The Israeli sector of my second AFSI (Americans for a Safe Israel) trip began on Yom HaZicharon (Day of Remembrance) which was a Monday.. Our first stop was in south Tel Aviv where we learned first-hand about the illegal immigrant problem there. Eritreans and Sudanese have been crossing over the Egyptian border to claim refugee status in Israel, and a number have been committing crimes. The local people including legal Filipino workers have been the unfortunate victims. From Tel Aviv we went to Sderot, a town that has suffered tens of thousands of missile attacks since the 2005 evacuation of Gush Katif. We met with the mayor and took a tour of the town. The playgrounds are equipped with colorful pipes that serve as shelters during the attacks from Gaza. There are shelters throughout the town; the residents have 15 seconds to get into a shelter after the alarm sound. Next we drove to Nitzan where we visited the new visitors’ center/museum to commemorate Gush Katif. The exhibits are very moving and we also met with Shifra Shomron, a former resident of the former Neve Dekalim in Gush Katif, who wrote Grains of Sand: The Fall of Neve Dekalim. I have read this beautifully written book and highly recommend it. Shifra vividly portrays the months, weeks, and days prior to the expulsion of the residents. On to Hebron for another briefing by David Wilder and a stop at the Cave of the Machpela where Avraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah are buried. This burial site was purchased by Abraham–it’s in the Bible. We then drove to Jerusalem where we spent the night.
The following day was Yom Ha’atzmaut Some menbers of my group ascended to the Temple Mount. Some of us slept in! Mid-morning we went to visit Samuel’s tomb in the Givon Valley and then we proceeded to the site of King Hussein’s summer palace which was never completed due to the 1967 war. This is considered to be the most important archaeological site after the City of David in Jerusalem. Artifacts dating back to the Second Metal Period have been unearthed and it is believed to be the site of King Saul’s Palace. (Hussein built over it.) Our next stop was Ammunition Hill and its museum. Many Israeli families were visiting on this holiday and the atmosphere was very festive. Late afternoon we visited a new yeshiva outside the Flowers Gate to the Old City and also made visits within the present Arab Quarter.
On Wednesday we first visited Beit Orot Yeshiva(religious school) on Har Hatsofim(Mt. Scopus). Then northward to Ma’ale Adumim which was established in 1982 by Rabin as a city. He wanted to have a corridor to French Hill in Jerusalem. A beautiful, exceptionally clean city with a population of 40,000, it is the largest Jewish city in Yehuda and the Shomron (West Bank). Due to a building freeze for the past three years there isn’t enough housing for all those who would like to live in Ma’ale.Adumim. The environs of Jericho were next. Jericho marks the beginning of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. We stopped at a spot by the Jordan River where it is believed that the Jews crossed into the land at the end of the exodus from Egypt. Gilgal is the area where the first Passover was celebrated. A visit to Beit Hogla (the name hasn’t changed in 3,000 years) where a woman named Erna grows and sells olives and pomegranates. A follow-up stop in Brosh where Sraya Ofer had been murdered to visit with the seven young Israelis who hope to develop the compound into a tourist/guesthouse attraction. These men and women rotate guard duty every night. At last, we reached the Ruth Rimonim hotel in Tsfat where we spent four nights.
The Hesder Yeshiva in Kiryat Shemona which is very close to the Lebanese border was our morning stop on Thursday. (A hesder yeshiva is where religious boys learn before and after their military service.) Some of the boys spoke to us and it was clear that this particular yeshiva is thought of quite highly. out of 150-200 applicants taking the test about 50 are chosen. They start at age 18 and study Torah for 11 hours per day. There are 1 1/2 years of learning followed by 1 1/2 years of Army service followed by 3 more years of learning. There are over 60 such institutions in Israel. In addition to their studies the boys are actively involved in community service. In the afternoon we visited Kibbutz Misgav-Am which is right on the border and heard about the situation there; fortunately, it appears to be peaceful. Back to Tsfat for some art gallery hopping before they closed. After dinner we had a provocative presentation by Ken Abramowitz on the future of western civilization. (Incidentally, Ken is committed to giving 100 of these talks during this year at no charge. He will travel within the US at his own expense. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Friday’s program began with a drive to Kibbutz Merom Golan from where we took jeep rides to the Israeli-Syrian border. We saw and heard a great deal of bombing on the Syrian side. The kibbutz itself is very lush and flourishing. I recalled the name of this kibbutz from when I lived in Israel (1972-73)–there had been ads in the Jerusalem Post inviting people to join. I sort of wondered what path my life might have taken had I gone up to the Golan and become a kibbutznik! We then headed a bit south to visit Mechina Hespid, a yeshiva and technical college. This institution accepts students(many immigrants) whose prior school records were not sterling and gives them the opportunity to learn valuable skills prior to joining the military. This ensures them good military positions and future employment prospects. Some of the boys spoke with us and we were very impressed with the work this mechina is doing. We also made a stop at Um El Kantir, an archaeological site. It had been destroyed in 749 by an earthquake and was first excavated in 2003. We attended Sabbath services inTsfat and had a traditional meal at our hotel.
On the Sabbath we attended services at local synagogues and had lunch at our hotel. In the afternoon we had a talk by David Wilder who was spending the Sabbath with us.. He spoke in depth about living in Hebron. Later on we had a walking tour of Tsfat and went to ASCENT, a Chabad institution for learning, the third meal and havdalah, a service that marks the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the regular week.
We headed west on Sunday morning to Kfar Vradim where we enjoyed a home visit with Aharon and Susie Pulver.( Aharon is the head of the Israel Independence Fund which is involved in helping fund various Jewish communities and programs.) The mayor of nearby Ma’alot spoke to us in the Pulvers’ garden about his city. Some of you may recall that in 1974 three terrorists from Lebanon murdered 27 students who were asleep in a Ma’alot school. Ma’alot was established in 1957 by immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco and today has a population of 25,000. There are about 50 factories that provide local employment. After his talk we visited the underground command center in Ma’alot and saw how it monitors the city. Impressive, but so sad that this is the reality. We also visited the Tefen Industrial Zone which provides a unique setting of sculpture gardens to increase worker productivity. We were told that not one Israeli company has gone bankrupt due to boycotts and divestment efforts.. The sheer beauty of the North is breathtaking and we were all marveling at the scenery. As we drove we saw multitudes of unoccupied new multi-story villas and apartment buildings in Arab villages for which building permits had not been obtained. This is an effort to claim sovereignty over the land. Next stop was Rambam Hospital in Haifa where we were treated to the amazing new underground emergency 2,000 bed hospital. During normal times it is a colorful parking lot; in wartime, it converts to a fully functional hospital within 72 hours. They still need more hospital beds so if you’d like to donate…If anyone’s interested in statistics, about 25% of the Rambam staff is Arab, 30% of the patients are Arab, and the head of Nephrology is a female Muslim. Dinner, a delightful dance performance , and overnight at our hotel in Ariel.
On Monday, our last day, on the way to Yitzhar we passed prosperous expansive Arab villages without fences. Yitzhar, in contrast, is fenced in, with an armed guard on duty, unpaved roads, small trailor homes. One of the residents has been placed under house arrest for the crime of warning a neighbor that the IDF was going to demolish his home. The home was demolished by tractors because of pressure from the Arabs and the US on the grounds that he didn’t have the proper permits. (Leftist Israeli groups stir up local Arabs against the yishuvim–Jewish communities in the West Bank.) Our next stop was the community of Chavat Gilad. Even though it was built on private land it is still subject to demolition. Water and electricity are not supplied by the government. The trailer homes are very simple. One member of our group had brought boxes of new clothing for the residents which were greatly appreciated. We then drove to Ma’ale Rehavam in Gush Etzion Municipality where demolition of homes had taken place and more was scheduled. Just one more example of a double standard for Arabs and Jews. Our final stop was in Netzer with the Women in Green, a group that has been trying to halt illegal Arab building on state land between Jewish and Arab villages. (Under Israeli law , after 7 years of squatting by Arabs on state land, it becomes Arab private land.) We planted saplings on state land. Then it was time for our farewell dinner near Efrat.
AFSI is a remarkable organization giving both moral and financial support to worthy communities and causes within Israel. I encourage you to join.