Israel without a budget....again.... travel blog


















Thursday June 16, 2011

Painting the story of a nation

Ben-Dror Yemini is a lawyer by training; a card carrying member of the Shalom Achshav (“Peace Now”) movement; and more recently (say the last 28 years or so) a journalist with Ma’ariv – the leading newspaper in Israel. He spent an hour with us this morning giving us a review of the research results he’s completed in advance of publication of an upcoming book.

His left-wing peace credentials give him the credibility for the thesis of the book: “How is it that tiny Israel and it’s 6 million Jews (an “interesting” figure), surrounded by approx.. 40 Muslim countries with over 420 million Muslims, comes to be the one country on earth continuously accused of genocide, ethnic cleansing, and oppression of a refugee population?”.

He restricted his research on each of those 3 areas to the time period commencing with the declaration of the State of Israel in 1948 and continued it on through to today.

The factual numbers are pretty stark. In relative terms, the 7,400 Arabs who have died under the Israeli occupation since 1948 is a statistical blip amongst the 50 million or so who have died in such other wonderful ‘genocide; ethnic cleansing; or refugee oppression’ campaigns as, to name but a few, the Pakistan-India wars; the Iran-Iraq war; the Rwanda genocide; the 1990’s fun in the Balkans (8,000 died in the ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica alone); the ongoing fun in the Sudan; the Indonesia-East Timor garden party; and on and on.

One other interesting note he produced from his research: There are and always have been more reporters covering the Israel-Arab conflict than any other. In his discussions and interviews with many reporters from around the world they give one overwhelming reason for this. They can easily drive from their hotel in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem to wherever they need in Gaza or the West Bank; take a few photos or shoot some footage; and be back in time for dinner. It is, in their words, the best gig in the business.

That unprecedented media coverage, and good old anti-Semitism, appears to him to be the fuel for the anti-Israel bias in the media and around the world. His hope is that the statistical truth will assist in dispelling what he terms “The Industry of Myths and Lies”.

A heavy and sobering start to the day. More Zionism to come today. But first:

Today was ‘bus avoidance’ day. We spent a long and full day in Tel Aviv and Debbie & I sort of started the bus revolution. Motto: “Give me liberty (from the bus) or give me death”.

We walked from the hotel to our next appointment – a tour of the Reuven Rubin House & Museum on Bialik Street. It is but one of 3 museums set almost side by side on this beautiful street.

One of the others is the Tel Aviv City museum set at the end of the block behind a lily pond in the central courtyard that occupies the former home of Tel Aviv’s city hall. The other is the home & museum of Chaim Nachman Bialik (Israel’s first poet laureate and, as you’ll recall from yesterday, the fellow who renamed the wino Chamiletzki family of Benyamina the Tishbi family).

Reuven Rubin, in English, means “Rubin Rubin”. Kind of like naming your kid Peter Peters, don’t you think? My many years of deductive analysis have led me to conclude that this sort of lack of imagination is to be avoided.

But I digress.

Rubin’s daughter-in-law Carmella Rubin took us on a tour of representative grouping of a small fraction of his 1,700 known paintings that are housed in the 4 story house built in 1930. Born in Romania in 1893, he emigrated to Palestine in 1912 and has been referred to as Israel’s Gaugin. His watercolours are certainly engaging but I’m no art critic – just a guy who likes a story.

And that’s where this tour took flight. Carmella brought the dozen or so paintings we concentrated on to life and, more particularly, she provided a vivid accounting of the early history of Tel Aviv through the stories of her father-in-law.

Rubin was a funny looking guy: Long, long face with a longa luksh (or long galoshes, if you prefer) thin body. Very El Greco-ish in real-life appearance, he tended to portray his figures that way. He put himself into a number of his paintings and they reflect the changing face of early Tel Aviv.

Particularly interesting is his take on “The Last Supper” – being his painting titled “The First Pesach in Israel” which he created immediately after the 1948 War of Independence. His depiction of a Palmach soldier looking directly at the Hassid leading the Pesach seder is poignant in that no one else in the painting is looking at anyone else. Carmella believes that is Rubin’s reflected desire that the new look to work with the old in the creation and sustenance of the newly created State of Israel.

It was pointed out, however, that while the soldier is looking at the Hassid, he is in fact pointing at the kibbutznik seated on the other side of him. Is this perhaps, instead, a poignant statement by the soldier that the old faith needs to look for direction to the new energy in the land?

I don’t know. This is all very confusing. I can say, however, that for a guy who just looks at the painting; nods his head knowingly (but I don’t know) for 20 seconds; and then moves on to the next to repeat the movement until the art gallery or museum visit is over, that having someone who really knows their stuff guide you through is a WAAAAY better way to do this.

As I mentioned, Debbie & I walked to the gallery from the hotel. We beat the bus and this fact did not surprise us (have you seen the traffic in Tel Aviv lately?). This made us the objects of lust and desire from our fellow missionaries. Of course, aside from the 2 Wpg & 1 Vcr couples that we’ve befriended, the average age of the rest of the group is… well….pretty much the halt and the lame.

Nonetheless, the entire group voted unanimously to follow us like pied pipers on foot to our next destination about 15 blocks away – Independence Hall on Rothschild Blvd.

This group revolt was greeted with some trepidation by our handlers, the staff of Hebrew U. from Canada who are accompanying us to ensure we get from place to place on time (more or less) and in one piece (more or less).

The staff (Dina, Merle & Amy) and our guide Jeff Katz are all very wonderful. They have the patience of Job (individually & collectively). I think they should be writing a book entitled: “How to chaperone the Halt & the Lame through the Holy Land without actually killing them even though you want to pretty much every 5 minutes”.

Ari & Leslie wanted to hang out with us on the walk from the Rubin Muesem to Independence Hall. This is Leslie’s first visit to Israel and it’s been many years since Ari was here when he was 19 so we were happy to play tour guide and take them on a walk through the Carmel Market along the way. They are thoroughly delightful and enjoying every eyes wide-open moment of their time in Israel. We can relate. We did.

This is my 3rd visit to Independence Hall. I think every Jew should be required to spend the hour required to relive the actual moments surrounding the days leading up to and the moments of and after the declaration of Israel’s independence by Ben Gurion on May 14, 1948 from this spot, formerly (and then being used as) Tel Aviv’s art museum, after originally serving as the home built by Meir Dizengoff (the first mayor of Tel Aviv and more recently the artist salon & dress boutique street named in his honour).

The tour is completed with a recorded excerpt from Ben Gurion’s declaration of independence address and the singing of Hatikvah. Makes my Zionist heart proud. For all it’s faults, this now 63+ year old independent State of Israel is the best “experiment” that the Jewish people have had for the past 2,000 years.

Well, a healthy dose of Zionism always makes me hungry and I’m sure it does you, too, so the next stop was at the Swing – a hip café about 20 blocks down Rothschild Blvd. across the street from the Habimah Theatre.

The Hebrew U. Handlers (hereinafter referred to as the “HUH”) weren’t big on the idea of any more walking and really wanted us on the bus. The Lame & the Halt learned their lesson – the 15 blocks from the Rubin Museum to Independence Hall did them in.

Ari, Lesle, Debbie & I could not be discouraged however so we set out on foot once again (and were beaten by the bus by mere moments – gotta know your Tel Aviv traffic!). For this jaunt we were accompanied by Dr. Phil Switzer – another Vancouver resident disappointed in the 4-0 loss to Boston in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals last night (early this morning here) never mind the downtown riots that followed!

Dr. Phil is an amazing guy. A radiologist, he found himself in dire straights after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his spine. He has recovered somewhat miraculously. He is a survivor, through and through, and has progressed from what might have and perhaps should have been a debilitating surgery to the point where he can not only walk, but does so with absolute gusto. He is definitely not amongst the Lame & the Halt.

His sister lives in Jerusalem so his visits to Israel are a mix of family and Hebrew U. business. He was honoured at a dinner in Vancouver a year ago co-sponsored by Hebrew U., UBC and the Rick Hanson Foundation. Over a million dollars was raised for spinal chord research. Yep, we’re okay with Dr. Phil.

The afternoon event allowed us to round out our day of nationalism by visiting the new Rabin Centre in Ramat Aviv. The history of modern Israel is interwoven between the events of Rabin’s life from birth through his assassination in 1995. The sad part of it all (and there are many sad parts of it) is that the literal gulf of hatred between the left and the right in Israel that led to a nut-job settler making good on the threats to kill him at that time are very much still in play today with little on the horizon that might lead to a rapprochement.

Yep, all in all, a pretty ‘heavy’ day.

To lighten the load a bit, we enjoyed dinner at a restaurant across the street from the Sourasky Medical Centre where Norm started his stem cell replacement therapy just over 3 years ago.

“Lillioth” is owned and operated by Alan Barkat, a cousin of our guide Jeff Katz. Alan also started out in Toronto and made aliyah about 30 years ago. In the intervening years he made a gazillion dollars as a venture capitalist (whatever the heck that means) before selling it all about 4 years ago and turning his attention to what he calls social venture capital.

In this case, Alan has hired approx. 20 ‘at risk’ youth aged 17-22 and trains them for between 6 months – 2 years as restaurant chefs. The restaurant has 2 kitchens, one solely for training purposes. Top chefs staff and teach and his hiring rules are simple:

a. No hard drug addicts

b. No sexual offence convicts

c. Must have a fixed address because for the first 2 months the restaurant picks them up every morning to make sure they get to work on time. He says he’s rousted a number of them from a deep slumber but that fairly soon they start to understand the meaning of ‘responsibility’ insofar as getting up on time for work is concerned.

He has no trouble at all placing the ‘grads’ in other restaurants and is now operating 4 restaurants around the country using this model and hopes to expand to 30 in the next couple of years. The problem, at this stage, is that the project is costing about $120,000/yr. to maintain, as it hasn’t found a way to run at a profit.

Ain’t that always the way? We’ll have to watch this to see just how deep Alan’s pockets and social conscience really are, I guess.

Our special guest for dinner tonight was Paul Hunt and his wife Pauline Mantha. Paul is the Canadian Ambassador to Israel. We commiserated over the Canucks loss (to the extent that we cared about the Canucks, of course, ‘cause after all it’s not like the Leafs lost or anything, right?).

Paul had opened the embassy to our group last night (well, early this morning really ie. 3:00 – 6:00 am) to anyone who wanted to come watch the game live on the special CBC feed that they have. Apparently, a couple of the Vancouver-ites took him up on that but I’ll just take their word for it as I have no way of verifying it and Paul says that he himself was fast asleep.

I’ll give you only 1 guess what we had for dinner. You are correct. You’re getting good at this. Our ambassador spoke eloquently about Canada’s role in Israel and the Middle East and about the many lessons that Canada can learn from Israel. He feels (as do I) that the most important export we should be importing is the 30 gazillion small plates of ‘stuff’ custom. Don’t know his politics too well but I like the guy.

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