Archive for August, 2013

A Few Spots In Greece

August 21st, 2013 7:04 pm by Dave and Ray from here

Getting on the El Al flight to Athens was a little disorienting: we were in row 22, which turned out to be the second row of the plane. We arrived late at night for our 23-hour layover; there was no wait at the passport line and the Alamo/National guy got us on the way to our car with the least fuss and delay that I can remember. We drove to our little hotel. The next morning, we were directed to The Mall for breakfast, and the guard motioned us towards the food court. The first thing we saw was a Starbucks; thankfully, there were several other places, including one with great orange juice, pastries, and coffee. The mall itself was empty as it was Sunday morning, but had all the usual mall stores, with virtually no Greek script: most of the names were the typical worldwide mall franchises. We then took off on a drive about 90 minutes north of Athens, starting at Chaeronea, which has a massive statue of a lion. It is the place where Philip of Macedonia and Alexander the Great defeated Thebes (which is nearby) and Athens. There was a small archaeological museum nearby with several artifacts from the area. Then we went to the Byzantine monastery of Hosios Loukos, which was amazingly decorated with frescoes and icons. There was just enough time to get back to the airport, get in an argument with Alamo/National about gas, and catch our flight to Mykonos, where we stayed for the next three nights.

We stayed at Hotel Jason, a pleasant place atop the road between the main town and the Plati Giallo beach; a bus takes you to either place for €1.60. Monday we walked down into town, and bought stamps and had breakfast, noticing that the streets were pretty empty at 10 in the morning. We spent the day at the hotel writing postcards and doing laundry. That evening we went back into town, where a cruise ship had arrived. We inspected the town’s signature windmills (without sails attached, so they no longer turn) and at ate “m-eating”, easily the most sophisticated and delicious place we’ve eaten at Greece on this trip. After dinner, as we walked back to the bus, we noticed that the town was totally hopping: all the shops were open and the streets were packed. If we’d stayed up even later there would have been loathsome dance parties. One of the interesting statistics we learned about Mykonos is that it has 10,000 inhabitants, but often has 150,000 visitors.

Tuesday we got to town early, and got on the 9am boat out to Delos, the adjacent island whose ruins are a World Heritage site. A guide offered her services for ten euros per person, and told us much about the history of the place, and all its conquests. Delos was once a flourishing city-state, with massive temples and sculptures, largely celebrating Apollo. We toured the ruins of where the 1% lived, and the area with the temples. After the tour, we walked through the museum, and up the hill to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus, where there was a good view of the entire island. Due to the economic problems in Greece, the 3pm boat had been cancelled that day, and the last one back was an hour earlier than we expected. We took the bus back up to the hotel, relaxed for awhile, then walked down to the beach and ate at the nicest of the beach resort restaurants, Avli Tou Thodori. It seemed like a more earthy restaurant than m-eating, but we had kind of an exotic order: their watermelon & feta salad, fried anchovies (enormous for anchovies), mussels steamed with fennel (all mussels should be), and a dish of sea urchin (much tinier than most uni you see), ending with some tomatoes and a pepper stuffed with rice. We were full, and mentioned that we’d seen their plate of donut holes and couldn’t possibly eat it. So they brought us one on the house as a challenge.

Until we’d walked to the beach, we’d only seen the places in town and on the way there. We’d priced fresh-squeezed orange juice, as we often do, noting it was €3 or €3.50 on the road and the edge of town, rising up to €5 and €6 in the middle of the town. As we walked to the beach Tuesday night, we saw a place close to the hotel advertising it for €2.50, so we went there Wednesday morning for breakfast. As you find out every time you fly, sometimes the cheapest orange juice may be behind you. We returned to the hotel, checked out, and flew back to Athens and then immediately to Samos. All of these inter-island flights we have taken are on little 80-passenger two-propeller Bombardier Q400 planes, which have exciting landings as they try to stay on the runway immediately after touching down. (A free snack and soft drinks were served on each flight during the five minutes between ascent and descent.) We hadn’t arranged a pickup from the airport, so we took a taxi, and found out that the place we were staying was 2.5km up the hill from Pythagorion in a newish hotel with nothing around anywhere. The owner somehow didn’t realize that we had a reservation, and made us wait in the lobby for 90 minutes or so while he did other stuff before he came back and gave us our room. But hey, he owns four properties and is a busy guy. He gave us a ride into town for dinner — to his taverna, which was simple and had good food. We walked around town afterwards, stopping in at the many rental car places which were open, which all said they had no cars available for the next five days. So our transport was long walks and €6 taxi rides.

Thursday we walked down the hill into town, had our standard fresh orange juice, pastries, and cappuccino, and then walked to four of the major attractions: an archaeological museum, an ancient theater (which is just ruins under a modern wooden structure that is actively used), a monastery with a shrine located deep inside a cave, and, the reason we came to Samos in the first place, the Tunnel of Eupalinos. This guy, in the 6th century BC, performed the amazing engineering feat of building a 1km tunnel under a mountain from both ends simultaneously, with the two bores successfully meeting in the middle. The tunnel carried a water pipe from a spring to provide water for the city of Pythagorion which in those times had 80,000 inhabitants. (It appears that Megiddo, which we’d seen in Israel, was also dug from both ends three centuries earlier, but it was only 70m long.)

We took a taxi to the Temple of Hera just outside the nearby town of Heraion, an archeological site which like many we’ve seen was a mishmash of several successive constructions. It can get pretty difficult to figure out which wall you see corresponds to which diagram on the map. Besides the temples themselves, built starting in the 9th century BC, with the great temple built in the 6th century BC in the glory days of Samos, there were ruins of a small Roman basilica, with the 16th century AD ruins on top of the 6th century AD ruins. We caught a ride back to Pythagorion with a Swiss tourist who told us about a contemporary art exhibit he was there to review. We walked around town, had a nice dinner at Aphrodite featuring a grilled octopus leg and a chunk of goat kid neck or back, and then went to see the exhibit. The artists call themselves Slavs and Tatars, and the exhibition was called “Long-Legged Linguistics”. We got a guided tour around the exhibits, including “Tongue Twist Her”, a resin tongue slithering down a pole-dancing pole mounted on a carpeted base; two artworks in the form of large black-on-white carpets; “Kitab Kebab”, several books speared on a skewer; and “River Beds”, a reference to public structures in Iran where men and women could talk in public. These beds had the artists’ books mounted so you could browse them. It was refreshing to see some new stuff after the weeks of antiquities.

Friday was another day of vacation from the trip: we stayed at the hotel and did laundry and wrote postcards and blogged. We walked down the hill, and found some shortcuts which made it seem like a much shorter trip, saving maybe 25% of the distance. And we found Thanasis’ Sister, an “ouzeri” (restaurant specializing in ouzo) serving pretty much only “tapas”; their chick pea balls aren’t falafel, they are pakoras with chunks of onion and chick peas. They also had delicious homemade sausage.

We woke our host at 5:45am Saturday for a trip to the airport, and forgot to give him back the key. I hope he has gotten it back from the airport security office by now.

Watch the Magician’s Other Hand

August 12th, 2013 12:40 pm by Dave and Ray from here

I will start this post with our daily experiences on the tour, and conclude with the basic history leading to the current situation, the facts of life in the area today, and a comment or two about the future.
The tour started Monday morning with a short lecture explaining the history which I recount below. The guide likened the situation to a magician, who wants you to watch one of his hands (the ones shaking those of politicians in the US) but not the other (the ones building the walls, and crafting the policies which make modern life unpleasant for the Palestinians).

After the lecture, we walked around the Old City. The guide pointed out a house in the Muslim district, claimed by Ariel Sharon as kind of a one-house settlement, which all people exiting the Damascus Gate from the Muslim Quarter of the Old City see as they leave, with its big Israeli flag and its security cameras. We got on the roof of the Austrian Hospice and looked at the Temple Mount from afar, with the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Dome of the Rock is a beautiful golden dome housing a large rock, whose location is revered by both Jews and Muslims. The Muslims believe that Gabriel took Muhammad from here to pray with Moses and Jesus. After the 1967 war, the Israelis raised their flag over the Dome, but Moshe Dayan wisely kept the peace by keeping it under control of the Muslims. A few years ago some Zionist teenagers were caught (by Israeli police) planning to blow it up. Rather than plunge these teenagers into serious legal trouble, the Palestinians were subjected to even more draconian restrictions in order to prevent the retaliation that the government assumed would happen.  While it is illegal to discuss destroying the dome, this has not stopped many artists from making paintings, for sale in the Jewish quarter of the Old City, showing what it might look like after this happens, and the temple is rebuilt.  One of the postcards we bought illustrates the “river to river” ambitions of the Zionists, who would like to claim all of the land from the Nile to the Euphrates rivers: the 10-shekel-cent coin shows what Arabs claim is this land area beneath a menorah.  (The Christian Zionists are going to be so disappointed when this happens and the Jews STILL don’t convert to Christianity and Jesus STILL stays dead.)

We looked at the Western Wall, the western side of the Temple Mount. At one time it was a narrow pathway which Jews had to crowd into in order to get as close as they could to the Dome. But a few days after the 1967 war, a Moroccan neighborhood which was located next to it was given one hour to clear out, and then bulldozed; the residents were relocated into a refugee camp where they remain. Now there is a spacious plaza next to the wall, and it is a major area for tourists, with no mention anywhere of the people who used to live there. There are separate parts for men and women to pray at; the men’s section includes an area underneath an existing neighborhood offering shade and air-conditioning. When we were there, several bar mitzvahs were in progress; groups of men and boys would sing and dance as they took a Torah from a cabinet along the Wall to the ceremony room and back.

One thing we noticed at Capernaeum and the Western Wall is that people write down prayer requests on little bits of paper and tuck them into the wall. I don’t think this works: they just get stuck there and no one looks at them. Personally, I think it is much more effective to attach them to the Temple of the Year at Burning Man, which is burned on Sunday night: the act of burning causes God to actually read the requests and do something about them.

We had a delicious lunch of hummus at Lina’s, and then started the afternoon’s tours of the greater Jerusalem area. Our guide for the afternoon was Fred, the director of Green Olive Tours. We looked at the walls, some checkpoints, and the ways many Israeli and Palestinian roadways are carefully constructed so as not to intersect. We drove through a couple settlements. They look like Santa Clarita, but with more apartments and duplexes. Finally we were dropped off at the house of a Christian family living in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, where we stayed for four nights. Even though Gmail was initially skeptical about my connecting from a Palestinian IP address, their Wi-Fi allowed us to post our experiences much faster and more reliably than the hotel we’d stayed in the previous two nights.

Tuesday the focus was Bethlehem, and the guide was Yamin, a local Palestinian resident. (He drives a Mercedes limo with a million km on it, and only its second engine.) First we drove out into the nearby desert to a monastery located across from a cliff full of caves. We saw many segments of Security Wall, ie Separation Wall, ie Fragmentation Wall. While they say the wall is built “for security reasons”, it is always pretty obvious that it is built to create wide swaths of land for settlements to expand into. We stopped at a small workshop where some people were cranking out souvenirs from olive wood: the cutest machine was a 3-d pantograph, where a worker traced a completed figurine, and eight other drill bits made the corresponding cuts in eight pieces of wood, creating eight more identical ones. Several other workers touched up the results.

We had a brief visit to the Church of the Nativity, crowding into the underground chamber representing the place where Jesus was born. We then headed to the Aida refugee camp, which has been there since 1948. In 1952 it became clear that it wouldn’t close anytime soon, so the UN tore down the tents and built small apartments. In the camp, we visited Al-Rowwad, an organization which gives refugee children an opportunity to learn theater, photography, computers, sewing, etc. They have toured all over the world, and gotten audiences everywhere except the place it seems to me they need most to perform: Israel. As mentioned below, they are not permitted to go there, and Israeli citizens are not permitted to come see them.

We then walked along a perverse section of wall protruding into the village, surrounding a parking lot for a house containing Rachel’s Tomb; this section of wall was extensively decorated with graffiti and murals, including a few by Banksy. He has a shop located across the street, selling postcards, t-shirts, and posters, and olive-wood nativity scenes with a removable separation wall between the three kings and the baby Jesus.  We headed out to the desert for lunch with a man who lives in a cave on a large plot of land, for which a group of settlers offered him $10 million. If he sold, other Palestinians would kill him; if he doesn’t, it will probably be taken anyway somehow: the government is very enthusiastic to take that land in order to dramatically expand settlements. He said he would die there. Watch the news.

Tuesday night we attended a lecture given in English by Nassar Ibrahim, a Palestinian writer with a thick accent, at the Alternative Information Center cafe, a room with bad acoustics. He was talking about the situation in Syria, and was speculating that the desire to control natural gas pipelines was influencing America’s and Europe’s behavior (duh…), though the Syria conflict seems so messed up that I can’t even really imagine what America or Europe can do about it in such a way that will give them the outcome they would like (they can’t promote dictatorship, and democracy will result in an Islamic win, which they don’t really want either). Afterwards, we walked around the old city as everyone crowded into it, doing last minute Eid shopping after their evening meal.

Wednesday we drove up to Nablus, the economic capital of the West Bank. It has historic ties to Damascus as a trading center. It is surrounded by three military bases which in 2002, “for security reasons”, conducted massive airstrikes, demolishing many buildings in the city, presumably to further cripple the Palestinians economically. We visited Jacob’s Well, a 4000-year-old well which still operates, and is located under a nice little church.  One of the abbotts at the monastery, Father Archimandrite Philoumenis, was brutally murdered in the church by an axe-wielding Zionist.  A cross was cut in his face, his eyes plucked out, and the four fingers and thumb of his right hand cut off.

We toured the Balata refugee camp, where our guide Ayash and his family still live, which like the others consists of small apartments built by the UN in 1958. We visited the Women’s Center, which provides some services to refugee women, including beauty salon training and a gym. The camp has one clinic for its 28,000 residents. We walked through the Old City (where everyone was doing their shopping for Eid), stopping in a spice shop and a Turkish bath house. After a pleasant lunch, we went to the Samaritan Museum, where the high priest of that small sect explained it (while I nodded off somewhat having not had that many hours to sleep the night before). The Samaritans are Jews who adopted their own practices long before the state of Judaea had its problems with Rome, and were never evicted at the time of the diaspora. Their practices still include temple sacrifices at Pesach but, different temple on a different mountain. The Orthodox regard them as country cousins and are very protective, said Fred, and the ultra Orthodox regard them as impostors. You can’t please everybody.

On a brief walk, we saw Nablus from above, and headed back to Bethlehem.

The way Ramadan works is that it ends the day after the mullahs actually see the new moon. It turned out that the moon, while a good 18 hours into its new month and therefore big enough to show a crescent, was almost directly to the south of the sun, and set only four minutes later. So Ray and I figured that it would still be too bright to see the moon. Indeed, we went up onto the roof, and even using binoculars could not see it, though the horizon was quite high where we were (30 minutes remained until they both set). But apparently the mullahs did in fact see it as it set over the Mediterranean, and proclaimed the end of Ramadan, which means that the festival of Eid happened Thursday. If they hadn’t seen it, everyone would have to fast one more day, and Eid would have been on Friday.

Our host in Beit Sahour, Samer, who runs Alternative Tourism, was our tour guide for Thursday’s trip to Hebron. Hebron is the home of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where many Old Testament figures are buried: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. This site is very holy to both Judaism and Islam. It was off-limits to Jews until after 1967, when an arrangement was made to open it to them two days a year. There were several attacks on Jews in the following years. After the Oslo accords, an American-Israeli settler massacred 29 praying Muslims; others there killed him with fire extinguishers, which are now longer allowed in mosques. Now it is open 12 days a year to Jews, 12 days to Muslims, and is divided, open to both separately the rest of the year. Because Eid ended up on Thursday, we were unable to do much of anything on the trip: all the stores were closed because it was a holiday, and the Tomb was closed to us because the local Muslims were using it. We did have lunch in a private house, and had fascinating conversations with a group of activists from Christian Peacemaker Teams who are helping make the Hebron residents’ lives better. We took a short walk in a small Jewish settlement in the middle of Hebron. There are fences and checkpoints everywhere, and 2000 soldiers, to protect the 500 settlers.

The streets were quiet — most stores were closed and most people were with their families for Eid. A few kids were about, playing with their new toy guns and the girls in their new dresses. The Street Arabs all said where are you from and what is your name and one shekel and either posed or said NO PHOTO or PAPA NOEL. In the Settler area, nobody said anything, but one person said “FUCK YOU” to one of our Jewish traveling companions. There were 17 people on the Hebron tour. An IDF guy on the roof with a machine gun was glumly helpful in giving advice where we shouldn’t go and what we shouldn’t take pictures of.

A Jewish guy from Brooklyn asked me why I thought the Arabs were all so nice to us and the Jews were so hateful and rude. I speculated that it was part of their religion, to be nice to travelers. I really don’t know. The difference here is so striking. American Jews are gregarious to the point of being disconcerting; but Israelis — outside of Fred, and Riki, up in Tzfat (both of whom lived in the U.S. for years) — I can’t think of any other place outside of Russia where I have been glared at or ignored so uniformly, by people in such funny costumes. Even at the village near Cotonou, in Benin, where the guide assured us they hated beards, I didn’t feel this level of hostility.

We returned from the tour to Samer’s house. His uncle, who lives two houses away, has a garden beneath the house, and one of the people who were staying there asked if we could see it. He showed us around the fig and almond and olive and pomegranate trees, and confessed he hadn’t been in this garden for 20 years. Childhood memories started coming back to him: he showed us games he used to play, like connecting two olives with a leaf and balancing them on a twig, basically Jenga with plants. Later that evening, we talked about his life over some arak (Arabic for ouzo). As a teenager, he got a little antsy and his parents decided it would be better to send him to live with relatives in Greece for awhile, instead of making trouble in the West Bank. A few years later, he ran a store in a San Diego mall, and made friends with the owner of the adjoining shop, a former Israeli soldier. Now he lives back where he grew up, with his own family, and he and his four daughters would like to leave, but his wife for whatever reason wants to stay. So they do.

Friday morning we drove back to Jerusalem, and toured the Mount of Olives. (Denver has a Mount of Olives Cemetery, but I didn’t realize then that the real one in Jerusalem is where people especially wanted to be buried; I guess they were first in line for heaven, or something. The passport line, again.) The most interesting spots here were Church of Pater Noster, where Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, which is displayed on the grounds in 170 different languages, including Maya, Quechua, Cherokee, Georgian in two different scripts, and many many more. The Garden of Gethsemane has some 2000-year-old olive trees, as old as the redwoods on Big Tree Way but much more contorted; olives are pruned to be spreading. And the Tomb of the Virgin Mary is a strange underground space full of chandeliers (with compact fluorescent bulbs) and religious icons.

We walked into the Old City, following many of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.  One of them led to a rooftop near the Church of the Holy Sepulchre:  we noticed several tourists disappearing into an open door.  We followed them down some flights of stairs, past a little service in progress in the Ethiopian Monastery, and arrived in the courtyard of the Church, which is said to be built at the site of Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. There were two little chapels above the cross site itself, and another chapel, with a long line of people to go inside, that claimed to be the site of his tomb. As usual, the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics have their own version of all the places as well as their own version of all the dates, even if they are only a few meters apart. There were little services happening all over the place inside the church, and no one minded all the tourists milling around. I’m not particularly religious these days, but having grown up with Christmas and Easter it was pretty interesting to visit these sites. Afterwards, we headed to a little Armenian restaurant for an interesting dinner: dessert looked like a long sausage, but it was made out of grapes and nuts.

Saturday we had hoped to go up on the Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock and the outside of the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Our Lonely Planet guide said it was open on Saturday, but the guard at the Western Wall Plaza entry point said it was closed on Friday and Saturday. Oh well. We improvised from there, seeing the Garden Tomb, a strange private protestant site presenting itself as another place Jesus’ cross and tomb might have been located; the Ethiopian Church, which reminded me of places I’d been in India: take your shoes off before going into a domed building containing a cubic building with an altar inside, with the floor covered with carpets, and the walls with religious paintings. One of the Ethiopian nuns was very excited to take our photo with one of the monks. Beards give you entry into all sorts of presumptions. We walked through the Old City to the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, a modern church built over what was explained as Caiaphas’ dungeon; all the statues outside, and the feel of the place, reminded me of the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County.

The Orange County analogy applies to most of Jerusalem. Except for a few bits here and there, it’s all very new, and that means Orange-County like. The Christian presence doesn’t go back very far, this time around. The YMCA building was built at the same time by the same guy as the Empire State building; the suburbs and settlements are all from the last thirty years, and all the holiest ancientest sites are covered over by big modern looking buildings that have scattered about them pieces of glass floor through which you may view the mosaics that were in place before the Saracens and earthquakes and new construction permits.

Then we took a taxi, expensive because it was Shabbat, to pick up our bags and go to another hotel to meet an economical airport shuttle which kept picking up people until every seat was filled before heading to the airport. The Ben Gurion airport is probably much more effective than the TSA in protecting the planes which leave from it, but the waits are very long and it seems arbitrary and inefficient. Someone talks to you, and decides whether to X-ray your checked luggage. The image determines whether your luggage will be opened, in front of you: a decorative plate we bought presumably contains lead, and seems to have caused them to want to look in its suitcase. After that, things are pretty normal and quick; we didn’t have to take off our shoes.


We learned about the history of the area and the description of what life is like for those who live here constantly over the course of the tour. I’ve summarized it here.

For over 100 years, this has been an area containing two nationalities. Jews and non-Jews have been living together more peacefully here than other places like, say, Western Europe. The current problems have been brewing for over 100 years, but really got going after World War I, when Jews from all over the world began crowding into the area.

  • 1917: Britain in the Balfour Declaration declared it to be “a homeland for the Jewish people, without prejudicing the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities”. Right, like that can happen.
  • 1947: the arbitrary drawing of the lines defining Palestine, and evictions of non-Jews from most of what is now Israel into refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and elsewhere.
  • 1949: occupations by the Jordanians and Egyptians, which basically defined the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
  • 1967: Israel re-occupied all of that land in the Six Day War (no mention was made of Sinai, since we were focusing on the West Bank).
  • 1987: the first intifada begins after years of oppression, triggered by an action in the Gaza strip killing several Palestinians.
  • 1993: the Oslo accords, when the West Bank was divided into areas specifying where Israel controlled the civil population and where it didn’t. Yasser Arafat, feeling anxious to get back from Oslo, agreed to the plan, causing much upset among the population afterwards.
  • 2000: the Camp David talks of 2000, Bill Clinton’s last grasp at a legacy, when Ehud Barak presented a take-it-or-leave-it “negotiation” which gave Palestinians 90% of the land, but claimed a strategic 10% which effectively divided the West Bank into three noncontiguous areas. This time the offer was refused. A few months later, Ariel Sharon visits the Temple Mount, which starts a riot and the second intifada.
  • 2002: the West Bank barrier wall is begun. It does not strictly follow the 1967 borders, but rather cuts deeply into the West Bank. Further construction of the wall is accompanied by more confiscation of Palestinian land and building of settlements.

The West Bank continues to be classified as “occupied territories” because if it were annexed as part of Israel, legal precedent would require that all of the residents would become citizens. The legal shenanigans which Israel goes through to justify the actions it takes is well-explained in a film we saw at the SF Int’l Film Festival a few years ago, “The Law In These Parts”. It turns out that it will be shown as part of the POV series on PBS on August 19, and viewable online for the following month.  I’ve set up my TiVo to record it.

There was some frustration in 1993 that Yasser Arafat acceded to the accords which carved up the West Bank into “Area A” (cities under complete Palestinian control), “Area B” (villages under Palestinian civil control), and “Area C” (settlements, and open space, under complete Israeli control). In general, Palestinians who live in the West Bank can travel anywhere in it except settlements. They cannot enter Israel, including Jerusalem. Israeli Jews are officially not allowed to enter “Area A”, though it is quite easy to do if they want to. There are checkpoints which primarily monitor license plates, allowing movement of Israeli vehicles and restricting movement of Palestinian ones.  There are a few other classifications of non-Jews, such as “Jerusalem residents” and “Israeli Arab citizens”.

The “Area A” and “Area B” lines were drawn so that they enclosed existing Palestinian areas as tightly as possible; in general, a Palestinian cannot expand the community by building across the line into “Area C”. He cannot get a building permit to do that, and if he builds anyway, his house will be demolished as an example, usually around 2am, with mere minutes of notice. The Israelis also control water rights; our host explained that each house in a settlement gets a one-inch water pipe, while each Palestinian village gets a three-inch water pipe (which can move nine times as much water). Others cited statistics based on water per person, but for Palestinians it is “just barely enough, except when we turn it off”, and Israelis, it is “all you can drink and water your lawn with”. It is illegal for Palestinians to tap wells into the aquifers underneath their villages.

Any Jew in the world can decide to emigrate to Israel, and they will basically be given a place to live, for little or no cost, by the government. But non-Jews who were evicted from their homes at any point from the original partition to the current construction of separation walls don’t have that option. The government heavily subsidizes the construction of settlements, and rentals of the buildings built in them. It retains all control of water rights, airspace, and flow of capital and trade in the entire region. While Zionist zealots are often the ones who set up “outposts”, claiming new land for settlements, especially far from Jerusalem, the largest settlements set up by the government are close and well-connected to Jerusalem, and because they are so cheap to live in they are largely occupied by working-class Israelis.

The way the wall keeps growing and restricting the areas where Palestinians can be reminded me a lot of the lowly worker in “Office Space” who keeps getting moved into smaller and smaller offices, and ultimately into closets. (And then ends up blowing up the entire company. Our guide in Nablus is a nonviolent activist, but he supports the right of his oppressed brothers to resist in whatever way they think appropriate, including armed resistance.)

I wonder what it’s like to use a location-based dating app like Grindr in this area. Two people could start chatting and then discover that one is a settler and one is a Palestinian. Awkward.

One interesting fact that was mentioned was that despite the oppression, Palestinians are significantly better-educated than any other Arab country. Many of them study abroad, and many of them go on and teach abroad, including in the other Arab countries. (Of course, in order for them to study abroad, they will have to travel to Amman, because they can’t go to the Ben Gurion airport in Israel.)

The most common questions for all of the guides included “What do you think will happen?” and “What do you think should happen?” and “Will the peace talks make any difference?”. It seems unlikely that anything will happen in the short term because the maximum that Israel would be willing to offer is significantly less than the minimum that the Palestinians would be willing to accept. I did a web search for “Israel peace talks” and the amount of variance in the amount of optimism in the search results was amazingly wide: many are completely pessimistic, and several are remarkably optimistic. One of my favorite answers from the guides as to what an ultimate solution could look like would be a federation of two states, one primarily Jewish and one primarily Muslim, with Jerusalem as a capital of the federation in neither state, like Washington DC, with Arabs and Jews able to freely live or travel in either of the two states. It would still be quite a challenge for Israel to adapt its civil laws, which are so deeply based on religion, to accommodate a new reality with such increased freedom for non-Jews. They have also resisted providing compensation to refugees for their confiscated land, because this would amount to a confession that they actually did this.

The population in Israel and Palestine continues to grow by immigration and births. We were told of some settlers having 17 kids to try to keep up with Palestinian birthrates, which are about 4.5 children per woman. The true size of the Palestinian population is classified: Israel claims there are 1.5 million, and the Palestinians claim there are 2.5 million. Meanwhile, regardless of the apportioning of water between Israelis and Palestinians, the absolute amount of it available to the people in this area continues to decline. We kept asking, and no one really told us, how quickly the aquifers were sinking. Perhaps the information is classified as well. The Jordan River south of the Dead Sea is a trickle, much as the Colorado River is at the US/Mexico border. Here, as in many other places in the world, at some point not too long from now there won’t be enough for everyone, and perhaps at that point the real problems will begin.

While America has been firmly on the side of the Israeli government, sending it billions of dollars to support its apartheid schemes, and kowtowing to the Jewish lobby which labels anyone not doing exactly what Israel wants as anti-Semitic, one optimistic comment mentioned by a young Swiss leftwing activist I talked to was that there are a large number of young American leftwing activists in organizations such as “J Street” who might help swing the balance as people get older, much as the American population has become more accepting of issues such as medical marijuana and same-sex marriage as time has gone on.

May peace be with you all.



Seventeen Secrets

August 6th, 2013 2:54 pm by Dave and Ray from here

On our last day in Cyprus, we drove to Larnaca and saw a couple of Byzantine churches — a small one with an impressive mosaic, and a larger one with large amounts of gold trim around the icons. We returned the rental car, and were encouraged when the guy in the lot looked at the tire and said “it’s just a small hole”. This didn’t stop the people at the Sixt desk for charging 75 euros. One the one hand, I might have saved a bunch of money if I had our Airbnb host’s friend patch the tire; on the other, it was nice not spending a bunch of vacation time dealing with it.

Our official introduction to Israel was a huge mass of people at the passport line, not in several lines, not in one snaky line, but just a mass of people standing in front of five agent cubicles. Eventually, as everyone jockeyed for position and tried to pass others and avoid being passed, we reached separation walls which established an order for each of the cubicles. (It turned out that this “pushy” behavior is pretty representative of Israelis just generally, especially drivers.) When we finally reached the front of the mass about 25 minutes later, the agent’s main questions were what our relationship was and why we went to all the same places. Ray’s answer was “and all that.” We picked up the rental car. Did you know that the collision damage coverage on most US credit cards does not cover rentals in Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, and New Zealand? We didn’t. So we ended up using their coverage. They put little boxes in their cars that you have to type a code before the engine will start. Probably cuts down on thefts. We followed the instructions of the Google Maps app to get to our hotel, and parked in the underground lot at about 2 A.M.

Our hour-long experience of Tel Aviv consisted of the one corner the Rimonim Optima Hotel is on. There is a bank with an ATM, a juice place which not only squeezes oranges but juices a score of other fruits, and a bakery with excellent coffee and pastries and breads. Then it was back to Google Maps taking us out of town up to the village of Tzfat or Zefat or Safed or whichever of the many Romanizations of its name you’d like to use. Google likes Safed. We checked into the charming Safed Inn / Ruckenstein B&B, and chatted with the owner, who grew up in LA. Tzfat is pretty much the Sedona of Israel; there are many artists here expressing their Hasidic or Kaballah spirituality in painting and sculpture. Also, it’s elevated and not so boiling hot. The first gallery we found was called “Weapons and Puppies”, where the W was an upside-down golden arches. We went in, and saw the work of the owner and his wife. His work was all political and surrealistic and very Haight Street compared to the Carmel that was the rest of the town. Nothing on gallery row would offend your mother, or anybody’s. If we had a child, there were some very cute $1000 butterfly sculptures we could have decorated her room with. Riki, from the hostel, directed us to “Gan Eden” (Garden of Eden) where we filled up on appetizers: the cutest thing was that they used cinnamon sticks as the “skewers” in their fish kabobs.

Friday night is Shabbat and most Tzfat restaurants would be closed, so we thought it would be interesting to target Nazareth, which is largely Arab, as a place for dinner. After going back to Weapons and Puppies and getting a print and a t-shirt, we drove toward the Sea of Galilee and saw Tabgha, the church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, and Capernaum, home of St. Peter and scene of many miracles referenced in Luke. From there we saw a jet ski and several windsurfers on the sea. We continued to a bridge over the river Jordan, got out to take a look, and saw a dozen or so rafts paddling down the very still waters between the bulrushes. From there we drove to Nazareth, and saw the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is where Mary found out she was pregnant. The Basilica is a massive modern structure built over the historical site, with several mosaics contributed by Catholic communities from all over the world. This was the Roman Catholic Annunciation, by the way. The Greek Orthdox Annunciation took place a few hundred meters across town, and we didn’t have time to go there, though a couple of street Arabs told us how to poke our heads into the White Mosque briefly. We had early dinner at Rida Cafe, a very creative and wonderful place: Freekeh, which is a soup made from unripe wheat with spices, a smoky eggplant salad, some small tasty sausages, and a dessert they call “cream of seventeen secrets”. An hour drive back to Zefat, just like going home from Berkeley (where the roads in Nazareth are like 19th Ave with one lane at rush hour, and the other roads are like 92 going to Half Moon Bay).

Saturday we left our delightful B&B and explored two cities mentioned in the Bible but not known until recently to exist, Tel Hazor and Tel Megiddo, whose ruins are both national parks and World Heritage Sites. At Tel Hazor there was a volunteer leading a tour, who has himself participated in some of the digging, and found a cuneiform tablet, one of only 18 discovered so far at Tel Hazor. He suspected there was a huge cache buried beneath where we were talking and several meters in from the face of the current dig.

We learned that the Canaanite culture from the 18th to the 13th century BC somehow had the capability of cutting rocks with smooth edges, square corners, and round holes, including limestone and also basalt. One basalt slab standing on end made me think of 2001. Later, in the Israelite culture, they built on top of the Canaanite structure, but they hadn’t yet figured out how to make smooth slabs of rock, or even bricks, and just stacked up the rocks they find lying around. At the acropolis is evidence of destruction and a great fire, and our guy thought they did not happen at the same time. He thought that since the stones were only cracked on one side of the plaza, that indicated the other side had been destroyed previously and the rubble protected the basalt from shattering, which happens at 1100 C for basalt. Joshua might have had something to do with all this.

Tel Megiddo is the place where Armageddon will happen: it’s a larger site (at least the ruins are larger) and it boasts an impressive tunnel to bring water from a spring to the bottom of a vertical shaft about fifteen stories below ground: stairs go down the shaft, and you can walk through the tunnel. People living there could hoist water up the shaft from the inside: as the guide at Tel Hazor pointed out, having women carry water up from the bottom exposed them to attack which could threaten not only their water, but their women.

We found our hotel in East Jerusalem, then looked for dinner. As it is a Muslim area, everything is closed during the day for Ramadan, and we found a restaurant just after it opened after sunset. We walked back through a corner of the Old City.

Sunday, after some screwing around finding breakfast and narrowly avoiding a parking ticket (the machine didn’t work) we went back into the desert to the Dead Sea, where our first destination was Masada. Masada is a huge mesa where the Jewish rebellion against the Romans had its last stand in 74 A.D. The trail up the face of the mesa was closed to ascents because it was so hot: we took the cable car up. The top had many typical Roman ruins: little palaces, Roman baths. This one had a very extensive storage area for food, because it was so isolated and far off the ground. The Romans had abandoned it, the Jewish rebels moved in and fixed it up with their style of baths, and stayed as long as they could until the Romans came back and put down the rebellion for good. We could have taken the cable car back down, but decided to walk down the trail instead. Then we headed south to Mt. Sodom, and the pillar of salt known as “Lot’s Wife”, for a photo-op. We returned to Jerusalem and to the Hertz office just as it was trying to close — fortunately we didn’t have to take the car to the airport. Once again, it seemed hard to find places to eat: either it was Ramadan, or it was Sunday (just as restaurants in SF close on Monday, ones here close on Sunday, the day after the weekend) or we were in the wrong place. We finally found a neighborhood thick with them, and settled on a place which offered 10 little plates of salads, just like a Korean restaurant would. They also had merguez. Mmmm. As we walked home past the northern wall of the Old City, the streets were closed to cars, and thousands of people were streaming towards the Al-Aqsa Mosque for what we found out later was Laylat al-Qadr, a day near the end of Ramadan celebrating the revelation of the Kor’an to Muhammad by Allah. We heard there were 250,000 people praying there all night long.

And this brings us to Monday, the start of our four-day West Bank tour with Green Olive Tours. The guides are basically leftwing Israelis (for Israel, they’re pretty much the far left) who do not approve of how their government handles the population in the areas under its control. Since we don’t approve of this either, it seemed like a fun opportunity to be choir members to be preached to.