Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation [NOOK Book]

Overview


From the much lauded author of Breaking News comes a version of Walking the Bible just for Israel. With its dense history of endless conflict and biblical events, Israel's coastline is by far the most interesting hundred miles in the world. As longtime chief of NBC’s Tel Aviv news bureau, Martin Fletcher is in a unique position to interpret Israel, and he brings it off in a spectacular and novel manner. Last year he strolled along the entire coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, observing facets of the country that are ...
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Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation

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Overview


From the much lauded author of Breaking News comes a version of Walking the Bible just for Israel. With its dense history of endless conflict and biblical events, Israel's coastline is by far the most interesting hundred miles in the world. As longtime chief of NBC’s Tel Aviv news bureau, Martin Fletcher is in a unique position to interpret Israel, and he brings it off in a spectacular and novel manner. Last year he strolled along the entire coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, observing facets of the country that are ignored in news reports, yet tell a different and truer story. Walking Israel is packed with hilarious moments, historical insights, emotional, true-life tales, and, above all, great storytelling.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 2008 British journalist Fletcher (Breaking News: A Stunning and Memorable Account of Reporting from Some of the Most Dangerous Places in the World) took a two-week walk along the entire coastline of Israel intending to provide an honest and first-hand account of its people and coastal communities. To his journalistic credit, Fletcher gives a concise and relatively comprehensive history of the locale before divulging into his subjective experiences. He applies the same thorough research practices to his conversations with the people he meets, and demonstrates a willingness to ask difficult questions ("Will you die in peace?") that elicit telling and emotional responses: the elderly man of whom he asked that question, a former Jewish soldier, responded without words, walking away in tears. Fletcher is recalcitrant in sharing his own political views and instead chooses to focus on how his peripatetic time in Israel affected him, concluding, "I really do love this place," a fact that resonates through this thrilling and thoughtful memoir. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Extraordinary…nothing else like it. There is no better guide. Indispensable for understanding Israel.” 
--Brian Williams, NBC News

“Martin Fletcher is more than the consummate journalist.  He is a master storyteller.  In Walking Israel he gives us a special gift - a real sense of himself and his passion for the land and the people who are much more than the sum of their conflicts.  This book offers a sense of place about a country so many around the world love.”
--David Gregory, Moderator, "Meet the Press"

"Th[e] kaleidoscope of perspectives allows readers to glimpse an Israel too complex to reduce to the familiar script of interethnic strife...A much-needed corrective to media stereotypes."
--Booklist

"Spectacular and unique."
--The Jewish Herald Voice

“This book is about the other Israel, the Israel that the news organizations... ignore on the way to covering yet another tragedy.”
--Associated Press

Library Journal
Fletcher, who left NBC News at the end of 2009 after over three decades, most recently as Tel Aviv bureau chief, was always the NBC go-to man when trouble erupted in the Mideast. But he felt that viewers were getting a skewed view, especially of Israel, if they relied only on typical newscasts. He decided to take a hike along the Israeli coastline from the Lebanese border down to Gaza to find out how Israel's multiethnic society is functioning today. In each town and village, as his book shows, he interviewed everyday people, seeking to show that away from the cameras Jews and Arabs can live side by side peacefully. Fletcher also writes of his own background as the son of Holocaust refugees who found a home in Britain. He himself is married to an Israeli of part Yemeni background. VERDICT Although some readers, especially those hoping for a travel memoir, will feel that his disquisitions, as he establishes the historical setting of each town he visits, impede the book's tempo, overall they may appreciate this take on Israel in its past, current, and future contexts. Recommended for those seeking to stay informed about Israel and its diverse peoples.—Paul Kaplan, Lake Villa Dist. Lib., IL.
Kirkus Reviews

An award-winning war correspondent files penetrating stories of Israel containing scant politics and much personal observation.

Fletcher (Breaking News: A Stunning and Memorable Account of Reporting from Some of the Most Dangerous Places in the World, 2008, etc.), the longtime NBC News bureau chief in Tel Aviv, walked the length of Israel from the Lebanese border to Gaza. His trek took him from Galilee to Achziv and a surviving kibbutz, Acre to Haifa and Herzliya, Tel Aviv-Jaffa to Ashkelon, and finally a sighting of Gaza City. Though exceedingly difficult both physically and mentally, the trip provides an engaging portrait of an Israel for which the author cares deeply. No longer a dispassionate broadcaster, Fletcher candidly observes cultural and geographical diversity in a disputed and disputative place, and he encountered many likable and articulate people along the way—Arabs and Jews, Muslims and Zionists, Palestinians and Israelis. They all emerged from simplestereotypes to reveal the famously complex character of the Holy Land, along with the spectacular geography and unrivaled history. With consideration of today's kibbutzim and the plight of veterans of the Shoah, the author provides insight into the methods of soldiering and considers the predicament of Israeli Arabs. Still, he writes, the norm is coexistence, and mosques, churches and synagogues are neighbors that are not always at odds. From the world's tinderbox, Fletcher, a son of Holocaust survivors, is a quiet but strong and vital voice amid all the shouting. "I wondered which was closer to the true nature of life in Israel—lazing on the beach with a book or running to the bomb shelter with a baby?," he writes. "And if it's a bit of both, then truly, this place must drive you crazy—like a serial bungee jumper guessing when the rope will break."

A dogged reporter reveals essential truths, from his home and his heart, never broadcast on the evening news—a welcome bit of sanity.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781429946063
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2010
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 444,569
  • File size: 725 KB

Meet the Author


Martin Fletcher is one of the most respected foreign correspondents in television news. He has won five Emmys, a Columbia University DuPont award, and several Overseas Press Club awards. He spent the last thirty years as NBC News Bureau Chief in Tel Aviv.
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Read an Excerpt


WALKING ISRAEL

In the Beginning

 

It is said of Abraham that in his wanderings over many lands, he came to Mesopotamia where he saw the inhabitants spending their time in eating and drinking and in all forms of frivolity. Therefore he said: “May I never have a share in any of these lands.” When he came to Erez Israel and arrived at the ladders of Tyre, he saw the inhabitants of the land ploughing and tilling the soil at the appointed time and sowing and reaping in due course. Therefore he said: “This is the land that I would ask of the Lord as my portion.” And the Lord said to him: “Unto thy seed have I given this land!”

—ZEV VILNAY, Legends of Palestine, 1932

 

June 21, 2008. I, too, stood at the Ladder of Tyre, and I looked down upon the Promised Land. And it was wondrous, although most of the inhabitants plowing and tilling the land today were from Thailand. Below me lay Israel, locked in conflict all its life. And I thought, If Abraham knew what a mess he was starting, he may well have turned right around and legged it back to Mesopotamia.

Abraham did continue into the promised land, whether by way of the coast, as the legend tells, or by following the more likely hilly trail out of Mesopotamia and across the Jordan River. In Canaan, it is written, the Lord then promised Abraham that at the age of a hundred he would have a son, and “you . . . will greatly increase your numbers.”1 His descendants did indeed multiply but the land that is Israel today is far smaller than Abraham’s biblical portion—three hundred miles long and barely seventy miles at its widest—smaller than El Salvador.

On his grumpy travels through the Holy Land in 1867, Mark Twain claimed to have been taken aback by its humble proportions: “The state of Missouri could be split into three Palestines.” He’d expected “a country as large as the United States . . . I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so much history.”2 But as well as an unrivaled biblical legacy and history, ancient and modern, Israel includes in that small space an astonishing geographical diversity.

Israel’s borders range from the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, whose water level is sinking at the alarming rate of three feet a year, to the Red Sea’s sparkling azure waters in the south. Northward, the border tracks the Jordan River along a crack in the earth’s crust called the Jordan rift valley to the mountains and waters of Galilee, ending at the wooded foothills of Mount Lebanon. There the frontier wends westward along mountain ridges, cutting fifty miles through cypress forests and olive groves until the Ladder of Tyre, where it plunges down to the Mediterranean, or, as it was known in Abraham’s time, the Great Sea. From here, it follows sandy beaches straight south to Gaza. Inland, half the country is desert.

Israel also packs a rare amount of cultural diversity into its tight borders. Jews account for some 80 percent of Israel’s population, yet the Jewish population is far from homogeneous. Although a handful of Jews trace their lineage back to the Roman destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, most landed in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, answering the Zionist call to reclaim the land God promised to Abraham, or fleeing persecution in Europe and Arabia.

They’re a noisy bunch, gregarious and excitable, spontaneous and combustible, a vivid mix of the orient and occident—hummus meets Kartoffelsalat. They’re also a bundle of contradictions: selfish and generous, bigoted and tolerant, arrogant and—well—maybe not so humble. Their national character is that there is no national character. They are too varied. The only accurate generalization is that they are, in my opinion, the worst drivers in the world.

The clearest cultural divide among Israel’s Jews is religious. Black-garbed Orthodox Jews obey every ancient kosher law and as many of the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, as are feasible. The laws of Moses determine every aspect of their lives today, from diet and sex to education and prayer rituals. Their lives are anchored in their history, and they wear their odd black clothes and fur hats specifically to set themselves apart from secular Jews. The latter set their own rules, and their dress and customs would seem equally at home in New York, London, or Rome. Yet they, too, cling to their Jewish traditions and roots. The loudest and longest argument among Jews is reserved for their most basic dispute: Who actually is a Jew? And who decides?

Mark Twain found the Holy Land’s landscape unimpressive, calling it “rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary,” but he repeatedly emphasized the link between the people and their past. He was right. Here, history is not merely something you read about; it’s ever-present.

When I called a government spokesman to ask how many people had been murdered in the past calendar year, his defensive reply was: “Which calendar is that? The Jewish calendar, right? Not the Muslim calendar or Gregorian?”

For many, the Bible is as familiar as the daily newspaper. A friend of mine loves to tell the story of his first Israeli taxi ride. He was nearing his destination, a part of town with a street named after the biblical Judean king Hizkiyahu, and another street named after Matisyahu, the leader of the Hasmonean revolt. The driver called in to inquire about his next assignment. The dispatcher told him to pick up an old lady at her apartment in King Hizkiyahu Street. But the driver couldn’t hear over the crackling taxi radio and asked, “Did you say King Matisyahu Street?”

The dispatcher snapped: “Hizkiyahu, Hizkiyahu! Matisyahu was never king!”

Another enduring distinction among Israel’s Jews is that between Ashkenazim, Jews of mostly European origin, and Sephardim, Jews from mostly Muslim countries. For decades, the difference was stark and easy to spot: Ashkenazim have light skin and money and get their way; Sephardim are dark-skinned, poor, and don’t.

I saw tensions between Ashkenazim and Sephardim play out in the sunset years of such prejudice at a wedding in the Tel Aviv Hilton. A matchmaker had brought a poor Sephardi girl and a wealthy Ashkenazi boy together in a traditional shidduch, and now they were getting married. The Sephardim brought their own band with Mizrahi, Middle Eastern music, while the Ashkenazim insisted on their own Klezmer ensemble, whose music harked back to the Polish shtetl. The Sephardim gave in and their band went home, but the bride’s party was left muttering and frustrated.

The dispute turned violent after the marriage ceremony. The bride’s uncle had brought his seven-year-old niece to dance on the floor reserved for Orthodox men, who celebrate separately from the women. Her presence so outraged one bearded man in a black coat that he kicked the little girl’s bottom. This infuriated the girl’s uncle, who tried to punch the Orthodox man. The groom shouted, while the bride locked herself in the bathroom. Finally she stormed out of the hotel with her furious and humiliated family hot on her heels. I don’t know what became of the married couple, but I would guess they didn’t enjoy much bliss that night in the bridal suite.

Sephardic Jews complained of their lowly status for decades. Today, thanks to education, intermarriage, and common sense, the issue is moot: Sephardic Jews populate the government and the ranks of senior army officers and business leaders in almost equal numbers. More important, marriage celebrations run about fifty-fifty in Klezmer and Mizrahi music.

Differences run just as deep, though are more muted, among Israel’s Arabs. They divide into four groups—Muslims, Christians, Bedouin, and Druze—each of which breaks down further along clan and regional lines. Each local Arab community has its own values, morals, and loyalties. The communities unite only in a marriage of convenience in their struggle for equality with the Jews, and usually, in a more discreet manner, in support of the political goals of their Palestinian cousins.

Much has been written about the Arabs’ inevitable victory over the Jews, not in the battle of the bullet or the ballot, but of the womb. Arab birthrates worry many in Israel’s government, and individual reproductive feats on the Arab side are startling. A Palestinian friend sat in our kitchen with another friend of his, and my wife asked him how many children he now had, as he always seemed to have a bag of diapers in his car. “Seventeen,” Abed answered.

“What?” my wife said. “Do you know what a condom is?” Then she asked Abed’s friend how many children he had.

He smiled proudly. “Twenty-two.” Each had three wives.

Although the birthrate remains sky-high among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, it has plummeted among Arabs who live inside Israel and who are exposed to secular values. Orthodox Jews, meanwhile, average around eight children per family, while ten or more is common. Apart from fulfilling their religious duties, many Orthodox Jews speak openly of outbreeding the Arabs. Demographers differ in their analysis of the statistics: Some predict Arabs will soon claim a majority in the Holy Land; others say that this will never happen. But there’s another side to the baby boom: By 2050, some analysts anticipate, half of all Jews in Israel will be Orthodox, leading to a subversion of the state’s secular nature.

If the Arabs wield their large families as a weapon, the Jews rely on immigration. Recent immigration from the former Soviet Union has profoundly influenced Israeli culture and created new tensions between Jews and Arabs, as I experienced firsthand during the late 1990s, when I hired two Arabs and four Russians to renovate my home.

The two Arabs, Abed and Suleiman, were fairly typical Arab construction workers, poorly educated but nice enough fellows hailing from the Israeli town of Taibe. The Russians had to have been the most educated and accomplished group of construction workers on the planet. Pyotr, the chess master, mixed and poured the concrete. Sasha, the architect, built the walls. Shimon, the actor and writer, laid the tiles. His friend Leonid, the movie stuntman, did the heavy lifting.

Actually, a crew like this was hardly unique in Israel during the 1990s. Many of the million Soviet immigrants who arrived in Israel lacked jobs, and few were fortunate enough to find immediate employment in their professions. Doctors worked as kindergarten teachers and scientists as night watchmen. So many professional musicians stepped off the planes clutching violins, flutes, and guitars that when one man appeared without an instrument, people joked—oh, he must be the piano player.

Initially, the work at my house proceeded without incident. Then one day the Arabs argued with two of the Russians about who would use the wheelbarrow. Leonid, the stuntman, was a kung fu expert, but Abed wasn’t to be messed with, either; his muscles rippled from carrying bricks all his life. Their argument became louder until one pushed the other. Suddenly they were rolling on the ground, wrestling and punching each other in the face.

Suleiman, tall and powerful, grabbed Shimon from behind, holding him fast so he couldn’t intervene. As these two shouted and struggled on the sidelines, Abed and Leonid kept grunting and swinging at each other, drawing blood. At one point, Abed had Leonid in a headlock. In a sudden kung fu move, Leonid hurled him over, landed on top of him, and smashed him in the eye.

“Please stop,” I shouted feebly. “I’ll buy another wheelbarrow.”

Eventually my wife jumped in the middle and pulled them apart by the hair. They cleaned up and, as is often the case after mindless violence in Israel, shared a plate of hummus and a good laugh. Later, pondering their juvenile escapade, I realized it wasn’t about the wheelbarrow but rather about who languished at the bottom of Israeli society, the newly arrived Russian immigrants or the local Arabs. I didn’t buy another wheelbarrow, and as time passed it became clear who the losers really were. The Russians eventually found work closer to their professions, while the two Arabs remained construction workers.

Immigrants’ education and drive have strengthened Israel from the beginning. Whereas other countries struggle to incorporate immigrants of different ethnicities, Israel has largely succeeded: It has created jobs, built homes, and educated newcomers at a rate unmatched in modern times. Even the million-strong Soviet immigration of the nineties pales when compared to Israel’s achievement after the 1948 War of Independence. In the forties and fifties, the Jewish population doubled in size within four years and tripled within ten. Not to be outdone, Israel’s Arab population grew eightfold in sixty years. Today there are 7.4 million Israelis, of whom 20 percent are Arabs.

Of course, Israel’s rapid growth was far from painless. Israeli bureaucrats, mostly Ashkenazi immigrants from Germany and Poland, routinely assigned poor Sephardic Jews from North African countries to distant development towns while finding comfortable accommodations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the more familiar European Jews. In 1991, Israel’s secret “Operation Solomon” spirited fifteen thousand largely illiterate Ethiopian Jews out of their country in thirty-six hours aboard thirty-six jets and crash-landed them into the twentieth century. It was a triumph for Israel’s ingathering of the Jews but hard for the Ethiopians. Brought from their mountain villages, ignorant of modern plumbing, dependant on handouts, facing racial prejudice, their social hierarchies overturned, the Ethiopians became confused and lost. Before long, they were committing suicide at an unprecedented rate.

Over time, the Ethiopians’ absorption has improved, with the young growing up fluent in Hebrew and slowly filtering into all areas of life. Yet despite the overall success of absorption, difficulties for individual immigrants persist. Even newcomers from developed countries such as Britain and the United States complain about how hard it is to make it in Israel, where ties formed in school and the army last a lifetime and protekzia, personal contacts, win the day.

Still, Israelis, old and new, stand united by an overarching sense of shared struggle and pride. Little more than sixty years old, pressured by immigrant needs, Israeli Arab demands for true equality, Orthodox Jewish demands for the dominance of their laws, and the still-unresolved conflict with the Palestinians, Israel has shown extraordinary resilience. In a number of areas, it has even scored some remarkable successes.

For its size, Israel stands in a league of its own in science, agriculture, weapons industries, and high tech. In 2008, more Israeli companies were listed on NASDAQ than companies from Europe, China, India, Korea, and Japan combined.3 Half the exhibitors at international high-tech fairs in New York often hail from Israel. And the rush for patents from Israeli medical research facilities such as the Weizmann Institute dwarfs those of countries ten times Israel’s size. Within a year of the global economic collapse of 2008, Israel’s stock exchange regained all its losses and then some. Israel’s currency, the shekel, grew so strongly that for months the Bank of Israel bought a hundred million dollars a day to stop its rise. Real estate prices soared in Tel Aviv even as they tanked around the world.

Israel’s prodigious economic, scientific, and financial success, so out of proportion for its size, stems from its identification not with its immediate Arab neighbors but with its friends across the Mediterranean. From the German immigrants in the thirties who wore jackets and ties in the summer heat to today’s moneyed classes who vacation in Europe and America, Israelis face not the blazing sun that rises over Jordan’s mountain plateau but the cooling sun that sinks across the waters. Their ambitions lie with NATO, the OECD, the EU, and Eurovision—with the distant west—not with the east on its doorstep.

These contradictions add up to a human tapestry as colorful and intricate as any on earth. My ambition, in setting out on my coastal walk, was to study this fascinating yet confusing place. In preparing to engage with Israel’s complexity, I took particular pleasure in simplicity. I stuffed a backpack with two of each item of clothing. I checked that I had the basics: spectacles, credit card, and sun lotion. I charged my cell phone and promised to call home every night. I took a vacation from NBC. And then I set off on my journey of discovery, the adventure I had long imagined.

 Copyright © 2010 by Martin Fletcher. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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  • Posted May 30, 2012

    A Great Walk Through Israel

    Fletcher combines his journalistic eye with a desire to see Israel almost as a tourist. I like how he combines the news, with day to day items and how he uses the people he met to help tell his and Israel's story. A fast read as you are pulled into his narrative, and it was wonderful to hear more back story on some of the places I visited.

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