Tag Archives: Haifa

Your Land is my Land

14 Feb

Imagine yourself waking up one morning and finding yourself in a different country.  You don’t remember packing, you don’t recall crossing a border, and yet, outside, there’s a “foreign” flag rippling in the wind.  You recognize the flag, but it’s not your own.

Avigdor Liberman

Avigdor Liberman

This so-called dream might become a reality for thousands of Israeli-Arabs after the Israeli upcoming general elections only a month away.  I’m speaking of Avigdor Liberman’s initiative, Israel’s foreign minister until not long ago, and his political party “Israel, Our Home.”  His plan is simple and straightforward: Transfer Israeli-Arabs to a future Palestine.  This would solve the Arab problem, create a more homogeneous Jewish state.  He’s speaking of residents who live exclusively in Arab villages, in Israel, along the “stitch-line” of the Israel/West Bank border and some villages further north, on the road leading to Galilee, a place I call home.

Liberman, a staunch right-wing politician, was born in Moldova, one of the Soviet Union’s former republics.  At age 20 he immigrated to Israel.  In time, he joined Netanyahu and moved up the ranks.  Russian Jews, who are generally right-wing and against making concessions to Arabs, further helped Liberman climb the political ladder.

Liberman's Elections Campaign: Swap Arab city Um El Fahem for Jewish Settlement Ariel

Liberman’s Elections Campaign: Swap Arab city Um El Fahem for Jewish Settlement Ariel

Why does Liberman bring up this land-swap idea now?

His party has been recently rocked by scandal.  Officials in his party are under investigation, accused of siphoning money, controlling and awarding contracts, receiving bribes.  Although he’s not personally accused, he’s suffered a black eye.  The fallout is evident.  Would-be voters and supporters are abandoning ship. According to latest polls, his current 14 seats in Israel’s parliament, will be reduced to 6 on election day.

So, in pure Putin-fashion, Liberman is getting on his horse and is trotting all over the Israeli map to sell his idea. His campaign to transfer Arabs appears in newspapers and highway billboards. There’s one such billboard at the entrance to my home village in Kfar Tavor.  It reads:

Um El Fahem to Palestine

Ariel to Israel

Bottom Line: Liberman -“Israel, Our Home.”

The message speaks to the conservative base.  At first glance, the message is appealing, even intoxicating.  What’s not to like?  Throw them out.  All of them.  The city Um El Fahem is a buzz-word for Arab trouble-makers, and for good reason.  In the 2000 Arab Intifada, Arab residents blocked Wadi Ara, the highway that goes though their city, essentially cutting off Israel in two.  The burning tires and stone-throwing are long gone, but their bad-ass image remains to this day.  So, it’s no wonder, Liberman wants to get rid of all 50,000 Arabs in the city, send them to Palestine, where they belong.

Jewish city Ariel

Jewish city Ariel

But do they belong in Palestine?

Under the law, they’re Israeli citizens.  Their forefathers had lived on this land long before Israel was established.  In Liberman’s view, Um El Fahem is nothing more than a bargaining chip, to be exchanged for Ariel.

Is that a fair or even exchange?

Ariel is a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, also known as biblical Judea and Samaria.  Any way you call Ariel, it did not exist, at least not in its present form until 1978.  Ariel, now numbering 20,000 Jews, sits in occupied territory.  The town offers enviable municipal services, parks, schools, and even a university.

Arab city Um El Fahem

Arab city Um El Fahem

Liberman wants to eat the blintzes and have them too; he wants both to transfer the Arabs from Israel and keep Jews in occupied territory.  The rules of his games are odd.  He doesn’t ask the Arabs if they want to play; they’re moved off the board game.  He’s decided Jewish Ariel will be included in a Greater Israel.  What if Ariel were to be a Jewish outpost inside Palestine?  Would it not be sinilar to a West Berlin behind Israel’s own wall?  Sensing that his block of seats in parliament will further strengthen a conservative government, he’d already let be known that he will no longer seek the foreign minister position.  Instead, he wants to be minister of defense.

If that were to happen, could the land-swap proposal go beyond elections rhetoric, and really happen?  Smelling something’s in the air, the four or five Israeli-Arab parties, who were always splintered and stepping over each other’s toes, decided to put their differences aside.  They’re going into the elections as one block.  Analysts predict their united party might be the 3rd largest in parliament.  No Jewish party, Left or Right, would do business with them, but that’s beside the point.

Map of Israel showing Ariel and Um El Fahem, the proposed land-swap by Liberman's party


I don’t like Wadi Ara.  The road leading to the coast goes through the Wadi.  The road is narrow, the traffic lights are slow, the Arab truck drivers zigzag all over the place; it’s a hazard.  But I don’t see myself getting off the road and throwing the first Arab I see over the border.  They, too, when asked, don’t want to leave.  More than 85% want to stay in Israel.  Can you blame them?  They do well financially.  Originally, they used to peddle coal (Fahem, in Arabic) from the forests on the hilltops.  Today, they haul heavy-duty loads on semi-trailers, they work in road construction, manufacturing, auto industry.  They’re not stupid.  They see the turmoil in the West Bank, in Gaza, in Jordan, in Syria.  They’re Israeli and they want to remain Israeli.

They don’t like us, and I don’t love them much, either.  Tough.

Liberman is playing with fire.  The game can be played two-ways. In Galilee, Arabs are the majority.  As a Jew, I’m a minority in Galilee.  Who’s to stop Arabs in Galilee from wanting to establish their own “nation” here.  As is it, the Jewish-Israeli authorities, police, social workers, and such hardly set foot in Arab villages.  Arabs run their own show.  Worse yet, Arabs in mixed cities (Jews and Arabs) such as Haifa, Jaffa, Acco, Lod, Ramla, Nazareth – they may claim their own “autonomy.”  Before long, Israel will turn into Swiss cantons.  Only instead of dipping their bread into fondue, Jews and Arabs should first smell the hummus.

This is a centuries-old conflict.  It cannot be solved unilaterally.  Liberman’s idea is sexy and populist.  But it’s a non-starter, a dead-end, a dangerous political game.  No one’s going anywhere. Jews and Arabs are here for the long haul.

Deal with it, Liberman.


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 Amazon.com


or at BN.com






Tel Aviv vs. Galilee

23 Feb

Quick!  Name a city in France.  Name one in England, in the U.S.

If you’ve chosen Paris, London and New York, you’re not alone.  Which is to say, in Israel, it’s all about Tel-Aviv.  The city here is nicknamed the “Country of Tel-Aviv,” as if to say, there are two countries in Israel: Tel-Aviv and all the rest.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv

Urbanization is at an extreme pace in and around Tel-Aviv.  People flock to it in numbers, for jobs, for a way of life.  The young and the restless are willing to put up with rented apartments that are small even for pigeons, put up with leaky plumbing, peeling paint, no elevator, no parking, no privacy.


The city has a buzz.  It’s where you live, work and play.   The city’s not homogeneous; it has its rich sections and poor sections.  Rothschild Blvd is the line in the sand.  To the north of it: cafes, museums, theaters.  To the south: slums.

But you’d be hard pressed to find a place to live, even in the south of Tel-Aviv.  Competition is cut-throat.  Put an online ad for an available apartment and there will be hundreds of applicants at the doorstep willing to bid up the rent.

At Tel Aviv Boat Marina, Winter 2013

At Tel Aviv Boat Marina, Winter 2013

Centralization has gone mad.  Years ago Israel’s main population centers stretched from what was known as “From Gadera to Hadera, ” referring to “border towns” 25 miles south and north of Tel-Aviv.  Today, it’s been reduced to about a 10 mile radius around Tel-Aviv.

Everyone’s climbing over each other’s back to get into Tel-Aviv.  Skyscrapers, 40 and 50 stories high, are going up.  Old, rundown neighborhoods are being gentrified with lots of new and old money.

Forbes Magazine in its Hebrew edition ran a survey of the 10 best cities in Israel.

Number 1?  Tel Aviv.

Jerusalem?  Not a prayer.  Not even in the top 10, somewhere around 15.  Haifa?  Dead in the harbor.Tel Aviv

All the remaining 9 are within spitting distance from Tel Aviv (Herzelia, Givataim, Ramat Gan, Raanana, Kfar Saba, Rishon Le Zion, Holon, Bat-Yam).

Forbes’ criteria was clear-cut: educational level, ratio of university graduates, centrality vs. the boondocks, access to art, green space, employment opportunities, income, longevity.

Towns and villages in Israel did not see kindly the results of the survey.  “What about the quality of life in the countryside?”

Kfar Tavor

Kfar Tavor

In 2011 my wife and I and two of my four daughters moved from Los Angeles to Israel, to Kfar Tavor, to Galilee.  Even then, in the U.S., at the mention of Galilee, more so Kfar Tavor, the common response was: “Wow, what a quality community you’re moving to!  Well done!”

Kfar Tavor evokes positive and emotional feelings far beyond its 4000 residents.  It has history.  It CREATED history, established in 1901 by European Jews who wanted to work the land.

Even here, even now, when I visit family and acquaintances in Bat-Yam ( 2 miles from Tel Aviv! ) — to them  Kfar Tavor sounds romantic, rural, green, pure,  the Old Country that was lost in 21st century Israel.

A national survey of  Israel’s “Non-Metropolitan” communities shared the sentiment: it placed Kfar Tavor near the top of the pile.

Winter Vineyards in Kfar Tavor

Winter Vineyards in Kfar Tavor

Yet, as a resident and the owner of a nice home that overlooks the fields of Kfar Tavor, I sometimes question their judgment.  And their taste.

Yes, Kfar Tavor is nice if you enjoy going for long walks among olive groves, almond orchards, vineyards.  Kfar Tavor is nice if you want to explore great bike trails.  It’s close to streams and rivers, to the mountains of Galilee.  Around our home there are Jewish communities, kibbutzim, and Arab villages.

Kfar Tavor has celery, onion and parsley fields, olives, almonds, grapes, figs, irrigation pipes and sprinklers, a water treatment facility, a sports center, a soccer field, a swimming pool, a community center for performances, an elementary school, one library, one post-office, kindergartens, senior center, two clinics, two synagogues, a town hall, mini-market, one  butcher, one  kiosk, one gym, one pizza delivery joint, one Chinese Take-Out, one sit-down restaurant, one cafe, one winemaker and cellars, one hair salon for women (men walk bald), one clothing store for women (men walk naked), one-one-one-one, and lots of dogs doing their business wherever the hell they please.

Kfar Tavor IS  the Tel-Aviv of the rural countryside.

Absurd, but true.

Jews and Arabs come to shop here.  Kibbutzniks come to watch a play or a recital.  Junior and adult basketball teams hold their tournaments here.

Kfar Tavor

Kfar Tavor

We’re on top of the pile.

Yet I itch for the allure of the big city.  With Pnina, my wife, it’s worse.  Her itch has developed into a skin rash.  She craves the big city.

I want to see colors other than gray, the predominant color in people’s hair in Kfar Tavor.

I want to see styles of clothes that don’t resemble biblical sandals and Kibbutz overalls.

I want to see slick, fast cars, not John Deere tractors.

I want to hear languages other than Hebrew and Arabic.

I want to see summer dresses, bikinis, cleavage; I want to smell bus fumes (?), perfume, aftershave, salt air, the sea.

And I don’t want to drive two hours one-way to Tel-Aviv to get my fill of the big city.  And yet we do.  We book a hotel night once a month, go with the girls, see the city, cringe at the noise, jaywalk, drink a beer at a cafe, savor a great cup of coffee, try the many dishes, run in the sand on the beach.  And when it’s all done, we pile into the car, drive the two-hour ride through coastal highways, through vast meadows and hillsides, through Arab towns and villages until we see the dome of Mt. Tavor.

Kfar Tavor Almond Blossom

Kfar Tavor Almond Blossom

We got our lungs full with Tel-Aviv oxygen.  Until next month.

It’s nighttime in Kfar Tavor.

Black sky.

Millions of stars.


I sleep.

Chirp.  Chirp-Chirp.

Crickets, any one?


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 teen-age 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 Amazon.com or BN.com.

Shalom everyone, my name is Yossi Unemployed

24 Dec

The satellite office for Israel’s Ministry of Absorption is tucked between tire and body shops, the Pink Horse strip club, and several vocational colleges in rundown buildings in Haifa, Israel’s port city.  It’s long been said that in Tel Aviv you party, in Jerusalem you study, and in Haifa you work.  So Pnina and I came looking for work.

To my knowledge, Israel is the one country which solicits its former citizens to return home and to “absorb” them.  The image of a Giant Sponge is not lost on me; it’s there to soak up the spills (and hard knocks) we Israelis experienced overseas.  “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” may have been inscribed inside the Statue of Liberty, but it’s here in Israel that we witness is firsthand.

We sign in at the reception desk of the Ministry.  The walls are covered with posters depicting smiling faces of returning citizens who’d landed a job.  There’s a name under each face.  Vera from Ukraine found work at a kindergarten.  Laura from Argentina found work in pharmaceuticals.  Counselors go in and out of tiny offices, use the copier and talk on the phone.  Their Hebrew is laced with a Russian accent.  I find it ironic that these women who’d immigrated to Israel, most of them during the 90s, are Israeli citizens who are about to counsel me, an Israeli who’d played soccer on Tel Aviv’s beaches decades ago, at a time they most likely spent ice skating in Moscow or Kiev.students at Absorbtion Center

I hand over my clipboard and I’m escorted to the first interviewer, Alina.  Her role is to find out about me, to learn about my past and to help me find work.  After a few “personality analyses” tests I’m led to another counselor who interprets the data.

This time it’s Olga behind the desk.  “It doesn’t appear you’re too technical,” she tells me with the help of a ruler that measures my charts.  I could have saved us both a  lot of time on this one.  There aren’t enough fingers on my hands to count the number of technical screw-ups I’m guilty of.  I built the handlebar of a bicycle that faced the wrong way, assembled a bookcase that wouldn’t hold books, hung Pnina’s paintings crooked, hammered my thumb, drilled holes in the all the wrong places, plugged up toilets, nearly set a barbecue on fire, if that were possible, and cut live wires.  It’s a miracle I’m still here.

“I’m dangerous with a tool box,” I tell her in Hebrew, but it doesn’t go over well.  Something’s lost in translation.  “Yes,” I continue, “I’m not that good with technical stuff.”

She goes on to tell me I’d be better off working with teams, with people, sales, with writing, with teaching.  She then asks me to wait while she interviews Pnina.  From the tests, Pnina’s artistic ability is without question.  She’s told to consider jewelry making, painting, or going into a business of her own.  Later that day she encourages us to join a 4-day workshop, courtesy of the Ministry, to learn how to look for work in twenty-first century Israel.

We return the following week, register, and walk down the corridor to the classroom.  There are 12 students in class.  The instructor had been outsourced from Tel Aviv to spend the day with us.  We start out with the standard “Shalom, my name is….”

Talk about wandering Jews.  The first woman in the group introduces herself.  She’s in her forties, had spent 17 years in San Francisco as a makeup artist.  A man in his late thirties with a shaved head, earing, and aviator sunglasses, spent 7 years in Japan selling jewelry and incense in Tokyo malls.  The next woman worked in China and Hong Kong.  You can’t help but notice that her squint is Oriental.  The man seated near me spent 6 years in Denmark working in a Jewish Deli.  An older man worked in Athens for many years restoring antiquities.  Another single mom worked in Manhattan waiting on tables.  A man with a Nike cap on his head, dressed in black from head to toe, lived for many years in Miami.  The room turns silent once we announce we’ve been “away” for 32 years.  We win the trophy.

Everyone’s on a budget, brought a bagged lunch from home.  The smell of fried-egg sandwiches, salami, tangerines and ripe bananas fills the room.  A secretary brings in cookies and salty snacks.  “There’s coffee and tea in the kitchen,” she says.

After lunch the instructor writes on the board:  “You are a brand.  Put a price on your lifetime skills and begin to market yourself.”


By the third day of the workshop several drop out.  A woman instructor in her fifties tells us the way it is.  “Forget about looking for a job online.  You’re one of several hundreds for the same position.  Anyway, employers have resume’ fatigue.  You have to be original.”

We come up with ideas to become original, to stand out.  “You’re more valuable than you think,” she says in between graphs on the screen.  By the last day we’re all friends.  No, we’re almost family.  We share a common past, of leaving and returning, and wanting to belong to a place we once knew.  The unthinkable strikes us: we are immigrants in our own country.  We soon realize we’re no longer as young; we’re no longer kids.

It turns out the guy from Japan, Dror – he married a Japanese in Tokyo, has 2 kids by her, ages 5 and 3.  He brought them all here because of the Tsunami.  “It was 300 kilometers away but we didn’t want to risk nuclear radiation.”

The makeup artist, Gila, actually worked in movie special effects.  She divorced and returned to be with family.  The waitress from Manhattan, Talma, had married a Mexican, divorced, returned home to a kibbutz with her 5-year-old.

Haim, the maintenance guy at Athens’ museums, was let go without pay after the Greek economy collapsed.  He sat in class like a museum-piece most of the workshop.   Yuda, the guy from Miami with the Nike hat and dressed in black — it turns out he’s into Kabbalah and lives with his wife and kids in Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shores of the Kinneret.  “I’m looking to be a project manager at a company,” he says unconvincingly to the instructor, leaving the impression he has set his life as a project.  During break we pull out wallets and purses and exchange photos of our kids.  We laugh.

On the last day, we role-play on closed-circuit TV, two at a time,  as an employer and a job applicant.  We crack up laughing.  The tension melts.  We then try out skills at putting together a toy animal from different plastic pieces from a box.  It’s meant to measure our team-player ability, resourcefulness, and other qualities only known to the psychologists and instructors.

The workshop is over.   There’s a collective sigh of relief.  There are lots of hugs around the room.  We may not land a job anytime soon but we’ve made friends.  We’re beginning to get “absorbed.”

At home I get busy and skim the newspaper want ads.  Let’s just say I skipped over the ones wanting a nuclear scientist.