Archive | September, 2014

Greek Fish Out of Water

20 Sep

I’m sitting at a nice outdoor restaurant in Galilee.  Tired of ordering the old favorites: grilled chicken, hummus, salads, I ask the waiter “What’s your Catch of the Day?”  The waiter excuses himself only to return a moment later with his manager.  The manager leans forward and explains the options available.  There’s salt-water fish from man-made fisheries; there’s fish from man-made fresh-water pools and there’s “fresh” fish flown in.

I look up the waiter.  The Land of Israel is known for miracles, but flying fish is a bit much.  So I ask.  Turns out, Israel has exhausted most of its fish along the coastline.  Fresh fish are pulled out of the Mediterranean near Cyprus and Greece; they’re packed in ice, delivered to an airplane, and 24 hours later, the Greek-speaking fish is on my plate.

I squeeze lemon juice on the grilled fish I ordered and remind myself to find out why I can’t have an “Israeli” fish.  The short answer is that there is no short answer.

Map of Mediterranean Sea

Map of Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean is dying.  Look at the map and you realize it’s an enclosed body of water.  The narrow Straits of Gibraltar in the south of Spain is the only outlet into the Atlantic.  As a teenager I sailed on a passenger ship from New York to Israel, through the Mediterranean.  The ship sailed along the coast of North Africa. From the upper deck my sister and I could spot hundreds of dolphins escorting the ship, jumping in and out of the water playfully.

That was then.  1971.

In the last 15 years alone the amount of fish along Israel’s coast has dropped by almost half.  Blame it on many factors. Unlike other countries that ban fishermen from fishing during the breeding season (4 months), Israel’s fishing policy allows fishermen to fish year-round.  This means that tiny fish are caught up in nets; they don’t have a chance to mature and are thrown away.  Over time, this leads to fewer and fewer fish in the sea.

Trolling is the next bad boy.  You’ve seen documentaries on how big fishing vessels lower giant nets to the bottom of the sea.  The boats suck up everything in sight; they tear up rocks, coral and reefs.  They destroy all in their path. Many of the fish caught are not commercial grade; they’re part of the food chain, but they’re killed in the process.

fish trolling boats

fish trolling boats

The Japanese, and their insatiable appetite for bluefin tuna, have signed lucrative fishing contracts with Mediterranean countries. They catch boatloads of tuna, often illegally, and ship them to Tokyo.  Sony or Honda executives might step out to lunch with their buddies and not know or care that their sushi has emptied the Mediterranean.

And let’s not forget the Egyptians.  Strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted to go down in history like an Egyptian Pharoah.  So he built the massive Aswan Dam on the River Nile with the help of the Soviets in the 1960s.  The Dam was a great success.  The Nile no longer flooded.  Water irrigated the fields regularly and evenly.  The dam generated electricity for the Egyptian masses.

But damn it, the dam is killing the Mediterranean.  Sediments and silt that flow from the highlands of Ethiopia and down to the Nile Delta never make it to sea.  The stuff gets trapped behind the dam’s concrete walls.  The fish, dependent on the sediments as food, sink to the bottom, starving.

Tuna at sea

Tuna at sea

We’re not done with Egypt.  The Suez Canal, completed in 1869, is an engineering marvel.  Ships from the Far East and India no longer had to sail around the African continent to get to Europe.  They went through the Suez Canal – the ultimate short cut.

But the short cut led to long-term damage.  Fish from the warmer Indian Ocean, with spicy hot curry in their tails, started to swim north.  They swam through the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal and into the Mediterranean.

War.  The Indian fish are predatory; they killed the mild, let’s-have-fun Mediterranean fish.

Before long, the Indians took over the waters without paying rent.

And they brought with them a whole bunch of illegal immigrants: millions of jelly fish.

Jelly fish gravitate to warm waters.  Yearly, they clog up electrical power plants along Israel’s coast.  They come near unsuspecting swimmers and release their venom.  The sting burns like hell.  And when they’re done with humans, they go after fish eggs, further lowering their numbers.grilled fish

It seems fish in the Mediterranean can’t catch a break.  Worse, everybody wants to catch them.

I’m done with my dinner.  The waiter comes to my table again, looks at the fish bones on my plate.  He asks, “Do you want desert?”

‘Yes,” I say, thinking my Greek fish should have a companion.  “How about a glass of ouzo?”


Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.

He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at

or at











It’s the Land, Stupid

6 Sep

We’re in the month of Elul, the last in the Jewish calendar.  It’s a month set aside for reflection, prayer and hope for the coming New Year.  During Elul, typically September, farmers harvest the last of their bounty in the fields.  Wheat is collected and delivered to the mills.  Bunches of grapes are picked off the vines and crushed into wine.  Almonds dry in the sun.  Olives will soon release their virgin oil.galilee land 2

This coming Jewish New Year is particularly special.  It’s the Year of the Sabbatical.  (שנת שמיטה).


According to the bible, in the Book of Leviticus, man is to cultivate the land for six years and give it a rest on the seventh.  It sounds like a noble idea.  Think of yourself.  You go to work, fight traffic, fight your boss, earn a paycheck, drive home. Once you’re home, you deserve a rest.  Pour yourself a drink, have dinner, go out with friends, then fight the world tomorrow all over again.  What’s not to like?

Vineyards near my home in Galilee

Vineyards near my home in Galilee

Somehow, with land, it’s more complicated.  Could it be because the world is 70% water and only 30% land?  Could it be complicated because God is not making more land, at least not in our lifetime?  Which is why we choose to ignore God’s command and continue to till and work the land until it is exhausted.  Some believe that after the destruction on the First Temple, the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon for 70 years because they failed to honor the Sabbatical every 7 years.

Somehow, man thinks he owns the land.  Colonialism, Zionism, Capitalism, Imperialism, Terrorism, Islam with its sword, Christianity on horseback.  This is all ridiculous, at least according to Leviticus, chapter 25, verse 23: “‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.”

In other words, the land belongs to God.  Not us.

I’m not a religious man, but how did man become so dominant, excluding and eliminating other species?  Man is not much more than an ape with a larger computer in the skull.  And man continues to eat the banana all by himself.

In Leviticus we’re told that if we tend to the land lovingly, and let it rest on the seventh year, He will provide us with bounty; our bellies will be full, and we would settle the land safely and without worry.

So why aren’t we listening?galilee land

Israeli writer and poet, Michal Govrin, in her novel “Snapshots” (הבזקים) writes about an Israeli woman architect, married to a holocaust investigator, who has an affair with a Palestinian dance director.  The woman in the story, Ilana, questions the idea that land will give us happiness.  Armies and nations came and went and we died by sword and canon.  She says: “The land doesn’t belong to anybody!  It was given as a promise to the nation that came to it from far away, and the promise is ‘on condition.’ It will be kept only if the nation is at an ethical level that will justify it.  Otherwise, the nation will be sent to exile.  Every seven years, in the Year of the Sabbatical, the fences around the property have to be torn down.”

The poor, the humble, the unfortunate can enter the land and pick its produce without consequence.  No borders.

Hmmm.  Utopia indeed.

Next month it’s the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  It’s a holiday to remind us of days Jews spent in the desert after their exodus from Egypt.  In the desert, they set up Sukkot — makeshift huts.  Every year, Jews around the world build a Sukkah and sit in it for a week.  A reminder that we’re wandering in the wilderness even today.  That land can shift beneath our feet without notice.  And our constant preoccupation with land, property, possession had brought on slavery — the very thing Jews had tried to escape.olive branch

In an excerpt in the book “Snapshots,” Ilana says of the Arabs and Jews: “It’s not us or them; it’s beyond ownership; give up the passion to conquer, to own…”

The war between Israel and Hamas ended last month.  I hope both people realize that land is sustenance to our bodies and a shackle to our feet.

We fight to claim land until the end of time.  As guests on this land, we’ll never get to see the end of time.

Former President Bill Clinton might agree.  It’s the land, stupid.

Let go.  Just let go.

Happy New Year