The winepress unveiled in Ramat Ha-Sharon. (photo by Yoli Schwartz, IAA)
An Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavation has yielded evidence of human activity in the Ramat Ha-Sharon region from as early as 1,500 years ago. The excavation was prompted by Ramat Ha-Sharon Municipality’s plans to establish a new residential neighbourhood south of a holiday park slated to be built on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
“The excavation unearthed evidence of agricultural-industrial activity at the site during the Byzantine period – about 1,500 years ago. Among other finds, we discovered a large winepress paved with a mosaic, as well as plastered installations and the foundations of a large structure that may have been used as a warehouse or even a farmstead,” explained Dr. Yoav Arbel, director of the excavation on behalf of the IAA. “Inside the buildings and installations, we found many fragments of storage jars and cooking pots that were evidently used by labourers working in the fields here. We also recovered stone mortars and millstones that were used to grind wheat and barley and probably also to crush herbs and medicinal plants. Most of the stone implements are made of basalt from the Golan Heights and Galilee.”
One of the rare and unexpected finds retrieved from the excavation is a gold coin, minted in 638 or 639 CE by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. On one side, the emperor is depicted with his two sons and the reverse shows a cross on the hill of Golgotha where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified. An interesting addition to the coin is an inscription scratched in Greek, and possibly also in Arabic. This is probably the name of the coin’s owner, who “marked” it as highly valuable property. According to Dr. Robert Kool, head of the IAA’s numismatics department, “The coin encapsulates fascinating data on the decline of Byzantine rule in the country and contemporary historical events, such as the Persian invasion and the emergence of Islam, and provides information on Christian and pagan symbolism and the local population who lived here.”
Another unusual find is a bronze chain that was used to suspend a chandelier containing glass lamp holders. Chandeliers of this type are usually found in churches.
Installations built at the site after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century CE include a glass-making workshop and a warehouse, where four massive jars were found. The jars, which were sunk into the floor, were evidently used to store grain and other products as a precaution against pests and damp conditions. “In this period, people were not only working at the site but also living there, because we discovered the remains of houses and two large baking ovens,” said Arbel. The pottery from this period includes complete pottery lamps for lighting, and local and imported serving ware, some of it decorated. Based on the assemblage of finds, the site continued to be inhabited until the 11th century CE.
Avi Gruber, mayor of Ramat Ha-Sharon, said, “I am thrilled by the finds and we have already started working with the directors of the Neve Gan North project on exactly how to integrate the current finds into the future neighbourhood…. As we plan heritage-related events for the upcoming centenary, this opens up a whole new perspective on how people once lived in this part of the country.”
“The Israel Antiquities Authority sees great importance in making the findings accessible to the public, in partnership with local and international communities,” said Eli Eskozido, director of the IAA.
“This is the first archeological excavation ever conducted at the site, and only part of it was previously identified in an archeological field survey,” added IAA Tel Aviv district archeologist Diego Barkan. “The Israel Antiquities Authority views this as an excellent opportunity to integrate the ancient remains into plans for the future municipal park.”
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, above, and Noor A’wad of Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network were the featured speakers at Vancouver School of Theology’s Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land event May 27. (photo from friendsofroots.net)
Two Truths in One Heart; Two Peoples in One Land, a discussion on the Roots Palestinian-Israeli Network, with speakers Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger and Noor A’wad, took place on May 27 as part of the Religion and Thoughtful Activism conference organized by the Vancouver School of Theology (VST).
Formed in 2014 by peace activist Ali Abu Awwad and Schlesinger, Roots is a group based in the Gush Etzion settlements of the West Bank that believes the path towards peace between Palestinians and Israelis is through dialogue.
“In the West Bank, Jews and Arabs live completely separately with no connections at all,” said Schlesinger, an Orthodox rabbi, passionate Zionist settler and director of international relations for Roots. Everything, he explained – from legal systems to health systems, transportation to universities – is separate. The separation is so complete that Palestinians are forbidden from entering Israeli areas and vice versa.
“If I were to say that there is no common ground between Jews and Palestinians, I would not be exaggerating, and I would not be speaking metaphorically. There is literally no common ground as far as geography goes. If there had been a place for a crazy Israeli Jew and a Palestinian who wanted to meet for coffee, there would have been no place to do it,” he suggested.
At least, this was the case, he said, until seven years ago, when Roots was formed and when the Dignity Centre, a community centre where the two sides can meet with equality and mutual recognition, was created.
Schlesinger spoke of the great apprehension and trepidation each side has in coming together at such a place. Yet, often, at the end of an event at the centre, people come to Schlesinger, saying how wonderful the simple experience of conversing with a member of the other side is.
“People are amazed to discover that ‘the other’ is a lot like us. It’s hard to fathom after all the stereotypes and all we on both sides have been taught,” he said.
He likened the animosity each side has to a disease he called “the hubris of exclusivity,” which infects people with a “virus” that makes them believe that their people are the only legitimate people in the region.
Charting his own journey, Schlesinger recounted that, during his first encounters with Palestinians, he began learning that there were not one but two stories in the land where he lives. “For 33 years, I lived in my story and the Palestinians didn’t exist. They were part of the grey drab scenery that passes in the background of a movie but not part of the plot,” he recalled.
He spoke of his initial distrust of Palestinians and his profound reluctance to meet them – a distrust and reluctance shared by his Palestinian interlocutors during their first meetings. Implicit, too, in the unwillingness to meet was the fear that each side had of the other, Schlesinger said.
Noor A’wad, a licensed Palestinian tour guide based in Bethlehem, where he takes English speakers on geopolitical tours, spoke of his family’s long history in the land.
“I remember growing up during the Second Intifada – some of my family members were killed, others arrested – realizing that this is not a normal life and asking myself why am I living this abnormal life under occupation? The simple answer to the question is, because I am a Palestinian,” A’wad said.
He considered leaving the area, but that urge was outweighed by a sense of responsibility and a sense that there was no other option but to stay in order to best serve his people. Ultimately, he came to learn about nonviolent solutions to conflict.
A’wad described his change of heart upon getting involved with Roots: “When Rabbi Hanan spoke about his identity as a Jew and a settler, these are very loaded words and terminology that is connected to the conflict. For him, I was able to see how beautiful this terminology is because it is part of his identity.
For me, the same terminology is connected to the suffering my people have.”
For A’wad, as with Schlesinger, the acts of sitting and listening to the other were enormously challenging. Nonetheless, each persevered and, in the process, they discovered a partner in dialogue and perhaps the most effective way of understanding the humanity of the other – finding mutual empathy and thereby creating a means to achieve peace.
“What I discovered in Roots is the foundation for any peace process,” said A’wad.
The event was organized by Rabbi Laura Duhan-Kaplan, VST’s director of inter-religious studies. “Our students – most but not all are Christian – are very interested in news about Israel and Palestine. They see Israel as their beloved Holy Land. So, we wanted to introduce them to one of the many NGOs there doing collaborative peace-building work,” she told the Independent.
“I’ve been a supporter of Roots for some years now. Rabbi Schlesinger is a colleague and friend from Clal’s Rabbis Without Borders fellowship program. Still, this event would not have happened without the help of Quebec psychotherapist Colleen MacDougall, another Roots supporter,” she added.
Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh knows firsthand that foreign correspondents routinely send back reports that are wildly prejudicial against Israel. He spoke to HonestReporting Canada cofounder and chairman Jonas Prince in an April 25 webinar. (screenshot)
Western reporters “parachute” into Israel and routinely send back reports that are wildly biased against Israel, while ignoring panoramic human rights violations and corruption in the Palestinian territories. This is the firsthand observation of an Arab Israeli journalist with decades of experience shepherding foreign reporters around the region.
Khaled Abu Toameh is a senior distinguished fellow at the Gatestone Institute. For almost two decades, he has been a reporter on Palestinian affairs for the Jerusalem Post. He spoke to a Canadian audience April 25, in a webinar presented by HonestReporting Canada, an organization promoting fairness and accuracy in Canadian media coverage of Israel and the Middle East. He was interviewed by the organization’s cofounder and chairman, Jonas Prince.
“It’s not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestine,” Toameh said. “It’s about telling the truth. Being able to … portray a balanced picture to your readers.”
Toameh has worked with hundreds of international reporters and journalists, helping guide them around the complexities of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. But, he said, complexity is not something for which many journalists are looking.
“I would say that most of them, the majority, they look at this conflict as a conflict between good guys and bad guys,” he said. “The good guys are the poor Palestinians and the bad guys are Israel…. Some of them come to this part of the world already with this perception and it’s like, Khaled, please don’t confuse us with the facts.”
Many of these journalists wake up in the morning and search for any story that reflects negatively on Israel, he said.
“Why is it that many of these journalists turn a blind eye to corruption in the Palestinian Authority, to lack of freedom of speech under the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and under Hamas in Gaza? These are questions that we need to ask,” he said.
If, during the Oslo process, Western media had more broadly reported the misuse of billions in foreign aid to Palestine, Toameh said, Western governments might have been pressured to hold Yasser Arafat and other leaders to account.
“Only a few journalists did,” he said. “Yasser Arafat got away with the corruption. He deprived his people of the international aid. That played into the hands of Hamas and look where we are now. It’s a total mess.”
Toameh said some foreign reporters tell him that they are afraid.
“We can’t report [about Palestinian corruption] because we need to go back to Ramallah, we need to go back to Gaza, it’s dangerous,” Toameh paraphrased. “I tell them, excuse me, if anyone should be afraid, it’s me, the local Arab journalist who is living here. You guys have embassies, you have consulates, you have your own governments that will protect you. Secondly, why are you going to cover a conflict if you’re going to allow yourselves to be intimidated by one party? You will never be able to do your job. You need to quit journalism and go find yourself another job.”
He added: “Ironically, some of these journalists sometimes tell me, we can’t report anything that reflects negatively on the PLO, Hamas, because it’s not like Israel, it’s not a democracy.”
Other, less physical, fears also inhibit balanced reporting, Toameh said.
“Some of the foreign journalists are afraid that, if they report positive stories about Israel, they will be accused of working for the Jewish lobby or they will be accused of being Zionist agents or they will be accused of being anti-Palestinian or propagandists,” he said. “That’s how it is. That’s the last thing they want. But there are many good stories out here. There is no shortage of good stories. The question we always need to ask ourselves is, who wakes up in the morning and decides what the story is? Who sets the agenda?”
Some of the reporters, whom Toameh calls “parachute journalists,” arrive preprogrammed with false information.
“I’ve met other journalists who have asked me to take them to see the mass graves in Jenin where Jews massacred thousands of Palestinians in 2002,” he said, referring to a false report of a mass killing, a lie that remains today, unaltered, on the website of the BBC. “You can’t send someone who is covering sports in France to do stories over here. It doesn’t work like that.”
Palestinian society does not have the tradition of press freedom or civil criticism that democracies enjoy, he said. Journalists in Palestine operate under very different constraints than those in Israel or the West.
“I don’t think there’s anything unusual about reporting about corruption, for example, in the Palestinian Authority,” he said. “Why is that considered a taboo? Why is it that, when an Arab writes about Arab corruption, he becomes a Zionist agent? While, if a Jew writes about the corruption of the Israeli government, he’s praised as a liberal, as progressive and things like that? I can understand where it comes from, because I come from a culture – the Arab culture, the Muslim culture, the Palestinian culture, if you want – where criticism of the government and the president and the prime minister, or of your people, is considered an act of treason.”
While Palestinian and overseas media may shy away from reporting Palestinian corruption, ordinary Palestinians are fully aware of the situation, Toameh said. Protests during a short-lived “Palestinian Spring” were crushed by Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. And Palestinians know there could be repercussions for any complaints.
“Not only are people afraid of being arrested or killed or harassed by these two governments – the Palestinian Authority and Hamas – they’re also afraid of losing their jobs,” he said. “The Palestinian Authority is the largest employer in the West Bank and people are worried. They don’t want to lose their jobs. They don’t want their relatives to be deprived of jobs, so that’s one of the reasons you don’t see this intifada or uprising against bad government.”
Toameh has been lionized as a hero for the work he does. But he dismisses the accolades.
“There is nothing heroic about telling the truth,” he said. “I don’t understand. Since when are people awarded for telling the truth, for not lying?”
Not everyone admires Toameh’s work, of course. Since he began uncovering Palestinian corruption for the Post, in 2002, foreign outlets that used to employ his expertise have abandoned him.
“I lost 95% of my work with the international media,” he said. “Why? Because I dared to challenge the narrative that says, in this conflict, the Israelis are the bad guys and the Palestinians are the good people and we don’t want to hear anything [different]…. I don’t fit into the category of journalists who are known for their severe criticism of Israel and who are ready to give the Palestinians a pass on everything. In that sense, I consider myself to be more pro-Palestinian than many of them. Being pro-Palestinian does not mean that you spew hatred against Israel. Being pro-Palestinian, for me, is when you demand reform, democracy, good government for the Palestinians … when you criticize Palestinian leaders for arresting journalists, for arresting social media users, for skimming the money of their own people. That’s what is really pro-Palestinian.”
Toameh was speaking before the latest conflagration between Hamas and Israel. But the long-range possibility of people remains dependent on the whims of two Palestinian factions.
“The Palestinian Authority, in public, say we support the two-state solution,” Toameh summarized. “But they are also saying, Israel must give us 100% of what Israel took in 1967, which means give me all of East Jerusalem, give me all of the West Bank, give me all of Gaza and then we will talk about the right of return for the Palestinian refugees and other issues. But give me 100% and there will be a deal.
“Hamas, on the other hand, have their own vision. They haven’t changed. I’ve been following Hamas from Day One. I was actually sitting in Gaza at the press conference when Hamas was established in 1988 and I give them credit for being very honest, very consistent and very clear about their strategy and it’s very simple. They say: listen folks, this land, all of it, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River is wakf land, land that belongs to the Muslim trust. No non-Muslim is entitled to any part of it. We want to replace Israel with an Islamic state and, if there are some Jews who would like to live as a minority under our new Islamic state, they are welcome. Otherwise, all of you get out of here or we will kill you and destroy you. These are the two visions that we have so far.”
Mike Fegelman, executive director of HonestReporting Canada, told the audience that, since its founding 17 years ago, the organization has inspired 2,500 corrections, retractions and apologies in different Canadian media outlets and has an overall success rate of 80%.
Sheba Medical Centre recently published a study undertaken over three years by its department of obstetrics and gynecology in conjunction with Sheba Genetic Institute and the Genetics Institute in the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Centre, which found that women of Ashkenazi descent were twice as likely to have a baby born with Fragile X syndrome (FXS) compared to Jewish non-Ashkenazi women.
Nearly 600 female carriers of the FXS gene from various Jewish heritages participated in the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed publication Nature. Previously, it was known that only CGG repeats and AGG interruptions affect the risk for a child with FXS. This new research adds a third identifier, children of two Ashkenazi parents, allowing for better personalized genetic counselling for carriers who are trying to conceive.
FXS is the most common genetic cause of mental disability in an unborn child and causes intellectual disability, behavioural and learning challenges, and various physical characteristics. The prevalence of carriers in the Jewish population stands at about one in 150 women.
Dr. Noam Domniz of the IVF unit at Sheba Medical Centre said: “The new information from this study regarding the influence of ethnicity stresses the importance of providing more accurate and personally targeted genetic counseling to each woman, according to her personal level of risk. At Sheba, we aim to use this new approach to better evaluate each carrier’s risk level, empower them to make informed choices, leading to a clearer and safer road to motherhood.”
A supply convoy entering Jerusalem, 1948. (image from Shaar Hagai Heritage Museum)
Having just marked Yom Hazikaron and Israel’s 73rd anniversary, it is an appropriate time to recall a piece of Israel’s foundational history, and a new museum that commemorates it.
Seventy-four years ago, the road to Jerusalem was a site of easy ambush. Probably no part of the road was more treacherous than the area around Shaar Hagai. This spot, called Bab el Wad in Arabic, translates into English as the Gate of the Valley. As far back as 1868, French explorer Victor Guerin recognized and commented on this weak spot: he pointed out that the track was so narrow that “a determined band of men could stop an army in it with little difficulty.”
Admittedly, as you today drive on a smooth, paved, two-way, divided Jerusalem/Tel Aviv highway, it is hard to appreciate this reality. But, on Nov. 29, 1947 – the day after the vote on the United Nations Partition Plan, enabling the establishment of the Jewish state – Arab forces began blocking the route to Jerusalem. Not only were Jewish forces shot at, but, because the road curves, drivers couldn’t see where the road was blocked until they were trapped basically.
In David Dayan’s book Roadblock at Shaar Hagai: Creating a State (title translated from the Hebrew), Amos Kochavi recalled one such incident: “The time was approximately two in the afternoon. The long line entered the narrow and dangerous part. They could be anywhere…. We continued to climb … and there was a mighty explosion. The bomb under the road left a huge hole and the convoy stopped. Immediately, terrible shooting began…. We returned fire, but we couldn’t advance. Some of the drivers went into shock…. One driver with shell shock, screamed, ‘I can’t handle it anymore. I’m leaving.’ We yelled back: ‘Don’t move! You won’t come out alive!’ He didn’t hear, jumped from the car and was instantly killed.
“They tried to come down from the hills to get close to the cars, but our fire stopped them. They fire, we fire and the hours go by. No cars have air left in their tires. The number of injured grew. Shalom volunteered … he lay on the road, rolling – to avoid snipers – for a long hour … directing the drivers, one by one, until he had rescued all the cars…. An Australian captain ordered tanks that escorted us back to Gezer. The time was already two at night – 12 hours from when we entered Shaar Hagai.”
Jerusalem was under siege. Essential supplies could not reach the civilian and military population of the city. Jerusalem was dependent on supplies from the rest of the country, and was threatened with being totally cut off from the rest of the country. The only way to reach Jewish Jerusalem was to travel in convoy. (For more information, visit the National Library of Israel website, nli.org.il/en.)
According to the late Sir Martin Gilbert, by the spring of 1948, “Fewer and fewer Jewish food convoys were able to get through to Jerusalem. Towards the end of March, a food convoy failed, for the first time, to get through at all. One food convoy that did get through in March had taken 10 days to do so. By the end of the first week of April, there was only enough flour in Jewish Jerusalem to last for 30 days. Meat, fish, milk and eggs were unobtainable, except in small quantities, for children. The shortage of vegetables was such that children were sent into the fields to collect a weed … known as halamith, it tasted somewhat like spinach, and could be made into soup.” (See Jerusalem in the 20th Century.)
There was also a severe shortage of water. Three days before the state of Israel officially came into existence, the Palestine Post reported that “Jerusalem was still without water yesterday. The two pipelines from Ras el Ein, which were blown up by Arabs between Latrun and Bal el Wad on Friday, have still to be repaired. Crews are scheduled to leave under army escort this morning to continue repair work and, barring further trouble, repairs may be completed today. Water may be pumped into Jerusalem within a few days, according to one municipal official.” So grim was Jerusalem’s situation that archival photos show residents standing in long lines waiting to get their water ration and others rummaging through garbage, in the hopes of finding scraps of food.
Palmach fighters and, even more remarkable, simple truck drivers decided to do whatever they could to keep Jerusalem from being blocked. One now quite senior man, who drove a truck full of live fish for the Sabbath, was interviewed. He recalled looking out his side mirrors to see water streaming from the sides of the vehicle. The truck had been shot in numerous spots. Somehow, he managed to get to Kiryat Anavim, a kibbutz in the Jerusalem Corridor. There, women plugged up the bullet holes with rags. Probably, many of us would have considered giving up at this point, but this driver continued the slow climb to Jerusalem.
The fighters were mostly young people. A significant number were under the age of 18 (today’s conscription age). They came from all backgrounds, religious and non-religious, and from all parts of the country; some were Holocaust survivors. As a number of the fighters had been assigned the task of digging gravesites at Kiryat Anavim, they probably realized they might not survive on the road to Jerusalem.
It was crucial to find a different route for the convoys. Palmach soldiers discovered a detour that went through a hidden valley south of the heavily fortified fortress at Latrun and joined a path descending from Jerusalem. Using heavy tractors, the Palmach slowly cleared a path for vehicles. A water pipeline was also installed along it. The lifeline to the Jews in Jerusalem was secured, providing vital water and other supplies, in the summer months of 1948.
At the point where the road was most unsafe, there is a 19th-century Turkish-built travelers’ khan or inn. On March 23, 2021, Israel’s last election day, a memorial museum was opened at this historic location. The Shaar Hagai Heritage Museum is dedicated to the men and women who prevented Jerusalem from being disconnected in the days leading up to and even following Israel’s independence.
The museum deals less with the chronology of the battles and more with the physical and emotional difficulties convoy members faced, such as confronting dilemmas like whether the trucks should carry guns or food to besieged Jerusalem. There are displays of items used by the convoys, such as codebooks, handguns and rifles. And there are interviews with people who took part in the convoy operations, and part of the exhibit is animated.
Once we are again allowed to travel, the museum is worth a visit on your next trip to Israel. Allow at least an hour-and-a-half for the whole tour, which is recommended for viewers 10 years of age and older. The new museum requires visitors to make advance online reservations, and there are admission fees.
Curator and art historian Yael Nitzan, founder of Israeli Women Museum. (photo by Adi Eder)
How many “she-roes” of Israel can you name? Maybe you’d with Golda Meir, Israel’s first and only female prime minister. Or the tragic and courageous spy Sarah Aaronsohn and paratrooper Hannah Senesh. The list would include physician Vera Weizmann, the first first lady of Israel, who helped establish Chaim Sheba Medical Centre, now the largest hospital in the Middle East; and second first lady Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who taught Jerusalem women how to grow vegetables, milk cows and make cheese so their husbands could go out and build the state.
These and many other women who played – and continue to play – important roles in the history and culture of Israel will be immortalized later this year when the Israeli Women Museum opens in Haifa. The museum will showcase at least 100 noteworthy but not necessarily well-known women, from architects to lawyers to choreographers, says founder Yael Nitzan.
A curator, art historian and TV producer, Nitzan has overcome many roadblocks and setbacks in realizing her dream of opening Israel’s first museum dedicated to women.
“It was a struggle,” she admitted. “Now, with corona, the world has everyone sitting and listening, and, in three months, I accomplished what I could not accomplish in the past six or seven years.”
Nitzan gained the help of the Haifa Foundation in raising funds for the project, and she was given the rights to a former private school building in which the collections will be housed.
Brig. Gen. Gila Kalifi-Amir, former women’s affairs advisor to the Israel Defence Forces chief of staff, agreed to chair the museum. The board was joined by fellow Haifa residents Nadim Sheiban, director of the Museum of Islamic Art; and Prof. Aliza Shenhar, formerly a deputy mayor, ambassador to Russia and first female rector of an Israeli university.
“I found the right people,” Nitzan told Israel21c.
“There are currently about 45 women’s museums in the world, the most famous of which are the Women’s Rights [National Historic) Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and the Women’s Art Museum in Washington,” she said.
“The fundamental challenge in establishing a museum is not only in raising resources, but in creating a diverse and significant human and ideological infrastructure. The Israeli Women Museum must be a magnet of significance to the whole, or at least to large sections of, the population in Israel.”
Though Israel reportedly has the world’s highest ratio of museums per person, this will be the first one dedicated to the mostly unsung females responsible for weaving together its social, agricultural and business fabric. “Our museum will be on women in history and women in the arts,” Nitzan explained.
“The section on history commemorates the role of important women who have not been properly acknowledged.” Women like Hannah Maisel, who immigrated to Palestine in 1909 with a doctorate in agriculture and founded the region’s first agricultural training institute for women. And women like Rachel Roos Hertz (Harel), a Dutch resistance fighter who moved to Israel in 1950 after winning the U.S. Medal of Freedom and the U.K. King’s Medal for Courage in the Cause of Freedom, and became active in the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) – itself founded by Rebecca Sieff (Ziv) from the Marks family of Marks & Spencer, and whose name graces Ziv Medical Centre in Safed.
Some of the inspiration for this section comes from Prof. Margalit Shilo’s Women Building a Nation, a book published this year in Israel.
“In the art section, we will spotlight women whose work was not considered important, as well as very important female artists of today whose work is rarely shown in museums,” said Nitzan.
Artists to be included run the gamut from Ziona (Siona) Tagger, one of the most important female Israeli artists of the early 20th century, to contemporary painter Haya Graetz Ran.
“Women in Israel contributed greatly to the establishment of the state, contributed to the construction of the infrastructure of settlement, education, defence, law, government, society, culture, cinema and theatre,” Nitzan said. “But, although they left their mark, they did not receive proper recognition and respect in building society. The purpose of the museum is to raise their profile and to reshape the narrative of the critical role of women as full partners in leadership and public space design over the past century.”
Nitzan invites anyone to contribute stories or items relating to Israeli Jewish, Arab, Druze or Christian women, and even artists, poets and leaders from the Holocaust era who did not manage to get to Israel. She can be reached through the museum’s Facebook page. Donations for the project are being funneled through the Haifa Foundation.
Israel21cis a nonprofit educational foundation with a mission to focus media and public attention on the 21st-century Israel that exists beyond the conflict. For more, or to donate, visit israel21c.org.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, vote on March 23. While the prime minister’s party won the most number of seats in the Knesset, he will still struggle to form a government. (photo from IGPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu makes a stunning deal with lawmakers to abandon his post and replace Reuven Rivlin as president of the country when the president’s term expires later this year. An agreement to pardon Netanyahu around corruption charges he currently faces is part of a deal that leads to Netanyahu ending his run as the country’s longest-serving leader. With “King Bibi” finally in a sinecure of symbolic eminence, the polarized Knesset manages to cobble together a coalition and stave off the fifth round of elections in two years.
This was one of the most fantastical possibilities mooted in a webinar presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) March 25, just two days after Israelis voted in the fourth of a series of elections during a two-year period of instability.
The panelists were CIJA’s chief executive officer Shimon Koffler Fogel and Adir Krafman, the agency’s associate director for communications and analytics. They sifted the entrails of the convoluted election outcome.
While ideological schisms divide Israeli politics, as does the secular-religious divide and other fractures, Fogel and Krafman concurred that the elephant in any discussion of the next Knesset is Netanyahu. CIJA is a nonpartisan organization and Fogel emphasized that the panelists, and moderator Tamara Fathi, were not advocating any outcomes, merely commenting on possibilities.
And the possibilities are almost endless. The vote sent 13 parties into the 120-seat Knesset. Some of these are not even parties, so much as umbrellas under which different factions coalesced for electoral purposes, so the mosaic of the chaotic chamber could refract in countless ways. But, while there are myriad permutations of possible coalitions and strange bedfellowships, Fogel, Krafman and most commentators in Israel and abroad think the most likely outcome is a fifth election. That is how difficult it would be for either side to patch together 61 members of the Knesset to govern.
Krafman presented graphic evidence of the challenges the pro- and anti-Netanyahu factions face in reaching that magic number. The pro-Bibi side likely has 52 dependable seats; his opponents probably have 57. That means an anti-Netanyahu coalition could form with the support of Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, which holds seven seats. For Netanyahu to eke out 61 seats would require the backing not only of Bennett but also of the four seats won by the Arab party Ra’am. Such a partnership would be historic and would have been almost unthinkable in the recent past. But Netanyahu of late has been making amenable noises toward Arab Israelis in general and to the Arab parties in particular. However, even if the prime minister and his unlikely allies in the Arab sector made a deal, it could upend the consensus on the other side, as some on the right would probably balk at joining a coalition that includes Ra’am.
Ra’am is one of the big stories of the election. Exit polls indicated the party would not make it over the 3.25% threshold to win any Knesset seats. That created a scenario where Netanyahu and his probable allies were seen as almost certain to form a government.
But, as actual counting took place through the night and into the morning, it became clear that Ra’am would cross the minimum support for representation. Instantly, the calculations shifted.
If Ra’am were to enter a coalition government, or even if it merely supported a government from the sidelines, it would be a turning point in the role Arab parties play in Israeli politics. Ra’am has already upended conventional Arab approaches to politics. The umbrella of Arab parties, recently running under the banner of the Joint List, has always played a spoiler role. They are oppositionist and anti-Zionist groups that are as much protest movements as conventional political parties.
Perhaps learning a lesson from the outsized power of small, right-wing and Jewish religious parties, Ra’am adopted a more pragmatic and transactional position than their former allies in the Arab bloc. The leader, Mansour Abbas, has not ruled out supporting a coalition or playing a role in government. Like smaller Jewish parties, he would be expected to come to coalition discussions with a shopping list of demands, such as more funding for projects and programs that benefit his constituents.
Ra’am’s success makes it an unqualified winner in the election sweepstakes. Fogel and Krafman discussed other winners and losers.
“The first loser, I think, is Netanyahu,” said Fogel. “Despite his party winning the most number of seats, 30 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, [he] is still not able to form a government.”
That might have been survivable if other parties that are Netanyahu’s likely backers did not also come up short.
“The other two losers are other right-wing parties,” Fogel added. Naftali Bennett, whose Yamina took seven seats, and Gideon Sa’ar, whose New Hope party took six, had hoped to siphon off a larger chunk of Likud’s votes.
“Both of them really failed to do that, winning only a handful of seats,” said Fogel.
It is a profound statement about tectonic changes in Israel’s ideological fault lines that the Labour party, which took seven seats, and another left-wing party, Meretz, which took six, are viewed as having had a good night. In the days leading up to the vote, there were questions whether either party would overcome the minimum threshold. The Labour party was the indomitable establishment political party for the first three decades of Israel’s existence.
Another loser, Fogel said, was Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party. Lieberman is a right-wing but avowedly secularist politician. He ran a campaign promoting separation of religion and state and against Charedi privileges. His message may have backfired: while turnout was down overall from the last election, Charedi voters turned out in greater numbers, possibly in reaction to Lieberman’s message.
The discussion turned again to what may be the most likely path for a right-wing government, which could be the exit of Netanyahu. There are centrist parties, Fogel said, that do not have issues with Likud policies so much as they do with the prime minister personally. With him gone, a bloc of anti-Bibi members might engage with Likud under a new leader and form a centre-right coalition.
As unlikely as this scenario might be, it would stave off another unsavoury development.
Any hope of forming a Netanyahu-led coalition probably depends on support from the extremist grouping called Religious Zionism. This new umbrella of racist, misogynistic and homophobic extremists, which holds six seats, would taint any coalition as the most far-right government in Israel’s history. (Click here to read this week’s editorial.)
Whatever happens – whether someone can manage to hammer together a government, or whether exhausted Israelis will trudge to the polls for a fifth time – there are serious issues facing the country.
“There are some pretty daunting challenges out there,” Fogel said. “Most especially on the economic side. We see that some other countries have already begun to emerge [from the pandemic] with a fairly robust recovery. Israel isn’t there yet…. There is a sense of urgency that they do have to get an Israeli government in place that is going to be able to effectively address these issues and it’s not clear that the election result will offer that to Israelis, so I think it makes a situation, if anything, more desperate.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the start of a cabinet meeting this past January in Jerusalem. The two outside flags are the Moroccan national flags, placed there to celebrate the fact that Israel and Morocco had just established diplomatic relations. (photo by Haim Zach/IGPO via Ashernet)
The Israeli elections, which take place March 23, are not turning on conventional ideological schisms, according to two top observers. Rather than a left-right divide, the ballot question for most voters is yes-Bibi/no-Bibi.
Lahav Harkov, diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, and Chemi Shalev, senior columnist and U.S. editor for Haaretz, analyzed the possible outcomes in a virtual event presented by the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs March 2.
Israel is in its fourth election cycle in two years, an unparalleled time of political turmoil. Harkov said she tends to err on the side of optimism but expects a fifth election before too long.
“I don’t see how we get out of this mess,” she said.
Shalev concurred, using a sports metaphor. “There is a saying in soccer, or football,” he said. “You play soccer for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans win, meaning no matter what you think during the game, the result is always that the German team wins and, in soccer, it’s usually true. In Israeli politics, it is also usually true.”
In each of the past three election campaigns, Shalev said, media and opponents of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu convince themselves he is headed for defeat. Then the votes come in and coalition talks begin and he holds onto office.
True to script, said Shalev, polls suggest Netanyahu’s support is faltering, estimating his Likud party will take about 28 of the 120 Knesset seats, down from the 36 he holds now. But, as much as Netanyahu will face an uphill climb to cobble together 61 votes to form a working coalition, his opponents face even steeper challenges.
Netanyahu, nicknamed Bibi, has led Likud since 2006 and has been prime minister since 2009. Having also served for three years in the late 1990s, Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history and his doggedness in holding on to power has earned him another nickname: King Bibi.
Shalev depicted Netanyahu’s manoeuvrings after the last vote, in March 2020, as a sheer political masterstroke. Benny Gantz led Kahol Lavan (Blue and White), a centre-left coalition whose principal promise was to keep Netanyahu from another term. When coalition talks appeared doomed and another election inevitable, Gantz entered into a power-sharing agreement that delivered another term to Netanyahu and, in the process, exploded the Blue and White coalition. The broad spectrum of centre-left politics that had come together under Blue and White disintegrated and some of those voters have drifted off to the right and may never return to the left, said Shalev.
Gantz is running again but, while the question last election was whether he could best Netanyahu, the issue now appears to be whether he can garner the 3.25% threshold needed to eke out any Knesset seats whatsoever.
In fact, many parties are hovering in the polls around the cutoff mark, which could be a defining factor in the outcome. The Labour party, once the indomitable force in national politics, is on the ropes. Likewise, another erstwhile force on the left, Meretz, could also be wiped out of the Knesset. On the other hand, the smaller parties that do cross the electoral threshold will have outsized influence on whether Netanyahu hangs on or whether another leader can topple him.
Netanyahu’s political survival will depend on the ability of small right-wing parties to pass the electoral threshold to enter the Knesset and help him get to 61 seats. Among the parties Netanyahu would need to depend on are Yamina, led by Naftali Bennett, which is seen as an ideological heir to the defunct National Religious Party.
He would probably also need to rely on another new entity, called the Religious Zionist Party, which iss in an electoral agreement with two other small, far-right factions. The RZP, which tends to represent settlers and Charedi voters, is in partnership (for this round of elections, at least) with Noam, a party whose primary issue is opposition to rights for LGBTQ+ Israelis, which party adherents equate with the “destruction of the family.” The third party in the triumvirate is the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), which Harkov said is a descendant of the outlawed movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Kahane was an anti-Arab politician whose speeches in the Knesset were usually boycotted by all other members, leaving him to speak to a room consisting only of the speaker and the transcriptionists. In 1985, the Knesset passed a law banning parties that incite racism, effectively outlawing Kahane’s Kach party. He was assassinated in New York City in 1990 by an Egyptian-born terrorist.
While Kahane and his compatriots were shunned in their time, Harkov noted that Netanyahu intervened with the smaller right-wing parties, encouraging them – including Otzma Yehudit – to band together to help them collectively pass the electoral threshold.
“If they had not run together, they probably wouldn’t have made it into the Knesset,” she said, adding that tens of thousands of right-wing votes would have been effectively wasted.
Harkov added that she found it “interesting and sad” that, in the first of this four-election cycle, Netanyahu encouraged the small right-wing parties to run together and this caused a huge scandal, given the extremism of Otzma Yehudit.
“When Kahane was in the Knesset, everyone would walk out, no one would listen to Kahane speak when he would have his racist rants in the Knesset,” Harkov said. “Now, the prime minister is encouraging them to be in the Knesset.”
She credits an exhaustion with politics for the lack of outrage over the alliance this time around.
Shalev agreed. Israelis have had more than enough, he suggests.
“I have never seen such fatigue and, if I venture something about the elections, [friends] all look at me as if I’m a lost case,” he said.
Where the fault lines in Israeli politics were once left versus right, that paradigm is at least temporarily inoperable. The Israeli left is in disarray and Netanyahu’s greatest challenges come from the right, including several former allies. Gideon Sa’ar challenged Netanyahu for the Likud leadership last year and was soundly defeated. Frozen out by the prime minister, he left the party and formed New Hope.
“Policy-wise, they’re not that different from Likud,” said Harkov. “Sa’ar is quite right-wing.” He is pinning his hopes on voters seeking more of the same with less of the corruption surrounding the incumbent, who is under indictment on a number of bribery, fraud and breach of trust charges.
The second-largest party in the current Knesset is Yesh Atid, led by Yair Lapid. This more centrist, secular grouping could bridge some of the divide and make Lapid a possible successor to Netanyahu, but, like all scenarios, would require a coalition-building process akin to a jigsaw puzzle. While there are factions that would be happy to support Netanyahu and others that would support anyone but Bibi, the divisions are exacerbated by internal grievances and personality clashes.
Given the moving parts in any coalition talks, Shalev predicted a potential “outrageous scenario.” Netanyahu has been courting Arab voters and, with the Arab Joint List in disarray, he hopes he can dislodge some votes from those quarters. However, after the election, he would face a new challenge. Cobbling together 61 members might require recruiting Arab parties, which would likely be met with flat-out rejection by the far-right and religious parties Netanyahu would also need to hold. Likewise, religious and secular factions that might agree on supporting a particular candidate for prime minister might balk at joining a coalition with one another. In other words, while there might be 61 members ready to support Netanyahu, they might refuse to do so if it required sitting alongside ideological enemies. Every potential prime minister faces a similar dilemma.
A recent high court decision threw the issue of religious-state separation and the influence of the ultra-Orthodox on national policy and life into the headlines. The ruling recognizes conversions by Reform and Masorti (Conservative) rabbis in Israel (but not abroad). While this re-ignition of the divide between secular and religious Israelis is significant, it may or may not have a major impact on voters. Yesh Atid is avowedly secular, as is Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. Whether they will gain any political traction from the issue is a mystery.
While overseas observers assume the big political issues in Israel are the Palestinian conflict, Iran and national security, Harkov and Shalev say voters are more focused on bread-and-butter topics, including the pandemic and pocketbook issues. But the biggest question of all for voters, they both agree, turns on personality – primarily that of Netanyahu and voters’ feelings toward him.
Harkov believes Netanyahu has benefited from the Abraham Accords. It also won’t hurt him that Israel leads the world in the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
A particular challenge that a reelected Netanyahu would face is building a relationship with the new administration in Washington. Netanyahu bound his fortunes so personally to Donald Trump that Shalev believes it is impossible to build a meaningful connection with the Biden administration. Netanyahu was not an outlier on this front, he noted, citing opinion polls that suggested Israelis, were they able to vote for a U.S. president, would have supported Trump by a massive landslide.
Left to right: Rabbi Dov Bakst, presidential advisor, Yitzhak (Buji) Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Raanan at the March 4 launch of the Ayelet Hashachar initiative to create a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. (photo from IMP)
“What is the main defining characteristic of the COVID-19 era?” asks public activist Rabbi Shlomo Raanan. “The coronavirus brought about separation and disconnect. It separates between countries, divides communities and splits families. It’s about being lonely and alone. My goal is to foster connection. Every Jew has an intrinsic connection to Israel. Let’s help them develop that connection and make it grow.”
Raanan’s organization, Ayelet Hashachar, has recently launched an initiative to foster connection with Diaspora Jewry: a promenade in Kiryat Shmona to commemorate Jewish COVID victims from around the world. More than 100 olive trees will line the kilometre-long walkway. Each tree will represent a different Jewish community from across the globe, serving as a vehicle to commemorate members who passed away from the coronavirus. Visitors to the site can learn about the communities and members who succumbed to COVID by standing next to the tree and getting the story on a dedicated app via a QR code. Each community will have its own mini-site, featuring eulogies, historical anecdotes and any extra information the community wishes to include, for a bona fide living memorial.
“Throughout the years, Diaspora Jewry has always been there for Israel,” said Raanan, explaining what inspired him to reach out to Diaspora communities and provide this free service. “We felt that the time had come for us, here in Israel, to show them our solidarity and support during this very challenging time.”
The significance of the location of the commemorative promenade is not limited to the views of Mount Hermon that Kiryat Shmona affords. Israel’s northernmost city is no stranger to bereavement – its very name commemorates eight people, including hero Joseph Trumpeldor, who were killed, in 1920, while defending the area. More recently, the proximity of Kiryat Shmona to the Lebanese border has made it a frequent target for terror and rocket attacks.
Kiryat Shmona is a symbol of Jewish determination and tenacity. Off the beaten track, it needs to invest twice the effort to make itself relevant to the centre of the country. Despite the hardships associated with leading a border city, Mayor Avihay Shtern has been making strides to promote development and attract residents. The growing food-tech industry and the establishment of large academic institutions are examples of those efforts.
“I am proud and gratified to have this opportunity to reach out to Diaspora communities and commemorate their COVID victims,” said Shtern. “There are many memorials, but I’ve yet to see one honouring those who succumbed to the pandemic, even though we’re almost a year in, and it’s taken such a heavy toll globally.”
Shtern noted that the walkway, to be named “the Path of Life,” will serve as “a living history lesson” for local residents, as well as the many visitors and tourists who flock to the Upper Galilee. “I think it’s important for us to remember, and for the children of the future to know, what happened during this period. The coronavirus will soon disappear, but we must never forget those who were lost to the disease.”
A grand opening ceremony for the promenade was held on March 4, with the participation of the mayor, Raanan, senior public figures, as well as Jewish Agency chair Isaac (Bougie) Herzog.
Each tree, a story
Raanan sees special significance in planting trees as commemoration. “There is a beautiful verse in the book of Job: ‘For a tree has hope; if it is cut it will again renew itself and its bough will not cease.’ Trees signify revival, particularly olive trees,” he said. “They are a perfect metaphor for the Jewish people. Even when it looks lifeless, the olive tree still retains vitality deep inside. Olive trees are also very adaptive; they survive tough periods and can live for thousands of years. It’s certainly appropriate that the olive tree is the symbol of the state of Israel.”
Raanan welcomes community leaders and members who wish to have their community represented by a tree on the promenade. His staff of web developers will prepare the relevant text and visual material at no charge.
“The coronavirus separated people from their loved ones, often forcing victims to die alone,” he said. “This memorial accomplishes the opposite, bringing communities together and uniting people.”
Raanan has other plans to connect Diaspora Jewry with Israel, as well.
Parallel to the commemoration project in Kiryat Shmona, he is offering interested communities the opportunity to plant not just one tree but an entire olive orchard. “There are vast tracts of land across Israel that are neglected…. Communities can plant their own orchards in areas of national importance – the Galilee, the Negev, the Jordan Valley,” he said.
Of established projects, Raanan’s Chavrutah program was started more than two decades ago, with the aim of encouraging dialogue between secular and religious Israelis. The program now features close to 20,000 people studying in partnerships, in Israel and abroad.
Ayelet Hashachar’s goal in all its projects is to heal the divisiveness of Israeli society by working to eliminate mistrust between sectors, thereby breaking stereotypes and encouraging mutual respect.
For more information about how to have a community featured in the Path of Life commemoration project, email [email protected] or call 97-252-617-6222.
– Courtesy International Marketing and Promotion (IMP)
Hajj Amin al-Husseini’s mansion turned into the Shepherd Hotel for a period of time. (photo from Daniel Luria)
Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem in the 1920s and 1930s, who spent much of the Second World War in Berlin as a Nazi collaborator and war criminal, must be spinning in his grave in Beirut. The landmark mansion he built 88 years ago in affluent Sheikh Jarrah, between the Old City and Mount Scopus, is slated to become a synagogue in a future 56-apartment Jewish neighbourhood in east Jerusalem.
The 500-square-metre manor house, called Qasr al-Mufti (the Mufti’s Palace) in Arabic, today stands derelict at the centre of a largely completed 28-apartment complex which itself lacks an occupancy permit. The reason the new neighbourhood is not being finished – and indeed has not been marketed in the 10 years since demolition and construction began – is that the developers have applied to rezone the 5.2-dunam site to double the number of units to 56, according to Daniel Luria, a spokesman for Ateret Cohanim, which backs the housing project.
Luria was unclear when the rezoning application would be approved. The historic house at the core of the site will be preserved and repurposed for communal needs, including a synagogue and perhaps a daycare centre, he said.
“There is a beautiful poetic justice when you see the house of Hajj Amin al-Husseini crumbling down,” said Luria.
Though al-Husseini built the mansion, he never lived in it. Following the outbreak in 1936 of the Arab Revolt against the British Mandate government, the mufti became a fugitive, hiding in the Old City’s Haram ash-Sharif. When the British attempted to arrest him in 1937, he fled Palestine and the British made do with confiscating his property. The al-Husseini clan owned numerous properties in Jerusalem, among them the Palace Hotel (today the Waldorf Astoria), the Orient House and the villa subsequently turned into the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah on a plot of land known as Karam al-Mufti (the Mufti’s Vineyard), named for al-Husseini.
Among those who did occupy the mansion was his secretary George Antonius (1891-1942), who wrote The Arab Awakening while living there, in 1938. Antonius’s widow, Katy, continued living in the building, which functioned as a salon where wealthy Palestinian Arabs and British officials socialized. (The city’s British sports club had a “No Natives” policy.)
At one of her elegant soirées in 1946, she met Sir Evelyn Barker. The much-decorated general was commanding officer of the British forces in Palestine and Trans-Jordan from 1946 to 1947. The two carried on an affair and exchanged Judeophobic love letters. In April 1947, he wrote her about Jews: “Yes, I loathe the lot – whether they be Zionists or not. Why should we be afraid of saying we hate them. It’s time this damned race knew what we think of them – loathsome people.”
On April 13, 1948, both Scottish Highlanders garrisoned at the mansion and other British troops stationed at the nearby Police Academy failed to intervene for eight hours when a convoy of doctors and nurses headed to Hadassah Hospital came under fire from Arab guerillas. Seventy-eight Jews, many doctors and nurses, died in the massacre.
Following the War of Independence, the al-Husseini mansion became the Shepherd Hotel in the now-divided and impoverished city. It was eclipsed by the Hotel Jerusalem Intercontinental, today called the Seven Arches, which opened on the Mount of Olives in 1964. After the Six Day War in 1967, when Israel conquered and annexed east Jerusalem, the hotel was taken over by the custodian of absentee property.
In 1985, it was sold to C and M Properties Ltd., owned by Florida bingo hall billionaire Irving Moskowitz (1928-2016), the benefactor of right-wing Israeli settler groups intent on housing Jews in the eastern side of the now united city. Following the zoning of Plan 2591, a request was made on Nov. 6, 2008, to permit the company to build two new residential blocks, including 28 apartments on top of an underground parking lot. In January 2011, the four-storey Shepherd Hotel annex – added on to the mufti’s original mansion – was demolished to make way for the future housing.
Rather than attempt to rezone the site – which adjoins the British consulate – for a higher density at the beginning of the redevelopment process, it was decided to build what was legally permitted and later apply to amend the zoning, Luria explained.
“Ateret Cohanim is not involved in the building project but we have an interest in strengthening Jewish roots in and around the Old City,” he said.