The Tower of David Museum has started one of the largest conservation projects in Israel, with work underway for a $40 million renewal plan led by the Clore Israel Foundation together with the support of the City of Jerusalem, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, and the Israel Ministry of Tourism. The Israel Antiquities Authority is supervising the archeological excavations and conservation of the project, which will double the current area of the museum to 20,000 square metres (more than 215,000 square feet). There will be a new sunken-entrance visitor centre, café, additional public bathrooms, as well as seven new galleries, additional exhibition spaces and two elevators, making the ancient citadel accessible to all. An educational complex of offices, classrooms and an auditorium will be constructed and a promenade added, which will be lined with archeological findings from the site.
Throughout the next two years, the museum will remain open (within the guidelines of the Ministry of Health), with temporary exhibitions, guided tours and cultural activities. A capital campaign has been initiated to complete the renewal project. At the same time, the museum continues to raise working capital to ensure that, even during the project and through the pandemic, the story of Jerusalem continues to be told. Last year, more than 500,000 people visited the museum, generating income for 80% of its budget, but the pandemic shutdown cut its income to zero, forcing the furlough of 85% of the working staff. Despite this, a small team is still creating live and virtual programming. In addition to fundraising, the museum has petitioned the government of Israel, including the Ministry of Culture, for support.
The separation wall, Bayt Mirsim. (photo by Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, in the West Bank, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 2, click here.
Today was our last day on the trail. After many late nights of parlour games, beers and anticipation, we were tired. One of our fellow hikers, Felix, had to stop periodically: the soles of his shoes had worn through, he could feel the tiny stones biting underneath. Uncharacteristically, he was in pain, but he muscled through.
We descended into a valley, dotted with pale green brush, reminiscent of our first days on the trail. The valley opened into expansive views of olive groves, steppes cut into the hills, tidy rows of trees buttressed by stone walls. It could have been Tuscany but was the Middle East, with a warm breeze and soft, popcorn-shaped clouds overhead.
Admiring the scenery, I thought of what lay ahead. I would be spending tonight in Jerusalem. It was a place I hadn’t been since my Birthright trip eight years ago. My rabbi had once invited me on a congregational tour of Israel, in recognition of my service to the synagogue, but I turned it down. A friend rightly pointed out that, as an Arab Muslim, he couldn’t visit the Holy Land as readily as I could. In solidarity, he suggested I shouldn’t go. That seemed fair, so I didn’t. But here I was, so close to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall. How could I not go?
* * *
It was a hot day on my Birthright tour. We weaved our way through the Old City, through its various souks and alleyways, to arrive at a platform high above the Wailing Wall plaza. Our guides wanted us to see it there first for a clear, unobstructed view. It wasn’t busy, just another day in Jerusalem at the Wall and the holiest site in Judaism. The wide-open plaza was sleek and clean, the great stone wall standing pink and golden.
We descended towards it, and I could feel the heat. I was dehydrated and a bit dizzy. Our guides released us and we ambled forward, dazed, in the wall’s general direction. A man stopped me and asked if I wanted to put on a prayer shawl. I did. He asked me if I wanted to lay tefillin. I had never done it before. He helped me. “Repeat after me,” he said. “Baruch atah Adonai …” as he wrapped the leather band around my forearm.
Prepared, I approached, pulled in by the wall’s gravity. I slipped off my sandals to stand on the ground with my bare feet. I pressed my hand to the mottled stone and closed my eyes. “Baruch atah Adonai,” I began. Strangely, I felt both heavy and light, a yearning and also a surrender. I said the Avot v’Imahot, the prayer that recognizes our descent from Abraham and Sarah, tracing us back through the generations. I didn’t know, then, how important that moment and that prayer would be.
When I was finished, I slipped on my sandals and stepped away.
* * *
“This might be the most beautiful day on the trail,” said Jane, a soft-spoken homeopath, a Mancunian and longtime friend of fellow hikers Eve and Oliver. Her husband George was in business software. He regularly meditated.
She was right. I was worn out but had to agree. It was beautiful. Picturesque, even. Idyllic. We pulled over, as we had during our first week, to have coffee with olive harvesters and help them rake the trees. A young mother with her toddler, husband and parents: harvesting is so often a family affair. Hospitable as ever, much coffee and tea was poured and drank, olives collected, tobacco rolled, puffed and exchanged. We waved our goodbyes – shukran, aleykum salaam – and continued on.
A stretch of valley gave off onto a final stretch of orchards and, as I clambered over the low stones, I looked up and saw the separation wall. From a distance, the 25-foot concrete wall, scrawled with barbed wire, rose through the canopy of the trees. Hesitatingly, I walked towards it, tracing its contour in my mind. In some parts of the West Bank, the barrier is composed of giant slabs of concrete dotted with military towers; in others, it is coiling pyramids of barbed wire or electrified fence bordered by wide swaths of sand to detect trespassers. Here, it is rebar and cement, two-and-a-half storeys high, and cuts through olive groves and the hills around it. I pressed my hand to it; it was cold and abraiding. I closed my eyes and said a prayer for a future without it.
* * *
Compared to the West Bank, downtown Jerusalem feels like another planet. I spent that night in a small apartment hotel off Jaffa Street, a few blocks from the Old City. It was a one-bedroom suite with a fully equipped kitchen and three-piece bathroom. The water was hot, the shower had walls and a showerhead, and I could drink the water. It was unlike many nights on the Masar.
Jaffa Street reminded me of places like Vienna or Vancouver: the pavement was so clean you could eat off of it. The pedestrian walkways alongside were spacious and wide, paved with smooth and even slate-gray tiles. The streetcars were sleek and punctual. Art galleries and museums, ornamental lights and public transportation, urban and urbane. First world versus developing; moneyed versus struggling. The contrast was deeply uncomfortable.
My friend Marta and I wound our way through the narrow, dreamlike alleyways of Nakhalat Tziyon, the walls lined with thick slabs of golden Jerusalem stone. A playful breeze danced through the trees. We stopped for lunch at a picturesque café, complete with colourful outdoor seating and painfully handsome servers. The food was delicious and expensive; we ordered hummus that came with falafel and sweet lemonade.
“How is this real?” I asked her.
“I know,” she said. “It’s shocking.”
After lunch, I returned to the place I had been many years before. I followed the signs in the Old City, the pull magnetic, feeling a mix of dread and anticipation. I saw it first as before, from above, the top of the staircase leading down to the Kotel.
Few tourists were out today, just the heat and people praying. Orthodox tradition dictates separating the genders; indeed, on the women’s side, a fraction the size of the men’s, Torah scrolls are still officially prohibited. Today, the women’s side was packed, the men’s side dotted with the odd worshipper. At the tefillin tent, an old man shawled me in his tallit. A red-headed, black-hat wearing Charedi named Isaac helped me with the tefillin. He looked about my age, or a few years younger. In another life, I wondered, would I have been him?
“Did you do this yourself?” he asked, pointing to the forearm I had already bound.
“I did,” I said. For a month, in the intervening years, I had done it every morning. “I just can’t remember how to do the hand part.”
“I can help,” he said. Isaac said many things: about God, what God wanted, the prayers I could say at the Wall. “Sometimes, you might feel like the worst Jew ever,” he said. I didn’t. I never felt that way. I wasn’t a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew,” I was just Jewish.
“Say a prayer for all your loved ones, then say a prayer for yourself,” he said. “Then maybe you’ll say a prayer for me, too.”
Blocks of stone peppered with bits of paper: the wall hadn’t changed, but I had. I pressed my hand to it, feeling its soft, pockmarked face, and closed my eyes.
* * *
I’m home now, in Canada, and wonder about my travels. I came back “with eyes wide open,” as my rabbi had prayed: to the painful, joy-filled and resilient lives of the Palestinians I met. I think about the separation wall and the Kotel, how they’re connected and what it meant to pray at them, different but related prayers. If the Wailing Wall is part of us as Jews, then perhaps its future and our spiritual liberation is bound together with the separation wall. Perhaps the Kotel will never truly be honoured until we bring down the separation wall. As I contemplate the stories of our freedom from bondage, I’m reminded of the idea that our liberation, spiritual and otherwise, is bound up with the liberation of others.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat. For this series, he thanks the guides and staff of Siraj (the Masar Ibrahim Thru-Hike tour operator), the host families and locals he met along the way and his fellow hikers, as well as friend and editor Matt O’Grady.
Jerusalem on erev Sukkot, Oct. 2: Keren Hayesod Street (above), the Mamilla open-air mall and the First Station complex (both below). Normally, these places are full of people, especially the day before a holiday. However, for the foreseeable future, Israel is on a total lockdown – the country has one of the highest per capita COVID-19 infection rates in the world. Traffic around the country and in the cities has been exceptionally light, as people are only allowed to travel to essential work or to buy necessities at supermarkets and drugstores.
Descending into Jericho through “the Grand Canyon of the Middle East.” (photo by Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, in the West Bank, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 1, click here; for Part 3, click here.
Tuesday was, by far, the hardest day of the trail. We climbed and descended two mountains: 1,500 feet up, 1,400 feet down; 1,000 feet up, 1,200 feet down. It’s 10 feet to a storey, so divide by 10 and think of them as flights of stairs, except that they’re rocky paths strewn with slippery rubble and spiky brambles.
Shrubs aside, Monday and Tuesday were thorny for other reasons. Our guide, Ismail, seemed very friendly. Jolly, with a wide smile and open face, he spoke English well and with a quirky British accent. He was nearly 40, married, had one young child and another on the way. He’s been a hiker and guide for a long time: trained at university, he is an expert in local fauna, flora and history. When a member of our group fell and cut his arm, Ismail was right there with bandages and fracture assessments. There was no question: he was a professional.
Ismail, though, had a satirical sense of humour, which, given the political landscape, was risky. He explained the settlers’ justification for occupying land in the West Bank. “They say that God gave it to them,” he said. The relevant verse from the Torah bubbled up in my memory. “Go forth from the land that I will show you, and I will make of you a great nation,” goes Genesis 17. I knew it because I had chanted it for my bar mitzvah.
“If God gave it to them, what did God give to us? Nothing?” Ismail said. He was smiling, but wasn’t joking. “If they get this, we’ll take Spain. We don’t need to do archeological digs – our mosques are still there to prove it.” I chuckled along with the group, appreciating the irony. But I stood back, polishing my sunglasses.
“They say they are special,” he continued, “that they are ‘the chosen ones,’ but what does that mean? That they are made of gold and jewels, while the rest of us are mud?”
“And I will take you to be my people,” God says to Abram, also Genesis 17. “And I will make my covenant with you and your descendants and through all the generations.” This idea of “chosenness” has been interpreted, reinterpreted and, at times, even rejected in our history: Reconstructionist Jews, for example, changed the relevant lines of the Aleinu prayer. Thinking of ourselves that way certainly hasn’t done us any favours. But, still, Ismail’s comments stung a little.
Writing this, I suppose his humour was a bit like my dad’s: irreverent and occasionally tasteless. I had never been offended by my dad’s jokes; his topics were largely inconsequential to me. Here, with so much at stake, it was hard to not feel Ismail’s satire more deeply. I wanted to tell him I was offended, but part of me resisted.
Sue, on the other hand, had no problem speaking up. That evening, we gathered around to discuss plans for the next day. “Tomorrow,” Ismail said, laying out a map, “will be the hardest day on the trail. There are three options: we can either hike the whole day; stop halfway and take a car; or stop near the end and take a car.” We all agreed we’d hike the whole day. Sue sat back against the bench.
“Are you OK?” he asked her. “You looked scared.”
“I’m not,” Sue replied. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” he insisted. Sue was in her 70s: it seemed like he was singling her out because she was older, and possibly because she was female. “I am sorry if I scared you.”
“I’ve walked a thousand miles before,” she cut in. “I’m not scared.”
Eve laughed and said to Ismail, “Sue’s fine. It’s the two of us,” referring to her husband Oliver, herself, and their combined lack of hiking experience, “that you should be worried about.”
After the route was settled, Sue pulled Ismail aside. She pointed out to him the ageism and sexism implied in his doubting of her abilities. She was brisk; he was deeply apologetic.
“It’s fine,” she said, when he didn’t stop apologizing. “You apologized. It’s over. Howard and I fight, we apologize, it’s done.” After another round of reassurances and with parting words to the group, Ismail left for the night. I congratulated Sue on standing up for herself.
“Well, I’m an old lady,” she laughed. “I don’t have an issue speaking my mind.”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “Howard said you don’t take shit from anybody.” She laughed again. “But, still,” I said, “good for you for saying something.”
“Thank you, Kevin,” she said, looking at me. Even with her fortitude, I wondered if it had cost her to say something. Maybe, in some ways, it always does. “I appreciate it,” she said.
* * *
The next day, I found myself quietly pleased at Ismail’s dressing down from Sue. Somehow it felt vindicating; even if I couldn’t find the words to speak my mind, at least someone else did.
“Before we start,” he said, “I need to show you something.”
He turned his smartphone to us and pressed play. The footage was of a road tunnel with an exit at the far end and a truck askew, blocking the way. There was shouting and then a hand flicking angrily towards a young man, yelling at him to walk. He did, with his back to the camera, one hand raised in surrender, the other halfway, awkwardly carrying a backpack. He couldn’t have been older than me. He kept walking, slowly, towards the truck and the tunnel exit. Just before he reached the truck, a shot fired. He cried out and sank to the ground.
Israeli Channel 13 News leaked the video – of an Israel Border Police officer shooting a Palestinian in the back with a rubber bullet, along with text messages sent by the shooter’s fellow officer, who had bragged about the shooting to his girlfriend. “I’m a pro, don’t you think?” he wrote.
This act of violence earned the shooter a removal from the police force. She was sent back to the Israeli army to finish her compulsory service. A year after the footage was discovered, the police internal investigations unit still hadn’t pressed charges. The apparent impunity is shocking. Compared to this, my grievances seemed trivial.
“Do you ever take Israelis on this hike,” someone asked Ismail.
“No, we don’t. We can’t, it’s too risky,” he said. “If something were to happen, if one of them gets hurt, we would all be in big trouble. Their government would say it is our fault, and we would have many, many problems.
“There are Jewish that come on the Masar,” he said. I wasn’t sure if he avoided looking at me. “We know; we don’t ask. But we will not take Israeli; we can’t.”
As the day wore on, I worked up my nerve to talk to him. I rehearsed my opener and hiked up beside him.
“So, what are your plans for after the hike,” I asked.
We didn’t talk about anything important, but it felt important to talk. I had time after the hike and didn’t have plans. I asked his advice on where I should go. I also asked him what I should say at the border if stopped.
“Just talk about the Abraham Path, how we’re all children of Abraham, peace, these kinds of things,” he said. “They like that.”
“Do you believe it?” I asked him.
“No,” he said. I tried to hide my disappointment. “You know,” he continued. “It isn’t the Jewish, it’s the Zionists. They are crazy, they think they are super-human. Every time the people are coming together, they want to separate, to make them apart. As long as this is the case,” he said, “I don’t think there will be peace.”
* * *
At lunch, I lay down to rest, settling in the shade of an olive tree. In the breeze, the leaves revealed twin shades of green, one on each side: rich, verdant forest green and pale, suede sage. There were no olives on this tree: likely, they had been recently picked. The absence they left made way for a cottony, afternoon light to filter through. As I nodded in and out of sleep, I caught glimpses of the sky. It was blue and clear.
Zionists come in many varieties, but I knew the ones Ismail was referring to. The imprecision of his language didn’t change the point. Yitzhak Rabin wasn’t assassinated by a Palestinian; he was assassinated by a Jew. A fanatical religious Zionist, a fervent supporter of the settlements and a deep-seated opponent of the peace process. Ismail didn’t have a problem with Jews, he had a problem with fanatics. That, I could get behind. I felt the same way.
Kevin Keystone is a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, right, with Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in Memory of Michael Levin, and Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon at the inauguration ceremony in August of a new home for female lone soldiers in Jerusalem. (photo by Yossi Zamir)
Michal Cotler-Wunsh was an 18-year-old new immigrant from Canada when she enlisted for the Israel Defence Forces some 30 years ago. Unlike most of her fellow recruits, she had no home to go to on weekends.
“I was a ‘lone soldier,’ without close family in Israel. There was no real framework that supported us – but much has changed since then, as this matter has become more acute,” she said.
Now a Knesset member (as a representative of the Blue and White coalition faction led by Benny Gantz), Cotler-Wunsh has taken up the welfare of the more than 6,300 lone soldiers lacking family in the country: immigrants, volunteers, orphans and youths estranged from their families.
“In retrospect, serving in the army was the most amazing exposure to Israeli society in many ways,” said Cotler-Wunsh, whose father Irwin Cotler was Canada’s minister of justice and attorney general from 2003 to 2006. “I did a squad leaders course and served in a very ragged anti-tank base at Nitsanim. The company slept in tents and went on marches in the dunes.”
The army gave her rent support and, on weekends, she stayed in a room in a Jerusalem apartment. “I lived with an elderly man who usually went away on weekends, so I was alone in the apartment,” she said. “To this day, I have connections with people from the Machane Yehuda market, especially the owner of the marzipan shop and the Tzidkiyahu delicatessen. These two would prepare boxes of food for lone soldiers at the end of Friday business, and we would get to Jerusalem after everything was already closed, go through the market and take the boxes of food prepared for Shabbat. To this day, I don’t forget them and they don’t forget me.”
Beyond material needs, she recalled the psychological hardship of being far from home.
“I know how important it is for lone soldiers to have their parents accompany them,” said Cotler-Wunsh, who served in the days before digital communication. “One aspect that has changed is parents’ involvement in day-to-day matters. Nowadays, it’s possible to convey to the lone soldiers’ parents a reality that they do not understand – and there’s no chance that they will understand – but they’re very concerned about. This communication calms both them and the lone soldier throughout their military service.”
“Lone soldiers need somewhere to live, a hot meal on Friday night … things other soldiers take for granted,” Michal Berman, chief executive officer of the Lone Soldier Centre in memory of Michael Levin, a nonprofit organization that looks after their welfare.
The LSC, established in memory of an American immigrant soldier killed in the 2006 Second Lebanon War, currently operates nine apartment homes, offering low-rent housing to about 100 soldiers in Jerusalem, Petach Tikva, Herzliya and Ramat Hasharon, as well as social clubs catering to about 1,000 soldiers in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Be’er Sheva. Only financial restraints are preventing the opening of more facilities and programs.
Beyond the social-psychological aspects, soldiers’ needs are often prosaic. “They need basic things like clean underwear, a toaster, somebody to look after them when they are sick,” Berman explained. “We have hundreds of volunteers who cook and do their laundry for them – many of them former lone soldiers or others immigrants.”
The organization’s staff also provide advice on how to navigate Israel’s bureaucracy, and attend military ceremonies, taking the place of their parents who cannot be there. “They say this means the world to them,” Berman said.
“The difficulties continue beyond their army service,” noted Cotler-Wunsh, who returned to Canada after studying law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “After 13 years in Israel and with a small baby, for the first time in my life I missed my family. I was pregnant with my second child and also wanted to do a second degree, at McGill University, and took the opportunity to be close to my parents.”
She returned to Israel 10 years later with four children and pursued a legal career that led her to the Knesset, where she has taken up a host of social issues, including the welfare of lone soldiers before, during and after their service.
“Nowadays, when they do have a support system, the loneliness hasn’t disappeared – it’s just been postponed. It’s harder when you’re used to an all-embracing system then, suddenly, to find yourself really alone. In any case, getting out of the army is a shock. For a lone soldier, it’s even harder to go from a hierarchic system to being an independent citizen who has to make decisions that will affect their life. That’s part of the reason why so many young Israelis go traveling after their army service.”
Over the High Holidays, the LSC is launching a global crowdfunding campaign to help lone soldiers get through the toughest time of their lives. For more information, visit charidy.com/lsc.
Daniel Ben-Talwas a lone soldier serving as a paratrooper before becoming a journalist. Over three decades he has penned hundreds of articles in a host of journals and websites around the world. Formerly an editor at the Jerusalem Post and the English version of Haaretz, he is now an Israel-based freelance writer, editor and translator.
Sheba is a trained physiotherapy dog. One of the patients he’s helping at Sheba Medical Centre is Nathaniel Felber, who suffered a head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. (photo from IMP)
Nathaniel Felber is an Israel Defence Forces soldier who suffered a critical head injury in a terror attack in December 2018. He has been slowly recovering, against all odds. After being in a coma for several months, he was moved to Sheba Medical Centre, where he’s been receiving intensive rehabilitation. After a brief setback following brain surgery last May, Felber has made remarkable progress, and a lot of the credit goes to Sheba – not only the hospital but its namesake, a trained physiotherapy dog.
“The dog relates to Nathaniel in a nonjudgmental way, happily accepting the food that Nathaniel offers or any other attention,” said Judi Felber, who has been at her son’s side almost constantly since the attack that upended their lives.
Prof. Israel Dudkiewicz, who heads Sheba’s orthopedic rehabilitation program, has noted a marked improvement in compliance, strength and endurance in patients like Felber, when performing physical therapy exercises with the dog.
“The dog takes attention away from the pain and difficulty of the exercise, enabling the patient to try to do more and to do it better,” explained Dudkiewicz. “I’ve watched patients who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to stand for just two or three minutes, but, when they pet the dog, they can be standing for 30 minutes and more without even realizing it.”
Felber builds strength and balance in his legs by standing and petting Sheba. He also throws a ball for the dog to retrieve, a game that repeatedly flexes his elbow, but without the tedium of the standard physio exercises for the same purpose. When brushing Sheba, Felber must exert enough pressure to run the brush through the dog’s fur, but not too much that would cause him pain.
The Felbers made aliyah from Silver Spring, Md., about 14 years ago, settling in Ra’anana with their three children and a dog. “Nathaniel loved our dog, and I think that interacting with Sheba the dog is very healing for him,” said his mother.
Dudkiewicz is delighted with Felber’s positive response to Sheba, as well as the responses of patients working with therapy dogs in general.
“We have seen dramatic improvement in patients performing physical therapy with dogs from both a physical and emotional perspective,” he said. “We aim to incorporate this as another treatment tool, such as hydrotherapy and other nonconventional therapies, for patients who can benefit from it.”
At just seven months old, Sheba is still a puppy, but his performance thus far points to a successful future. Dogs used in physical therapy must undergo a yearlong, rigorous training period. The staff must likewise be trained how to integrate the dog into their rehab programs. In the course of training, the dogs are tested periodically to see that they’re up to scratch. Dudkiewicz explained that different dogs are trained for different types of patients and their abilities. The cost of each dog, including training, is more than $30,000, meaning that its implementation in the department must be limited; however, Dudkiewicz said the results certainly justify the financial outlay.
“Neurorehabilitation is slower than anything else I’ve ever experienced,” said Judi Felber. “Nathaniel is not walking, or talking, or eating even independently – yet. But I try to focus on the positive: he’s responding to people, to us, his family. He’ll turn his head and give us his hand. He can nod yes and no and show us the number of fingers that we ask. We’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m hopeful.”
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)
Sunrise at the Dead Sea. (photo from Kevin Keystone)
In this three-part series, the author recounts some of his experiences on Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, which he visited in 2019. The articles have been adapted from a few of the letters he wrote home to family. The events and people described are real but, for reasons of privacy, the names are fictitious. To read Part 2, click here; for Part 3, click here.
I’m writing this from a rooftop deck in the small community of Arraba, about 15 kilometres from the West Bank’s northern border. We walked two days to get here along the Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil, the Path of Abraham the Friend, a 330-kilometre trail from Rummanah in the north to Bayt Mirsim in the south. We’re here as part of a guided tour with the Siraj Centre; for 15 years, Siraj has organized walking, cycling and hiking experiences in Palestine.
Tonight, all eight of us will be staying at this villa. It’s unusual for a host to have so much room, but the Hassan family specially renovated their home to accommodate large groups. Noor, her husband and their five children have been hosting hikers on the Masar for five years. Throughout the hike, we’ll stay in homes like this, as well as hotels, guesthouses, Bedouin tents, and even a night in a cave.
Dusk has arrived; the evening view is clear and beautiful. The sun has set over the peaks and valleys of the West Bank, the lights of Palestinian villages and Israeli settlements shimmer around us. Beyond the hill ahead of me, backlit with shades of peach, rose and grey, lies Israel, Netanya and the Mediterranean Sea. A half-moon rises above.
The villages and settlements may seem quiet and peaceable, but are walled off from one another with concrete and hostility. The sea beyond means, for some, Europe, North Africa and its opportunities; for others, impassable waters. What is this place? How did we get here?
* * *
Five of us will walk all 25 days from Rummana to Bayt Mirsim: Felix and Thomas, Quebecois hiking companions in their 40s and 50s; Oliver and Eve, two 50-something activists from the United Kingdom; and myself, a 30-something freelance writer from Toronto. The remaining three will walk one to two weeks: John, a real-estate project manager who hiked Everest for his 60th birthday; and Sue and Howard, a retired teacher-principal duo from California. Neil, a young British doctoral student, hopped off yesterday and will be back for short stints in the coming weeks. Ines, an older Swede, walked with us for just the day.
After the hike, I plan to visit a friend in Beirut. In light of the protests against the government, I shared my reservations with Ines, who lived in Lebanon for two decades. “I lived in Beirut through the civil war,” she said, smiling. “You’ll be fine.”
If not all of us are quite so hardcore, we’re all mostly hikers. Sue and Howard walked 1,000 miles on the Camino de Santiago, Spain’s well-traveled Catholic pilgrimage-turned-hiking trail. I walked the Camino, but at half their age and half as far. Felix and Thomas are also Camino veterans: we all seem to have an affinity for long-distance trails in places of importance and meaning.
We are and aren’t here for the hiking. We’ve come to see Palestine for ourselves and hear directly from Palestinians. For my part, it felt like something of a responsibility. Like many Diaspora Jews, I have supported the state of Israel, either directly or indirectly, and benefited from it. I went on Birthright, the two-week, all-expenses-paid tour designed to build affinity and political support between young Jews and the state. I’m familiar with that side of the story – but after 50 years of occupation and a seemingly never-ending conflict, something didn’t quite fit for me.
Before I left for the Masar, I asked my rabbi for a blessing. In synagogue, she prayed that I would come here “with eyes wide open” and return home “with eyes opened wide.” It’s a prayer I share.
On the Camino, in Spain, locals are largely inured to tourists; here, on the Masar, tourists are rarer. Every local we pass waves hello, is happy and surprised to see us, stops us and wants to give us coffee. Yesterday, we were stopped often by olive-pickers – it’s the season for it. Enthusiastically, they beckoned us over to the stone borders of their groves, where we sat and shared thimbles of coffee spiked with cardamom. As we walked through towns and villages, small children yelled, “Hello! Hello!” and waved to us, their parents replying to our greetings of salaam aleykum (peace be upon you) with wa’ aleykum salaam (and peace upon you) and ahlan wa sahlan, you are welcome here. In these moments, of which there are many, I’m buoyed by unimpeachable hospitality.
This is, however, different from the Camino in other ways. I walked 40 days on the Camino and rarely thought about politics; here, every day is political. I never felt awkward about being Jewish on the Camino – except once, when I asked a local barkeep at a tavern called La Judería if there were any Jews left in the town. He laughed and said: “Not since the Inquisition.” Here, my being Jewish is something I keep to myself, to avoid assumptions about my politics. It’s different when you carry so little on your back and so much in your head. The walking is both easy and hard: mercifully, I have no blisters, but I’m still uncomfortable.
In the evening, after a home-cooked meal, we sipped sweet sage tea in the Hassans’ living room and listened to their story. Noor sat beside her husband Yusef, who spoke to us in Arabic while their son, Rayan, a young man with kind eyes and short hair, translated. If memory serves, Rayan was studying in the United States, which explained his excellent English.
Two years ago, Rayan’s brother, Nader, attended a rally at his university in support of Palestinian political prisoners on hunger strike. Five weeks before we arrived, Israeli soldiers entered the home where we were now staying, at 2 a.m., and arrested him. Nader was taken to prison without charge, where he’ll likely remain without trial for up to seven months. At the end of his time, he could be released; or, he could be detained again for another seven months, without explanation. According to his family, this cycle can repeat indefinitely. The practice is both common and permitted under Israeli military law, which is still in effect in the West Bank, 53 years after the Six Day War.
Noor was quiet, eyes downcast, hands folded in her lap. This was a mother who had lost her son, taken in the middle of the night, who wasn’t sure if or when she would see him again. As I understood from them, adults over 18 are restricted from visiting prisoners: they plan to send their teenage son, Malik, to visit Nader and bring offerings of the family’s love and hope.
In the short time we’ve been here, we’ve learned of the various ways in which Israel makes life nearly impossible for Palestinians: checkpoints; control over water, electricity, building and agricultural permits; the separation wall; demolition of homes and olive groves; restricted movement internally and internationally; arrest and imprisonment without trial; and, of course, the endless encroachment of settlements, which have been deemed illegal under international law by the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice.
History, of course, is relevant to the present and, here, one can feel the weight of it, but it’s difficult to find a version that isn’t heavy with narrative. A briefing yesterday began with, “When Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank in 1967….” That’s true, but Israel occupied the territories as an outcome of the Six Day War, which raises questions of how it started and who provoked it. (The answer, as with most things Israel and Palestine, is hotly debated and too extensive to rehash here.) Yesterday, we didn’t talk about the Six Day War, nor the nuances of what came before it. The conflict doesn’t justify the occupation, but to leave out relevant context, to drop the “why” behind the “what,” I’m not sure that’s helpful, either.
On Birthright, we visited an Israeli military base. One of our trip’s soldiers was a pilot in the air force; in the common room, rows of flat, black, airplane-shaped medallions were pinned to a wall. Someone asked what they were. “Those are enemy aircraft,” the pilot said. “Each one marks a plane we shot down.”
The group erupted in applause. I froze, horrified. It reminded me of the story we tell at Passover, when the Heavenly Hosts rejoiced at the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea. “My creatures are perishing,” God silenced them. “And you sing praises?”
* * *
It’s dark now. Stars are appearing in the night sky. Crickets chirp and trucks rumble low in the distance, no doubt carrying goods along labyrinthine backstreets to avoid Israeli-controlled roads, or the possibility of a checkpoint rejection or closure. So much time and life wasted. Tomorrow, we walk. It’s day two, I’m not sure where this road will lead. But all I can do is keep walking.
Kevin Keystoneis a Toronto-based freelance writer, editor and researcher. When not hiking long-distance trails, he can be found reading, spending time with friends and family, or with his beloved partner, Aaron. His writing has been published in the Literary Review of Canada, the Jewish Independent and Good Old Boat.
Monthly hikes are one of the many activities offered by the English Speakers Residents Association. (photo from ESRA)
The reasons for making aliyah are many, however, some of the big questions holding back potential olim (immigrants), especially those who are 50+ and are already settled, may include the following: “My Hebrew is almost nonexistent; what am I going to do with myself when I get to Israel?”
One of the ways to help solve these concerns is to join the English Speaking Residents Association (ESRA). My wife, Ida, and I are good examples. We made aliyah in June of 2016 from Toronto when we were in our early 60s. We had two immediate priorities: to find an English-speaking community to live in and to get involved in Israel by finding meaningful volunteer opportunities. Fortunately, we found ESRA.
ESRA was founded some 40 years ago. It has about 2,700 members in 21 different chapters in north, south and central Israel, stretching from Eilat to Nahariya and beyond. The members come from North America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere. The programming, all of which takes place in English, encompasses social activities, outings (when conditions permit), educational mentoring and tutoring programs, charitable and welfare activities and volunteering. In addition, and because of COVID-19, a majority of the social activities, talks, visual tours and cooking classes have been and will continue to be presented on Zoom.
ESRA is not just for those planning on making aliyah. Many people living abroad want to be able to see and hear about Israel generally and/or participate in English-language programs and ESRA’s calendar features talks on a range of topics, from finance, current events, history, the environment and entertainment, as well as clubs, such as bridge, photography and knitting. These programs are accessible around the world and, of course, people can join in ESRA programs when visiting Israel – the group’s monthly hikes have recently restarted.
An aerial photo of the remains of a 3,200-year-old Canaanite fortress built near today’s town of Kiryat Gat. (photo by Emil Aladjem/IAA via Ashernet)
The Kiryat Gat fortress site, which was opened to visitors this week, was prepared by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Jewish National Fund (KKL).
According to archeologists Saar Ganor and Itamar Weissbein of the IAA, “The fortress we found provides a glimpse into the geopolitical reality described in the Book of Judges, in which the Canaanites, Israelites and Philistines are fighting each other. In this period, the land of Canaan was ruled by the Egyptians and its inhabitants were under their control. During the 12th century BCE, two new players entered the game: the Israelites and the Philistines. This led to a series of violent territorial disputes. The Israelites settled in non-fortified settlements at the Benjamin and Judean mountains. Meanwhile, the Philistines accumulated power in the Southern Coastal Plain and established cities such as Ashkelon, Ashdod and Gat in an attempt to conquer more areas. The Philistines confronted the Egyptians and the Canaanites on the borderline, which probably passed at the Guvrin River, between the Philistine kingdom of Gat and the Canaanite kingdom of Lachish. It seems that the Galon fortress was built as a Canaanite/Egyptian attempt to cope with the new geopolitical situation. However, in the middle of the 12th century BCE, the Egyptians left the land of Canaan and returned to Egypt. Their departure led to the destruction of the now-unprotected Canaanite cities – a destruction that was probably led by the Philistines.”
The dimension of the fortress is 18 metres square and watchtowers were built in the four corners. A threshold, carved from one rock weighing around three tons, was preserved at the entrance of the building. Inside the fortress was a courtyard paved with stone slabs and featuring columns in the middle. Rooms were constructed on both sides of the courtyard. Hundreds of pottery vessels, some still whole, were found in the rooms.
The remains of the fortress were uncovered with the help of students from the Israel studies department at Be’er Sheva’s Multidisciplinary School, students from the Nachshon pre-military preparatory program and other volunteers. This was done as part of the IAA’s policy to bring the general public, and especially the younger generation, closer to archeology.
Both MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, left, and her political aide, Becca Wertman, have Canadian roots. (photo from Becca Wertman)
A new, dynamic force has hit the Knesset, with a political aide just as passionate, and both are rooted in Canada.
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who once held Canadian citizenship, became a Member of the Knesset for the Blue and White Party this past June. She is among those who have endorsed a proposed bill that, if passed, would change the requirement that Knesset members who hold citizenship in another country must give up that citizenship.
Recently sworn in, Cotler-Wunsh heads a staff of four – a political aide, a parliamentary aide, a spokesperson and an aide who works with her on her portfolio as chair of the Drug and Alcohol Use Committee. In a recent interview, she told the Independent that the issues that concern her are “unity, mamlachliut (often translated statesmanship) and responsibility…. You can’t politicize or personalize issues,” she stressed. Two other issues about which she is passionate are “the ability to combat antisemitism and a commitment to olim [immigrants] and prospective olim.”
Cotler-Wunsh also emphasized her commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. As a lawyer and international law expert, she added that the international community and Israel must always uphold international law and not allow terror groups to exist in a culture of impunity. She specifically highlighted the importance of this in the context of Hamas not returning the four Israelis currently being held captive in Gaza, in a six-year standing violation of international law.
Jerusalem-born, Cotler-Wunsh spent her first seven years in Israel. When her mother, Ariela (née Ze’evi), married Canadian Irwin Cotler, the family moved to Montreal, where her three siblings were born. Most JI readers will be familiar with Cotler-Wunsh’s father, a former minister of justice of Canada, an international human rights lawyer, emeritus professor of law at McGill University, and founder and chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, among other things.
Cotler-Wunsh returned to Israel for a one-year program after high school and stayed to serve in the Israel Defence Forces as a lone soldier. She then received her law degree from the Hebrew University and did her internship.
In 2000, she and her husband returned to Canada with their son but returned to Israel 10 years later, by which time they had three more children. In 2010, she became associated with the Interdisciplinary Centre in Herzliya and was a research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.
Cotler-Wunsh’s political aide is Vancouver-born and -raised Becca Wertman. The two met at a conference of nongovernmental organizations. “I read Becca, I heard her voice in what she writes,” said Cotler-Wunsh.
Wertman, who is the daughter of Charles and Carla Wertman of Vancouver, has a bachelor degree from the University of Southern California in international relations and a master’s from Columbia University in political science. She was managing editor and responsible for the Canada portfolio at the Jerusalem-based research institute NGO Monitor, authoring articles for a wide variety of publications.
“My messages are very nuanced; it was important to find somebody that can make my nuanced messages accessible to the public and be able to represent me,” explained Cotler-Wunsh. “Having read some of what Becca published, I saw that the values that drive me also drive Becca as well, particularly in the areas of human rights, international law, Zionism and democracy.”
Wertman manages Cotler-Wunsh’s schedule, handles all things that come in English, including media and social media, and reaches out to NGOs that fight antisemitism or are concerned with olim; she also assists Cotler-Wunsh in her foreign endeavours. Like her boss, she is passionate about issues concerning olim chadashim (new immigrants) and working with Diaspora communities.
Wertman made aliyah in 2016 and went to an ulpan to learn Hebrew; she is engaged to an oleh from Chicago. She sees her role as a perfect fit because of the values she shares with Cotler-Wunsh and their shared Canadian backgrounds. In addition, she admires Cotler-Wunsh’s father.
“As a Canadian who is interested in human rights, Prof. Irwin Cotler has been someone I looked up to for many years,” said Wertman.
In June, when Cotler-Wunsh received word that she would be a member of the Knesset, she reached out to Wertman and offered her the position.
“I’m 100% dedicated to MK Michal Cutler-Wunsh, to help her accomplish what she wants to accomplish,” said Wertman. “I fully believe in her goals. Her issues are those I care about. I feel so lucky to work for a member of the Knesset who is furthering issues that I so deeply believe in.” She added, “her background in human rights and international law, these are unique and important skills, experiences and values that can and will add to the Knesset.”
Sybil Kaplanis a journalist, lecturer, book reviewer and food writer in Jerusalem. She created and leads the weekly English-language Shuk Walks in Machane Yehuda, she has compiled and edited nine kosher cookbooks, and is the author of Witness to History: Ten Years as a Woman Journalist in Israel.