With its dense history of endless conflict, Israel's coastline is by far the most interesting hundred miles in the world. NBC’s Tel Aviv news bureau chief, Martin Fletcher, strolled the entire coast, from Lebanon to Gaza, to observe facets of the country that are ignored in news reports. Here's an excerpt from “Walking Israel.”
One November afternoon in 1992, just before sunset, two friends and I took out a sixteen-foot Hobie Cat off the Israeli coast at Herzliya for one last rip out to sea. The wind was blasting at twenty-five knots, right on the edge of safety, but we knew the waters well and relished it.
How dumb could we be? A half hour in we were racing on one hull, sail taut, leaning hard into the wind, powering through the waves, when a freak gust tore into the sail, shooting us like corks into the sea and leaving the boat upside down. At first it was routine — capsizing a catamaran is half the fun. But for two hours we struggled to right our vessel. We grew tired, and as dusk fell we got scared. We were alone, it was late, and we were in serious trouble. For some reason, the mast and hulls began to fill with water and the catamaran sank. Buoyed by the trampoline, it became a deadweight just below the surface.Video: ‘Searching for the Soul’ of Israel (on this page)
Soon the only light came from the stars and a half-moon. Giving up on the boat, we dove underneath and cut off the mast and sail, hoping at least to raise the trampoline above the water so we could sit on it and warm up. As we watched the sail, our only means of control, ﬂoat away, we began drifting faster out to sea. Making matters worse, the hulls were now full of water and so heavy we still couldn't force the trampoline right way up.
We resolved to hang on to the submerged boat until rescue came. But it didn't.
The air was cool and the water frigid. In our three-millimeter rubber suits and life jackets, my friend Ziv Levanon and I could probably have survived by waiting to be rescued in the morning. However, our third sailor, Eitan, a tough and lean eighteen-year-old, wore only his swimming trunks. After half an hour in the water, his teeth were chattering, and he was beginning to fade. We knew hypothermia could kill him in hours, and that his only chance was to keep moving by swimming to shore.
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Ziv, the owner of our sailing club, grew up on a kibbutz by the sea and was confident he could make it, but I was a poor swimmer. After three hours drifting, the coast was now about two miles away, and there was a gentle current pulling us south and west, away from land. The waves were low, but strong. We knew we had to act, and quick. So with Eitan listless between us, Ziv and I slipped into the sea and struck out for Israel's coast, kicking hard, pushing the submerged trampoline, which had become our life raft.
It was tough. Riding high in the peak of the waves, I could make out a tiny smudge of dark matter that was dry land, but in the waves' troughs all I saw was a wall of water. My legs were weak and heavy, and I shivered with cold. Sometimes I swallowed seawater, then hacked it out, gulping in clean air while treading in place. No way would I let go of the trampoline. I didn't despair, or at least not too much. Nothing weightier crossed my mind than the British music hall ditty "I Do Like to Be Beside the Seaside," emphasis on the "Do" and the "Sea." That and the thought of how good a warming tot of rum would feel.
We made slow progress. To keep my spirits up, I glanced periodically to shore, spotting the familiar sandy beach and the low cliffs of the coast around Tel Aviv, which now appeared as shadows in the night. As the hours passed and the coast approached, the beaches where I had spent so many pleasurable hours took on new meaning, embodying not just the good life I had come to enjoy as a foreign correspondent based in Israel, but life itself, and also, I imagined, human civilization through the ages.
The tiny orange dots of light coming from seaside homes and hotels recalled the bonfires that had once lit the way for sailors as they approached the Holy Land. How many men had struggled to swim ashore over the generations? I knew there were thousands of shipwrecks along the coast. This led to other, more personal thoughts. With every exhausted stroke, I swore I'd pray every day, nay, twice a day. If you only save me, O God, I'll be a new man and help everybody. Please, save me! I'll be nice to my wife. I'll even be fair to Jewish settlers!
Ziv, Eitan, and I stuck together in the dark sea and followed moonlit channels of light to land. It took us eight hours, but we made it, and at four thirty in the morning we were hauling ourselves onto the sandy beach by our fingernails, like three Robinson Crusoes.
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Desperate men couldn't have landed at a more fitting place: Tel Baruch, north of Tel Aviv, Israel's most notorious hooker hangout. The ladies, dressed in skintight white pants and the tiniest of bulging tank tops, or screaming red microskirts and what appeared to be lace bras, were resting at a bonfire between tricks, while the legs of their johns lolled out the backs of pickups. Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, reputedly said Israel would not be a real country until it had prostitutes, and here they were. On seeing us, the women first appeared alarmed, their mouths gaping as Ziv and I, in our dripping rubber suits, hugging the almost naked Eitan, emerged through the mist, our teeth chattering and our bodies numb with cold. They must have thought the SM gays had arrived. Then one of the prostitutes, a stocky rinsed blonde, who in retrospect was probably a man, wrapped blankets around us and filled us with steaming mint tea. With towels they rubbed our heads, and I remember wondering where else the towels had been, but being too tired to care. They were happy we had landed among them, like more thieves in the night.
After establishing that we were unharmed by our ordeal, the hookers' driver, a gaunt, tattooed man who informed us that he was on weekend furlough from jail, kindly drove us home in his beat-up old Peugeot. He wouldn't take any money, but all the way he tried to sell us on the charms of his "girls." His parting advice was a delightful non sequitur: "Stay out of jail — crime doesn't pay."
My house was dark, and at first I silently thanked God that Hagar, my wife, was unaware of my misadventure. But our bed was empty. I phoned the sailing club and sure enough, there she was, keeping a terrified vigil with friends who also feared we had drowned. The coast guard was searching for us in vain. "Uh, hello," I said. Hagar burst into tears.
I checked on the kids, who were sleeping peacefully, dimmed the bathroom light, put on a CD, ran a hot oily bath, and slid gratefully in, feeling my skin tingle and heat pulse through my body. As I waited for Hagar, chuckling at yet another brush with death, I savored the reaction of one of our hooker hosts, a buxom lady who hugged me to keep me warm. "What a country," she had said. "They came from the sea. They could have been terrorists and killed us. Or police and arrested us. And what do we do? We give 'em a cup of tea! But they are cute in rubber," she said, patting my stomach. And then she repeated, "What a country!"
Walking Israel is a rather different sort of book about the people and society of modern Israel. I don't emphasize, as have most authors, the blood feud between Jews and Arabs and their numbing peace plans, nor do I provide an account of the City of Peace, Jerusalem, or follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Rather, I relate my own personal journey of discovery along an often ignored but fascinating landscape that was such a beacon of hope for me that desperate night: Israel's historic coast.
During the summer of 2008, I spent two weeks trekking along the entire coast, visiting seaside communities from the Lebanon border to the tip of the Gaza Strip. My idea was simple: Get away from the narrow focus of my daily grind as a news reporter, enjoy a leisurely stroll along beautiful terrain, stop off in interesting places and talk to interesting people, then follow up on issues that fascinated me. Looking with fresh and open eyes at Israel, its past and present, I wanted to write a book that would take readers beyond the familiar yet constricted stories of guns and bombs and closer to the true nature of this unique country. I wanted to write a book that would have a very simple, often overlooked, message: This quirky, surprising, complex, difficult, and disturbing country is actually a great place.
Israelis are hard to impress. When I told my wife's brother, Yaariv, of my plan to walk from Rosh Hanikra on the Lebanon border all the way south to Yad Mordechai and the border with Gaza, in a couple of weeks, he scoffed: "In the army, we walked eighty miles in twenty-seven hours, with a twenty-pound backpack." My friend Fossi jeered: "So what? On my first day in the navy commandos they gave us lousy new shoes, backpacks with twenty kilos of sand, then made us go into the water, doubling the load. We had to run and run, sixty miles in fourteen hours, and on the way we had to free a truck stuck in the sand."
Okay, so I'm not eighteen and I wasn't climbing Mount Everest. It wasn't as ambitious or dangerous a trip as my three-week trek across the Hindu Kush mountains reporting on the Afghan mujahideen's battle against the Soviets, or my week chasing the French Foreign Legion in Zaire. Israel's entire coastline is only 110 miles, not quite the length of Long Island, New York, or from Washington, D.C., to Charlottesville, Virginia. You can drive the whole way on one gallon of fuel, if you believe Chrysler's claim for its hybrid jeep. But when you consider the extraordinary span of history crammed into this tiny coastline, it has to be the most fascinating, action-packed hundred miles in the world.
This tiny sliver of land shaped like a curved dagger has always been the site of raw passions, where empires collided and great religions were born. Here Canaanites and Philistines fought, the Romans ruled, Christianity and Islam clashed, and the armies of Alexander the Great and Napoleon and the Ottomans stormed to shore. Yet today the coast is interesting not so much as a place of war, but as a place of peace. Seventy percent of Israel's people, Jews and Arabs, live within ten miles of the beach, along the coastal plain, in relative harmony. Take a walk through Israel's coastal communities and you find a much more dynamic, diverse, and energizing place than you see in the headlines — a society with the second-largest per-capita buyers of books in the world; where each small town has a major orchestra; where, as I found, prostitutes trade on the cliff and serve mint tea to those in need; and where a resigned humor trumps all.
When a stooped former soldier told me he had been a prisoner of war in Syria for a year, I clucked in sympathy. "Hah," he said, as he pulled up his sleeve and displayed the number tattooed on his forearm, "it was like a sanatorium after Auschwitz." Jewish and Arab men share the same hen-pecked joke: A woman buys her husband two neckties for his birthday. He proudly wears one and she cries: "What, you don't like the other one?"
For all the attention focused on this tiny land, and all the effort spent on fixing its problems, Israel has to be the most analyzed yet least understood country in the world. I am always struck by the worried question of first-time visitors: "Is it safe to come?" Yet after a week here they exclaim, "Wow, Israel's such a great place. I had no idea!"
An Israeli intellectual, the "new historian" Benny Morris, summed up the dichotomy as follows: "Zionism has always had two faces: a constructive, moral, compromising and considerate aspect; and a destructive, selfish, militant, chauvinistic-racist one. Both are sincere and real. ... The simultaneous existence of these two facets was one of the most significant keys to the success of Zionism."
The media doesn't talk much about the pleasing side of Israel, nor, in news terms, does it need to. Rather, it sticks to a familiar and unhappy story, that of a brutal military dictatorship whose relationship with the Palestinians is defined by force. This familiar Israel, unlike the compassionate one I encountered during my sailing misadventure, is a place of violent passions, religious fervor, and tribal intensity, which the Palestinians match slogan for slogan and prayer for prayer. The clashing dreams of Jews and Arabs lead periodically to bullets and bombs, stones and grenades, funerals and parades — grim fodder for news media. Everything else pales; if it isn't "news," reporters pay little attention, and as a result many wonderful, surprising, and profound aspects of the country go unreported. I've often reﬂected over the years that the large majority of Israelis living along the coast could be in a completely different country for all the world hears about them.
As a reporter covering Israel and the region for European and American television since 1973, I myself have hardly been blameless. Most of my work has dealt with people and events located away from the coast, east of a line that zigzags from north to south, through Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. This line includes the Jewish settlements and every main point of friction. I hadn't realized how typecast my own coverage of Israel was until I phoned the news desk in New York one day and the desk editor immediately interrupted in alarm, "Martin, has there been a bomb?" as if there could be no other reason for me to call. What made it even more galling was that I had to respond, "Yes, in Jerusalem, ten dead so far."
In writing Walking Israel, I've tried to remedy this important and unfortunate media distortion that presents Israel as such an unappealing place.
Excerpted from "Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation," by Martin Fletcher. Copyright 2010. Reprinted with permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved.