Israel Now

The author, a former resident of Israel, finds that raw power and economic forces are redrawing the map of the Middle East, and peace talks will merely formalize the emerging reality
New Realities

Beit She'an is one of the few places in Israel that did not benefit from the huge Russian immigration, the liberalization of the economy, and the software and cell-phone revolutions that, in a chain reaction, changed society here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its bus station brought back memories of the depressing development town, inhabited largely by Moroccan Jews, that I had known in the 1970s. The problem was cronyism: Beit She'an was testimony to the abject political failure of David Levy, the town's favorite son, and Foreign Minister under Likud governments and now under the newly elected Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Levy's family-based political machine failed to attract enough investors to the town. The first rule of politics is to help your constituents, but Beit She'an has little to show for Levy's years in Israeli cabinets.

I had known Beit She'an in the past, but because it was the first town I saw in Israel after weeks in the Arab world, my perspective on it was new. At the bus station I sat in a crude plastic chair at a café in the shopping arcade and awaited my friend. The arcade was modern and cheaply constructed, with bubble-gum machines, plastic garbage receptacles, and self-service food counters. Machine-printed receipts littered the plastic café tables. People walked alone, rushing somewhere. Quite a few soldiers and civilians sat by themselves, reading newspapers. Armed soldiers were less threatening here than in the other Middle Eastern countries where I had been: their assault rifles were pointed downward and the safety latches were on. Also, these soldiers looked middle-class. For all the blather about Israel's invincible army, the fact is that for years it has been evolving into one of suburban kids who just want to get home at night without having anything bad happen to them. The Palestinians who came with Yasser Arafat from abroad to the casbahs of Nablus and Hebron are veterans of the Lebanese civil war. That's really why Israel had to give up the West Bank: it couldn't win an urban war there.

Except for the soldiers, who came from all over Israel and were merely changing buses here, the people in the bus station had none of the sophistication of the wealthier Arabs I had seen in Beirut and Amman, or the dignity of the poorer ones in Amman's downtown souk. There were men with ragged long hair, earrings, and garish T-shirts, women in athletic shorts and hair rollers who chewed gum, and people of both sexes wearing baseball caps, some of them backwards. As in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, falafel sandwiches in pita bread were for sale. But here there were few employees at the counters, and pickles, peppers, and other condiments were self-service. This is a Western economy without the child labor and double-digit unemployment of the non-oil-producing Arab world. And Israelis never tired of telling me, We are picky—we don't trust someone else to fill our falafel sandwiches.

Americans who fly to Israel see an ethnic society that is cohesive by comparison with the one they know in the United States, but I noticed a loneliness and an alienation that are missing from the traditional societies across the border. Even the most Westernized places in Turkey appeared less rootless than Beit She'an, whose bus station I could almost have mistaken for one in a fast-buck Mexican border town. Many foreign journalists have never liked Israel, because it is rude and jarring rather than exotic—too new. But social and economic dynamism command ugliness; an aesthetic, like a fine garden or a spoken language, requires years of elaboration.

Mitch arrived and led me to his car for the drive north, along the Jordan River Valley, to the Sea of Galilee. From there we would climb into the hills to his home in Zippori, a village halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean. Mitch, who had served in the paratroops and in the media spokesman's office during his military service, had left Jerusalem some years earlier to renovate an abandoned old Arab house in the Galilee. Using his Arabic, he hired some Israeli Arabs from nearby Nazareth, and together they fixed up the house, installed a well and a septic system, landscaped several acres, and then built four vacation homes for tourists—mainly young Israeli couples from Tel Aviv seeking a romantic weekend in the countryside. Mitch's politics are right of center, yet he shops and rents videos in Arab Nazareth, buys his construction materials there, and uses a local Arab provider for Internet access; his children were born in Nazareth's Protestant hospital. Mitch is one of my oldest friends, and among the best-read, most observant people I know, partly because instead of going to college he spent several years traveling.

As I gazed at a landscape of bicycle paths, flower gardens, reforested hills, fish-breeding ponds, and prefabricated farm sheds and subdivisions, Mitch talked nonstop about Israel, revealing changes for which the international media—at the time concerned mainly with the peace process and Israeli politics—had not prepared me. Israel, it seemed, was no less an undiscovered country than the others in the region. Among the things Mitch told me, which I confirmed and came to understand more fully through reading Israeli newspapers and conducting interviews, were the following:

Israel's military-reserve system is weakening. According to myth, Israel has a small regular army capable of holding off Arab invaders for forty-eight hours—long enough to mobilize its citizen army of reservists. But accounts of the 1973 war revealed that many reserve units had performed poorly. The 1973 war was followed by a small baby boom; thus in the early 1990s the military was flooded not only with immigrants from a collapsing Soviet Union but also with a relatively high number of eighteen-year-old recruits, and the need for older reservists decreased. Meanwhile, the liberation of the Israeli economy from its socialist straitjacket—the result of both pressure and advice from the former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, an economist by training—meant that reservists who were entrepreneurs, and whose businesses would suffer in their absence, were too many in number to work out individual arrangements with the military. Now so many Israelis are entrepreneurs that missing reserve duty has become commonplace. In an age of high-tech warfare and relatively high population growth, the military doesn't need many of these aging men. For example, Mitch had just received a notice from the army spokesman's office for a day of reserve duty in southern Lebanon, but his commander had phoned and asked him not to appear—the bus seated only fifty-five reservists, but eighty had been called up, and more were willing to come than had been anticipated. A former Israeli general told me that in the future the military draft will continue "for cultural reasons," because Israel requires a society more cohesive than America's. But for protection from surrounding Muslim states a high-tech, highly paid volunteer force may ultimately be more efficient.

Over the years the number of combat officers who are religious Jews has increased significantly. Now there are whole army units composed of graduates of yeshivot hesder-- religious seminaries where study is combined with athletic and military training in a unified youth culture. Elite army units have also attracted Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, who, though not always religious, are—like the yeshiva students—not part of the country's founding secular Ashkenazi establishment.

The most vibrant anti-establishment force in Israel was Shas—an openly ethnic and sectarian party primarily representing religious Moroccan Jews. Shas (the word is a Hebrew contraction of Shisha Sedarim,the "Six Orders" of the Mishna—the written collection of the oral law that forms the basis of the Talmud) illustrates that what Western experts call corruption is sometimes just an alternative power network that emerges when the official bureaucracy is unyielding or too infirm to help the downtrodden. "The working poor all over the world are struggling and out for themselves," Marwan Kassem, a former Prime Minister of Jordan, had told me, "and they are cynical about the anti-corruption language of elites who use words like 'transparency'" at fancy conferences. Some of Shas's officials had been indicted; and though they looked and operated like Iranian bazaaris, they had established education and social-welfare networks as impressive as those run by Hamas in Gaza and by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Shas's shadowy grassroots system is a rebuke to David Levy's machine politics, which delivered insufficient benefits to the Sephardim in Beit She'an. Shas is not closed-minded regarding peace. The party has always been willing to be part of any coalition, however hawkish or dovish, provided it gets money for its religious schools and day-care centers. Religious schooling is increasingly in demand in Israel, as Zionism weakens and secular schools lose a part of their mission while facing more drugs and delinquency.

Foreign workers are another sign of Israel's increasingly complex postmodern society. A veritable caste system has emerged, with Thai farmhands, Romanian construction workers, and Nigerian day laborers, as Israelis grow increasingly uncomfortable about hiring Palestinian workers. Southern Lebanese work as hotel maids, and thousands of Jordanians who have overstayed their visas take off-the-books jobs. The Israeli economy, though it stalled recently after years of sustained growth, has reached a level of such wealth that it is a magnet for outside labor regardless of regional politics.

While the outside world hopes for Arab-Jewish cooperation, the most obvious sign of it—and one that Israelis incessantly talked about—is car theft. Everyone I met in Israel had either had a car stolen or knew someone who had. Almost every parked car I saw, except for the old ones, had a device to lock the steering wheel or a decal announcing some sort of electronic tracking system. It is a national issue so mundane that it doesn't qualify as news, and isn't written about overseas. Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority is involved to such a degree that after a leading rabbi had his car stolen, a call to Arafat's office resulted in its return. The Israeli security services do little to stop the thefts. According to one prevalent theory, the security services see the thievery as a political concession to the Palestinians that also stimulates the Israeli economy, because it forces victims to buy new cars. A name that comes up in discussions of the unpleasant aspects of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation is that of Jibril Rajoub. A friend of mine labeled Rajoub "Israel's Somoza," referring to Anastasio Somoza, the late pro-American dictator of Nicaragua. Rajoub, a ruthless security czar for Arafat, is helping the Israelis enforce the interim peace agreements and fight terrorism. Though the international media rarely mention him, I heard Rajoub's name all the time in Israel. He spent a decade and a half in Israeli prisons, speaks fluent Hebrew, and has far more influence with Arafat than more quotable Palestinians such as Abu Mazen, Saeeb Erekat, Nabil Shaath, and Hanan Ashrawi. When I asked an Israeli intelligence officer if Rajoub might eventually replace Arafat, he replied, "Someone like Abu Mazen, a leading Palestinian negotiator, could initially replace Arafat. But if Abu Mazen, say, were assassinated and the cruder element took over, I would not be totally surprised."

Arab towns in the Galilee are in turmoil. Local elections that took place during my visit demonstrated not the primacy of ideas or even of issues but the increasing power of the old clans, the hamoulas. Concomitantly, violence between Muslims and Christians is on the rise. One night in Nazareth I saw that some Muslims had set up a makeshift mosque next door to the Church of the Annunciation, using carpets and overhead blankets, and heard them blast the Muslim call to prayer. Claiming that the site of an old Turkish barracks had religious significance, the Muslims were threatening to build a new mosque with a minaret higher than the church, which is a focal point of international Christian pilgrimage. Nazareth, 90 percent Christian several decades ago, is now 70 percent Muslim, and that percentage is rising. The Israeli government is not eager to help the Arab Christians: Israel's ties with Muslims in the Galilee are more important, and Christian groups worldwide (evangelicals excepted) have never been particularly supportive of Israel.

Nearing Mitch's house, we passed through Hoshaya, which resembles an upscale community in southern California, with bougainvillaea, security gates, and speed bumps on winding streets that are lined with identical houses with red-tile roofs and neat lawns. A few days later I spent a morning stranded in Hoshaya without a car. Finding someone on the street at midday was difficult. When I did locate some people, they were all busy. None of them would admit to knowing where a public phone was or invited me to use his. They looked at once shy, preoccupied, a little annoyed, and suspicious. Finally I found an Arab watchman who lent me his cell phone. At such times I reminded myself that Israel is a drastic, tactless expression of concreteness: of facts to replace other facts. Here the Holocaust remains an unsparing assemblage of gruesome details that are commemorated not by intellectual abstractions but by, among other things, a security service, a military machine, and Jewish settlements like Hoshaya, whose significance is not that they are alluring or friendly—they aren't—but that they are there. And there is another concrete reaction to the Holocaust: machismo, in women as well as in men, directed not just against weakness but against anybody who doesn't know the score, anybody stranded in Hoshaya in the middle of the day without a car.

Sepphoris and Ancient Assimilation

The balcony of Mitch's house offered a prospect of serene harmony. There were hills in the distance to the northwest, a valley to the north, and a large, softly contoured hill dominating the view to the northeast. The valley was the Beit Netofa, mentioned in the Talmud, where I could discern the remains of the Via Maris, the old Roman road to the Mediterranean. The large hill, known in Greek (and therefore to classical scholars) and in English as Sepphoris, was the site of ancient Zippori, from the Hebrew zippor,for "bird," because the town had sat "at the top of the mountain like a bird," in the words of the Babylonian Talmud.

Now a national park, Sepphoris was continuously inhabited from the late sixth century B.C. until 1948, when the population of the Arab village of Saffuriyeh fled en masse as the newly created Israel Defense Forces invaded during the War of Independence. Many of the 10,000 Arabs escaped north to what became the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Helweh, near the Lebanese port of Sidon. Mitch showed me a black-and-white photograph of Saffuriyeh taken in 1945. It resembled many of the dusty, dun-colored, and treeless checkerboards of towns I had seen throughout Syria and Jordan.

The Arab flight left Sepphoris unoccupied for the first time in more than two millennia. In 1949 a moshav,or Jewish cooperative settlement, of which Mitch's property now forms a part, was established immediately to the south of the hill. Sepphoris is testimony to the repeated invasions, infiltrations, and displacements that have lent the Middle East—geographic Palestine in particular—its distinctive feature of discontinuity, especially by comparison with such aged and revered regions as India and China.

I mean discontinuity only in the grand sense: Hittites being replaced by Phrygians and Assyrians, Assyrians by Medes and Babylonians, Byzantine Greeks by Arabs, and Arabs by Jews. For there is much continuity in the history of ancient Sepphoris. Indeed, Sepphoris's story is one of political and cultural compromise that is pertinent to the challenges facing Judaism in Israel today.

Whereas Jerusalem was oft-destroyed, Sepphoris was continuously inhabited by Jews from at least the first century B.C. For that reason, and also because Sepphoris was central to early-medieval Judaism and to the Mishna, it is the most popular archaeological site in Israel among Israelis themselves. Tourists and foreign travel writers tend to focus instead on Caesarea and Masada, whose connections to Judaism are respectively marginal and brief.

Sepphoris first emerged from obscurity in the first century B.C., when Herod the Great fortified it with a royal palace. Though the Syrian legate, Varus, destroyed Sepphoris upon Herod's death, in 4 B.C., Herod's son, Herod Antipas, soon rebuilt the town, making it, according to a historian of the era, the "ornament of all Galilee." That historian, Flavius Josephus, wrote in his autobiography,

The greatest cities of Galilee ... were Sepphoris and ... Tiberias; but Sepphoris, situated in the very midst of Galilee, and having many villages about it, and able with ease to have been ... troublesome to the Romans, if they had so pleased,—yet did it resolve to continue faithful to those their masters.

Because the Jews of Sepphoris collaborated with Rome, Jewish life there continued long past the first century, not only prospering but producing the Mishna and other books that give Judaism its current wealth. In A.D. 68 Sepphoris acquired a Greek name—Eirenopolis, "City of Peace." Such collaboration kept Judaism alive. In contrast, the Jews of Yodefat, nearby in the Galilee; the Jews of Jerusalem; and the Jewish zealots atop the rock of Masada, in the Judean Desert, all resisted Rome, and from 66 to 73 they were utterly destroyed.

Jesus was growing up in the village of Nazareth, about three miles southeast of Sepphoris, just as Sepphoris was beginning its collaboration with Rome. Like Joseph, Jesus was a "carpenter." But the Greek word in the New Testament for "carpenter," tekton, can also be translated as "builder." Herod Antipas' fortress complex was built during Jesus' boyhood. Whether or not Jesus and Joseph plied their trade in Sepphoris, it is likely that Jesus went there often, walking from Nazareth up the very side of the hill that is visible from my friend's balcony. Jesus' grandparents, Joachim and Anne, lived in Sepphoris, where their daughter, Mary, was raised. The Virgin Mary, as Mitch nonchalantly put it, "was a Zippori girl."

What is, according to legend, the site of the home of Joachim and Anne became a Crusader church, amid the ruins of which I found a reused second-century stone with a Greek inscription saying that it was from the synagogue of the "Jewish community of Tyre, Sidon, and Zippori." These ruins were beautiful and forlorn. Getting in required asking for a key at the adjacent Arab Christian orphanage, with whose director I drank Turkish coffee. The ruins and the orphanage—not Nazareth, debased by tacky tourist development—were the genuinely evocative holy places here, I thought.

Unlike many Jews of his time, Jesus did not become a zealot. Rather, he spoke about peace and universal love. Might the atmosphere of Roman-Jewish conciliation in Sepphoris—a commercial town whose inhabitants preferred trade to warfare—have influenced him? Might he have cultivated his gift for speaking in sophisticated and commercial Sepphoris, rather than in small and rustic Nazareth? Scholars passionately debate these points.

In A.D. 132 an irascible warrior, Simeon Bar Kokhba, gathered the descendants of those who had survived the destruction of Jewish Jerusalem sixty-two years earlier and launched an ill-fated revolt against the Roman authorities, which the Emperor Hadrian crushed in 135. The survivors of the Bar Kokhba rebellion fled north, and by the middle of the second century Sepphoris had become the center of Jewish learning in Palestine. Here the Sanhedrin, which was both a Jewish court and a legislative body, was relocated. And at the beginning of the third century Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi ("Judah the Prince"), the patriarch of the Palestinian Jews and a descendant of the great sage Hillel, moved to Sepphoris. He lived here for seventeen years, during which time he completed the Mishna. Unlike Bar Kokhba and the zealots of Masada and Jerusalem, Rabbi Yehudah was a diplomat. According to the Talmud, he was a friend of one of the Antonine Emperors (either Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius), with whom he discussed philosophy.

Acquiescence to the rule of the great powers paid dividends. Sepphoris remained an outpost of rabbinical scholarship and Jewish culture for almost 400 years after Rabbi Yehudah's death, as evinced by the remains of a sixth-century Byzantine synagogue with a magnificent mosaic floor. The Muslim conquest in the seventh century led to the town's decline, and it is likely that many Jews converted to Islam. But not until the First Crusade, late in the eleventh century, did Jewish life definitively end here. The Crusades ended here too: at the top of the hill of Sepphoris is a citadel from which Christian soldiers departed in July of 1187 for Karnei Hittin ("the Horns of Hattin"), two large hills overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Saladin's troops set the fields afire, roasting the knights in their armor and all but ending Christian control of the Holy Land.

Sepphoris is a story of cultural osmosis, of Jews thriving even as they adapted to pagan and Islamic mores. Among the vast remains of Roman-Byzantine Sepphoris is a theater probably attended by assimilated Jews. The most intriguing of the remains is a Roman villa dating from the early third century, during the life of Rabbi Yehudah. The villa includes a dining room with a resplendent mosaic floor—virtually a picture postcard from the past—dedicated to Dionysius, the Greco-Roman god of wine and ecstasy. In the mosaic's central panel he is shown in a drinking contest with Hercules. Who lived in this villa? Most likely, to judge by the mosaic, a pagan notable. "However, one cannot rule out the possibility that a wealthy Jew may have resided here," write Ehud Netzer and Zeev Weiss, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem. Might Rabbi Yehudah himself have visited this villa, or lived here, and sipped wine over the mosaic of Dionysius?

Such a question is extremely sensitive. It touches on a quarrel among Jews today in Israel, where there are still religious zealots and pagans, and also rabbis—following the example of Yehudah ha-Nasi—who are trying to steer Jews away from political and cultural confrontation so that they might rediscover, according to their own needs, the riches of their religion.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic. This article appears, in somewhat different form, as part of his book Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, published by Random House in November 2000.

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