Israel's Social-Justice Revolution: On a Roll, But Spinning Its Wheels

The summer is over, and the social protests have not returned. Still, the seeds of last year have not vanished, and the absense of any immediate results "does not mean that the message has not been delivered and received,” say the revolutionaries, who toured Israel for a week to observe and discuss the fate of the social-justice movement.

al-monitor Israelis hold tents as they shout slogans during a protest against the Tel Aviv municipality's annual "White Night" festival, in Tel Aviv, June 28, 2012. The protest was organized by people affiliated with ongoing social justice protests which began last summer in Tel Aviv and call for lower living and housing costs in Israel. Photo by REUTERS/Nir Elias.

Topics covered

poverty, orthodox, israeli-arabs, bedouins

Oct 1, 2012

From the world-renowned novelist living in Arad [a town in Southern Israel] to the nameless laborers in [the Upper Galilee town of] Hatzor HaGlilit  ...  From the disillusioned Bedouin from an officially unrecognized village somewhere in nowhere to the Safed [Chief] Rabbi who called for the expulsion of Arabs from Jewish neighborhoods [in  the Upper Galilee holy town known as a center of Jewish mysticism]  ...  From the youth of [the cross-community education center of] Givat Haviva who seek to revolutionize the world to the student from [the Negev desert Research and Education Centre of] Sde Boker who wants to leave Israel  ...  [Social activist and leading member of the 2011 Israeli social justice protests] Stav Shaffir and her partners to the struggle set out on a cross-country tour, from [the Southern Sea Port of] Eilat to Kiryat Shmona [on the Lebanese border], to talk to people in the field, to listen to them and to hear from them how to carry on the struggle  ...  They came back home with just one single clear conclusion: There is still so much more to be done  ...  A travelogue

Part 1: Bedouins, social activists and students; a journey through the desert

Two a.m. The last of the police cars are departing, leaving in their wake, along the by-now empty roads, a long trail of plastic bottles, [protest] signs and banners and red blocking tapes, remnants of the night's demonstrations. My eyelids heavy with fatigue, I am cramming the bags into the old wreck of a car and try to perk up and get going. We have a long drive ahead of us. I am taking a last glance at the news websites, to catch up on the coverage of the night's events. For a moment, I feel a twinge in my heart. They are talking [in the media] about splits, about takeover by hostile elements. The protest [movement], they write, is small and divided.

Turning to a small back street in Tel Aviv, I pull my car over to the side of the road. My dear old friend Jonathan hops into the car. A little over a year ago he invited me to join some esoteric Facebook event [the "cottage cheese revolution", as the consumer boycott of the big dairy cartels, announced in protest of recurrent price hikes, was dubbed] and pitch the first tents on the [Rothschild] Boulevard [in Tel Aviv, in what was to become a "tent city", one of many set up across the country in protest against the exorbitant cost of housing and living in Israel]. Considering the late hour of the night, he looks surprisingly chirpy. "No demonstrations this week, huh?" he observes. Funny! This is not the way we envisioned it in the endless night talks we had been holding on the long-awaited revolution, before the protest movement came into being. We thought then that it had not taken shape yet because there were not enough dreamers to make the dream come true. We now know that even half a million dreamers may not be enough. We will have to be more creative.

On Ibn Gabirol Street [a major street on which some of the more stormy demonstrations took place] we pick up three other friends: Maya, a Ph. D. law student, Rona, a freshly graduated architect, and Yaniv, an interpreter and documenter. The others will join us tomorrow. On Kaplan Street, a dried wreath is still lying near the house where [social justice protester saddled with debt and desperation] Moshe Silman set himself on fire in front of our very eyes [Silman set himself on fire during a demonstration on July 14. He passed away six days later]. The days since have been hectic. The hopes that following that act the government will at long last "understand" or "change" have been dashed. The never-ending phone calls from people whose lives are collapsing and who threaten to commit suicidee] have made it clear to us all that the longed-for change will not be brought about by the present government. It first ignored [the dismal situation] and then bluffed us and next, lied outright. One day it is in Spain and the next one, in Greece, and the day after tomorrow, it may be in Iran. And the common citizen alone, unable to pay his rent even, has nowhere to go [or escape].

Our revolution — which has never really been ours — has stretched into a tenuous thin line, seized by numerous hands and arms that try, in vain, to take credit for it and embrace it as their own, torn between those who want to turn it to the [political] right and those who seek to take it to the left; between those who strive to transform it into a political movement and those who believe that it should renounce the political system and do away with the Knesset [the Israeli Parliament]; between those who look back with nostalgia to the naïve days of summer 2011 [When the Social Justice demonstrations first took place] and those who want to move on; between those who urge for more aggressive action and those who believe in democracy and aim to strengthen it. It is torn between the center and the periphery; between the middle class and the downtrodden poor; between the establishment and anarchy; between the generation that blames itself for everything and the one that is out to save the world – tomorrow if not tonight, already.

As for us, some of us have come close to each other amid the chaos and turmoil, becoming a small group of intimate friends, like brothers, having gone through it all together: that unforgettable summer, the violence and then, the dark of winter, the jobs we gave up, the former partners who had accompanied us along the way and dropped in midway, the blows dealt us by the establishment, the police, the [political] right and the left. A year after embarking on the struggle, we now wish to get reacquainted with the society on whose behalf we have been struggling, to become familiar with populations, sectors, ventures and worlds we haven't met yet, to listen to their stories, to ask them the troubling questions and to look together for answers.

To do it the right way, we soon realized, we cannot just jump for a visit here and there and go back home at the end of the day. We had to set out on a cross-country tour – from the desert [in Southern Israel] to Kiryat Shmona [on the Lebanese border, in the North of the country] — to sit to the table to eat with whoever we meet on the street, to pass the night wherever we are offered accommodation, to give a lift to whoever asks for it; to go out on a journey.

The first day, Sunday: Yeruham [a town in the Negev desert, in Southern Israel]

"There's no way back"

The road out of Tel Aviv passes quickly, the way it does when you sleep it out. Maya's hands are on the wheel, Rona has her legs on the window and I have my head on Jonathan's shoulder. I wake up at six in the morning, when my mobile phone rings. "Can we have a short comment on yesterday's demonstrations?" some radio producer on the other side of the line murmurs. The program host asks me about the economic austerity measures and I recite my answer: "The government is completely alienated. What Israeli society needs is a rescue plan. It should be strengthened. Public housing, education, welfare [– that's what is needed]. Where are the funds to come from? Well, from the cancellation of tax exemptions, from direct progressive taxation on commercial companies and on capital [gains]. I feel like a broken record. "Are you planning to take to the streets once again? He wonders, somewhat cynically. "The real question is how we can gather momentum and gain more influence," I tell him. "Demonstrations are not going to solve all our problems." "So, what will do it," he retorts, "politics?" At that moment the line goes dead. We are apparently out of range in the desert. I am granted a respite thanks to Israeli-Jordanian cooperation [or rather connectivity problems].

The ride along the Dead Sea, through route 90 [the longest road in Israel, stretching along some 480 km]  along the western bank of the Dead Sea, evokes old memories; of that journey, when we tried rap jumping down the Qumran falls and were caught in the flood; of those winter nights when we used to dip in the hidden hot springs, when it was raining outside and the smell of sulfur was in the air; memories of that road trip with Jonathan, when as young soldiers, we got a lift from Kiryat Shmona to Tiberias and somehow found ourselves sitting on the [salty Dead Sea] coast, playing the music of [Israeli singer] Yehudit Ravitz and then, that of the Ktzat Acheret ("A Little Different") Trio [a synonym for the Israeli progressive rock scene of the 1970s]. 

My last visit here was when I attended the Caesarea conference [the 20th Caesarea Economic Policy Planning Forum, June 27 – 28, 2012], held at a Dead Sea hotel, in case you wondered. This time around, it was without the guitar and the flip flops. Clad in a little black dress, wearing elegant shoes, I addressed the conference, trying to make [Finance Minister Yuval] Steinitz and [Bank of Israel Governor Stanley] Fischer, who were sitting across me, understand that we, too, knew how to talk economics when we wanted to.

To our first meeting with Shavi Shai, the Director General of the Eilat Hotel Association, we arrive in wet T-shirts, after a plunge in the Red Sea. We just could not resist the temptation. "Contrary to what people in the center of the country think," he says, "the cost of living here is very high, as the delivery of goods [to Eilat] is much more expensive."

Further up North, on the steps of the Yeruham [A town which has become a symbol of economical difficulties and unemployment]  local municipality building, our "second half" awaits us: a big van carrying our dear friend and partner to the social protest movement,  Alon-Lee Green, who devoted the best part of his years to the social cause, attempting to organize workers in labor unions, and has never spent a night in the desert; Re'uel, an Israel Air Force (IAF) officer and a poet; Amit, a philosopher and a TV editor; Yuval, a teacher and a social activist; and Ronny, Dalit and Amir, our partners to last summer's protests. Last but not least, the youngest among us, 16-year old Beth, who started her way as a social activist at the age of six, with her parents, and decided to carry on independently when she realized that her peers could not keep up. The van driver is the real surprise of the journey. It is none other than Eli Danker — at night, a stage and screen actor [who appeared in numerous films and TV series, including popular American TV series] and by day, a driver at the service of the revolution. We first met last year, when he was wandering from one periphery "tent city" to another with a group of activists. Two months ago, we met accidentally on the street. "We need you," I told him. "Would you join us once again?"

The story of Yeruham Mayor, Michael Biton, is an outstanding story of politics and the periphery. He finished high school without qualifying for a matriculation certificate. Following his military service he became a social activist and focused on the improvement of education and the advancement of the youth [in his home town]. About two years ago, he was elected to head the local council. "You can be a political activist for years, without running for any office," he says. "You can set up non-profit associations, establish social organizations and form neighborhood committees; however, to bring about a real change, you must be where you can have control over the fund allocations, that is, in politics. It's a decision that has to be made, and once you decide, there's no way back." 

The second day, Monday: Arad [a town in Southern Israel, on the border of the Negev and Judean Deserts]

"You have to sit in coffee houses"

[World renowned Israeli novelist] Amos Oz leads us to his study, on the ground floor of his home. He puts on the table a chocolate cake and a jug of water. The room is full of books, from wall to wall, and many others are heaped on his desk. "Your messages will not seep in overnight," he says. "The fact that the demonstrations fail to yield immediate results does not mean that the message has not been delivered, and received. I hear of a lot of Israelis who have changed their mind, who think otherwise today. But it will take time."

About 30 years ago, on the first days of the 1982 [First] Lebanon War, Oz set out on a journey of his own that came to an end with the novel he wrote on the journey, "Here and There in the Land of Israel."

"I remember sitting in a café at Beit Shemesh [in the Jerusalem District], and people gathering around and starting yelling at me, calling me 'leftist' and 'anti-Israeli', but while doing so they lighted my cigarette and served me with coffee. They treated me not as an enemy, but rather as a family member who had gone somewhat astray. Unlike a lot of other places in the world where you find racism, class wars and internal strife, in Israel you can always talk. Even if they are angry at you, they will always talk with you. They are all intent on convincing you. If you really want to know the country [and the people in it], you have to sit in coffee houses, on the steps leading to the local mall or at the entrance to the post office. You don't have to do more than throw in a word. A debate will immediately ensue. Just talk with people."

As to politics, Oz tells us that he believes there is no choice [but to get involved in politics]. "The difference between the Tahrir Square demonstrations and [the protest rallies in] Tel Aviv is that here, in Israel, we have a government that was elected at the ballot box and will thus be toppled at the ballot box."

A few streets away, a seasoned social activist by the name of Laxi meets us. Along with other activists, he has been campaigning for several years now against the planned phosphate mine that spells destruction for the town. We drive together to the industrial zone of Arad, which overlooks the site known as "Sde Barir", earmarked for the mine, some four kilometers from Arad's residential quarters and about three kilometers from the Bedouin settlements of Kuseife and Al Houra.  The beautiful area that stretches before our eyes could be a magnificent hiking place that would liven up tourism in the region. However, if the local activists accompanying us fail in their campaign, it will turn to be a disaster. I am looking sadly at the parched desert surrounding me, wondering how the aspiration to make the desert bloom has culminated in a vortex of economic interests clouding the lives of the local residents.

In the afternoon, we bid farewell to Arad's pristine landscapes and move on to [the collective community, or Kibbutz, of] Sde Boker [best known as the retirement home of Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, and the realization of his dream to settle the desert]. When I was about 15, I discovered that the best place for making fateful decisions was high up on that cliff, above Nahal Zin [Wadi Zin]. And it doesn't have to do only with Ben-Gurion, who is buried nearby, although he too made a number of fine decisions in his days in the desert. Rather, it has to do with the breath-taking scenery of Chod Akev Mountain [towering above its surroundings] on the other side of the canyon, one look at which is worth one thousand agonizing hours of doubts.

Already awaiting us in "Midreshet Sde Boker" [aka "Midreshet Ben-Gurion", the educational center and boarding school of Sde Boker] are young students engaged in the research of the desert and the environment. They have their dwellings in a beautiful space, run like a small communal village. Half of them are Israelis and the other half have come here from abroad. The conversation is held in English.

‘’Had we been able to stay here [in Sde Boker], we would have most probably managed somehow’’, almost all of them say. However, they all know that they are going to complete their studies and receive their degrees one day, and "precisely where are we supposed to go then?" they wonder. One of the Israelis in the group whispers in my ear: "Young people have nothing to do here." Once he finishes his studies, he intends to pack his things and be off, apparently to Berlin. "Don’t you see? The State doesn't want us here."

The third day, Tuesday: Jerusalem

"You better find new words"

 Atiyah Al-Athamin, the Chief of the Bedouin village of Hashem Zane, exhausted by the Ramadan fast, takes us for a stroll on the hill. Dispersed below are the neighborhoods of Hashem Zane [located in the triangular region between the towns of Beersheba, Arad, and Dimona that marks the area in which Israel permits the Bedouin to live in the Negev]. However, the State of Israel has never recognized it. A kibbutz in the vicinity, all green and blossoming, is seen from afar.

"Do you feel a part of this place?" I ask Al-Athamin.

"A part of what, of the Negev?" he wonders.

"No," I answer, smiling, "of the State."

"The State is like a father who has two sons," he says in response after a long silence. "One of them he treats nicely – he lets him go to school, enables him to grow up and develop. The other he completely ignores." His eyes are sad. "You would like your father to pay attention to you. You want to be a part of the family."

From there, we take the road to Beersheba for a meeting with physicians [working at the Soroka Medical Center, in the heart of the Negev Desert]. They tell us that, on the average, life expectancy in the Negev is two years lower than in central Israel and that infant mortality rate in the Negev is triple the rate in the center of the country. 

"Budget allocation between the hospitals [in Israel] is not done equally, in proportion to the needs," says Prof. Vered Slonim-Nevo from the Department of Social Work at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "Rather, budgets are allocated in line with the [socio-economic] status of the patients. In places where the population is capable of fighting for its rights, the [medical] services it receives are better. We thus see that hospitals in central Israel are enjoying far more generous funding than those far off in the periphery, certainly more than those serving weaker populations that are unable to fight for their rights."

"Do you know why I am here [driving you]?" Eli [Danker], our private chauffeur, asks us on our way to Jerusalem. "I am here because I belong to the generation of your parents, whose fault it is that you are stuck in tents." We keep silent. Nobody is saying anything. "We received the country on a silver plate, so to speak, and dumped our responsibility. My responsibility today is to see to it that you will get out of the tents and live here the way you deserve to live." He puts his hand on mine [as in a pledge]. "Until then, I am with you."

Towards night, we arrive at the home of [Israeli journalist] Bambi Sheleg, founding editor of the magazine Eretz Acheret [“A Different Israel”], a platform for the discussion of issues concerning Israeli society and the Jewish people. We are trying to check with her and her colleagues why the religious Zionist movement remained aloof and failed to join the social protest. "If the protest movement seeks to influence [us]," Sheleg says, "it has to deliver to this [religious Zionist] public positive messages. The rightist stance of the religious public is not in itself negative. It is not against Arabs, but rather for the Land of Israel. We should talk about what we have in common."

"People were disappointed with you during the [August 2005 unilateral] disengagement [from the Gaza Strip and the Northern West Bank]," one of the attendees says, "as you did nothing then for the evacuees of Gush Katif [the bloc of 17 Israeli settlements in the Southern Gaza strip]. This was the moment of truth for you, when you could have demonstrated that your values were genuine and universal; however, as it turned out, you were actually against the settlers. You don't really care about their expulsion from their homes."

"And, for God's sake, please stop using the phrase 'welfare state'," says Na'ama, who co-edits the magazine with Sheleg. "It is an outdated concept that is no longer relevant today. You better find new words to describe our future."

Part 2: The journey continues: the social revolution takes us up North

The fourth day, Wednesday: Givat Haviva

"Tell us what to do"

Mira and Mahah, one Jewish and the other Arab, both residents of Lod, take us for a tour around the town. [Israeli] writer Etgar Keret [known for his short stories — he has also written about and supported the Social Justice Movement] joins us on the tour, complying with our appeal to him to study this tough town together with us.

Last year, Mira served as the coordinator of the protest encampment set up in Lod, next to the activity center of the local Scouts group that she heads. Mahah is a social and political activist who is working with the local council. "The State is giving out land for free," she says, "but only if you wear a 'kippa' [traditional Jewish skullcap]. They are telling us: 'You sit aside. We are going to bring the crème de la crème here, the 'good citizens', and some day they will help you to make progress and get ahead in life.'"

"Why don't you focus on a joint struggle on a limited scale? Keret asks. "Focusing on an open-to-all bilingual school, for instance?" "It's a far-off dream," Mira answers. I first met her last year, at one of the demonstrations in Lod. It was not an easy encampment to handle. Some of its occupants were homeless families who spent the months following its dismantling, camping it out at the adjacent Scouts Activity Center. "Before each demonstration, there was war going on here over what we were going to write on the signs," Mira tells us, "whether the slogans would be for or against Bibi [PM Benjamin Netanyahu]."

"At one of those demonstrations you split inadvertently into two groups," I recall. "The women were standing on the road, calling 'Bibi, Bibi, go home!', while the men were standing on the pavement, yelling 'Bibi, Bibi, wake up!'" "And there was that other demonstration," Mira reminds us, "when people waved banners reading: 'Bibi, we are for you! Please help us!'"

From the multifaceted, complex town of Lod we take the road to [the socially-oriented, cross-community education center of] Givat Haviva [which was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Peace Education in 2001 for its longstanding work in promoting Jewish-Arab dialogue and reconciliation]. We are about to meet there 500 young members of the Israeli Scouts Organization (the "Tzofim") who are undergoing training in anticipation of a [pre-military] year of voluntary community service. "I am against the protest movement," an 18-year old girl in the audience calls out. "You are a bunch of spoiled guys. You haven't done military service. You want to live in the center of the country. Who said that the State should give you everything? Would you like us to be like Spain? Like Greece? Would you like us to collapse? Do you want [the government] to raise the taxes on the wealthy and drive them away?"

When I was their age, I set up a group of community service volunteers that spent a year in Tiberias, engaging in informal education. We had a place with a thrilling view of the Sea of Galilee (Lake Kinneret), and we were supposed to help the children in an underprivileged neighborhood with their homework and provide them with enrichment activities. We soon found ourselves deeply involved in the system, some of us as substitute teachers and others, as social workers to all ends and purposes. All that time, I was certain that, if we only didn't waste time oversleeping or excessively doubting what we were doing, in a year we would change the world. When, the year after, I enlisted into the IAF flight academy as a cadet, I was still thinking the same. In a year, I was going to change the world. However, another year passed by, during which I was flying and landing, and the world carried on as usual.

"Do you know why you are here?" I ask them. "You are here because our State is no longer here. Many of you are going to provide in the coming year the most basic services that the State is no longer providing. You are going to become teachers and educators and substitute nurses. You will see the system collapse before your very eyes and you will have to be there, to take its place, having no other choice."

"So, tell us what to do," another girl counters. "I cannot see why you are not setting up a party. We will vote for you."

The fifth day, Thursday: Kiryat Shmona [in Northern Israel, on the Lebanese border]

"People here are afraid to protest"

This very same question I present to the activists of the Kiryat Shmona encampment when meeting them the following day. Today, as they have been doing every week, they are demonstrating at the "Rasco" junction, at the entrance to the town, to remind the local residents that they are still here and invite them to join the struggle. They have been meeting regularly even after their encampment was dismantled. It was a palace-like structure made of logs that served them as a real home during most of the winter.

We are sitting with the activists on a small mat in front of the local municipality building, just next to the tent set up by Jacky, a disabled homeless in a wheelchair who is protesting there in the hope of receiving the aid due him from the National Insurance Institute of Israel. "People here are afraid to protest," our friends tell us. "When we visited the local branch of the National Insurance Institute a few days ago, a woman was sitting there, waiting for her turn. After we left, one of the clerks approached her and said, warning: "We heard that you were smearing us on Facebook. You better watch it."

Some of them are street people by choice. When their encampment was dismantled, following lengthy and difficult legal proceedings, they decided that they would not go back home. They have been sleeping outside since, each night someplace else.

There is something deeply moving about this group. At the end of the country, without much help from others, they have managed to set up a new, small country of their own. It isn't necessarily consolidated, but it is very stable and open to all.

Their serenity cannot be upset, until we mention the forbidden word — politics. "What do you intend to do in the elections?" we are asking. They are all getting serious. "It's the protest of people who are fed up [with everything]," they say. "If it becomes political, it will be destroyed."

In [the Northern Upper Galilee town of] Hatzor HaGlilit, at the entrance to Pri Hagalil [the largest factory for vegetables’ processing in Israel], which has become a symbol, the Workers' Committee Chairman, Motti Haziza, is waiting for us with a broad smile on his face. The night before , they signed with the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor the agreement they were all waiting for, which would prevent the dismissal of 200 employees before the [High] holidays.

Haziza was born in the small town of Hatzor HaGlilit, whose population numbers some 10,000 residents. If the factory is closed, hundreds of the local residents will find themselves without work and will be left without anything, collapsing economically. The factory has become a home for its workers and in the course of the four years of struggle, its continued operation has been threatened once and again. In Haziza's office, the walls are adorned with pictures of Sephardi rabbis, from Maimonides to the Baba Sali. Haziza explains that they help him. "When I summon workers for a talk in my office, I tell them to be honest with me, to tell me everything, as it isn't only me who is listening, but also all these rabbis who are looking at us from the walls." 

In recent years, Haziza has become much more than a workers' committee chairman. In face of the growing concerns over imminent dismissals, he has become a psychologist. "When the factory was on the verge of closure, one of the employees came to me and told me that his wife was so depressed that she could not function. I visited them at home to reassure them and then visited another family and yet another one and told them that it was going to be alright. Did I know that it was going to be alright? No, naturally I could not know. But you have to believe it to carry on the struggle."

The sixth day, Friday: Safed  [the Upper Galilee holy town known as a center of Jewish mysticism]

"Do you know any good Arabs?"

At the Shfar'am (or Shefa-Amr) Galilee Society — the Arab National Society for Health Research and Services — we are met by a group of four statisticians and physicians. "How can you expect us to become a part of your protest movement?" they ask. "How can we collaborate with you if, the minute you will be sitting to the negotiation table with the government you will give us up? How can we join with the Jews in the protest movement without talking about the occupation?"

"To build this place anew, we have to work together," I tell them. "Otherwise, we will be making the same mistakes over and over again."

"We have already paid our dues to this State," says Lina, a researcher by profession. "This State was established on the ruins of our [homes and villages]. Only when the State starts investing in the Arab sector the way it invests in the Jewish sector, will it be possible to discuss the option of equally carrying the burden. As long as this does not happen, we cannot be asked to serve the State."

"These games of precedence, of what should be before and what should come after, are not going to get us anywhere," I reply. "It doesn't always sound fair, but we stand no chance of making any headway if we don't try to act [together]."

"I cannot do it to my own people," says the senior physician in the group. "I cannot tell them, 'This time around, it’s going to work out. This once we will cooperate with the Jews and they will not knock us,' and then look on and witness the fall; it [the disillusionment] is going to destroy us."

At the center of the ancient city of Safed, students who have been born here are waiting to meet us. They are clad in their Saturday garments; the girls have a light make-up on. Eyal, a native of Tel Aviv who has become religious, is accompanied by his youngest son, the sixth out of nine [children]. He proudly leads us on a sightseeing tour of the place — to the old cemetery and from there, to watch the sun disappearing behind Mount Meron, and then to visit the renewing center of Jewish mysticism ("Kabala") in town. 

"Madonna arrived here in a helicopter for immersion in a ritual Jewish bath ('Mikveh')," somebody tells us. "She came here in the middle of night, straight from the helicopter to the 'Mikveh' and then back. Nobody knew she was here."

"Look at that old man, see what an aura of holiness he has," our guide says, pointing to one of the town's elders, who is just then opening the doors to the synagogue. "Look at the radiance that envelops him." The man is smiling, examining us, the guests. We don't feel any festivity, that's for sure. We are tired, sweaty, carrying large backpacks that bend our backs.

At the entrance to the synagogue, on the way out, after the prayers, a genial-looking rabbi is standing. A line of men, adults and children, are waiting to receive his blessing. He touches the heads of the children, murmuring his blessing, and with each of the men he exchanges a few words.

"This is Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu," one of our hosts whispers in my ear. I am struck dumb. All that aura of holiness is vanishing into thin air. I am trying to associate the amiable look of the Chief Rabbi of Safed with his declarations along the years, above all his ruling according to the Jewish law that bars Jews from renting apartments to Arabs. Meanwhile, Eli, our devoted driver, emerges from the synagogue all beaming with happiness. "He blessed you for me," he tells me. "I asked him to bless you with success." "Thanks for the blessing," I note dryly. "I hope that he is aware of the conflict of interests here."

Around the dinner table, on the upper balcony of the Saraya [“palace” in Turkish] building, an impressive structure, previously used as a prison and currently serving as a cultural center, the tempers flare up. "You cannot understand it," our hosts try to explain. "The local college is already packed with Arabs, and the Jews are bound to escape from the town. We don't want to do the Arabs any harm; we are just not interested in having them in our town. They have 20 villages in the environs, so, why come here of all places? It's a holy city. We have to safeguard it as ours."

"The Arabs are no better than wild beasts," the guy sitting at the head of the table calls. "We don't want them here." For the first time since we set out on our journey, I find it hard to listen. "What is it that you want this place to become?" I am asking. "How can we build a country where everyone will feel secure?"

"It isn't going to happen anymore," someone answers. He is a musician, an IDF officer, with kind eyes. "There is no way we can solve the problems here. Do you know any good Arabs that you can really count on?" I answer positively. "But if they live here," he goes on, "they are liable to mingle with us. You don't care perhaps about the culture your children are going to have, whether or not it's Jewish, but we do care about it."

"In my eyes, Jewish culture means also the acceptance of the other and solidarity; to remember what you went through and not inflict it on others." My hosts are losing their patience. "Let's get on with the prayer," they say. We are sitting together silently, each apparently praying for totally different things.

The seventh day, Saturday: Mount Meron

"So what? Going back home?"

Mount Meron in front of us, we are stretching. I would like to stretch the journey on and on. More than anything else that we have been doing, it [the journey] feels like the really important thing. We will never be able to reach these people through the established media. We will never be able to reach out to them through Facebook. I still remember the sign carried by that old man in one of last summer's demonstrations: "In 1948 I came here to establish the State. Today I've come here to reestablish it." There is no need any more to establish the State as it was done back then, with guns and fortifications. It has to be set up [anew] by hard, Sisyphean and shared work that will bridge the gaps created since.

"So what?" Eli asks, starting the van. "Going back home?"

I'm not sure. There are so many stories that we haven't heard yet, so many people that we wished to meet. I am looking towards the road. A stream is winding below us. And we can simply jump in and swim along and forget about everything. It's so much easier to let go, to carry on with life, the way it used to be. It's quite easy to sink into it. It's much more difficult to stay where one has to decide on the rest of the way.

The water under the bridge is sparkling. The sun is high in the sky.

"It seems to me that we have to go back home," I am telling him. "There is still so much more to be done."

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