Whose promised land? A journey into a divided Israel

We found Shai Melamud just before dusk, standing on his patio near Israel’s northern border, opposite a slope scorched black by recent rocket fire from Lebanon.

Melamud, 86, was born 13 years before the state of Israel. He grew up in these hills, the son of early Zionists who helped build one of the area’s first Jewish collective farms, or kibbutzim.

Over dinner, he remembered the Arab village that once stood on the now-empty hill to the north, whose residents fled during the 1948 war that established Israel. He remembered crossing the ridge to Lebanon on his father’s horse, back when Israel was only an idea in his father’s head. And he wondered what his father would make of the country today.

“If he took a look,” Melamud said, “he’d say a single sentence: ‘This wasn’t the child we prayed for.’ And then he’d return to his grave.”

Melamud’s kibbutz, Kfar Giladi, was the first stop of a recent journey I made with a photojournalist, Laetitia Vancon, from Israel’s far north to its southern tip. Israel is a small country, just 260 miles long. You can drive it in six hours. But we took 10 days, seeking to understand the child that Melamud’s father hadn’t prayed for.

We found a country still wrestling with contradictions left unresolved at its birth, and with the consequences of its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967. We found a people facing complex questions about what it means to be Israeli, or a Palestinian citizen of Israel. And we found a battle of narratives — waged not only between Jews and Arabs, but also among Jews themselves.

Israel’s founders hoped to create a melting pot, a society that blended diverse communities into a single Jewish state. But we encountered an Israel that at times felt more like an unsolvable jigsaw puzzle — a collection of incompatible factions, each with its own priorities, grievances and history.

In some ways, the pieces fit. We began our journey in late August, a few weeks after the installation of a new unity government that, more than any previous one, reflects the country’s political and ethnic diversity. The coalition was formed from both the left and the right, the first in more than a decade not to feature Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, and the first ever to include an independent Arab party.

Groundbreaking as that was, the underlying tensions and inequities remained — the unending occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and the social divisions that have split Israel since its founding: between Jews from Europe and the Middle East, between the secular and the devout, between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority.

After ethnic unrest in May, many Arab Israelis were increasingly asserting their Palestinian identity. And for all its diversity, the new government had no ultra-Orthodox parties, who were furious about it.

It’s this secular-religious tension that Melamud reckoned would most shock his father.

Their kibbutz has been semi-privatised; like Israel itself, many kibbutzniks have drifted from their socialist moorings. The business now earns more money from its quarries than its farms. The people working the land are now mostly Thai, not Israeli. And its austere guesthouse is now a boutique hotel.

But what bothers Melamud is Israel’s expanding ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, population, which has mushroomed from roughly 40,000 in the 1940s to more than 1 million in a country of 9 million people. The Haredim, in his view, promulgate a narrow version of Judaism that divides the country rather than unites it, and threatens the secular vision of the state’s founders. At the same time, they drain the state’s resources by studying religious law and claiming state benefits while avoiding army service and the labour market.

“You guys,” Melamud sometimes thinks. “You’re destroying what was.”

TIBERIAS

An hour to the south, we zigzagged up the slopes of Tiberias, a shabby, tired city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, and pulled up outside a Haredi restaurant.

It was a Thursday night, the start of the Israeli weekend, and Haredi families were lining up for cholent, a popular Jewish stew.

Yehoshua Blumenthal’s small restaurant was just a year old, a newcomer to a neighborhood that historically was largely secular. Like many of his customers, Blumenthal grew up in central Israel, in an ultra-Orthodox enclave where the huge Haredi families and limited housing have forced residents to live in ever more cramped homes.

By 2015, he’d had enough. He put his dining table and a few suitcases in the back of a pickup truck, and drove here to start a new life with his wife and baby. For half the price of his old apartment, Blumenthal, now 25, found a new home twice the size.

The Blumenthals were soon joined by thousands of others from their Hasidic sect, many of them buying property with donations from a Haredi housing charity. Since 2006, Haredi researchers estimate, the Haredi share of the city population has risen to 20% from 13%.

“Whether we want it or not, Tiberias will become a Haredi city,” Blumenthal said, speaking Hebrew with a Yiddish accent. “But as long as we don’t disrupt the lives of secular people here, what’s the problem with that?”

Timna Park, a tourist attraction on the site of a former copper mine, in Eilat, Israel, Sept 5, 2021. The New York Times Photo file name: israel-division-261021-02

But if the Haredim are changing Tiberias, Tiberias is also changing the Haredim.

Far from their leaders and often their parents, several Haredim said they live a more relaxed and independent life in Tiberias than they would in their hometowns. Blumenthal says he still feels deeply religious, but with less supervision by his relatives and rabbis, he feels less expectation to devote his whole life to studying religious law.

If he hadn’t moved here, Blumenthal said, he would still be studying at a religious seminary, and he would never have opened a restaurant.

The Haredim of Tiberias hail from various sects, and they have a range of attitudes about the Israeli state, the current government and the Palestinians.

At the restaurant, some diners said they appreciated the security the state provided, and the opportunity it gave them to live on land they believe was promised to them by God. But its secular nature made them ambivalent about the state itself, and about participating in its institutions. For one man, the Zionist state was no more legitimate than the Ottoman Empire that ruled until 1918.

Blumenthal had a different take. He accepted the state’s legitimacy, but bristled at how the new government had upset the Haredi way of life.

About half of Haredi men don’t work, allowing them to study religious texts full time. Almost all are exempted from military service for the same reason.

When Haredi numbers were smaller, that wasn’t a major concern. But the growing Haredi population — about 13% of the nation and rising — has amplified secular demands for Haredim to participate more fully in the protection and economy of the country.

The new government has responded, canceling some child-care subsidies for fathers who study religion full time instead of getting a job, and it is wrestling with how to implement a Supreme Court ruling that found the Haredi military exemption unconstitutional.

Blumenthal considers the criticism of the Haredi way of life unfair. Many do pay taxes and contribute to the economy, he said, and more would join the military if army life were made more compatible with ultra-Orthodoxy, for example by having more all-male units.

But the government’s response has made Blumenthal question his connection to Israel.

“I believe in the country as long as it doesn’t fight religion, as long as it doesn’t fight me,” he said.

In his view, the new government has undermined Israel’s Jewishness, undercutting the state’s legitimacy.

“If it’s not a Jewish state, then we have no right to exist here,” he said. “Our right to exist here is based on the fact that God gave us the land.”

HAIFA

We drove into downtown Haifa, a Mediterranean port city, along wide roads built on the ruins of an Arab neighborhood demolished after the 1948 war.

Here and there were the residues of what survived: a mosque, a church, a crumbling wall — fleeting skeins of Palestinian history among the modern Israeli office blocks and parking lots.

To many, Haifa symbolises Arab-Jewish coexistence. It has a larger Arab population than most Israeli cities. The deputy mayor is Arab. The city’s art museum is currently celebrating several Palestinian painters.

But to Palestinian residents like Asmaa Azaizeh, a poet who runs literary events in the city, Haifa remains as occupied as the West Bank. We met Azaizeh at Fattoush, a Palestinian cafe that makes a point of welcoming both Jews and Arabs, and where she once ran a bookstore.

Don’t be deceived, she said: The cafe is one of only a few truly shared spaces in the city.

Every time she drives into the city, the office blocks built on the destroyed Arab neighborhood underscore her sense of alienation, reminding her that most Arab residents fled the city in 1948. “They tell me to my face,” she said, “that this is not yours.”

Only once Israeli Jews acknowledge that her city is occupied, she said, can a meaningful discussion begin about the future. She hopes that future will bring a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, with equal rights for all — an idea that most Israeli Jews reject because it would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

“I’m not saying let’s throw them into the sea — no, of course not,” she said. “On the contrary, I really believe that we have to do something together. But not to pretend that everything is just, ‘Oh wow, we occupied only the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — and here it’s Israel.’ No, it’s not Israel. It’s Palestine.”

An Arab woman with an Israeli passport, Azaizeh does not feel completely at ease in her Palestinian-ness either. Her poetry often questions the extent to which she shares a narrative with other Palestinians. “I did not leave with the others,” she writes in one poem. “I took no part in their panic.”

Were it not for the occupation, Azaizeh said, she might see herself more as Arab than specifically Palestinian.

“Being a Palestinian is a way of resisting injustice,” she said. If there was nothing to resist, “I wouldn’t care if I was Palestinian or Egyptian or Lebanese or Jordanian.”

GIVAT AMAL BET

To its residents, the unpaved alleys of Givat Amal Bet — a small, rundown Tel Aviv neighbourhood — are evidence of Israel’s persistent discrimination against Jews of Middle Eastern origin.

After Arabs fled a village on the site in 1948, the Jewish leadership rushed scores of Middle Eastern Jewish families, known as Mizrahim, into the empty homes, with the aim of making it harder for Arabs to return.

The plan worked. But in the decades since, the Mizrahi families and their descendants were never given full ownership of their homes or permits to build on the land. Even as the Mizrahim grew in influence nationally, now making up more than half the Jewish population of Israel, the City Council resisted supplying the neighbourhood with basic services like electricity and street cleaning.

Today, Givat Amal Bet still looks a little like a slum, and its alleyways are not marked on Google Maps. To find the neighborhood, we had to drive to the end of a nearby road, turn left at the eucalyptus tree, and then call a resident to come collect us.

To Levana Ratzabi, 77, a resident of Givat Amal Bet since 1948, all this happened because she and her neighbours were Mizrahim. Nearby neighborhoods with Eastern European, or Ashkenazi, majorities faced fewer planning issues despite being founded in similar circumstances.

The discrepancy fits a wider pattern of discrimination set in the early years of the state, when Israel’s Ashkenazi leaders sent new Mizrahi immigrants — often recently expelled from neighbouring Arab countries — to live mainly in remote towns and under-resourced camps. For decades, the Mizrahi faced bias when applying for jobs or housing and to universities.

“My entire life I experienced discrimination,” said Ratzabi, a retired caterer. “If people heard my last name, they knew my origin.”

As a child, she faced ethnic abuse on a public bus. As an adult, a local school refused to admit her children.

In 1989, her 15-year-old son, Keren, killed himself, she said, after the father of his Ashkenazi girlfriend forbade her from dating a Mizrahi boy.

For decades, the authorities have been trying to evict the residents of Givat Amal Bet: The land has been sold to developers, who are building several residential towers for Tel Aviv’s business elite. Some people have already been evicted and compensated, and three towers have been built or are under construction.

The remaining holdouts, including Ratzabi, say they won’t leave until they receive fairer financial compensation. They fear eviction, possibly within days.

The irony is that the businessmen building the towers and seeking their eviction are mostly Mizrahi, too. And they’re some of the wealthiest people in Israel. The grandchildren of the area’s original residents are also doing well: They include lawyers and architects, doctors and military officers.

Ratzabi acknowledged that Israel has changed since she was a young mother. The Mizrahim now wield significant political power and no longer face such explicit discrimination.

But when she looks up at the new towers looming above her one-story home, she still feels left behind by today’s Israel. Her son’s empty bedroom, which remains as he left it, is a painful reminder of the divide. To her, it’s no consolation that the towers were built by Mizrahi magnates.

“We’re still the unfortunate Mizrahim over here,” she said. “Everyone treats us like garbage.”

TEL AVIV

On the wall above the desk in her apartment in central Tel Aviv, Xenia Sova hung a drawing of her childhood home. It was in Voronezh, western Russia.

Sova, a 35-year-old illustrator, toymaker and YouTube personality, had never heard of Judaism until the day a school classmate hurled an antisemitic slur at another student.

“What’s a Jew?” Sova asked her maternal grandmother. “Me and your grandpa,” her grandmother replied.

Under Israeli law, that heritage allowed Sova, then 15, to immigrate with her mother to Israel in 2001. They joined the tail end of a wave that brought over 1 million people to Israel from post-Soviet states, a group known today as Russian Israelis, regardless of whether they were actually from Russia.

Like many post-Soviet arrivals, Sova initially struggled to fit in. She found Hebrew difficult, and still speaks it with an accent. Her headmaster scolded her for celebrating Novy God, the Russian new year festival. People made jokes about Russians drinking too much vodka or never suffering from the cold.

“I heard so many stereotypes,” she said. “There was this wall between Russians and non-Russians.”

Her route to feeling Israeli ran through the Mizrahi culture she found everywhere. It was Mizrahi pop that she heard most often on the radio, and Mizrahi cuisine she ate most often in restaurants.

Her life became a mash-up of the culture into which she was born and the one she had adopted.

She created a YouTube channel, posting surreal self-penned songs, skits and blogs that blended her Russian heritage with the music, food and slang of the Mizrahim. In one sketch, she adapted a Mizrahi term of endearment — kapara — as if it were a Russian noun: kaparoski, kaparevich, kaparoshka, kaparoshichka. In another, she mixed Middle Eastern spices and a Mediterranean liquor to create a strange version of borscht, the Eastern European beet soup.

In the process, she and other post-Soviet émigrés — notably the rock band, Orgonite, which also peppered its songs with Russian and Mizrahi touchstones — pioneered a new subculture: Russian-Mizrahi fusion. Thanks in part to a campaign by Sova, Novy God is also now a relatively familiar part of the Israeli calendar.

She hopes the synthesis can help mold Israel society back into a melting pot, instead of a mosaic of competing tribes.

“We are Israelis, and your culture is my culture,” she said. “Stop dividing people into Russians, Americans, French people, Mizrahi — stop! We are Israelis.”

TEKOA

Palestinians can spend hours at checkpoints in the West Bank — but with our Israeli plates, we barely noticed when we entered the territory.

As usual, the border guards weren’t monitoring the Israeli traffic that flashed through the checkpoint connecting Israel with the southern West Bank. Once inside the latter, the main roads were still patrolled by the Israeli police, lined with Israeli street signs and studded with Israeli gas stations where you pay with the Israeli shekel. Until we passed through a Palestinian city managed by the Palestinian Authority — where the Hebrew signage vanished and the satellite navigation system, which doesn’t work properly in Palestinian-run areas, started acting up — it was as if we’d never left the state of Israel.

We arrived at the Israeli settlement of Tekoa, east of Bethlehem, in the middle of its annual arts festival. Two world-class contemporary dancers were performing a special set, whirling across the floor of a gallery. It could have been Tel Aviv.

About 700,000 Israelis, or a tenth of the Jewish Israeli population, live in more than 130 settlements in the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it from Jordan in 1967. Israel considers them legal, most of the world considers them illegal under international law, and the location of many of them challenges any possibility of creating a contiguous Palestinian state.

Some settlers are there because they believe the land was promised to Jews by God. Some believe Israel needs to control the West Bank for its own security. Others moved to settlements because the land is cheaper.

And then there are the 4,000 residents of Tekoa, who include artists and political moderates who say they support equality for Palestinians, at least in theory.

Daniella Levy, a 34-year-old novelist, is among them — a self-described “ambivalent settler.” She moved to the West Bank mainly because of her husband, who had been living there before their marriage. And they stayed partly because it allowed them to live within reach of Jerusalem, but without its housing costs, and partly because they liked the creativity of Tekoa itself.

Her 2020 novel, “Disengagement,” describes Israel’s withdrawal from its settlements in Gaza in 2005, told through the voices of right-wing settlers and left-wing peaceniks alike.

Would she leave the West Bank? “I’d be happy to leave if that is what would bring peace,” Levy said. “I just don’t really think that that’s true. I don’t think that what’s going to bring peace is the separation and transfer of populations.”

She is unsure, however, whether Palestinians and Jews are ready to live together in a single, egalitarian state.

“I think that Palestinians should have rights, and they should be able to live well and have a good life, the way that I do,” she said. But “in order for that to work, we would need to develop a basis of trust that is not there.”

High-rise apartments and hotels in Eilat, Israel, Sept 3, 2021. The New York Times. Photo file name: israel-division-261021-03

To Levy, the new Israeli government might help build that trust, since its composition creates a template for Arab-Jewish cooperation. “Maybe from a small amount of agreement,” she said, “we might sidle up to those bigger issues.”

In Tekoa itself, though, there isn’t much chance of trust-building. Levy has little contact with local Palestinians, beyond fleeting interactions with those who run shops lining a nearby highway or the construction workers who build homes in Tekoa.

To the Palestinians on the other side of the valley, some of whom we also met that day, the settlement itself is an obstacle to trust, and an example of a two-tier legal system that they liken to apartheid. Tekoa was built in the 1970s and 1980s after Israel turned the site into a closed military zone, blocking access to Palestinians, who, although lacking formal title to the land, had farmed it for generations.

Levy said it was important to acknowledge Palestinian anger about the settlement’s construction, but that it was time to move on.

“At a certain point,” she said, “you have to kind of accept what is, and work with what is.”

KIRYAT GAT

Throughout our journey, we saw countless shikunim, the cheap housing projects constructed across Israel in the years after the state’s establishment.

Built in a rush to house waves of new immigrants, shikunim are bland buildings with few frills and small windows, often still with the same boilerplate names — Shikun A, Shikun B — that they were assigned when they first opened.

Moshe Tateka Tasama, an Ethiopian Israeli rapper, grew up in a shikun in Kiryat Gat, a small, unsung city just north of the Negev desert, founded in 1954. We arrived there at sunset, on a Wednesday.

Tasama, 31, showed us the forecourt where he used to loiter with friends after skipping school, and the streets where he was stopped and often arrested by the police for crimes including drug-related offenses, carrying a knife and threatening police officers. A recent government commission found Ethiopian Israelis disproportionately face prosecution by the justice system, and Tasama was no exception.

Better known as Bazzi B, his artistic alias, Tasama has risen to prominence by rapping about the hard-knock shikun life. As a teenager, he was lost — and wondered how he fit into Israel’s narrative, growing up in an isolated immigrant town on the periphery of Israeli society. The history he learned in school centered on Israelis of European and Middle Eastern descent, rather than the small Jewish community that had survived for centuries in East Africa.

“I couldn’t see myself belonging here,” he said. “It’s as if a path was written for me, but it belonged to someone else.”

That sense of alienation is common among the 150,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent, many of whom were airlifted from Ethiopia in the 1980s and 1990s. Some rabbis questioned the legitimacy of their strain of Judaism. Only a fifth of adults have a university degree, half the national rate. Their monthly household income is a third of the national average. In 2015, a government inquiry found that the proportion of juvenile detainees of Ethiopian descent was 10 times the national rate.

Tasama has been detained more times than he can remember, and he still stiffens when he hears a police siren.

First-generation Ethiopian immigrants tended to keep quiet about all this. But Tasama’s generation is pushing back, holding protests against police violence and drawing inspiration from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tasama has made it a subject of his music. The opening to his song “It’s Time” lists the names of 10 recent Ethiopian victims of police violence, before building toward a warning: “A system that doesn’t value me will fall like Goliath before King David.”

Palestinians also take inspiration from Black Lives Matter, and I asked if that had prompted Tasama to draw any comparisons between his struggle and theirs. He said he hadn’t really considered it.

In fact, his search for belonging had perhaps pushed him in the opposite direction: What ultimately sustains him, he said, is his connection, as a Jew, to this land.

“It is our right to be here,” he said. “This is the place that God gave us.”

ARAQIB

We missed the turnoff for Araqib, a Bedouin hamlet in the Negev desert. Araqib isn’t listed on official maps, and there’s no signpost or slip road from the highway. To find it, you have to know where to look.

The police knew where, though. They arrived an hour after we did, in a convoy of five police cars and a truck carrying two bulldozers, sending the villagers’ horses cantering into the desert. Lying on the sand under a tree, fiddling with his prayer beads, the aging village sheikh sprang to his feet, shouting at his son to chase the police.

“Take their photos!” he yelled.

It was a futile gesture. The police had demolished parts of the village 191 times since 2010, according to a rights watchdog; a camera had never deterred them. This time, their bulldozers knocked down two tents, then left as quickly as they had come.

“That was number 192,” said Aziz al-Turi, the sheikh’s son.

The al-Turi family is descended from Bedouin Arab nomads who crisscrossed the region for centuries, and later settled in the Negev before Israel was founded.

Israel says that most of the Bedouins have no right to the land, since their ownership claims were never recorded in Ottoman-era land registries. For decades, the government has been trying to move more than 30 Bedouin communities from their traditional grazing grounds in the Negev into seven purpose-built towns.

The most prominent holdout is Araqib. Residents showed us copies of a purchase document that they say proves they bought the land from another tribe in 1905. The state says the Ottomans never documented the sale.

Hakmah Abu Mudeghim in Araqib, a Bedouin hamlet in the Negev desert of Israel, Sept 2, 2021. The New York Times Photo file name: israel-division-261021-04

The dispute has created a desperate standoff: The government has refused to connect the village to water and electricity, and razes at least some of the tents every few weeks. Those who remain mostly live within the perimeter of the village cemetery in broken-down vans. It is harder to obtain a court order to demolish a van since it is technically a vehicle, not a dwelling.

Of all the groups we met, the villagers of Araqib felt the most divided about who they were.

“I am Bedouin,” said Sabah al-Turi, Aziz al-Turi’s wife. “I hold an Israeli identity card, so I can’t say I am Palestinian.”

Her neighbor, Hakmah Abu Mudeghim, said she used to agree. As a child, she had no sense of Palestinian nationalism. “But now I feel Bedouin-Palestinian,” she said. “The difference now is the oppression. It forced on us the Palestinian identity.”

Aziz al-Turi had a third take. What he values most isn’t a national identity, but the identity he derives from living on the soil his ancestors were buried in.

“I was born here — I feel and taste my land,” he said. “I want to live on my land under any national framework. Whatever the country is, it doesn’t matter.”

EILAT

From a distance, the seaside hotels of Eilat looked like downtown Las Vegas transplanted to the Red Sea coast.

Garish and eccentric, Eilat was nothing like anything we’d seen elsewhere in Israel. It was also nothing like what Shmulik Taggar, one of Eilat’s earliest residents, saw when he first arrived here in 1959.

“Are you joking?” said Taggar, 80, when we met him on the seafront. He wore a cowboy hat over his long white hair, his shirt unbuttoned to the waist. “We didn’t need hotels here in those days.”

By his account, he moved to Eilat at the suggestion of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, for whom he was a bodyguard during army service in the 1950s. Back then the town was a dour place with just a few hundred residents, a barren, narrow beachfront squeezed between northeast Egypt and southwest Jordan. Ben-Gurion hoped Taggar and other young Israelis might turn it into a major port and a hub for copper mining.

If he visited Eilat today, the former prime minister would be “a little bit disappointed,” Taggar reckoned.

The mine closed in the 1980s, and the port never became a major thoroughfare. Instead, Eilat is Israel’s premier resort — thanks in large part to Taggar’s tenure in charge of the city’s tourism department. It’s also home to hundreds of Eritrean refugees, who walked into Israel from Egypt, and who’ve been waiting years for officials to assess their asylum applications.

Like the kibbutz where we started our journey, Eilat has turned into something that Israel’s founders never envisaged.

But Taggar was perfectly happy about that. In fact, he seemed happier than most of the people we’d met anywhere else in the country. The sun and the sea helped, as did the nearby coral reef.

But there was perhaps something deeper at work, too.

From Tekoa to Tel Aviv, from Araqib to Kiryat Gat, concepts of dignity and belonging had become enmeshed in people’s connection to the land — often to very specific tracts of it. Anything that threatened that connection tore at their sense of self.

But far away in Eilat, Taggar had a different attitude to the land and who owns it. Twice a year, he witnesses millions of birds migrating over Eilat, heading to and from Europe and Africa, oblivious to national borders. When he stands on the shore of the Red Sea, he sees a narrow stretch of water shared with Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. And as a former city official, he has practical experience coordinating with those countries’ authorities.

All of this gives him a less rigid sense of the relationship between the national and personal, between territory and identity.

“We can be part of any country,” Taggar said. “We can be part of Israel. We can be part of Israel-Palestine. We keep our identity not because of nationality but because of belief.”

“Who cares whether it was your land, my land,” he added. “Live anywhere you want.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company