Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



November 1, 1967 -- Like oil and water, war and pleasure travel usually don't mix. A region that has seen fighting normally sees few, if any, tourists for months and sometimes even years. The vacation traveler is naturally inclined to give the "hot spot" a wide berth.

None of these accepted ground rules applied to Israel last July, however, just three weeks after that pint-sized Middle East nation's Six-Day War with the Arab states on her border. This reporter arrived in Tel Aviv on the first of July to find that Israel's demobilization was even faster and more amazing than her military victories over Egypt, Jordan and Syria. Not only that, but the country was fully prepared for an immediate resumption of the tourist influx that had so abruptly ceased in late May and early June. During the eight days I was on the scene, there were still frequent outbursts of fighting along the Suez Canal, the situation at the United Nations was fuzzy, Russia was pouring new arms into the Arab countries and the Arab leaders were threatening another round of hostilities.

In the face of this situation, the Israelis remained calm and confident, at least on the surface. They were armed and ready--in fact, agitating--for an invasion of another sort: large armies of tourists from the United States and Canada. And they were starting to get their wish, even though the war had barely ended. (At any rate, that was the situation at the time this article was written in midsummer.)

The rallying cry for the new campaign was that travel to Israel was "safer than ever, with natural buffers and borders for the first time." And, indeed, Jerusalem was no longer a divided city, virtually in a permanent state of siege; the ominous Syrian Heights overlooking Lake Tiberias and the Galilee were in Israeli hands, as were the Jordanian West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza strip and the western shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. (I remember being struck very early during my visit by the illusion that seemed widespread in the world's capitals--at least, as reflected in the news media. This was that Israel really had no serious intention of holding on to most of her newly acquired territories. That wasn't my impression. A typical comment from an Israeli army intelligence officer was that "we are sick and tired of looking down the barrels of the Arab guns�and with the vast new terrain, we won't be so easy to overrun any more�We're not pulling out�")

The Israelis were implementing this feeling with an impressive display of activity on what might loosely be termed the tourist front. Within two weeks after the war ended, hotels were fully operative, local tours were running without a hitch, domestic and international air services were nearly back to prewar schedules, and the beaches and nightclubs were jammed. In addition, Israel lost no time in opening up Bethlehem and the Old City of Jerusalem, repaving the roads in the new territories and putting up signs in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and operating tours and local bus services to the West Bank and other new areas. By mid-July, organized tours were available to such destinations as Jericho and Hebron, and other attractions were being readied, including itineraries of the Sinai Peninsula with tours out of Eilat, a leading Israeli resort on the Gulf Aqaba. There was little doubt that a popular promotion slogan, "Come to Israel, There's So Much More to See," was being regarded internally as a permanent one.

The Israelis--and the travel industry in North America--were also encouraged by the fact that the U.S. State Department lifted the travel ban two weeks after the war ended, an unusually short waiting period.

There are several impressions and vignettes that stand out. There was almost no tension discernible among the Israelis, and the reports of flare-ups at the Suez and Russian arms shipments brought little response other an occasional shrug.

No one was particularly anxious to talk about the war, even though just about everyone I came into contact with had been mobilized for sort of military role. You often heard the phrase, "The people are the army, the army is the people." Morale was high during the war and afterward, and those who were not called were said to have made quite a fuss. Mobilization centers were crowded with people who wanted to know, "What's the matter with me?" Many joined their units in the Negev or the Sinai in their private cars, carrying neighbors along with them.

Coupled with occasional references to exploits of great heroism was the deep grief over the Israeli dead, estimated at 680 during the Six-Day War. Everyone in this tiny land of 2,000,000 either lost or knew someone who lost a son, a brother, a husband or a friend. The Israelis had an unusually high ratio of casualties among officers, from the ranks of lieutenant through colonel. Said one American who lives in Tel Aviv, "This is the only army where the officers go in first. The higher the rank, the faster they are killed."

There was little feeling of conquerors and conquered in either prewar Israel or the new territories. Israelis pointed with pride to the mingling of Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, the relaxed relations between their soldiers and the Arab populace and the "absolute restraint" in such communities as Hebron, in the West Bank, where the Arabs had massacred the Jews in 1929 and 1936. Starting with the rank of lieutenant colonel, captured Arab officers in groups of five were being taken on tours of Israel to show them the accomplishments with irrigation in the desert, the industrialization and the unhampered conditions under which Arabs of Israel live.

Israel has probably the most easygoing army in the world. Uniforms, such as they are, could hardly be considered uniform. Deeply tanned, hard and muscular, frequently bearded and almost always in need of a haircut, the soldiers seem completely without discipline or deportment in the traditional military sense. Rather, I was told, they derive their effectiveness from a deep personal motivation. Another source of inspiration may stem from the fact that the troops, away from the borders, often seem to be accompanied by girlfriends. A burp gun (uzi) on one arm, and an attractive young lass on the other, frequently in uniform herself, may be an oversimplified picture of the Israeli soldiers, but that's how I saw them. The servicemen also appear to blend in imperceptibly with the Israeli civilians. We dined one Friday night in the elegant King Solomon's Grill Room at the Tel Aviv Hilton. At a nearby table, a youthful soldier sat with his family. He was dressed for the occasion in a camouflage outfit and boots, with his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His presence seemed quite natural. Others in the room wore sport shirts.

There was nothing to suggest the fortress, either in appearance or attitude, when we landed in Tel Aviv after a nonstop flight from New York of ten hours and forty-five minutes. We were impressed at Lod Airport by the total absence of tension, special precautions or any signs of military activity. And during the next eight days, we were to encounter surprisingly little overt evidence of troop movements or army convoys within prewar areas. In the newly occupied territories, we were to see a good deal of "recovery" activity, with Israelis picking up hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military hardware, shipped to the Arabs from the U.S. and Russia. In one stretch, between Nablus and Jenin on the West Bank, we saw at least seven U.S.-built tanks being loaded onto recovery vehicles. Much of the equipment appeared to be in good shape, although some of it was partially damaged or completely burned out.

We were driven by private car from the airport to Jerusalem, taking a shortcut through former Jordanian territory, which reduces the distance between Tel Aviv and the Holy City from forty to about thirty-three miles. Part of the road had already been black-topped, an activity the Israelis were carrying on assiduously wherever we went. Along the way, we also ran into our first "danger mines" sign, one of hundreds we were to encounter.

Jerusalem not only is Biblical, but it looks the part. From a distance, it appears silent, even deserted, with hard-baked desert hues prevailing and the buildings blending in with the landscape. And then, in that wonderful clear light, you see the patches of green, the miracles of growth in this tired brown soil. The air is superb, with the temperature reaching into the eighties during the day and declining into the sixties at night. About a thousand buildings in both the Old City and the New City had been damaged by mortar and other artillery shells, but there was relatively little rubble and the streets were clear. There was some scaffolding in the heart of town where the shells fell. We spent the night on the outskirts at the charming Holyland Hotel, where my terrace looked out on a hillside of lush foliage and flowers, modern apartment houses and then those baked, Biblical hills.

The next morning, we drove into the Old City, passing through the Mandelbaum Gate--until recently the symbol of Jerusalem's split personality--without as much as a stop. Traffic was heavy on the sidewalks and in the streets. Orthodox Jews in kaftans mingled with Arabs in dark business suits, and the traditional kaffia (headdress). Some of the women were veiled, but this practice no longer seems prevalent. Other Arabs, with flowing black robes and a lean, sun-scorched look, rode donkeys. We also saw the sixteenth-century Damascus Gate, built by the Turks, and St. Stephen's Gate, where the Israelis broke through to take the Old City. The heaviest crowds that morning were at the Wailing Wall, holiest of sites for the Jews, and one to which the Israelis had been denied access for nineteen years. An estimated 20,000 Israelis were coming from all corners of the land to pray, many in tears, lining up at the Wall in rows that often looked as if they were six deep. Approximately a city block in length, and reaching maybe to thirty-five feet high in the original stone, this is the remnant of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in the year 70 A.D. Today, it is part of the wall surrounding the Temple Mount of the Dome of the Rock (Mosque of Omar), where Mohammed is said to have ascended to heaven, and also where Abraham intended to sacrifice Isaac.

That morning we also saw the Church of Mary Magdalene, the tombs on the Mount of Olives, Herod's Palace, the Antonia Fortress (where Pilate condemned Jesus), the Via Dolorosa, the bazaar that lines the narrow streets of the Old City, the Dome of the Rock, the El Aksa Mosque, King Solomon's Stables, the Holy Sepulchre and numerous other religious sites. The crush was fantastic in every nook and cranny of the Old City. The noise of the people and the hawkers lay over the area like a blanket, and it was increasingly hard to believe that there had been heavy fighting here a few weeks earlier. (Several of the forty-three nuns of Our Lady of Zion who staff the Antonia Fortress told us that shells had smashed their cisterns.) Arab children, selling chewing gum, pens, and pencils, trinkets and soda, swarmed through the streets.

The mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, had said he would ask tourists to walk within the Old City, since it was too crowded for cars, and that large parking lots would definitely be built outside the walls to handle the cars and busses. The nearby airport, Kalandia, would be modernized to handle jets within a year, and the name changed to Jerusalem Airport (which has since been done).

New City water was being pumped into the Old City, and the hotels were being given three months to conform to Israeli standards. Hotel rates were destined to go up in the Old City and down in the New, to achieve what Kollek described as a "wholesome balance." The scrappy little mayor has always felt that visitors to the Israeli half of Jerusalem were paying too much for accommodations.

Kollek, as well as other Israeli authorities, mentioned that there would be no excavations in the Old City and presumably at other religious sites. This is a point on which all religious leaders seem to see eye to eye. The reason is quite simple. The Holy Sepulchre, to take a case in point, lies just outside the walls (or lines) of the Old City. If excavation were to show that it was within the boundaries of the community, the whole theory of Christ's burial here would be open to question, since the Jews at that time buried their dead only outside the walls.

Jerusalem's chief executive was especially proud of the "absolute fraternization" between the inhabitants of the formerly divided city. (It should be noted here, however, that a few weeks after our tour of Israel, four of five Arab leaders in Jerusalem were exiled to the north of Israel for urging their people to follow a policy of noncooperation with the Israelis. And despite all the apparent good relations, tourists and most Israeli civilians were being kept out of such areas as the West Bank at night. And even in the daytime, the Arab inhabitants in the occupied territories were occasionally hostile. Conservation died wherever we walked in Nablus, to be replaced by cold stares or averted eyes. One of the trade writers with our group went to talk to a local Nablus travel agent. He was told in frigid terms: "We do not speak English here.")

The next morning, on the way to the Biblical city of Hebron, we stopped for gas at one of the new access ways into the Old City. We asked our escort, Jacob Levy of the Israel Government Tourist Office, why he had congratulated the owner of the station. "For eight years, this man's business has been a dead loss. No one was driving over the border here into Jordan. Now, suddenly, he's got a gold mine." Gas prices, incidentally, were up to about a dollar a gallon.

White flags of surrender were still flying from many of the Jordanian homes, and there were several military check points along our route, since the West Bank was still closed to normal tourist traffic at the time. We were amused by the many Israeli soldiers carrying flight bags (KLM, TWA, El Al), filled with personal belongings.

We passed Bethlehem on the way, and also a town that was once half in Jordan and half in Jerusalem. We saw what had been the scene of heavy fighting, with bunkers entrenched in the rough terrain and a deserted, heavily shelled monastery used by the Jordanians. And then a shepherd guiding his flock through the now quiet terrain. Herod lies buried in these hills; Rachel's tom is here, and there are many olive groves, with some of the trees possibly 2,000 years old. The Tombs of the Patriarchs are in Hebron, under what is now the Mosque of Khalil. Tradition holds that Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, are buried here.

Hebron also has a large army of vendors, doing business as usual and getting the hang of the Israeli pounds quite easily (one Jordan lira equals seven and a half Israeli pounds, or $2.50). On our way back to Bethlehem, we passed Solomon's Pools (1,000 B.C.), and I was struck by the often primitive state of Arab farming, tilling the soil with horses and with women active in the fields. And yet there were quite a few TV antennas on the rural homes. In Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity, which is run by three Catholic sects: Greek Orthodox, Roman and Armenian. The manger lies under the Greek Orthodox wing.

Then we swung south to Jericho, through the bleak Judean Hills, passing the Mount of Temptation, an Arab refugee camp, camels and tanks, and the town of Rawdah asleep in the overpowering midday heat of the desert. We were well below sea level, and the air seemed to acquire a palpable weight. Jericho turned out to be a green oasis, with palm trees, little relief from the heat and no restaurants with food for the visitors. We ended up with chunks of local bread (pitta), canned sardines from Norway, Spam from Japan, warm soda and--luckily--cool beer. Then we drove down a straight, flat road through scrubby desert to the banks of the Jordan River, the spot where John baptized Christ. The river here is narrow, fast and dark green. A church not far away looks like a "Beau Geste" fortress.

The attractive Jordanian resort city of Ramallah was the first stop on our way north the next day as we moved through the West Bank to Nablus. Then through the handsome and fertile Valley of the Shiloh before reaching the town of Jenin and a stop for ice cream. We frequently encountered the debris of war during this half-day ride, with burnt-out tanks and half-tracks, and an occasional house with shell damage. Many of the Arab homes seem to be built in the shape of a pillbox.

At midday, we swung back into prewar Israel, through Afula, along a tree-lined highway, which reminded me somewhat of the Appian Way, and into Nazareth for a stroll through the Arab bazaar and a welcome stop at a soda fountain, which had a sign, "Nothing Beatsa Coke with Pizza." Our route out of town took us past Upper Nazareth, a sensational vista of steep cliffs, from which the high-rise apartments emerge almost as a natural extension. Several other Israeli towns have upper and lower sections, including Tiberias and Afula. The upper is usually fancier, more modern, with clean-cut apartment houses that blend into the local buff landscape. On our way to Tiberias, which is very tropical, with rows of tall, handsome, palm trees, we had a splendid look at the town of Kafrkana on the side of a mountain; and also the Horns of Hattin, the hills where Saladin defeated the Crusaders in 1187 A.D. by setting the grass afire and poisoning the wells. Our guide explained that Saladin "singed the Crusaders' toes."

We had a late-afternoon lunch on the shores of Lake Tiberias, dining on delicious sardines, St. Peter's fish and firm white grapes. The kibbutz (commune) at which we ate, Ein Gev, is one of many in this area and throughout the country. Those with guest houses usually charge about $10 a day per person, including all meals. The facilities are attractive and modern; there are often swimming pools. We also looked across the lake at the Syrian Heights, somber and once heavily fortified, but now in Israeli hands. Lake Tiberias, just to pinpoint our location, is also known as the Sea of Galilee or Lake Kinneret.

Later in the day, we stopped at Capernaum, the ancient city where Christ once preached, then saw an Israeli cowboy in blue denims, a colt bounding along behind his horse. At sunset, we stopped at the dude ranch, Vered Hagalil, which is run by a former citizen of Chicago. With a stable of fifteen horses, the ranch offers guided tours over "ancient scenic trails to Mount of Beatitudes, Capernaum, Sea of Galilee, Safed, Mount Canaan, Wadi Amud�with a stopover at Arab villages, where the riders dine with the sheikh or his assistant."

That night, we stayed at a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee, Aylet Hashachar, the second-oldest in the land (1915), renowned for its guesthouse, orchards, livestock, cotton and honey bees. Fully half of its guests are normally from the U.S. and Canada and, as everywhere in Israel, just about everyone speaks English fluently. And I might as well toss in here that three Israeli pounds equal one U.S. dollar.

In the morning, we drove along the lovely green Upper Galilee Valley, passing ponds where carp are bred, then the hills to the northern roads along the Lebanese border. The Lebanese did not enter the war against Israel, and relations on the border are said to be peaceful, with Arab shepherds wandering across freely in both directions. There is purple thistle in these hills, and bougainvillea, the towers of an old crusader castle, rock-strewn hillsides, and the unmistakable marker of every kibbutz, the watchtower.

On the way back down south to Tel Aviv, we lunched at a seaside kibbutz in Caesarea and called at the fashionable Caesarea Hotel and Country Club, which had just been taken over by Club Mediterranee. There is also a splendid restaurant here, the Straton, set amid crusader ruins on an outdoor terrace. Rock-and-roll music and dancing are offered under the stars at night. They claim that if a girl says no, bring her to Straton at night and she is sure to change her mind.

The quality of the hotels, the preparation of the food, and the attitude of the people in service jobs seem better than it had during a trip several years ago. Nevertheless, Israel is similar to the United States in that service generally leaves a lot to be desired. The stewardesses on our El Al flight were not particularly warm or charming, and a young lad in the seat next to me said, "They're sabrahs" (native Israelis), as if that explained it all. The meals on El Al were quite good, especially a corned-beef dinner and a bagels with lox (smoked salmon) and cream cheese breakfast. And, of course, Danish pastry. Drinks aboard are thirty-five cents.

The best meal we had on the trip was at Michel Cohen's in Jerusalem, with stuffed Italian squash, a fine mixed salad and lamb baked in the oven. One of the guests at this dinner was Danny Kaye, who had just flown in from Las Vegas. A dinner per couple, including a good bottle of local rose wine, runs about $7. The Israeli wines, incidentally, are for the most part quite good and very moderate in price. The big drink here, served with water and ice, is arak, a local pernod or anise.

On our leg into Tel Aviv, our car ran out of gas. I had to file copy that night for one of the papers I'm with, and another reporter was in a similar fix. Anyway, we got out and hitchhiked. A middle-aged couple picked us up immediately, informed us they were only going as far as one of the suburbs, and asked us what we were doing in Israel. When we told them, they stopped at a stationery store and bought carbon paper, then drove to their home in Herzliya, put us in a cool den with refreshing soft drinks, and came up with an office Royal typewriter and an Olympia portable. We worked in complete privacy for three hours, then took a taxi into Tel Aviv and filed our copy. Our hosts had only interrupted us twice, peeking in to say timidly, "Write something nice about Israel." How could we refuse?

This column originally appeared in Argosy magazine.

Copyright � 1962-2010 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.