Traveling on the segment from New York’s JFK airport to Israel, I was coincidentally seated next to a guy from Reno. He was an engineer named Paul, traveling to Israel for his company. From previous familiarity, I correctly guessed the company, Ormat Technologies. From the very first time I had visited Reno, I had noticed the plumes of steam rising from a mountain side on the south side of the city. There is a spa facility that uses the hot water spewing from the ground. But clearly, most of the potential energy was going to waste. Enter Ormat Technologies, a multi-national geothermal energy company. It’s interesting that because of cheap petroleum, Americans in general do not take advantage of the natural energy sources in their midst. It took foreigners, in this case the Israelis, to recognize and develop a great business opportunity in Reno, free non-polluting geothermal energy coming out of the ground and just begging to be harnessed.
There’s another business connection between Reno and Israel, the Desert Research Institute. Israel has been a world leader in developing efficient irrigation systems for use in desert environments with limited water available. The DRI has development projects around the US that promote water conservation and efficient use, with technologies first developed by the Israelis.
This visit to Israel takes me once again to my sister-in-law, who has lived in Rehovot, Israel, outside Tel Aviv for four decades. She (and my wife, Susan) were raised in Detroit. My sister-in-law was widowed in her thirties, and soon thereafter made Aliya, the traditional Jewish migration “home” to Israel for diaspora (scattered) Jews from around the world. Once again, I’m reminded that the Middle East is home to a generations-long history of ongoing conflicts and periodic wars between Israelis and Palestinians.
There are two major newspapers in Israel, the left-leaning Haaretz, and the right-leaning Jerusalem Post. The discussions in the Israeli press are very free and outspoken. Indeed, the divisions between left and right are expressed every day in the Israeli press. The guiding national principle of all Israelis, both leftist and rightist, is “Never Again,” a shared sentiment born from the holocaust, the mass murders of Jews in World War II.
The political treatment of the fifty-year occupation of the Palestinian territories, since the Israeli victory in the 1967 war, is brutal. Some members of the rightwing of the Knesset (Israeli parliament) want to forbid Palestinians from being able to mount court challenges to the bulldozing of “illegal” houses, illegal because Israel won’t grant building permits for new construction of Palestinian housing. The result is that the Palestinians build anyway but risk destruction by Israeli bulldozers anytime.
Spokesmen on the left accuse the government of keeping the Palestinians in open-air prisons in Gaza and the West Bank, while Israeli settlers slowly steal the land on which Palestinians hope to establish their own state. Non-Jewish African immigrants are another source of internal Israeli debate. The refugees are mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, fleeing persecution at home, and risking death if they are sent back. (This is comparable to the El Salvador refugees in the US, who fled their home country for the US because of gang threats and violence.) Some aging Jewish holocaust survivors are against the Israeli government’s move to deport the African refugees, because they compare the hardships faced by these African immigrants to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews during WWII.
Five years ago, when Susan and I attended the second international nursing conference, Middle East Nurses United in Human Caring, we became friends with a young Israeli-Arab lady named Aya. Two years ago, we visited Aya at her parents’ home in the largest Arab town in Israel proper, Umm al-Fahm. Since we last saw her, she has gotten married, moved into a new house, and is pregnant with her first child. We had the pleasure of meeting her again at her new home, together with her parents and two sisters, one of whom recently returned from living four years in Texas with her husband and children.
Aya comes from a rich and well-established family. Her grandfather was the mayor of Umm al-Fahm. Her father is a prosperous businessman. He supplies hummus and tahini (mainstays of Middle Eastern cuisine) to the US, which are marketed under the Sabra brand. Her father also markets halva (sesame paste) within Israel and internationally. They gifted us several packages. This family is probably among the richest within the Arab-Israeli community. Unfortunately, among many Jewish Israelis, the Moslem-Arab-Israelis are regarded as treacherous enemies whom they would like to expel from Israel, even though these Arab families have lived in Umm al-Fahm and other Israeli towns for generations.
One funny story told by Aya’s father was that he once traveled to Egypt to try to make a business deal for the famous exquisite Egyptian cotton textiles. But he was constantly under surveillance by policemen who suspected him of being a spy simply because he traveled under an Israeli passport. This is typical of the distrust that is rampant throughout the Middle East.
Clearly, Israeli Arabs have better lives than the Arabs confined to the Palestinian territories. Arab-Israelis travel with Israeli passports. Palestinians are “stateless,” not allowed to have Israeli passports, and only have identity cards that permit them to travel only to Jordan. That is why the annual nursing conference is held in Jordan instead of Israel. In Jordan, Israeli and Palestinian nurses can meet freely and form friendships and professional relationships apart from the barriers that exist for Palestinians within the Israeli-occupied territories.
There was an article in today’s Haaretz newspaper about Umm al-Fahm, which typifies the Jewish-Arab conflicts within Israel. Umm al-Fahm has over sixty thousand residents, but it has no mail delivery, because there are no street names and numbers. Thus, there are no distinct addresses to which mail can be delivered. Also, many residents have identical names, such as Mohammed, Ahmed, Abdul, Faisal, etc. (A small number of Umm al-Fahm residents have post office boxes in a central location.) The management of streets and highways is the Israeli government’s responsibility, not the town’s. In 2013, the town council of Umm al-Fahm organized and submitted for government approval a map with street names and numbers for its residents. However, the proposed plan was rejected by the government because some streets were given the names of Arab villages that were destroyed in the Israeli-Arab wars (by residents of those villages who migrated to Umm al-Fahm). The government also rejected and street named for Yassir Arafat. Five years have passed, and the re-submitted revised map, minus the prohibited names, has not yet been approved by the government.
There are many Jews and Moslems of good will who want to live in peace. There are a few cities in Israel, e.g. Haifa, Akku, and Jaffa, where both Jews and Arabs live, where they co-exist peacefully. (The historic city of Jerusalem is inhabited by Jews and Arabs, but is unfortunately segregated by ethnic/tribal identities, just as whites and blacks were segregated in the South when I was young.) On both sides, the people who want peace seem to be in the minority. Indeed, despite Israel and the Arabs having fought several wars since Israel was established in 1948, there are signs that the region is preparing for another war. One can only hope that the standard greetings in Hebrew (Shalom) and Arabic (Salaam) will prevail. Both words mean “Peace.”
Sharing food is traditionally regarded as a symbol of peace. Below are some of the dishes served in our meal with Aya’s family. Not shown: breaded chicken “schnitzel”, pita bread, hummos, and eggplant spread. This was a memorable meal.