Friday, May 31, 2013

Israel Journal V: Safed

Photograph by Hallie Cohen
You might have seen an occasional tank on Armistice Day or as a war memorial in your home town. But tanks are visible everywhere in Israel and you see groups of uniformed young men and women waiting for buses in kiosks, coming or going to military service. Zionists believe the advent of the state of Israel in l948 represents the coming of the Messiah. Considering that only three years before millions of Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps, it’s hard to dispute the presence of some sort of miracle or at least anomaly of historic proportions--despite all evidence of secular military might. Of course the discussion of Israel’s status as a secular state with a distinct religious bent defines what the country is all about. In America we cherish the separation of church and state. In Israel, marriage can only be legitimized through religious authority. And when you go to the great religious cities of Israel, Safed, Tiberius, Jerusalem and Hebron, you can see a living example of Jewish law at work. There are 613 mitzvot or commandments, a number of which are alive and kicking in Israel today. Some of these  come with no payback such as the accompanying of the dead to their last resting place. The Zohar provides the foundation of the Kabbalah, which is a kind of mystic subtext of Jewish religion. It was written in Safed. Not far from Safed is Bar' am, the temple where the Mishnah, the commentary on the Talmud was written. Israel is ecumenical to the extent that it's the home of three of the world’s great religions, but Jewish religious law competes with secular law in every aspect of Israeli life. The Green Line refers to the Israeli border following the war of independence in l948. The Eruv is the line that surrounds cities and defines the Sabbath laws. Where do man’s laws end and God’s laws begin? This is one of the fundamental questions of Israeli life and one that is being questioned by those who  challenge the exemption of ultra Orthodox Jews from military service.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Israel Journal III: The West Bank

Photograph of West Bank by Hallie Cohen
From the top of Gilboa Mountain, you can look onto a village in the West Bank. You can see a mosque and hear the calls to prayer. There is an observation post with a plaque commemorating the death of one of the residents of Kibbutz Meirav in a terrorist attack. Yet peering into the center of the town, it’s almost impossible to absorb the political and geographical reality that lies before you. Travelling a few more kilometers down the mountain you peer over a barbed wire fence directly into Jordan. The Golan Heights from which Syrians streamed during the Yom Kippur war appears like simply any ridge that one might view, though the memorial to the battle at the Valley of Tears (with its Syrian and Israeli tanks facing off like an arguing couple) does have the haunted quality of our own Civil War battlefields. You remark on how verdant it is and how the color has changed from green to yellow with the onset of summer. The routines of life continue on and the fact that war is raging in the environs of Damascus only fifty miles away, a war whose outcome will have enormous implications for a tiny country, a David facing a geopolitical goliath, seems devoid of any reality on a typical afternoon as the heat brings life to a stand still. Is that where the Intifada raged? Is  that the spot where a small band of Israeli tanks turned back an army? Israel literally means “he who argues with god" and it can also be defined as the name of a country which is a question a logical positive might ask, “Is Real?” But what is real and what isn’t? One thing is certain. Israel is a tiny country which looms large in a our minds and not only because it's the Holy Land for three great religions, but because after centuries of Roman, Ottoman and British rule, it's become the symbolic and literal epicenter of modern realpolitik.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Israel Journal II: Caesarea


watercolor of Caesarea by Hallie Cohen
Say you were back in 66 BC and you wanted four rooms with a harbor view in on the coast of Northern Israel. You’d go see a Jewish fellow named Herod who back in Roman times was the equivalent of say a Donald Trump today—albeit Herod had a nasty side. He was so intent that there be no exultation at his death that he ordered there be l0,000 executions on the same day. Well, no one ever said developers were nice people and for a pretty penny you got running water from the aqueduct that fed his Caesarea. The ruins of Herod’s great work replete with Hippodrome and Roman theater are a major tourist attraction today, due in part to the ministrations of another mogul, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Visiting them presents history in archeological form since they attest to the waves of conquest that constitute the historical strata of Israeli society. Casearea was taken over by the Romans, then the Byzantines who had converted to Christianity under Constantine. Fortifications were built around them during the Crusades and the Ottoman Turks also conquered Caesarea before it was rescued from its state of oblivion by the Baron, its modern Maecenus. Many tourists are repelled by the site of the huge hydroelectric plant that looms over Caesarea, but there is a poetic justice to it all. Herod like modern technocrats was interested in power in all its forms. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Israeli Journal I: Tel Aviv

The cards advertising escort services litter the sidewalk in front of the Intercontinental David on the Rehov Kaufman. Across the street from the hotel is the Al-Aqsa mosque which faces the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv like Paris and New York is now wired for bikes and facing the mosque is a rack where you can rent bikes to ride along the pathway of high rises that face the sea. The path is crowded with runners and the lines of luxury condominiums and hotels facing the beaches crowded with umbrellas and hawkers is reminiscent of Miami Beach. The modern day pilgrim to the Holy Land who might be bewildered by his exact spiritual whereabouts in this modern megalopolis may find his bearings as he wanders the warren of streets leading along Rehov Shabazi whose structures begin to resonate the waves of history that lie under the carapace of thriving modern mercantile society. Gelaterias compete with centuries old structures which resonate the waves of occupiers from the Romans to the Turks (Jaffa had been the original port city during the days of the Ottoman empire and the Second Aliyah). The historical chorus of partition, Haganah, Palmach, Balfour, Meir and the eponymous, David Ben Gurion, after whom the airport is named, are all drowned out by the words,
“two state solution, which hang like a mirage over the city.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Eleemosynary Motors

Have you ever tried to get pro bono bodywork on your car? It’s a good question to bring up in the aftermath of a holiday weekend when there tend to be fender benders and worse. Have you ever gone to an automobile repair shop or dealership and thrown yourself on their mercy after you’ve had a fender bender? If you haven’t, it’s something you should try. This will in all likelihood be
the first time that the dealership or body shop will be providing an eleemosynary service. This is a potential selling point and something that can also be employed in purchasing a car. For instance try going into your local Ford or Toyota dealership and asking them to donate a car to you under the theory that they would be giving to a good cause. On the other end imagine starting a car dealership called simply Eleemosynary Motors which simply gives the latest model say Subaru away to those who want them. When you think about it, this is a truly revolutionary approach to car sales and servicing. The customer ends up being satisfied since he or she doesn’t have to pay. The dealer or body shop profits because it’s good for their reputation. Car dealers and repair shops are notorious for being mercenary and if people feel they will run into no chance of being take advantage of, they will flock to one with such a high minded purpose. The only problem with Eleemosynary Motors is that it's unlikely to turn a profit.