the Nazis and Fascists (notably he formed many of his ideas in pre-Mussolini Rome). Jabotinsky saw Hitler's European threat before most believed the Holocaust possible -- and travelled the continent in the 1930s pleading with Jews to get out while they could and head to Palestine. Most didn't follow his advice; but his disciples managed to load several ships over a number of years and brought about 20,000 illegal immigrants to Palestine under the British Mandate.

Jabotinsky's organization in Palestine evolved to become the Zionist Underground -- the Irgun, which engaged in a variety of audacious guerrilla-war activities, including the King David Hotel bombing and attacks on British institutions and prisons. They also engaged in daring prison escape projects -- including one where Jabotinsky disciples managed to arrange a break-out of a prison in Kenya in East Africa, and bring everyone back home to Palestine.

The Irgun's radical activities disturbed the Jewish mainstream. Some suggest the Irgun and its spin-offs, especially the Stern Gang, engaged in terroristic behaviour -- our tour guide a few days ago said they used terror techniques to drive the Arabs out of Jaffa. This image is (not surprisingly) not portrayed in the official museums -- the suggestion there is that the Arabs were plotting dangerous things and Jabotinsky's soldiers defended and protected Tel Aviv from the Arab danger. Regardless, you wouldn't want to be at the wrong end of the gun barrel if you met an Irgun, Lehi, or Stern Gang member. The Stern Gang carried on its terror against the British authorities even during the height of the Second World War, when the overall Jewish 'resistance' including the Irgun agreed to work with the British to defeat the Nazis.

When Israel achieved its independence in 1948, Jabotinsky's organization represented a perceived threat to the unity and security of the new Israeli state, resulting in the Altalena Affair , in which an Irgun's ship carrying arms and supporters was bombed by the new Israeli army.

My reporting here is a very simplified version of a very complex story and I'm sure I have some facts garbled and distorted. But the stuff is important, because if you look at modern-day Israel, you can see Jabotinsky's legacy everywhere and surprising echos in the Palestinian terror groups.

First, we see determined, forceful, fighting elements I believe continue to have significant support within Israel's military establishment and the right-wing settler movement. Second, Jabotinsky's movement reflects and represents standard practice for right wing organizations throughout the world.

Finally, this story shows that leadership does not necessarily need to be 'there' to be effective -- Jabotinsky never actually settled in Israel -- he died in the U.S. of a heart attack in 1940. But his legacy remains today.

Were Jabotinsky's disciples terrorist thugs that set examples for modern-day Palestinian and Al Qaeda practices? I'm not sure I would go so far, because if you look a little beneath the surface, you find strong values respecting human life, avoiding civilian casualties and the like. Nevertheless, I'm sure that if the Arab former residents of Jaffa operated the museum in the same building here, they would tell a very different story.

P.S. Alitalia has announced its flight attendants and ground workers are planning a one-day strike today (Wednesday, July 18). We may be in Israel longer than we had originally planned.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Jaffa and the diaspora

Over the last two days, we've toured two sites that add insights and meaning to our Israeli visit.

On Saturday, we walked through Jaffa, the original Arab port city now embedded with Tel Aviv. Jaffa had a thriving Arab population until just before Israel obtained its independence in 1948 -- in fact, the original U.N. partition resolution which established the State of Israel included Jaffa as an enclave surrounded on all sides by Jewish territory, but to be incorporated with the Arab Palestinian state.

What happened? Our guide (saying he was not being politically correct) and other historical references suggest Jaffa is not the highest example of Jewish morality -- it appears that Irgun terrorists made it clear to the Arab residents that, with Israeli independence, they would be wise to flee for their lives. (This stuff of course is not the sanitized Zionist perspective about Israeli independence -- but in fairness, you should realize that the Palestinian side did not behave with honour in an incredible variety of circumstances, as well.)

We saw the more officially correct version of Israeli (and Jewish) heritage at the Diaspora Museum at Tel Aviv University yesterday. This is a fascinating, rewarding experience -- we see the cultural history and framework of the Jewish identity, framed within the mixture of persecution, the religion's Holy Land roots, and the variations in life experience for Jewish people around the world, both in history and geography.

We rode city buses across Tel Aviv to get to the museum. This is a bustling, thriving community -- and if you landed here with no knowledge of the politics, history, and political tension, you'd say all is fine and well. Maybe this impression is the right one.

Today's focus is truly not intellectual. I'm going to another Zoo with Eric, giving Vivian a day off to explore the city's culture and ideas. Eric has just shown up -- he is ready for breakfast!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tel Aviv

We arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday morning on a flight on what is probably Israel's only domestic air route -- the four hour drive to Eilat is long enough to justify a flight -- especially to Tel Aviv's secondary Sde Dov Airport, closer to town than the international Ben Gurion airport.

Yesterday evening, we went out for dinner with the family of a relative of one of Vivian's friends. With three generations at the dinner table, and a route to the restaurant through one of the seedier parts of Tel Aviv, I gained additional insights.

Our friends reflect the "secular mainstream" of Israel -- bright, creative, not ideological fanatics, and totally frustrated with this nation's political reality. Our hostess is a pharmaceutical researcher -- she is working on genetic vaccines for Alzheimer's. Her lab came up with a vaccine that worked on rats, but in the first human tests with 500 volunteers, about 15 per cent had brain tissue swelling problems. So, back to the drawing board -- but this is research that could, if successful, save the quality of life for millions of people.

She made these remarks as her quiet husband drove the car through winding streets near the Tel Aviv bus station. At one traffic light, we saw a semi-nude, grossly overweight man, sitting on a bus bench, slumped, in a daze. "Probably on drugs, or drunk," she said. The reality is this neighbourhood has the characteristics of a Canadian or U.S. Skid Row -- and is populated with recent immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, on temporary work permits, or of course, people with serious problems.

At dinner, our host's son (who works at a business making aluminum door and entrance way products) says things are going well -- lots of construction under-way; and you can see that in the cranes dotting the Tel Aviv skyline. But the politics are another thing. It seems that Israeli domestic politics is now largely controlled by extremely religious parties and Russian tycoons who may have a less than honorable background. One tycoon is busy "buying" votes to be Jerusalem's mayor. No problem that he cannot speak Hebrew -- he sets up parties, events, giveaways to the poor, anything that he can do to obtain some positive publicity. The religious parties, meanwhile do what "the Rabbi says" -- the Knesset members don't have minds of their own. This is the stuff of political deadlock and corruption. "There's no one we can look up to, no Rabin," the son said. Yitzak Rabin helped put together the peace process that led to the Palestinian Authority before his assassination by a Jewish religious zealot.)

But despite these gloomy indicators, you can't be too sad for Israel. He and his wife have two vibrant toddlers, and there is enough freedom in Tel Aviv that those who don't wish to observe Sabbath restrictions can find a good local restaurant (and those who wish to be observant can avoid the place entirely). This is not a starving, suffering country. Perhaps because things are 'comfortable' the middle ground politically is not doing well; people have other things to do than fight political values. The problem, of course, is this leaves the nation weak in leadership when the next crisis arises (and it will -- the enemies are mobilizing and are determined to achieve their objective; this nation's destruction).

Thursday, July 12, 2007

In Eilat

Israel's southernmost city, Eilat also is an amazing example of how geography, history, and practicality connect to create a successful nation state. Eilat sits on a tiny sliver of the Red Sea (between Jordan and Egypt with Saudi Arabia not far away). It was essentially unoccupied except for a British police post in 1948, when Israel won independence. To the north, the massive and virtually uninhabited Negev desert). To the south, the Red Sea, linking to the Indian Ocean via the Horn of Africa -- allowing ships from Asia access to Israel without having to traverse the Cape in South Africa or use the Suez Canal.

The 1967 Six Day War is attributed to Egypt's asking for U.N. observers to leave and its decision to blockade the Red Sea to Israeli shipping.

Now, with peace with both Egypt and Jordan, it is possible for travellers visit the three nations through open border crossings in one day. Eilat is certainly a much different place than the desolate site in 1948 -- it is Israel's internal 'tourist escape' with many large hotels (European visitors also fly in here for breaks as well).

Eilat is hot, very hot; the temperatures routinely get above 40 degrees C in the summer.

I wanted to see this city -- and traverse the Negev by bus -- to get a sense of the scope of this nation's geography. The distance from Tel Aviv to Eilat is about the same as from Ottawa to Toronto --it takes about 4 to 5 hours by car and is the one city in Israel served (outside of Tel Aviv) by domestic airlines (the flight takes about 1 hour).

The desert, by the way, is not totally desolate; you can see irrigated plots, industry, and other stuff on the road -- Eilat, meanwhile, besides its role as a shipping centre (I noticed rows of Japanese cars parked at the port) is a 'fun city' for Israelis -- this is not a religious town, by any means.

The main tourist attraction is the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Here, you can descend below sea level to view the various species that inhabit in the Coral Reefs at Eilat. The observatory is like an aquarium, but the difference is this is not an artificial environment -- the fish and coral are real indeed; and truly varied.

We all agreed the strangest example of biodiversity is the phony "cleaning fish". I had heard previously about "cleaning fish" who live by cleaning parasites off other fish. In fact, these specialised fish a re so popular that sometimes they establish "cleaning stations" where other fish -- including serious predators -- put their appetite for smaller fish and marine life away to get cleaned!

Fair enough. However, it seems nature has given us the "cleaning fish impostor", with appearance and size very much like the real thing. So other fish don't run away when it shows up. Unfortunately, the victims then get a nasty bite as the fake "cleaning fish" takes pieces of flesh from its unsuspecting victim. Eric and I saw one of these operators at work today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev

This Israeli desert town sits near the Ramon Crater, described as the largest geological crater in the earth. We visited the site -- after traversing the small town site where Ibex graze on grass outside the 60's apartments. It is an imposing geological creation; with added interest historically as it is on the ancient Spice Route, where precious spices were shipped from Yemen to Gaza by highly organized Arab traders.

It is warm, sunny, hot but not intolerable, a perfect resort environment.

But I couldn't rest in peace last night. I am dealing with a business challenge at home -- things are working out okay, but I've been 'working' far more than any time during this vacation (and sleeping less).

Monday, July 9, 2007

In the Negev

Yesterday, we headed south, from Jerusalem to Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev Desert, on the way to Eilat. We arranged with the hotel for the one-way three hour taxi ride; it cost a couple of hundred dollars but was the least expensive and most practical way to get here.

As we headed south, the terrain changed to the desert scrub and then desert emptiness; mostly brown rock with a few areas of plant life. At the northern edge of the desert, you could see several Bedouin encampments. These nomads now largely live in shack-type communities near the roadside; the population is significant (about 200,000) and they of course do not play by the rules of conventional law or borders -- creating opportunities for smuggling, terrorism, and other nasty stuff.

As we headed south, we saw ominous smoke billowing from an installation -- turned out to be a large prison. And then Vivian pointed out of the car to another site, with the remark: "How strange, I see mosques there."

I suggested to Vivian that it is unlikely that a group of three mosques would be located near something that looked like an Israeli military base. The domed roofs of the 'mosques' looked more like nuclear reactors to me. (Editor's note: these may not be reactors, I am not an expert, and the references here may be totally unreliable. It is easy to spout off in a blog without real fact checking!)

This of course is one of Israel's worst kept secrets -- its nuclear program and its purported (but never openly discussed) atomic arsenal. This report from the Federation of American Scientists (which comes up as the top listing when you key in "Nuclear Israel") has a credible report on the scale of Israel's nuclear program.

Here is a Google Maps view of Dimona, a Negev community near the Negev Nuclear Research Center exposed by Mordechai Vanunu, who recently was reimprisoned for violating Israeli gag orders on his commenting about the Israeli nuclear program.

Near Mitzpe Ramon, we passed the birthplace of Israel's first prime minister David Ben Gurion and his legacy -- a thriving university and research centre on desert practices and technologies that provides service and support around the world.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

The West Bank Settlements

We stepped onto a tour bus today to visit the Gush Etzion West Bank settlements. These settlements represent some of the thorniest political and ideological challenges in Israel/Palestinian relations. Our tour guide, Moshe Ben Baruch (who last week took us on a private tour of the Galilee and Golan Heights), led the commentary in this one-day tour co-ordinated by the One Israel Fund which supports the settler movement.

We visited an "unauthorized outpost" -- a group of trailers with 10 families on a hilltop outside Jerusalem. These settlers are not supposed to be there -- they are going against the grain of the international community and official Israeli government policy. (However, while they are using 'pirate electricity' and cannot access mortgage funds to build real houses on the site, you can climb up an army watchtower manned by very real soldiers -- clearly, if this site shouldn't be here, why are the soldiers guarding it, rather than using force to remove the settlers?
The settler movement is a complex, honourable mix of religion and ideology. It traces its antecedents to the original Zionist movement (and the settlers certainly consider themselves to true Zionists). People opposed to the existence of the State of Israel claim settlers are indeed made of the same stuff of the original Zionist pioneers -- their viewpoint is that Jewish settlers grabbed land that didn't belong to them.

However, there are some significant differences between these settlers and the original pre-1948 Palestine Zionists. The biggest difference is ideology. Many of the original Zionists were, frankly, secular Jews -- in fact, many of the "Labour Zionists" came close to being true communists. The Kibbutz movement reflected truly socialist values. As well, of course, in the late 19th and early 20th century (and earlier) settling on lands occupied by indigenous populations did not have the negative connotations it has today -- colonialism really reflected the West's moral obligation and duty to civilize the savage lands -- how else could Australia and North America be occupied?
The critical differentiation of conventional 'colonies' that turned into indigenous independent nations and former colonies where the previous colonialists control the nations today is population and demographics -- where the indigenous population died out or was dwarfed by the immigrant population, the "western" nation-states survived; where the indigenous population remained the majority, the colonies crumbled and were replaced by independent states controlled by the majority race. (Most of these states were not controlled by the "majority" of individuals of course -- as virtually none, perhaps with the notable exceptions of India and Botswana, are currently practicing democracies.)

So Israel evolved out of that idealistic colonial era -- and the confluence of two apparently contradictory values. The Jewish population, facing persecution around the world, sought its own homeland and nation state; and the Jews sought to colonize and occupy their ancestral homeland, Palestine, against the wishes of the local Arab population and the wider Muslim world. This rare but vital congruence resulted in the 1947 U.N. partition resolution (remember, the Soviet Union and the U.S., then arch enemies, both had to vote in favour) that defines Israel's legitimacy. The partition resolution largely tried to set the state's boundaries by on-the-ground population realities, and the resulting Israeli state-- forged by intense war and refugee movements -- confirmed the majority Jewish population within its borders, and thus its legitimacy within post-colonial values.
Things changed in 1967 when Israel occupied swaths of land including all the Arab/Muslim sections of Palestine, including all of Jerusalem. And the Settler movement arose to reclaim and settle the Arab Palestinian lands in the Jewish State's name, now backed by its military might.
I believe the modern-day settlers, along with some right wing Zionists (and pragmatic bargain-seekers; housing can be relatively inexpensive in the settlement areas) are sincerely trying to keep the original Zionist land values in mind. They allude to biblical references and believe with a passion that the Jewish state should be unified and occupy the entire Holy Land -- the former Palestine. Their sincerity is undeniable, and some very valid justification for their attitude is substantiated in the overt hostility of the Arabs (especially Hamas and sections of the militant Fatah organization) who wish Israel completely destroyed. The settlers also can look to history -- and the success of the pre-1967 Zionist movement built on gathering and developing the Palestinian lands for the Jewish homeland.

Ah, but for population. The areas in the West Bank the settlers occupy are 'majority owned' by the Arab/Muslims. Against a settler population of a few hundred thousand maximum, you have several million Palestinians. (Israel's pre-1967 territorial Arab population is about one million among six million Jews -- the Jewish state clearly can be maintained in this environment, and with this population ratio, it can afford to respect Arab/Muslim rights without degrading its Jewish character.)
However, how can the Settlers occupy these West Bank lands, claim them, and rule over the territories while remaining true to modern democratic values? The only way, the left says, would be to grant everyone the equal vote; the population would be majority Arab/Muslim and Israel would cease to be a Jewish state. If you wish to hold the land, other road to take is to deny the Arabs the vote/rights -- or tell them they can live in "Israel" but have ties only to Jordan or Egypt -- models that invite comparisons with South Africa and Rhodesia before Rhodesia turned to Zimbabwe and South Africa accepted majority black rule. Of course this argument results in the condemnation and allegations that"Zionism is Racism" and Israel is an Apartheid Nation -- sore spots, undoubtedly to the millions of Jews in Israel and the rest of the world who believe in social justice and genuine democracy and human rights. (I forged my own perspectives on these issues by living in Rhodesia as it turned to Zimbabwe in 1978-80. I won't go so far as to associate the settlers with white Rhodesians -- their religious zeal distinguishes them from the secular Rhodesian settlers -- but saw first-hand then that you cannot truly hold large swaths of territory as a minority among a hostile majority.)
The Jewish settlers don't worry about these points -- they passionately believe that Jews have the right to rule and occupy every piece of Judea and Samaria; and these rights are based in religious history and righteousness. Of course, they use archeology to validate these claims -- we saw an ancient Mikva (ritual bath) near the settlements --we saw one near the Gush Etzion located on the Roman Road to Jerusalem's holy sites, a place for spiritual purification a day's walk from the Holy Temple.
The demographic and land battle continues. At one stop on our tour, a settler spokesman said the settlers are running into new problems with Palestinians actively occupying and cultivating land they never used before. She claimed the European Union is funding this land grab. The settlers also argue history -- noting that some settlements existed in pre-1948 Palestine, only to be decimated by the Arabs during the Israeli War of Independence. But none of these arguments can override the very real fact that there are far more Muslim Arabs on the ground than Jews in these areas and the only way to displace the local population to create a true Jewish majority in these "occupied areas" would be to violate all the accepted western standards of human rights and dignity.
So we have the 'land for peace' argument; but the more you look into this 'solution' the less appealing it looks. The Gaza Strip is now controlled by Hamas, a fundamentalist group that believes as passionately on religious grounds as the settlers that Palestine should be a single state (but one controlled totally by the Muslims). Abbas/Fatah now controls the civil administration of the West Bank, but it is hard to see how the combination of corruption and uncontrolled armed bands can be brought into a peaceful, disciplined government. The armed Fatah bands share the Hamas ideology and wish Israel destroyed (unless they are bought off for a high enough personal gain). In this environment, the Jewish settlers gain legitimacy -- they occupy the front-line in a hostile world; surrounded by people who themselves do not believe in the two-state solution or partition, and have absolutely no respect for human rights or democracy themselves, even though they may mouth these words to win the West's left wing's moral and financial support.
Still, on reflection, I will agree with Ariel Sharon's decision to change direction -- to go from actively supporting the settlements to ordering their dismantlement in Gaza. Yes, Gaza is now controlled bythe Hamas terror-state entity that zealously mixes purportedly pro-Western propaganda with true hate for Israel -- but Hamas cannot find legitimacy in the world that still recognizes the Jewish state in Israel defined by its 1948-67 boundaries.
As well, one can argue that technology, monitoring methodologies, and various controls can be placed to reduce the existential threat to Israel even if the West Bank turns hostile. Presumably Israel and the new Palestine could agree to swap some land (perhaps relying on local referendums for final decision) to link the biggest West Bank settlements near Jerusalem to Israel proper, in exchange for clusters of Arab/Palestinian villages now in Israel. (My sense is that the villagers, given the choice, would choose to remain in Israel -- they of course would then lose their claim to any special considerations.) The result, if this policy is developed, would be scenes like when the settlers were evicted from Gaza -- and I confirmed during my tour that the hilltop settlers would use non-violent means to 'defend' their rights if the Israeli state courageously and with absolute determination decided they should leave.
This stuff is volatile, complex, and it is easy to see how ideology frames references, and passionate beliefs shape individual and group decisions. I certainly respect the settler movement and its pioneering zeal and spirit -- the stuff that brought the Zionists to power and created Israel. But the Settlers have not been able to solve the demographic paradox for me; they simply cannot win the numbers game. And that, ultimately decides who should occupy what territory. It will be risky, scary and expensive -- and tear at Israel's existential roots -- but the Settler Movement must either be defeated or find a realistic and morally and practically effective solution to the demographic paradox if Israel (and the original Zionist ideals) are to survive in the future.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Jerusalem on Saturday

We concluded our Northern tour yesterday, heading back along the West Bank of the Jordan River to Jerusalem, turning east just at the northern end of the Dead Sea. The whole experience continued to be somewhat surreal -- on the way we passed Jericho -- actually, bypassed Jericho. The former main road into the city has been barricaded; our guide said he would never take us there -- too dangerous. Christian pilgrims can make arrangements to visit; but Jewish visitors, I think he said, might not make it out alive.
On Thursday, we visited the Northern Frontier, at the Israeli-Syrian border near Lebanon, and the Tel Dan nature reserve; truly one of the most unique parks in the world. It combines three elements -- an ecologically unique site with species rare in the mid-east, an ancient archaeological site (for the Jewish Dan Tribe) and (for me) the most important element -- a story of geopolitical intrigue.
I understand that when the British defined the original Northern boundaries of Palestine, they deemed the source of the Dan River (where it emerged from underground springs of the Hermon Mountain in the Northern Golan Heights) to be be Palestine's northern border -- with 10 metres added for good measure. The Syrians objected; citin a pencil drawing that extended the border right to the actual visible source of the Dan. Why is all of this important? The Dan turned out to be in 1948-67 the only water source for the Jordan River/Sea of Galilee totally within Israeli territory -- and water is no minor issue in a desert region, beset by political and military conflict.
(In fact, the 1967 Six Day War can trace its roots to a Syrian water diversion program in the mid-sixties, which Israel ended by bombing the Syrian dam construction projects. Needless to say, Syria didn't appreciate Israel's approach to the matter).
The result of all this tension of course is that Israel fortified and built military positions right at the Dan River water edge. After 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights, it developed the tourist and archaeological site (the archaeological site, like many other elements in this volatile region, has political connotations -- showing that Jewish people occupied the land in ancient times bolsters Israel's modern-day claim to the territory.)
As we stood at the edge of the site, looking northeast to Syria and northwest to Lebanon, I thought about the Hezbollah positions in the hills across from me; and the barrage of rockets hitting Jewish settlements in the area last summer.
So, we returned south, stopping at Beit Hillel for some rafting on the Jordan River, which I think will turn out the highlight of the trip with Eric. I didn't know what to expect when I strapped on the life jacket, took a paddle, and found myself in the plastic inflatable boat on the Jordan River.
We arrived late as the boat company provided instructions in Hebrew, mentioning something about a bridge, to hold on during the 'rapids' and that we would be pulled ashore at the end.
Down we go, uncertain about where this story would end. I am ill-prepared, wearing my regular shoes, socks, and fears (I really am a landlubber). We aren't sure where the 'rapids' begin; after some false assumptions, we heard the noise of rushing water, then -- the rapids. By Canadian standards these were tame, indeed, but for a few seconds I really didn't know how the story would end. My shoes are still drying out.
We arrived in Jerusalem just in time to visit old friends of Vivian for a Sabbath dinner. Today, the city is quiet; in Israel, the Jewish sabbath naturally is an important break -- I really shouldn't be using this computer if I am observant. The hotel has a Shabbat Elevator, which stops at every floor and opens its doors automatically -- this is to accommodate observant Jews who will not operate any machinery on the Shabbat.
Our immediate priority -- finding laundromats. After a few weeks travelling, laundry becomes an important priority. Fortunately, they exist -- and of course the Internet is the best way to find them!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

On the Golan Heights

We toured the Golan Heights, the sliver of strategically important Israeli-occupied Syrian territory. The experience is unique; I'll describe it as 'mili-tourism' -- the combination of organized tourism and active military operations on a hostile frontier. The picture of our son Eric posing with a group of Israeli soldiers gives a clue about the experience.
The heavily fortified frontier is hostile but oddly secure. When Israel first won the territory in 1967 virtually the entire local population fled (the only original inhabitants still around are a few Druze villagers).
Israel almost lost the territory in the last significant armed conflict -- the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Tourists are invited to pay a modest fee to see documentary films about that battle, where Israelis -- outnumbered 10 to one -- held on for three days before reserve reinforcements arrived. The Israelis were ill prepared for the war. The Syrians were armed with infa-red night vision; the Israelis had no night-fighting equipment or training (and of course the Syrians waged the battle overnight). As the fight raged, according to documentary film taken by an Israeli crew during the fight, the battle lines blurred and at one point Syrian and Israeli tankers were side-by side. Exhausted and desperately tired, an Israeli field commander told his superiors he would need to pull back -- his commander lied and said reinforcements would arrive in 15 minutes. They didn't, but that was long enough for the Syrians to pull back themselves. Later the commander reportedly said that he had learned when you are fighting to the limit (the Syrians, Israelis concede, fought bravely and effectively in 1973), if you think you are ready to give up, the other side is probably in the same shape, so just a little more determination can make the difference. This proved to be true in this situation.
Today, approximately 30,000 civilians live in the area. They have a thriving wine industry -- the vineyards located right on the frontier produce some of the world's best wine -- along with other agricultural industries including, oddly, beekeeping. (Our guide says beekeepers had trouble maintaining their hives elsewhere in Israel -- local thieves would steal the bees). Frankly, I was more afraid to open our van window for a live sample from the hooded beekeeper than standing at a forward Israeli position near the frontier.)
Now, the rights and complexity of the Syrian/Israeli conflict would fill several books. Tracing back to the 60s, the Syrians engaged in a water-diversion project that could, the Israelis claim, drained the Sea of Galilee. Israel bombed the Syrian dams. In the 1967 six-day war, Israel had no trouble scaling the heights. In 1973, after intially losing ground, the Israelis moved further inland to the point where they could shell Damascus, only accepting a cease-fire when -- their supply lines depleted -- they faced a new and fresh Iraqi army. In the disengagement agreement, Israel pulled back to the 67 lines, conceding as well a sliver of land that had housed the main Syrian settlement in the Golan. Syria rebuilt the town at another location; presumably holding the bombed out original community as a shrine of its own.
Syria has reportedly offered a land-for-peace deal with Israel; Israelis are rightfully skeptical; especially since Syria is actively supporting Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, (Hezbollah is defined as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Canada because it, in advocating Israel's destruction, uses suicide bombs on civilian targets) and is playing sovereignty games with a tiny sliver of land in the north called the Shebaa Farms. Recently both Syria and Israel reported they were beefing up their military presence in the Golan area and Israelis engaged in a major training exercise as we visited.
This makes the experience of ordering a fast food hamburger, purchasing some wine, and then touring a military bunker, one that I won't forget anytime soon.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Kibbutz Lavi

We moved to this kibbutz hotel yesterday. Vivian doesn't enjoy 'roughing it' -- the combination of two dogs, a mangy cat, and the requirement to cook and prepare meals at the cottage place we had reserved just took the 'vacation' out of the vacation for her. So our guide recommended this place.

It's a full-service hotel, with some distinctive features. The facility is owned by a collective Kibbutz. The original agricultural ideals of the Kibbutz movement still remain, but now most modern Kibbutzim operate other businesses to pay their way. Hotels are common. This one has a rather specialized business as well; it manufactures Synagogue furnishings,and ships them around the world. Of course international purchasers can visit the site and stay in the hotel, which (appropriately for its location) is fully Kosher and observes all the necessary rituals and processes required for observant Jews.

Today, we head to the Golan Heights. Our guide doesn't hide his pro-settler perspectives. The Golan, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, is of course of great strategic and political importance.

Yesterday, we visited the ancient city of Zippori, which in Jewish tradition claims to be the place where the Mishna (codification of Jewish laws) was written. The archaeologists have been digging on the site since the 1930s, uncovering an astoundingly rich and sophisticated biblical-era city.

There is much Jewish tradition and history here -- at its height, Zippori had several synagogues. In the fertile Galilee the city enjoyed true wealth; roman era villas and public places had amazingly intricate mosaics and toilets with running water (provided by a sophisticated aqueduct and piping system). The Jewish community here survived the destruction of the Jerusalem temple because the community did not resist the Roman occupation -- and ultimately enjoyed good relationships with the occupiers. Successive invasions with Arabs and Crusaders tore apart the town; but it was revitalized in the 19th century by the Arabs, and was a thriving community in 1948 when the UN partitioned Palestine and Israel -- now an independent country -- found itself in an immediate and intense war with its Arab neighbours.

Several surrounding Arab communities remained -- in fact the area is dotted with sizable Arab towns and cities (total population about 800,000 in this area), but (I recall our guide as saying), the Arabs in Zippori, particularly hostile to Israel, fled). It seems the Jews decided to level the town -- leaving it as a purely archaeological site. (I'm sure I will be able to find some literature in the Arab world complaining about this event; of course, these were hot wartime conditions and Israel truly had been created by the United Nations partition legislation. The sizable number of apparently thriving Arab communities in this region suggests that the story for those who did not fight the partition turned out to be quite positive.)
(Some of my facts may be imperfect -- I wasn't recording the guide's comments and am relying on memory, which is imperfect at the best of times.)

I have to leave now -- will write more this evening.

Monday, July 2, 2007

The first kibbutz

We travelled today to the Jordanian/Golan Heights frontier -- and stopped at a Renault tank, left from Syria's greatest advance at the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. Israeli defenders used primitive anti-tank weapons and Molotov cocktails to stop the tank -- the vanguard of the Syrian advance, near the entrance of Kibbutz Dagenia Aleph, which just happens to be Israel's first Kibbutz, the beginning of the movement that represents perhaps the only truly successful application of communist worker-based equality in the world.
Before heading into an immersion of political/geographical and social history (more later), we had a stop, on the Jordan River, at a recreation facility with rather crude imitation totem poles, and very real canoes. In a rather unsuccessful imitation of the Canadian frontier, Eric and I paddled down the Jordan River, not far from a facility that attracts thousands of Christian pilgrims each year, purportedly because the water is near where Jesus was baptized. (The true point of action for Jesus actually is several miles away, but Israel developed the facility when that part of the Jordan River was under Jordanian jurisdiction. Unfortunately, the devout Christians dipping their toes in the Jordan River and purchasing baptismal water at the site got an unexpected surprise -- a rather nasty brush fire. We left the scene just as the fire engine came racing down the road. I hate to think what a fundamentalist Christian might have thought as the very real black smoke and flames billowed near the purportedly holy site.
Anyways, after seeing fire and brimstone, and floating down the Jordan in a Canadian-style canoe (and stopping at a store specializing in Israeli dates) we headed to the frontier area on the Sea of Galilee, near Tiberius.
Here, history and geography, and the complex rules of international geopolitics and water really are obvious -- as is the unbelievable complexity of the story.
First, we have to look at the area's rather unique geography. The Sea of Galilee feeds the inlet of the Jordan River here -- several hundred feet below sea level. Syrians and Jordanians have been diverting water that would feed into the Sea of Gaililee and ultimately the Jordan River, resulting (says our guide) in the drying up of the Dead Sea. But there is something good in all of this -- the Jordanians, perhaps inefficiently, are using their water to irrigate their side of the Jordan River here, creating fertile and prosperous communities and making it so the Jordanians want nothing to do with 'terrorists' infiltrating the Israeli border (which abuts directly here -- the 'West Bank' is further south.)
Fair enough, but what about the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967, and Syria. Well, here the story gets really complex. First, our guide told us, when the British and French divided up the territories in the World War I era upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the borders marked for Palestine actually covered the entire Sea of Galilee and certain resort and other lands on the Syrian side of the frontier. When the U.N. passed the partition resolution in 1947, these lands were supposed to be transferred to Israel. But the Syrians captured much of the land, to the the point of that first Israeli Kibbutz (Kibbutz Degania Aleph), which Israel only reclaimed in 1967. (Israel also grabbed the entire Golan Heights area -- we'll visit that part of the world I think tomorrow or maybe Thursday).
As for Kibbutz, it survived good and hard times -- certainly until 1967 it was in dangerous territory, with frequent Syrian attacks (and a disused bunker to show the evidence). But the Kibbutz prospered, until the 1980s, when it was lured by its bank to borrow money (from the bank) to invest in bank stocks. Unfortunately, the late 1980s stock market crash was coupled with an attack of hyper inflation, and things fell apart. The Kibbutz movement, overall, faced bankruptcy. Kibbutz Dagenia Aleph survived, but only after some really hard years. It is fascinating to see that the Kibbutz survived war, hostility, and all kinds of problems, but almost failed because of 'capitalist greed'.
We could see the Galilee's fertility (from volcanic residue) first hand. They grow corn, cotton, bananas, grapes, figs, exotic herbs, pomegranates, lemons, dates, and dozens of other crops here. This area also has recorded some of the first Zionist Jewish settlements in the Ottoman era. The lands initially were bleak, swampy, malarial horror stories -- the settlers turned the lands into fertile communities.
So where does this leave me? I certainly won't forget my canoe ride with Eric; but ultimately I am reminded of this land's amazing complexity and intensity.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

In the Gallilee

We're in a cottage at a "Moshav" (farming community) in the Gallilee, Northern Israel. This place reflects the contrasts of this nation -- ranging from pure desert in the south, to incredible fertility (and farming diversity) in the north. The contrasts and conflicts affecting Israel are also rather apparent -- we aren't imminently near the Lebanese border, but we passed some Arab villages on the way -- and these communities explain this land's contrasts.

Arabs within post 1948-67 Israel enjoy full civil rights and Israeli citizenship; they elect local municipal leaders and have a few seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). But they are not truly equal citizens -- they are free from military service obligations, and their local municipal councils in many cases have a simple policy towards local tax collection -- they don't. Their attitude is that the Israeli government isn't theirs and they don't feel an obligation to collect taxes -- instead, they virtually demand that non-Arab communities support them through subsidies. This just adds to the tensions here.

We are here with a guide -- Moishe ben Barouch -- who will show us around northern Israel this week. Moishe has clear political views -- he has little patience for left-leaning idealists and thinks that Israel is foolish to return the "occupied territories" from the 1967 war. I'm not sure how I feel about things; here in this agricultural community, I am reminded of my time in Inyanga, Rhodesia (before it turned to Zimbabwe) in 1976. We were in remote, beautiful lands, almost idyllically perfect; but soon to be overrun by war and revolution. Of course things here are much different than Rhodesia; the Jewish presence is much better entrenched and the army has proven its match in many conflicts since 1948.

Before lunch, we took a close look at the City of David, the base of biblical Jerusalem; now an archaeological site near an Arab community just outside the walled city traditionally associated with 'old' Jerusalem (the walls are more closely associated with the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire than biblical Jerusalem; though some parts of the biblical city -- namely the Temple Mount and Al Asoka mosque) are within the 'new' 'old city'.

Our tour took us through the biblical history, of invasions by Assyrians, Babylonians (Iraq!) and Romans; the Crusades come further along the historical path. Clearly, Israel's conflicts with its neighbours have plenty of historical antecedents -- this is not a new conflict, by any means.

So where do we go from here? From our base here we'll be touring the north including the
Golan Heights for the next five days. This is not high-end luxury accommodation, but technology has found its way here with free high speed Internet. So I'll be able to blog each day without difficulty.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Same thing, different perspectives

Tonight, we visited one of Vivian's high school friends and her husband at their home in French Hill in East Jerusalem. Turns out her friends live on the same street as another of her friends -- married to author Robert Slater (who has written biographies on Donald Trump, Jack Welch and others), whom we visited last time we were in Israel three years ago.
So I asked about the cranes dotting central Jerusalem. "Oh, yes, there is some building going on, mostly for accommodation for foreigners, but much of the work is not really new -- it starts and stops," our host said.
French Hill is on the "Jordanian" side, occupied by Israel in 1967. Israel considers Jerusalem to be entirely part of Israel -- there are Arab villages and communities within the city limits, of course. Theoretically, the Arabs are eligible for Israeli citizenship, but most of them want nothing to do with the Jewish state, though their residence in Jerusalem accords them special privileges and rights, especially within Israel's health care and social services.
We told our guests that we were planning to visit (in an organized tour) a west bank 'settlement' next week. We heard a mouthful about the "extremists" who think that all of pre-1948 Palestine should be a Jewish-controlled state. There is irony here of course, because officially our hosts, denigrating the extremist settlers, are themselves "settlers" in east Jerusalem. Of course their attitude is different. "We don't see us as having any permanent right to live here," said Vivian's friend. "We are here as long as it is reasonable but don't claim permanent rights here." Refreshing, indeed.
Today, we toured the Old City again. I found my natural bargaining skills in high form -- to the point a merchant, in accepting my payment, essentially called me a pig for refusing to budge from an initial low offer. I probably should have let the guy save face for 7.5 shekels (about $2.00 US), or (more rationally) started with a lower initial position and then given him some room to 'haggle'. Lesson learned for next time.
We toured some British mandate colonial areas of Jerusalem; including the street with the Prime Minister's residence (but we missed seeing the home of the outgoing President, resigning after a sex scandal.)
Things here, indeed, are never exactly what they seem to be -- and there are many different perspectives of the same story. For example, if you read this comprehensive web site about the Irgun's King David Hotel raid, you might conclude that if what happened here is terrorism, it is terrorism with a surprisingly humane heart (and it is quite debatable whether a hit on the offices of the British military headquarters is terrorism or just a really assertive and reasonable military strike in war-time conditions.
Tomorrow, we head north for five days touring with a personal guide.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Jerusalem under construction

I'd like to have more empirical information to back this assertion -- but construction appears to be booming in downtown Jerusalem. Lots of cranes, lots of projects, notably what appear to be high -end residential condominiums.
In vacation mode, I didn't come here looking for information about the construction industry in Israel -- but will look into more details later in the visit. Safe to say, however, that while there may be plenty of conflict around here, the mood of this city (population about 700,000 with perhaps 200,000 transient visitors) is healthy, in growth mode, clearly.
We visited the "Kotel" in the walled city, that amazingly contentious piece of territory that combines the "Dome of the Rock" and the Jewish temple wailing wall (the Dome is one of the holiest sites in Islam; the Wailing Wall is considered the most holy sites for Jews.)The juxtaposition of the two religious shrines at one piece of property clearly reveals the severity of the conflict here. The distinction is that in the period 1948-1967, when Jordan occupied East Jerusalem, Jews were denied access to their site -- in fact it was degraded in insulting manners -- while post 67, under Israeli "occupation" religious rights are respected for everyone, including Muslims, though clearly there is significant security at the site.
We also visited the King David Hotel, notoriously remembered as the place where Jewish terrorism reached its apex in 1946, as the British sought to find a way to hang on in Palestine, and Zionists and Arabs battled among themselves and with the British. The Irgun bombed the hotel (used as British military headquarters), killing 45.
In the hotel lobby, posters and old photos acknowledged the hotel's earliest history -- in 1930. The complexity of this history shows up even today, as an Egyptian bank is suing for shareholding rights it claims trace back to the early years. Of course, for several decades, Egypt and Israel were at war or in conflict -- now, the two countries recognize each other so it isn't unreasonable for an Egyptian bank to seek recourse in an Israeli court.
Tonight is the Jewish Sabbath; the city virtually shuts down; if I was observant I certainly would not be writing in this blog; but, regardless, the city will be quiet tomorrow; no buses, most businesses closed, and a degree of peacefulness and solitude in this dynamic, changing, historic environment.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Scandals and family

An family vacation in Israel with a bright, sports loving 10-year-old is not the same experience as an organized tour group, or an adults-only travel experience. Even if you want to delve into complex and controversial areas, you aren't going to get very far -- because children's activities must take precedence.

We had thought of going to the Holocaust Museum, but Eric said "no, that is too depressing, I don't want to see the skinny bodies". So I needed to find an alternative, and we settled on the Bloomfield Science Museum.

This museum is like many similar museums in North America, with interactive kids oriented exhibits, and a lot of malfunctioning computers and machinery. I enjoyed the Einstein exhibit, especially reading his 1939 letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, advising him of the potential of a nuclear bomb, though he thought it would be too heavy to put on an airplane. However, he said the bomb, delivered by ship, would certainly destroy the port! Roosevelt thanked Einstein for his letter, and set in motion to research program that resulted in the 1945 bombs on Japan.

We returned to our new hotel, the full-service Dan Panorama. It is a 3.5 star type place; not dumpy, but not overly luxurious.

I set out to exercise in the modest fitness centre. On Israeli television, a woman was holding a press conference. She turned out to be the woman the former Israeli president is accused of sexually assaulting.

And, so this headline in the International Herald Tribune: President Katsav of Israel to plead guilty to sex crimes but avoid jail. The hotel fitness centre attendant without prompting from me said: "Everyone here knows that the woman is no angel -- she's slept around with all kinds of people, used blackmail, and threatened politicians -- Kastav is not the first." Of course, Kastav's reputation also is not particularly spotless, either. So we have two less-perfect-players creating a national scandal and an international blot on Israel's image.

Tomorrow, before things shut down for Shabbat, we'll head to the old city, the Wailing Wall -- the place where the conflicting religions co-exist in a strange but well choreographed set of images and patterns.

(Israeli taxi driving image -- Every community I know has its own rules and traditions when it comes to taxis, and Israel is no exception. The ground rules: Tipping is not expected, and you can either elect to use the meter or negotiate a flat rate. The latter option invites all kinds of creative options for cabbies.

Today, in transferring hotels, we used the taxi dispatch centre/stand near the place we had been staying at. One of the cabbies keeps his meticulously washed Mercedes right in front of the stand. When we pulled up with our bags, he said "40 sheckels". I said "Meter". He responded, "okay, I'll charge 3 shekels for each bag (we had five bags)". I said "no" and proceeded to unload our bags from the cab. (We aren't talking major money here, there are about 4 shekels to a dollar, so the fare would be $10, but I also knew this cabbie was gaming us and was going to give him as much he could get.)

We waited a few minutes in front of the cab stand, wondering if I'd made a big mistake. Another cab pulled up. I said "how much" and when the cabbie said "30 shekels", we wasted no time hopping in. But I think if we had a metered fare, the true cost would have been closer to 20 shekels. I know, we are talking only a few dollars difference, but this is part of the cultural experience -- and working with the creatively innovative and agressive cabbies in this community takes a certain a mount of fortitude and patience -- unless you want to be sucker-bait.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


First full day in Israel -- adjusting to jet lag; and visiting the zoo. Now monkeys, giraffes and elephants can be seen in most major city zoos and even though the Jerusalem zoo claims some degree of biblical associations (one of its visitor's centres is shaped as Noah's Ark) it is plain and simple, a zoo.
Why go there? Three years ago, when Eric was six, we visited on a 'guys day out' (Vivian took time for more intellectual sites) and we formed certain bonds, especially observing the monkeys and chimps. This has been the stuff of school projects and family time since then; so, deciding to keep our agenda light as we adjusted our Jet lag, Vivian joined us, as well.
One jarring clue that things are not totally normal here, however, is the apparent police post you can see looking down from a Zoo vantage point. I believe the post controls access to an Arab village up a hill opposite the zoo.
That is the reality of Israel -- this is a totally westernized democracy (democratic it is, a big ad questioning the rightfulness of checkpoints and settlements appears on the inside front page of one of the newspapers here), but not everyone buys into the story. Hamas, especially, controls Gaza -- a poverty-stricken horror story -- and Hamas' view of democracy is that it is decadent (and Israel should be wiped off the map). But I'm sure the average Arab villager, facing the checkpoint every day on the way his home, is probably rooting for Hamas, even though I think it is realistic to assume his true quality of life would ultimately be poorer under Islamic rule.
You can easily escape these issues, and anything to do with controversy and news, by minding your touristy business in Jerusalem, and in fact, that is what most people do.
Tomorrow, we'll move from our inexpensive hostel to a full service hotel. I won't need to borrow another hotel's weak wireless connection, so may be able to post more photos, etc, and give the entry more time and care.

In Jerusalem

Still getting settled here -- I've been 'borrowing' high speed internet from a nearby hotel; paying 12NIS (about $5.00 for an hour's access --I'm sitting on a rooftop patio of the (much less expensive) hotel across the street.

Because the connection isn't reliable, I'll hold off more formal postings until we get more settled. But first impression is, if you din't read the newspapers or watch the television news, you would not sense there are any problems here -- construction is booming, people going about their normal lives; the only 'irregularities' are the security guards checking bags in front of grocery stores! And we are near the center of Jerusalem.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Day 1 - Boston

We arrived here about 1:30 p.m. yesterday -- checked into the hotel and then took the subway two stops to the waterfront/aquarium area for some dinner and a visit of the old city. We'll likely return to the Aquarium today for another visit, before heading to the airport and our flight to Milan.
I've been to Boston a couple of times on business; but this is our first family visit here. A day's visit only allows for brief impressions -- the 'touristy' section of the old city is both predictable, and nifty. Lots of boats, of course, in harbour area on the warm but not excessively hot summer day.
I put out a business crisis last night (see and have been reading Google reports on the Israeli situation -- but we will see more when we are on the ground there. Also fixed things so the image downloads from the camera work.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Packing our bags
This is our last night at home before embarking on the 3.5 week visit to Israel. It will become the third longest journey in my life (though obviously is not on the same scale as my youthful journeys to Africa, at 8 months and 18 months respectively in the mid-late 1970s.)
Nevertheless, this will be the first time for me to maintain a public travel journal.
Tomorrow we fly to Boston, MA, and spend about 30 hours there before catching a flight to Milan Italy and then Tel Aviv.

The day before

We leave for the first stage of our trip -- a day in Boston, MA tomorrow about noon. When we first planned the vacation about six months ago, Alitalia offered the least expensive flights, via Milan. To get to Boston, I am using accumulated Aeroplan points. Since Air Canada and Alitalia don't co-operate and the tickets are built on a different framework, I faced a choice -- setting up same-day connections and hoping there would not be weather, mechanical or schedule changes, or building in lots of 'wiggle room' by overnighting in Boston, both ways. I opted for the two way choice.

Second decision, should I purchase trip cancellation insurance. My view on this is usually 'no' --it is way overpriced for most circumstances; we aren't going to be put into poverty if we can't make the flight, and most flight insurance plans have limitations that reduce their values. But fate intervened. A few days before we committed to the trip, I received a notice that my name had been selected for possible jury duty consideration this year. It didn't say I would be on a jury -- just that there is a possibility.

Now, the last thing any self-employed person (with a business requiring some hands-on involvement) wants is jury duty -- though I admit, now, as we get ready to leave for this four week trip, that it wouldn't be that much of a hardship for me), but the thought of having to cancel the trip because of a court order made the insurance fees seem entirely reasonable. Of course, like all insurance, the money is (fortunately) 'wasted' because we didn't need it.

Today, Eric had his last day at school -- with a resounding send-off from friends, and I prepared for some last-minute work before the Sunday departure. Politics, history, culture, the great adventure are ahead -- but right now the focus is on last minute preparations.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Hamas, Gaza and fear

While several people in the last week have asked me, "Is it safe to go there? (Israel)" I quickly respond that I have no plans to travel to the Gaza Strip, which of course is no longer occupied by Israel. Of course, I have been monitoring the news closely. One publication, The Times of London, says Israel is preparing military action against Hamas in Gaza, but the majority of reports -- representing a diversity of perspectives -- suggest that as long as Hamas keeps things under control and doesn't try anything against Israel, the Israelis will not interfere and will in fact co-operate with humanitarian and food aid.

So we are continuing our preparations. I have an intensive week of work ahead, since we have not hired a permanent editor yet and I have to do most of the writing for the July issues before departing (giving instructions to freelancers to finish the work for July, and co-ordinate most of the editorial for August). We have to do our packing and stuff. Fortunately, most of the itinerary is set out and we are ready to go.

But what about Hamas, the "occupied territories" and the political mess that defines this region?

First, we must be clear -- Hamas has a fundamental goal -- the complete destruction of the state of Israel and its replacement with an Islamic theocracy. I'm sure if its leaders and lay supporters could have the power to brutalize the Jews, they would give us worse treatment than they showed their Fatah opponents -- with cold blooded murder, throwing bodies off roofs, and the like.

Second, Israel really can't destroy Hamas. In the Gaza cesspool, to do so would mean the murder of millions of people -- perhaps truly supporting Hamas, but nonetheless, these are downtrodeen, poverty-stricken civilians. Such brutality is of course against the Jewish moral code.

The problem here is hate and poverty are breeding on each other, creating a downward vortex for which there is no easy solution or obvious answer. Israel can't just leave Gaza alone, with arms smuggling and fanatics in charge, Hamas could build a formidable arsenal to achieve its objectives. Probably what will need to happen are periodic interventions from Israel, either direct assaults or pin-point attacks, especially on the Hamas top leadership -- to keep them from getting too strong, while showing as much respect as possible for international moral conventions, by allowing food and humanitarian support to continue. (Israel could theoretically starve and put the strip into a state of siege by cutting most of its water and power, but it won't do that, unless, I suppose, Hamas goes all out.).

These 'solutions' don't really solve the problem, of course. That roots back to Israel's birth in 1948, and the response of the Arabs, both locally and internationally, to regard Palestinian refugees as unassimialatable; to be supported by United Nations food aid as they are denied freedom of movement or opportunity, while they wait to 'return' to their homeland (pre-1948 Palestine).
Since it is quite obvious that Israel doesn't really want to millions of Hamas-loving descendants of Palestinian refugees crossing back over the border (the original refugees are of course senior citizens, if they are alive at all), the only hope is to create enough opportunity and mobility within the global community (including, I would argue, for some people to resettle in Israel, especially where there are valid family reunification issues), that the poverty can be replaced by opportunity and hope -- and the fanatic Islamic perspective be diluted to a terrorist fringe.

I'm not overly optimistic this will happen. So we'll watch and learn, and hopefully the Times of London is not right in its prediction, at least during our visit to Israel.