Israel's Good Name

Jerusalem Tour

In Israel, Jerusalem on January 19, 2016 at 6:42 AM

Several weeks ago, on a Thursday, my sister and I took part in a municipality-funded trip to Jerusalem, courtesy of the neighbouring city of Nahariya. We joined the group of fellow immigrants and boarded the bus just after 7am – the start of a blustery but interesting day. Picking up our tour guide, Anat Harrel, we continued on our merry way to the capital via Road 443 – the ancient route up to Jerusalem.

Aerial photo of Jerusalem by Ron Gafni

Aerial photo of Jerusalem by Ron Gafni

Entering Jerusalem from the north, we headed for our first destination, the Supreme Court of Israel. Located in the governmental sector alongside the Knesset and several Ministry buildings, the Supreme Court was built in the early 90’s funded by the Rothschild family. The architects, Rami Karmi and Ada Karmi-Melamede, implemented many contrasts in building design and interior composition. Once we passed through security we met our courthouse guide, Nir, who began with the contrasts of old and new, lines and circles, inside and out. We walked up a large staircase to a panoramic window looking out over the city and then headed for the pyramid and library.

Looking out from the Supreme Court

Looking out from the Supreme Court

At each stop Nir explained the architectural significance of the area and we then progressed to the foyer which leads to each of the five courtrooms. Like the tourists that we were, we eyed the black-robed lawyers curiously and peppered Nir with various questions of the inquisitive mind. Nir led us into the fourth courtroom, named “Daled”, and sat us down on the harsh wooden pews. Standing below the Justices’ dais, he first explained the traditional courtroom layout – pointing out the seats belonging to the court reporter, the clerk, the lawyers from both sides, the prisoner and the press (in the case that it’s a criminal case and newsworthy, respectively). Next, the nitty-gritty of the Israeli legal system was explained including an overview of the three levels of court systems, followed by a Q&A to address more specific inquiries.

Nir in Courtroom Daled

Nir in Courtroom Daled

Leaving the courtroom, we congregated in the foyer and I saw a window of opportunity open before my eyes. Robed individuals passed in and out of the third courtroom door (“Gimmel”), the largest of the five, and I decided to make my move. With my sister in tow I strode forward confidently and breached the chamber, hiding behind a column. I peered out and spectated an ongoing court case; three justices sat on the dais while standing lawyers argued fervently, protesting the words of the middle judge who was engaging them in dialogue. As I peeped from behind the pillar, clueless as to what was at stake, I was urged by my sister to return to the group lest we become abandoned. Unrelated, a week or two after this trip I attended a lecture by Deputy Attorney General (Criminal) Raz Nizri while visiting Bar Ilan University, something I found particularly interesting especially after just visiting the Supreme Court. Getting back to the tour of Jerusalem, our next stop was Ammunition Hill – a national memorial site dedicated after the Six Day War in 1967.

Anat the tour guide

Anat the tour guide

Without going into too much depth, as I have already covered this site (linked above) back in 2012, we basically went straight to the Six Day War Heritage museum, located inside a bunker-like building. Our tour guide, Anat, passed out lyric sheets and played for us the pulsating 60’s hit which commemorated and relived the Battle of Ammunition Hill – a moving moment. At the song’s finish we explored the museum and then headed over to the multimedia presentation of the Battle for Jerusalem, a phenomenal production. Afterwards we headed to the entrance lobby for a warm lunch donated to our tour group, and with lunch’s culmination we took a group photo:

Group photo

Group photo

Having visited the site where a bloody battle was fought between Israeli and Jordanian troops, the earlier notes that Anat has delineated concerning the old Israel-Jordan border made all the more sense – it seems hard to believe that there was a time when enemy snipers were a threat to unaware pedestrians. With one more stop on our list, the bus driver deposited us off at the entrance to Mount Herzl. I had also visited Mount Herzl back in the army, attending a memorial service for a soldier who was killed on the Lebanese border in 1985 in the “Safari Disaster”, which can be read about (linked above). This time we came not for the military cemetery but for the grave and museum of the mountain’s namesake, Theodore Herzl. Credited as the “Visionary of the State”, Herzl was one of the fathers of modern political Zionism and formed the World Zionist Organisation in 1897. Before we reached the plaza beside Herzl’s grave, Anat gave us a very clear picture of what modern political Zionism is and how it came about via the rise of nationalism throughout the world.

Learning more about ''Modern Zionism''

Learning more about ”Modern Zionism”

Armed with information, we crossed the plaza and spent a few minutes at the iconic gravesite, each of us in their own thoughts. While Herzl’s grave crowns the mountain, there is far more symbolism than just one burial site – on the northern slope is the military cemetery and on the western side is the famous Yad VaShem Holocaust museum (linked above under “Ammunition Hill”). The proximity of these two testaments of tragedy are not coincidental, but rather symbolic of the Jewish People’s constant fight for life and their own land, preferably both at the same time. Theodore Herzl died in 1904 and was buried in Vienna, but in 1949 he was interred in the land that he fought for, as he had requested in his will.

Herzl's grave

Herzl’s grave

With Herzl’s grave a national site, other political leaders were later buried in an adjacent cemetery dedicated to “Great Leaders of the Nation” and “Leaders of the World Zionist Organisation”. Passing through, we saw the graves of former Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin (buried alongside his wife) as well as others including Chaim Herzog and Yitzhak Navon. Turning back around we entered the new Herzl Museum, another multimedia presentation of many rooms which helps illustrate the life and struggle of Theodore Herzl.

Herzl's private office

Herzl’s private office

His study in Vienna was reconstructed and put on display, as well as many of his personal belongings mixed with gifts and awards of dignitary distinction. At the conclusion of our visit to the Herzl Museum we boarded the bus for the final time and were shuttled out of Jerusalem to be taken back from whence we came. I rather enjoyed our tour and I hope that the opportunity comes again, for I will seize it!

 

Golani Junction

In Galilee, Israel on December 21, 2015 at 6:21 AM

The other week, before I got caught up with my sister’s wedding, I visited some interesting sites around the Golani Junction. Located between Haifa and Tiberias, the Golani Junction was and still is an important crossroads connecting various regions of the Holy Land. The junction, which is really an interchange now, has been revamped in recent years with extensive roadwork to streamline the traffic flows, costing some ₪300 million.

Golani Junction

Golani Junction

The first place I visited was the KKL-JNF nursery and neighbouring Lavi Forest where rehabilitation of Israel’s trees is done – in fact, there is a “plant-a-tree” park across Road 77 for visitors to take an active part in reforestation.

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

Foreign flags flying at the Tree Planting Centre

It was at one of these locations I had hoped to find an archaeological garden similar to the one at the Kabri KKL-JNF centre (see HERE) – but my search came up fruitless. At the Golani Junction itself is a place I partially visited once before while still in the army, the Golani Museum. Both a museum and a memorial, this site commemorates and sustains the ongoing legacy of the IDF’s most beloved brigade, the Golani Brigade.

The Golani Museum

The Golani Museum

Within, I walked the beautifully shaded trail learning about the battle that took place at the Golani Junction which gave it its name. With various memorials and recreated battle scenes abound, there was an atmosphere of both the valour and the struggles that accompany all things military. I peeked into the Lecture Hall before stopping at the panoramic depiction of a northern border scene with metal soldier silhouettes dispersed among the pine trees.

Border scene panorama

Border scene panorama

When I neared the arched room, two Golani soldiers who serve as guides spotted me and took me on a small tour. It amused me at times when they tried explaining some things to me as if I was a tourist when, unbeknownst to them, I have seen/done/lived these things in my own army service – firsthand knowledge. The soldier-guide reviewed the early history of the brigade, illustrating that the first Golani soldiers were farmers and thus the earthtone colours that identify the brigade helped solidify their deep connection to the land. The famous olive tree logo was drawn by one of the brigade’s early officers, denoting a deep-rooted longevity that Golani aims to emulate.

"After me!"

“After me!”

Inside one of the strangely shaped concrete bunkers that serve as exhibits for the brigade’s rich history I watched a short video spanning the years. One of the previous Golani brigade commanders, Tamir Yadi, is actually mentioned in an old blog post of mine – Hevron. Looking through old pictures and gear from 1948 onward, I examined historic battle plans and then found the Memorial Room. A small room lined with bookcases; each filled with faux leather booklets labeled with the name and ID number of each fallen Golani soldier. I searched for some of the more recent ones and saw very nice commemorations with mini biographies and personal photos. Beyond that room, back outside, is the Memorial Wall with each of those same names etched in stone. I looked over the recent names and remembered the losses we incurred as a nation last year in Gaza.

Golani Brigade's memorial walls

Golani Brigade’s memorial walls

Continuing along, I walked past the displayed military vehicles including APCs and jeeps that are parked on a ridge among fruit-laden cacti.

Armoured personnel carrier

Armoured personnel carrier

Leaving the Golani Museum I drove back towards Road 77 but stopped short and pulled onto a small dirt road where I parked among in a field of dead plants. I got out of the car and walked north, coincidentally the Gospel Trail, passing a dead cow on the way.

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Dead cow on the Gospel Trail

Suddenly, I caught the glimpse of a small songbird flitting about in the dead vegetation and patiently awaited his resurfacing. My patience paid off as I was able to get this photo of this particularly carefree graceful prinia:

Graceful prinia

Graceful prinia

Satisfied with my photo, I walked towards the trees – the sounds of startled grasshoppers popping into the air like popcorn filled the quiet, still air. Just beyond the first few trees I found what I was looking for – the meagre remains of an ancient Roman road. A small section of the vast road network that criss-crossed the Roman Empire, the remnants are much more distinguishable in person.

Old Roman road

Old Roman road

Leaving the old road and the Gospel Trail, I returned to the Golani Junction and drove north on Road 65. I passed Mount Nimra on my right and then pulled over, entering a construction site. My next stop was the Amudim ruins which I’ve been meaning to visit for ages. With an authoritative air I parked on the gravel and strode confidently towards the ruins, not waiting for the construction workers to stop me. I entered the fenced-off archaeological site and beheld the Amudim ruins, remains of a 1,800 year old synagogue which serviced the nearby Jewish village.

Amudim ruins

Amudim ruins

Today just one pillar stands tall with many broken pillars, ornate plinths and capitals strewn about in all directions. Even beyond the fenced-off area I caught sight of a fallen pillar laying on the ground amid a great mess of stone chunks. I like to imagine how these ancient synagogues might have looked back in their time and, in this case, I took particular interest in the shape of the standing column. Instead of being traditionally round, this pillar had a concave indention, like a rounded-bottomed heart – and I wonder why the craftsmen specifically carved that fanciful shape.

Interestingly shaped pillars

Interestingly shaped pillars

When I stopped wondering and took my leave of the holy ruins, I paused and admired the Netofa Valley across the road and then hopped into the car to visit the next site on the figurative horizon, the Mimla ruins. Alas, due to roadwork I was unable to reach the site and continued on to the kever (grave) of the prophet Habakuk – which was blocked off as well. And so, deterred but not ready to call it quits, I pressed onward towards Meron…

Hula Valley: Birding Tour

In Galilee, Israel on November 22, 2015 at 5:43 AM

One thing that fascinates me about Israel’s nature is the rich diversity of birds, particularly the Old World raptors – both resident and migratory species. One Friday several weeks ago I seized the opportunity to go on a birding tour in one of the world’s best bird-watching locations, the Hula Valley.

Hula Valley

Hula Valley

Leaving the house shortly after 5am I drove the dark mountain roads heading east and saw the early stages of daybreak just after passing Tzfat. I reached Agamon Hula, a KKL park, and prayed in the parking lot before meeting up with my tour guide, Lior Kislev. A popular birder, Lior’s website has helped me several times with bird identification and it was a joy to meet him at last. We entered the park with a few of the other tour members (including Yedidya Popper, a protégé of Lior who graciously shared photos with me for this post) and, equipped with binoculars, began with the barn swallows resting on electrical wires just outside the visitors centre.

Black kite perched

Black kite perched

Nearly immediately thereafter we were launched into full-scale raptor watching with a whole bunch of greater spotted eagles, black kites, black shouldered kites, marsh harriers and others who were flying about and resting on the side-roll irrigation system frame. We walked along the trail stopping now and then to watch aerial turf battles and the occasional hooded crow mobbing. At one point, while our collective eyes were pointed skywards watching the predatory commotion, I heard a loud squeak at my feet which was identified as a social vole – hide little fella!

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

White-shouldered kite mobbed by a hooded crow (photo Yedidya Popper)

During all this time, and for most of the tour, there was a steady flow of large migrating birds flying overhead including white pelicans, spoonbills (which I was very excited to see) and, of course, common cranes. I had always associated Hula Valley’s migration season with the cranes that are so heavily talked about but with an experienced ornithologist at hand, I came to understand that the cranes were just a very small part in the overall bird-watching experience. We stopped for breakfast at a picnic table, frequently interrupted by raptor activity on the other side of the Jordan River or by warblers (of which we spotted four species) and a beautiful bluethroat or two flitting among the reeds.

Lior Kislev and the tour

Lior Kislev and the tour

In addition to the birds, there were several resident nutrias – an invasive rodent from South America. In terms of migratory species, also the African monarch butterfly makes its way through the Hula Valley and we saw tons of them.

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

African monarch butterflies (photo Yedidya Popper)

As we walked closer to the bodies of water, someone called out “black francolin” and we watched as the elusive gamebird dashed into the undergrowth. As we walked along the water’s edge we saw a good number of passerines including red-throated pipits, whinchats, larks and some species of the predatory shrikes – a bird that has interested me since childhood. Before long we were able to peer through the reeds at the numerous species of waterfowl and waders including grey and little herons, ibises, coots, moorhens and more.

Peering through the rushes

Peering through the rushes

We arrived at the first platformed observatory where we met a Peruvian governor and his wife on a VIP tour of the nature park and then spied on something that excited me immensely – greater flamingos. Even while we watched the cormorants, common snipes, stilts, avocets and more in the shallow waters Lior would frequently direct our attention to the sky where soaring raptors circled overhead. It was during one of these sudden sightings that we saw something uncharacteristic – an immense griffon vulture was visible way out to the east. A bird with incredible range, and truly immense wings (boasting a 2.3–2.8 m (7.5–9.2 ft) wingspan), this particular vulture was likely searching for food over the nearby Golan plateau where they nest (see Gamla).

Lake Agamon observation deck

Lake Agamon observation deck

Reluctantly we left the observatory and continued on, stopping at a grassy area to lay on our backs watching the black storks, black kites and booted eagles wheeling above us while we snacked on fresh almonds and cookies. Along the trail up ahead we found two catfish that had been seized from their watery hole and were mysteriously untouched. We passed caspian turtles and a squacco heron before reaching the observatory most visitors are familiar with. Being as that we wanted to see all that there was to offer, we took the 11-km trail that loops around the lake in its entirety – not the path most traveled.

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

Booted eagle (photo Lior Kislev)

With one or two water buffalo off in the distance, we watched a small muddy pond packed with mallards, shovelers and common teals; a lone black kite circling ominously nearby. Suddenly the waterfowl exploded into the air, the sound of hundreds of wings beating, and we scoured the area for that black kite – perhaps he had succeeded in nabbing one for lunch.

Pelicans flying overhead

Pelicans flying overhead

Finally on the home stretch, we walked and talked, pausing to discuss self-combusting peat which was a problem in the park several years ago. Shortly before we reached the visitors centre Lior showed us a dead young viper which looks to have been crushed – I have yet to see a living viper in the wild.

Dead viper

Dead viper

Back at the visitor centre we sat down with pen and paper to make a list of all the birds we had seen that morning. All in all, over the course of five or so hours, we succeeded in spotting 72 species of birds, far more that I would have ever imagined. I highly recommend taking this tour to all those who read this blog – it’s truly a treat!

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