Staying on the move in Israel and the Palestinian Territories through a month of trial. Who’d have thought I’d get shot in my mother’s hometown?
I can venture a bit farther afield today, thanks to my truly beloved readers. So far my emergency fundraiser, following the disastrous effect a Turkish-Israeli diplomatic freeze caused to this journey’s budget, accumulated nearly $300 US. This is very moving for me. I never before asked for donations for anything and didn’t realize people out there were this appreciative of my work.
$300 is not a huge budget for a trip like this, so I do have to stay close to home and will also be forced to lower the pace, producing one post every two days, rather than a post a day. In order to compensate my readers, I’m making today’s post twice as long as the previous ones and with double the number of images.
All this will change if the budget grows significantly. I am deeply grateful for any contribution made over the weekend, and wish anyone who donates extremely fine adventures of their own. The “donate” button is on the right, and please make sure you specify that the donation is for”the September journey”.
OK, now you would probably like to know what “a bit farther afield” means. It means Ashdod, Israel’s fifth largest city and biggest seaport, roughly 30 kilometers south of Tel-Aviv.
Ashdod was founded in 1956 as a solution for an enormous wave of Jewish immigration coming mostly from North Africa. A few years later, my mother, born four years previously in nearby Rehovoth to parents of European decent, came to live there. She still considers Ashdod her hometown.
My mother’s hometown emerges from the dunes like something dead out of “Alien 4”. Its insect-leg-like refinery smokestacks sting the September sky, and the big industrial structures beneath them lie on the sand, monolithic and windowless like carcases of extraterrestrial cockroaches.
Gradually, these are joined by more earthly looking apartment blocks:
And then there is a typical Israeli neighborhood shopping area, with brutal concrete pergolas fixed in the deeply mistaken 60s. This is where I step off the bus.
The first Ashdodite I meet has nothing. He sits next to a small, empty, bottle of the cheapest vodka available this side of the Dniestr. “I have nothing, ” he tells me, “I lost my mother and brother both on the same year. My foot is deformed and the doctors can’t help.”
I express sorrow and spare a few shekels, asking his name.
“I’m Mahmoud,” he says and then: “just kidding you, I’m not Mahmoud. I’m Enosh, from Russia.” Granted, I was surprised. Ashdod has no considerable Palestinian community.
While I speak with Enosh (an assumed Hebrew name, no doubt), many people come by and ask where the “Shill” is. Enosh points them to an unmarked door in one of the concrete calamities surrounding the shopping plaza. At last I get curious and step in as well. Inside sits an aging Russian security guard.
“What’s the Shill?” I ask him.
“Go upstairs and find for yourself.”
Upstairs a diverse group of people is seated in a corridor, as if outside a dentist’s clinic. There’s some arguing going on, and it concerns the tent protests.
“We have to get rid of the government,” says one gentleman.
“I’m talking about something much bigger that that,” says an animated woman in her early forties. I’m talking hanging ropes, guillotines!”
He realizes that she’s mocking him. “What kind of progress do you expect if you don’t remove the government.”
The lady has a long, detailed, answer to that. She’s certainly no less angered then her conversant. Her name is Nofit, and she’s a strong supporter of the tent struggle. She must be, since her landlord is trying to evict her. This is the case with most people in the line. “Shill” is an abbreviation of Hebrew of “Citizen Counseling Services” a joint project of various welfare establishment. Almost everyone present came to here to get pro-bono legal support against landlords.
“They try to defame the leader of this struggle,” Nofit says of Dafni Leef, “They try to say that she didn’t serve in the army and signed a letter against the army and against people who choose to live in the territories. I’m telling you, what this girl did over the past few month is in itself a service to the army. In order to go and fight for something a person must feel that they have a home.”
I step out into the ugliness of Ashdod’s Neighborhood B. City planning in this young city rendered its map a virtual Hebrew keyboard. The whole concept by which it was deigned is nearly Communist. For the first time ever I find its ramshackle apartment shoe boxes agreeable. Sure, they’re ugly, but this is public housing. As Nofit noted at the Shill, current real estate investors build only for the high middle class and up, trying to maximize gain. No one builds for the weaker classes, the way they did back in the 60s.
Up the street from Neighborhood B is Neighborhood A, the old heart of the city, and where my mother grew up. I go over to take in the view of the beautiful Elisheva park, sloping down to the sea.
The city changed in the decades that passed. At the time it was inhabited mostly by Moroccans. In the 70 came Georgians. Then in the 90s – Russians. Ashdod became Israel’s Brighton Beach: home to a huge community of Russian immigrants. Thanks to them, Neighborhood A is now crowned with a delightful Russian deli. I step in to take a photo of the bacon offered in its fridges, and its great selection of pork salami.
All pork is domestically produced. Israeli law forbids the importing of pork product, thus strogly supporting local pork farmers, some of whom disguise their farms as facilities for scientific experiments, since farming isn’t allowed either.
I chat with one of the counter employees, her name is Galina and she immigrated from Moldova in 1991. I tell her that my journey is designed to teach me and readers how people in the landscape view two September issues: the tent protests and the UN acceptance of Palestine as a sovereign entity. She ignores the first issue and heads for the second. “I don’t want a Palestinian State.”
“They will have an army there, and we will have lots of problems.”
“But now our army is there and they have lots of problems, which is a reason for unrest to persist. don’t you feel that the solution to the problem lies in creating some kind of a healthy balance?”
“I want for them to stay over there and for us to be here.”
“A Palestinian state within 1967 boundaries would mean exactly that.”
“Still, not a good idea.”
“Do you ever see Palestinians here in Ashdod?”
“So they’re there and we’re here. Now we should make the separation official.”
“Not a good idea.”
“Do you consider the situation good.”
“It’s not good.”
“So it must be changed, right?”
Galina, the member of a Russian community that overwhelmingly supports the Israeli right, partially due to sour past experiences with the (Bolshevik) left is now growing suspicious. “Do you support a Palestinian state?” she asks.
I quote to her what Sobol said yesterday at the press conference, about A Palestinian State being not an objective but a tool in creating a new reality in the region, which is where I lose her. She’s no longer willing to converse with me. I buy a bottle of Kvas for the road and head out.
Across from the Deli is an “Absorption center” built by the government to accommodate new Jewish immigrants.
I’m not allowed in, but manage to approach two ladies who are leaving the building. I’m curious about what the true newcomers think. Unfortunately, these are no real newcomers. Both of them immigrated from Iran six years ago and are forced to stay at the center due to the national housing shortage.
“Iran is much better than Israel,” says the older of the two, named Frida, “In Iran I had a house, three stories high. Here – nothing.”
Neither of the two has heard of the tent protests. I’m not even approaching the Palestinian question. Time to move on.
It’s another hot day. I take a bus to the city’s central new bus terminal which in the spirit of the privatized times is embedded into a shopping mall. Ashdod’s capitalist present contradicts its socialist past, but at least it provides air conditioning.
Outside in the torturous heat, a plot of sand dunes is still stretched among the newer buildings. Covered with refuse from construction sites.
But looking in the opposite direction, the new center itself is appealing to the eye.
At its outskirts is what remains of the local tent city: a single tent. Nearby are the ruins of the rest of them. Ashdod, too, had chosen to turn against its protesting residents yesterday.
This is so sad, I must go and console myself with art. The local art museum currently presents three shows. One is of Israeli avant garde “in its cradle”, works from the early seventies by artists and teachers that would later prove to be enormously influential, such as Raffi Lavie.
I especially like a work by Dganit Berest: a photo of the inner flap of the Hebrew Encyclopedia’s cover, made into a piece of furniture. An enormous achievement of the days of shoebox public housing blocks. The aesthetics of this encyclopedia certainly bring back a memory of something we have lost.
On another floor, French artist Laurent Mareschal is presenting a film he made of Jewish and Palestinian kids building a sand castle together.
He also put together a replica of a floor made with Hebron tiles, the kind that would be found in old Palestinian houses, out of spices such as turmeric, sumak, Za’atar and white pepper. This is a direct reference to the Naqba, to longings for the scents of a house that is lost. The museum hits to this in the adjoining plaque, but uses the word “Palestinian” only in the English text.
Finally on the bottom floor is a show by Israeli artist Yonatan Vinitsky. Here’s one of his pieces that seemed to me to be relevant to our day. it is entitled: “the majority”. All sheets of paper are identical.
On leaving the museum and heading down to the city’s new marina, I check the news. It turns out that the PA had just approached the UN asking to be recognized as a state. This makes me somewhat calmer. If a major Palestinian political entity asks for the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip to be known as a Palestinian state, this means that Ashdod is accepted even by them as Israel. I no longer have to use multiple words to describe where I am from and where my parents were born. Excited, I take out my camera and take my first image of the nearly unanimously accepted Israel
I reach the marina starved, and find that it offers no cheap food. There are only two restaurants here, isolated twixt the sea and a wasteland of yet undeveloped gravel. both of them stylish fish restaurants and both under the same ownership. One is kosher, the other isn’t. This means that I would have to spare some of my very precious funds on a meal.
I want to avoid the expense but my hunger is such that I can’t even get myself as far as the non-kosher restaurant. So I order the cheapest fish on the kosher one’s menu: a Moroccan casserole made of flathead mullet, rather than anything grilled. It costs $20 and turns out to be served with all of the house salads and condiments. I feel like a prince. Israel (founded a few hours ago) is a great place to be.
The bartender’s name is Michael. I tell him of my budget problems and the reason for them and we discuss the Turkish fiasco. Michael’s been to Turkey in the past and felt singled out as an Israeli there. I had a very different experience. I ask him whether he feels that Israel should have apologized for the flotilla incident and saved the ties.
“We couldn’t have,” he says, “it’s a matter of honor. You let someone walk over you once, then everyone comes and walks over you.”
“But isn’t Erdoğan ‘stepping on us’ by cutting the ties? I mean, he’s gaining a lot of credit now in anti-Israeli circles. We could have so easily denied him this pleasure.”
“More than anything he’s screwing over the Turks themselves.” Michael suggests.” Many people there are dependent on Israeli tourism just like you were. He acted out of a sense of honor, not out of common sense.”
My country’s people keep contradicting themselves today. Something here makes no sense. Michael recognized that designing a diplomatic policy according to a code of honor can be destructive. Galina realizes that the Israel’s current opposition to any regional peace development preserves an unhealthy status quo, yet both of them support the government. How come?
I pack up my question marks and head up along the beach. From here, Ashdod’s port can be seen, as well as ships waiting to dock there. This port too is related to the Turkish story: it is to Ashdod that the Mavi Marmara vessel was sailed after the killing of its 9 passengers.
As I walk, I check the news again on my phone and find that the headline in Haaretz has changed: “The City of Tel-Aviv is posting 72 hour eviction notices on the tents.” it says. Is the newly founded Israel indeed such a good place to live? Whatever, I don’t know. All I know is I’m hot and that the only visible Air Conditioned building in the area is “La Maimounia” a Moroccan function hall, designed like a Las Vegas mosque. I walk in and take a photo of the two cute Eritreans cleaning it.
then of my sweaty, exhausted self in Moroccan matrimonial surroundings.
Unfortunately I cant stay here forever. Across the street, a sign advertises a “Russian bathhouse.” That sound’s like a great idea. Russian saunas reach up to 140 degrees centigrade. Rather than try and fight the heat, I’ll flow with it, and maximize it to an extent that it becomes a joke.
The Russian bathhouse does turn out to be quite cool. Fully traditional and equipped with twigs for self whipping, a ladle for throwing water on the sizzling stones and a felt hat for, well, suicide, I suppose.
You have to reserve the sauna in advance, but thankfully there’s an adjoining bar where all are welcome. This place is absolutely amazing. first, it’s got friendly clientele.
It also has a picture of Belarus dictator Alexander Lukashenko on the wall.
Last but no least, the owner, Iliya, has a gun and he shoots it while I’m there. A small plastic BB ball hits the wall and from there to my shoulder. It doesn’t really hurt but let it never be said that I wasn’t shot on this journey.
Iliya is critical of the tent protests. “Look what happened,” he says. “Say I wanted to buy a house. I would wait until the protests achieved something. Now they ended without achieving a thing, so all the investors would buy at once, causing the real estate prices to sky-rocket.”
“But it hasn’t ended,” I argue, “The tents are being removed by force.”
“I read in the paper that it’s over, and only a marginal group remains, which is now using violence.”
What? “look man, I was there at the protest yesterday, in front of Tel-Aviv city hall. Besides the occasional tossed egg, the only party using violence was the police. They would spring into the crowd and arrest anyone who held a megaphone.”
I read in the paper,” says Iliya, “what do I know.”
And here is the solution to the day’s big mystery. The Israeli media, which is owned by the same tycoons that are the target of the struggle, presents things in away that makes Iliya lose faith in it. The Israeli media, which is owned by the same tycoons who receive benefits from the government, presents things in away that make Galina and Michael support the government’s flawed decisions, decisions that go directly against the ideas and ideals they each hold.
How can I explain this to Iliya? “Do you know that the chief of channel 10’s news department quit yesterday? He refused to apologize for a report that criticised Netanyahu’s friend Sheldon Adelson, and then Billionaire Ron Lauder, who owns a part of the channel, said he would cut funds if the apology isn’t made, and do you know what Edelson does? He ownes Israel Hayom, the most widespread daily in the county, the one that published on Tuesday a headline claiming that there were only 50 tents left on Rothschild, even though I counted over 100 on a single block. They are lying. They are openly lying.”
Iliya, bringing me a plate of pickles, shrugs. “Look,” he says, “you can’t count Tel Aviv’s tents from Ashdod.”
Thanks for reading and taking part in the adventure. If any of you would like to pitch in for my travel and food, especially now that the budget has vanished, please do so using the “donate” button at the top of this page. Please be sure and specify that you are contributing to Yuval’s September Journey.