Tag Archives: Ottoman

A Big Texas Footprint in Galilee

9 Nov

Galilee, like much of ancient Israel, was at the crossroads of the Fertile Crescent.  Not everyone came in peace. The Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks trampled the region on horseback.  And with swords.



Last month we learned of another “invader,” this time from America, from Texas.  This time, they’re not coming with knives in their satchels.  Instead, they’re coming with a fig leaf, big Texan smiles, and lots of money.

Texas A&M, the 4th largest university in America is coming to Nazareth in Galilee.  Their mission: to build a “Peace Campus” in the Arab town.  Texas A&M will join forces with the one and only Arab college in Israel: Nazareth Academic Institute.

Texas A&M University logo

Texas A&M University logo

The project is the brainchild of Texas A&M’s chacellor John Sharp and the Texas governor and former Republican presidential candidate, Rick Perry. Christians United for Israel Pastor from San Antonio, Texas also “lobbied” for Nazareth, a town where Jesus grew up.

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

Texas University Chancellor John SHarp and Texas Governor Rick Perry

They’ve already built an American university elsewhere in the Middle East, in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf.  Now they’re bringing their science and research branch to Nazareth.  It’s not going to be as big as the “mothership” university in Texas (1/2 the area of Tel Aviv!), but the modest start is drawing attention from many educators and hands-on involvement from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.

Simon Peres wants to be remembered as the advocate for peace.  It follows his recent ambitions to foster cooperation between Jews and Arabs in Galilee.  And the Americans are coming with $70,000,000 in their briefcases to help build the new campus.

Israel is 80% Jewish, 20% Arab.  The Arabs remained here after the war of 1948.  They enjoy equal rights under the law.  The official languages are Hebrew and Arabic.  All road signs, milk cartons, bags of potato chips carry both languages.  However, in elementary school, the Arabs kids, Christian and Moslem, start out in Arabic and eventually they turn to Hebrew as well.

This late start in Hebrew plus their wish to retain their culture are what keeps them from getting ahead in later years. Rarely do they catch up in high school and colleges where all is taught in Hebrew and English.  They don’t get the grades.  Many fail the universities’ entry exams and end up in quasi-academic schools that churn dubious diplomas.  In recent years, Arabs have made great strides in education.  They work in hospitals, pharmacies, law firms, social work.  They’re narrowing the gap.  Somewhat.

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

Students at Nazareth Academy Institute

So what’s an Arab to do if he can’t get the grades, can’t graduate?  Up until recently, not much.  As many as 10,000 Israeli Arabs study in Arabic — in Jordan(!).  Many trek to study in the West Bank.  Thousands more study abroad, in Hungary, in Italy, Bulgaria.

That’s all about to change in 2015, the opening of the “Peace Campus” in Nazareth.  The Texas university will award degrees in chemistry, engineering and other science programs.

The kicker?

Classes will be taught by American professors as well as Israeli.  Arabs who’d struggled with academic Hebrew will have to deal with another challenge – English.

But everyone’s excited.  Israel’s Ministry of Education stresses the American campus will be open to all: Arabs and Jews.  Classrooms at Haifa University, Zefat and elsewhere in Israel already cater to both populations.

It’s not a melting pot.  Not by a long shot.  At best, it will be a salad, with the greens next to each other, Jews and Arabs.  The salad dressing will be American.

So if you’re near Nazareth in 2015, come see the students: Arabs women wear head covering, Jews wear aviator sunglasses, and Texans wear ten-gallon hats.

What’s next?  Texas steakhouses next to Hummus joints?


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



The Circassians – Warriors in Search of Love

13 Sep

The drive from where I live to Kfar Kama, a neighboring village in Galilee, takes all but 10 minutes.  But once you arrive it’s as if you’d stepped into an unknown world.  Kfar Kama is home to 3000 Circassians, originally from the eastern shores of the Black Sea.  At first glance, the place appears similar to Arab villages like Shibli or Daburiyya; there’s a mosque and a towering minaret in the distance, and women are covered in head scarves.  But this is where the similarities end.

Circassian villages in Galilee

The Circassians are not Arab; many are fair-skinned, light-brown or blond hair, blue-eyed.  Incidentally, up until 8000 years ago, all humans had brown eyes.  Then a mutation occurred and blue-eyed people appeared.  Where, you ask?  Bingo!  On the shores of the Black Sea region, and from there the blue-eyed people spread to Northern Europe, to Scandinavia.  So, Anderson and Annika while you drive your Volvo in Stockholm, remember that you owe your good looks to the Circassians.

The Circassians arrived in Galilee 150 years ago during the days of the Ottoman Empire when the Turks ruled the place.  They didn’t come here voluntarily.  The Russians in their 100-year-war against the Turks pushed out the Circassians from key trade routes at the border of Asia and Europe.  They became country-less.  Over a million died at the hands of the Russians.  The Turks took them in with conditions: Convert from Christianity to Islam and fight the Russians.  As expert horsemen and swordsmen they killed Russians.  In fact their name,”Circassian,” means “decapitate or chop off soldiers,” in Turkish.

Circassian traditional clothing

Try walking around with that name for a while.

Today the only thing the Circassians chop off is their famous cheese, similar to buffalo mozzarella.  They farm their fields, raise cows and trade horses.  And they provide every imaginable service to the surrounding villages, including Kfar Tavor.  The grocery store is open on Saturday (Shabbat) so it’s not uncommon to see Israeli Jews stocking up on bread, pitas, cheeses, produce.  Kfar Kama is where I go to fix a TV screen, buy building supplies, get seasonal plants from the nursery, fix a flat tire for $8, or buy school uniform shirts for my daughters.

The Circassians speak funny.  Their cyrillic alphabet has 64 letters and it seems every word they say uses all letters.

They’re a matter-of-fact bunch of people.  I’ve gone to their village many times, and many times I smiled at them, thinking my smile may prompt a smile in return.  It didn’t.  It seems they left their facial smile muscles in the Black Sea.  They’re courteous, all of them, hard-working, clean and tidy to the extreme, yet I can’t recall seeing their teeth.

I don’t think Colgate is going to call them anytime soon.

Their survival instinct has taught them to side with the strong.  They did so with the Turks, now with the Israelis.  Unlike the Arabs, they serve in the Israeli military.  Their loyalty is without question.  Even in Jordan, the Circassian foot soldiers watch over the life of King Abdullah.

Circassian traditional dress

Apparently all this fascination with security has entered the Circassian bedroom as well.  The man doesn’t date the girl much.  Instead, he kidnaps her.  According to their tradition, the man enters the girl’s house in the dead of night, wraps her in sheets and off they ride on horseback.  He shoots 3 times in the air.  The girl’s family and villagers give chase.  If the man succeeds in making it beyond the village, he can claim the girl.  If he fails, he’s punished, has to pay a fine, and his marriage is postponed.  In other words, grow up kid, come back as a man.  And don’t send wedding invitations ahead of time.

There’s a 21st century twist to this tradition.  The roads are asphalt paved so it’s hard on the horses.  These days the lovers make their getaway on a motorcycle.  And there’s no shooting bullets.  Remember, this is the Middle East.

They have a secret for the lowest divorce rate: The parents of the bride don’t attend and don’t pay for the wedding (they’re upset over their daughter being “kidnapped.”)  The mother doesn’t visit her son-in-law in his house.  Ever.  It’s their version of “Don’t meet the Fockers.”

Try writing material for this sitcom!

There are only 4000 Circassians in all of Israel (5 million worldwide), so the pool of available men and women is limited.  Matchmaking is forbidden, so is family inbreeding.  This leads to a shallow waters from which to catch mermaids.  Now that there’s peace with Jordan, some men go to Amman looking for a bride, some travel to Caucasus, to their ancestral homeland, and never return.

Entrance to Kfar Kama

I’m at the grocery store in Kfar Kama, pulling out stuff from the shopping cart.  The help around me talk Circassian, all gibberish.  I hand the woman cashier my credit card.  She rings me up.  I smile.

Who knows, my charm might work one day.

More information is available from tour guide Avshalom Shahar and his website http://www.nofim-il.co.il/site/?p=1932