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A Fisherman’s Reflections on a beautiful but troubled world
Chapter 15 - Israel

                                      I am a Jew.
                                      Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
                                      dimensions, senses, affections, passions ?  . . .
                                      If you prick us, do we not bleed,
                                      If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

                                      Shakespeare,   (Shylock),  Merchant of Venice


                                      Yes, I am a Jew;
                                      and when the ancestors of the right honourable member
                                      were brutal savages on an unknown island, -
                                      mine were priests in
the temple of Solomon.

                                      Benjamin Disraeli, (replying to MP Daniel O’Connell
in the House of Commons, 1835)


My knowledge of Israel came largely from Biblical history, and was short on modern events.  When the geography and history of a land is learned only in church and Sunday school, it does tend to have an air of unreality about it.  I believe for most of us, it takes a personal visit to the region to make the facts alive and relevant.  Along with many distant observers, however, I did think the creation of a Jewish state was an amazing thing.  How a people could retain their faith, language, customs and ethnicity during nineteen centuries of dispersal in other lands, is a historical wonder.  But I do not interpret their current possession of the land as signifying that they have a divine right to treat the Palestine people in an unjust way.  None of my Israeli friends think that either.  Israel has a right to exist and to defend itself, but the Arab residents of Palestine also have a right to a home, to a future, to security and to peace.  That truth should not be obscured by the terrorist murders by suicide bombers, or the shelling of Palestine homes and villages by the Israeli army.  Arabs and Israelis are brothers, and ultimately there has to be reconciliation.


Above ; Arab town west of Jerusalem.  Known as Bethany in New Testament, but the Arabs now call it El-Lazarai, the town of Lazarus.  There are many Arabs in Israel, both Moslem and Christian.

The portrayal of Jewish people in English literature has been mixed, yet nearly all the books with characters of that race, reflect the way they have been vilified and persecuted, and been subject to injustice.  Shakespeare’s Shylock evokes both sympathy and dislike, yet students of the works of the bard of Avon usually identify him as the real hero of The Merchant of Venice.  Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe portrays the beautiful but tragic Jessica, suffering in consequence of her race and her religion.  She has been described as the most noble character in that romantic tale.  Charles Dicken’s Fagin, in Oliver Twist, is a despicable figure for the most part, though a pathetic creature at the end.  Some have argued that he is balanced by the brutal Englishman Bill Sykes.  But then, Sykes is one of many English characters, while Fagin is the only Jewish person in the book.  I read each of those works while at school, but remained largely unaware of the anti-semitic undertones they reflected.  I could never understand the anti-semitism of Christian persons since in my albeit simple understanding of theology, all of mankind were guilty of the betrayal and death of Christ, and, after all, Jesus was a Jew in every sense of the word.  

Nazi treatment of Jews in the late 1930’s

I think I must have been about ten years old when I first came across the horrors of the Holocaust perpetrated on the Jewish people by Hitler and his Nazis.  My parents had gone off for a whole day, which was unusual for them, and my grandmother was looking after us and preparing the tea.  The weather being cold and wet, I sought relief from boredom in the books in the ‘front room’ bookcase.  One volume I found, Lest We Forget, (by Lord Russell of Liverpool), was a large pictorial record of the concentration camps with photographs of the surviving inmates and the heaps of dead bodies as discovered by the allied troops on their arrival in 1945 at Auschwitz, Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau and other dreadful extermination camps..  The images have haunted me ever since.  I gazed at every picture and became physically sick, but said nothing to other family members.  My grandmother could not understand why that evening I declined a meal that I would normally have enjoyed.

                 Auschwitz concentration camp                                     Grave of Belsen inmates

I recall another early awakening to the realities of the Middle East when seeking some relief from our navigation studies, Skipper Willie Cowie of the Strathpeffer, and I, went to a local cinema one evening in Aberdeen, to see Otto Preminger’s film Exodus, based on the book by Leon Uris.  The film, made in 1960, relates some of the events leading up to the declaration of the State of Israel in 1947.  It portrayed the fears, goals, and vulnerability of the fledgling state with graphic depictions of terrorist activities and the war of independence at the birth of the new state, and in its aftermath.


I was later to meet with Israelis who took part in these events.  The first was Raphael Ruppin, a member of an illustrious family whose father was Chairman of the Jewish Agency and as such enabled group of pioneers to establish the first kibbutz (D’gania Alef) by providing them with land allocation and some budget. He was later a Minister of Education.  His brother-in-law was Yigael Yadin Professor of Archeology at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who had commanded the Israeli army during the war of independence, and who was later Deputy Premier to Menachem Begin.  Yadin is best known for his marvelous books on archeological discoveries.

I was to spend some hours with Yigael Yadin, and given that opportunity, quizzed him at length about ancient Hebrew history, and his excavations at Masada and Hazor.  Masada we all know was the last fortress of first century Jews who held out against the might of the Roman empire.  The defenders eventually committed suicide rather than surrender.  The history has been well recorded by Josephus and others, and has recently been presented in a film for the benefit of cinema goers.  Hazor was the chief northern city state in the time of Joshua.  It was conquered by the invading Hebrews, and was one of the few cities that Joshua ordered to be burned according to the eleventh chapter of the book of his name.  During the Hazor excavations, Yadin’s workers actually came across the 13th century BC level of ashes that marked the city’s destruction by Joshua’s forces.

I met Ruppin when we were both participating in the FAO / USSR seminar and study tour on fisheries training and education.  At that time he ran a fishery school located in Michmoret on the Mediterranean coast.  I was to visit him there several times, and had the memorable experience of joining the family at a Seder feast (Passover meal) that was led by Yadin himself.  Raphael’s aged mother was still around then.  She had emigrated to Palestine after the first world war, to meet her husband-to-be, and she had a wealth of tales about the land and the people in those days.  Raphael (at 80 years of age) recently wrote an acclaimed novel on the Josephus period that has remarkable relevance to the modern situation.

The other character was even more interesting.  Menachem Ben Yami was brought up in  Poland where he found himself in the Warsaw ghetto at the start of the second world war.  He escaped from the ghetto at the age of 16 and joined a group of Jewish partisans survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and within the framework of The Polish Communist resistance fought with them and Soviet POW escapees against the Nazi forces for a year and a half.  He then joined the Red Army, and fought with them on the Eastern front for another year. He was made a scout-sapper, with the duties of finding and clearing mines ahead of his regimental scouting squad. After recovering from a shrapnel wound in Soviet hospitals in Moscow, Menachem went back to Poland to join the Polish army from which he was demobilized after a couple of month as being too young!

Jewish immigration ship, SS Kedmah

He then made his way to Germany from where he helped to bring Jewish survivors from the East to the UNRRA refugee camps in the American occupation zone.  Later he was sent by the Haganah underground to Marseilles where at a maritime school he was trained to be a marine wireless operator. As such he boarded one of the illegal emigrant ships and made it to Israel.  Swimming ashore one night he was arrested by British soldiers and put into an internment camp.  He escaped from the internment camp and joined a kibbutz where he worked until the declaration of Israel’s statehood after which he fought in the war of independence in the fledgling Israeli Navy. 

Once all that was over, Menachem returned to his kibbutz near Haifa and started to fish in the Mediterranean. This was on a Scottish MFV that had been based in Alexandria during the WW2 to serve as a firefighting vessel.  Ben Yami operated it for ten years, before moving for 3 years to the South Red Sea port of Massawa, thus starting his international career.  He married a lovely young Jewish girl, Hannah, who had survived the Teresianstadt concentration camp, but had lost her parents and sister in Nazi death camps. Her two brothers survived by escaping from Germany during the war.

Although largely self-taught, Ben Yami could speak four languages, - Polish, Hebrew, Russian and English.  (He later acquired some Italian and French).  Studying fishery literature in the 1950’s he obtained copies of Soviet fishery texts.  This was at the time when Russia was building fleets of factory trawlers, and sending them all over the world to fish (and possibly do other things as well).  Menachem translated several of the Russian fishery books into English, and that was how I first came across his name, when I read these translations in the library of the Fishery College in Canada, in 1965.  The following year I was invited by Hilmar Kristjonsson, FAO’s chief fishery technologist, to undertake some work in his office in Rome, Italy.  One evening there I was taken to a reception in the office of Roy Jackson, then Director of Fisheries FAO.  There was a very pleasant Israeli man there, on his way to a brief study period in the USA.  I can still recall his boyish look and eager personality.  That was my first meeting with Menachem Ben Yami.

Above : Kibbutz of Ein Gedi.  The kibbutzim are collective farms which practice communal ownership and management.  Many of them today have turned from agriculture to manufacturing and are quite prosperous.

Entering Jerusalem during the 67 war.

He was to become a prolific fishery author, even producing computer programmes of data and formulas of use to fisheries technologist.  It was a pleasure for me to work with him and even co-author some fishery papers with him.  Menachem had the most creative and agile mind I ever came across.  Each problem or issue was tackled with great enthusiasm.  Lateral thinking was a speciality.  He never tired of finding new ways to approach the challenges of fishery management, or of adapting technology to address new needs.  At over 70 years of age, he is still in demand all over the world as a speaker and writer.

Now, some might think that my Jewish friends might be hard-line anti-Arab Israelis, but nothing could be further from the truth.  They are both on the “peace wing” of Israeli politics.  Both are in favour of a Palestine state, and of the return of the west bank to the Arab people.  Both despaired of the aggressive military actions of Ariel Sharon, although they approved of his plan to withdraw from Gaza. [Of  Sharon, who was struck down by illness in 2006, Menachem says that following his political U-turn, and his subsequent struggle against his own party’s and other extremists, the whole “peace wing” became his supporters. Therefore, as long as he sincerely pursued his Gaza evacuation project he could count on the ever-wary support of the left and the center-left parties. History teaches that there are strong rightist leaders who at a certain stage “see the light” and resolve conflicts, which leftist leaders are unable to resolve because of strong opposition from the right. It was President Richard Nixon, the communist hater who established USA relations with China.  It was the rightist Begin, who made peace with Egypt by withdrawing from the whole of Sinai. Golda Meir said at that time: “Such peace I could have made before, but just imagine what he (Begin) would have done to me…”. De Gaulle pulled France out of Algeria, and Churchill started the dismantling of the British empire.] Raphael Ruppin used to tell me of a close Arab friend of his who died some years ago.  They grew up together and became lifelong friends.  “When we discuss the Arab-Israeli problems”, said Raphael, “we have differences, yes, - but if it was left to the two of us, we could resolve all of the issues and make arrangements for long-term peace and security, in a couple of days”.

Above : Refugee camp outside of Jericho

An Arab home demolished by the Israeli military

The situation in Israel today is bad, mainly for social reasons and the growing gap between haves and have-nots.  Some might say it could scarcely be worse, short of full scale war breaking out again. However, it is somewhat improved on the prevailing conditions at the turn of the century.  But it all needs to be seen in context, and the fledgling state of 60 years has had to face a constant threat against its very existence.   Few countries have to live in a constant state of near war as Israel must. 

But it is still surprising to visit Israel and find Jews and Arabs working, studying, serving, side by side, all over the small country.  I have often taken Arab taxis when driving around, and have enjoyed listening to the drivers’ point of view which they will readily share.  One has to remember that there are Arab Jews, that is Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries.  Then there are some Arabs who converted to Judaism (usually following military service), but this makes them full-scale Jews in the eyes of the State. There are also Christian Arabs, Arab-speaking Druses with their special religion and culture, and Moslem Cherkes (Cercesians) who are not Arabs, but descendants of Caucasians.  There is also a large community, - almost a tribe, of ‘Black Hebrews’ who live in a quasi-collective.  Although practicing a form of Judaism, they are not recognized as true Jews by the orthodox rabbis.  Many of them came to Israel from the USA.  Recently the Israeli army accepted into its ranks, its very first Israel-born Black Hebrew.  Thus there is a large and varied population of non-Jews and quasi-Jews living in the state of Israel.

Bedouin Arabs, nomadic tribesmen of Israel and Palestine

My wife’s family has interesting Jewish connections.  A German-Jewish family, the Schlomka’s, came to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1948 when there was much unrest in Israel. Fritz Ernst Constantin had been in a concentration camp for a period in Germany and had gone from there to Palestine in 1934, where he met and married Hannah Rachel Haber who had been born in Jaffa in 1918.  From then he used an Anglicised first name of Michael. They had three young children, Conny, Helen and Freddy.  They set up a small second-hand bookshop business in the city, and started to build a life for themselves.  However, Mr Schlomka died suddenly, and his wife who suffered throughout her life from bouts of nervous illness, had to be hospitalized.  My wife’s parents knew the family and took an interest in the children, acting as foster parents to them over a period of years.  The older boy Conny died in tragic circumstances, but Helen and Freddy survived, and were like a brother and sister to my wife.  Helen married a young local businessman, and Freddy, after a few escapades, went to the USA, and from there he later moved to Israel. 

Today, Helen has a lovely grown-up family.  She has researched her family history with great diligence, and contacted relatives in Germany, Israel, and the USA.  She is a great supporter of the State of Israel, and follows the events there with much concern.  Freddy has taken a different route.  He married a world-class harpist, and on moving to Israel, took a deep interest in the plight of the Palestine people.  For a period he operated a charity, ICAHD, the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions, which rebuilds Arab houses that have been damaged or destroyed by the Israeli army. (I doubt if any Jew could have been more pro-Palestine people than that !)  Freddy now promotes the development of small mixed communities to demonstrate how Arabs and Israelis can live together in harmony. 

My visits to Israel took place between 1975 and 1988, and were both official and personal in nature.  I was able to see the land from Tel Aviv to Jericho, and from Galilee to Elat on the gulf of Aqaba.  It is a fascinating place, especially for anyone with a background in Biblical events.  Almost every corner of the country has links with the distant past.  At Beth Shean, near to mount Gilboa where King Saul and Jonathan were killed, a first century Roman-era town that was destroyed in an earthquake, is being painstakingly pieced together, stone by stone, like a huge three-dimensional jigsaw for which there is no guiding picture !  I was struck by the number of Bible places that are now Arab towns, including Nazareth, Bethlehem and Bethany.  Bethany was the home of Mary and Martha, and where according to John’s Gospel, their brother was raised from the dead.  The present Arab residents of that little town, preserve a memory of the Gospel account in their name for the village – El Lazarai – the town of Lazarus.  Old Jerusalem is like something out of a fairy tale book.  Viewing it from the Mount of Olives, one is transported back, not just centuries, but millenniums. 

View of Elat over the Gulf of Aqaba

Above : Nazareth, - now an Arab city

               The Sea of Galilee                                Desert hill believed to be the Mount of Temptation

The coastal towns of Joppa (Jaffa) and Caesarea, are also full of remnants of their former importance. The Sea of Galilee is still a magical lake in many ways, and its fishing villages still function though catering more for tourists than locals.  Masada towers over the Dead Sea, in its austere fortress height, where the messianic Jews held out to the last against the Roman army.  Elat is located strategically at the southern point of the Negev desert, with the mountains of Moab on one side and the Sinai desert on the other.  One can still imagine the flotilla arriving there 3,000 years ago, that brought the Queen of Sheba and her retinue on their state visit to the Kingdom of Solomon. 

My favourite site in all Israel is the “garden tomb”.  There are two locations in Jerusalem that are regarded as the sites of the crucifixion and the tomb where Jesus’ body was interred.  One is inside the ’church of the holy sepulchre’, and with all due respects to devout pilgrims who venerate it, - the place does not ring true to me.  It is inside the old city, and the gospel records clearly indicate that both were outside.  Also, the places claimed for the cross and the grave are just altogether too close together.  And there is absolutely no indication of the Golgotha skull-shaped rock, or the garden where, John’s Gospel tells us, the tomb had been constructed. 

the Skull Rock, Jerusalem

Far more convincing is “Gordon’s Calvary” identified just outside the old city wall by the renowned general.  The huge skull-shaped rock looks just as Golgotha is described to us by three of the Gospel writers.  Nearby a large garden has been uncovered, with several rock-hewn tombs.  One of these is preserved as an example of what the original tomb would have looked like.  It is located by the Damascus gate, and close to a present day public bus station.  It has been believed since the time of King David that the promontory is the Mount Moriah where Abraham was tested to offer his son as a sacrifice, which is why the Moslem Dome of the Rock and the earlier Temple of Solomon were constructed nearby.

Garden Tomb, near to Skull Rock

the Mount of Olives

It is truly amazing that the world’s three monotheistic faiths converge on this one location where four millenniums ago, a lonely Semitic patriarch performed a strange act of faith that was to have profound and mysterious significance for all humanity.  “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness”.  And so he became the father of the faithful.  Abraham lived at the very dawn of civilization.  He was centuries earlier than the great Pharaoh Akhenaten, a predecessor of Tutankhamen.  Akhenaten was referred to as the heretic Pharaoh as he tried to change Egyptian religion to the worship of the one god Aten.  He was portrayed differently from the stylised forms of the time and has been called the “first individual in history”.  But the individual Abraham lived long before him.  He is believed to have been buried in Hebron, now an Arab town near to Gaza.

There are no archeological evidences of Abraham’s existence, though there are plenty attesting to events in his lifetime like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah; but there are some artifacts dating from that period, that seem to refer to the Mount Moriah event.  “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only from me.  Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by his horns.  He took the ram and sacrificed it instead of his son”.  A number of  valuable artifacts, made of gold, silver or precious metal, have been found in the region, that appear to represent  a ram with its horns wrapped in the branches of a thorn bush. Archeologists are unsure what these items are, except to suggest that they had religious significance, and may have been representations of Abraham’s Mount Moriah experience. 

Both Jewish and Moslem tradition link the site of Abaraham’s experience with the ‘Bethel’ where fugitive Jacob had a dream of a stairway from earth to heaven. (Even the Scots got a claim on that event, their original ‘Stone of Destiny’ being reputed to be the one that Jacob slept on).  Both sites are where old Jerusalem now stands.  King David’s citadel, Akra, and Mount Zion, are also part of the  landscape, with the Mount of Olives lying to the east.  It was to that location that King David brought the most revered item in the Jewish religion, - the Ark of the Covenant, - after it was recovered from the Philistines, and from the house of Obed-Edom where it had remained for a period. 

Gold ram statuette from Ur of the Chaldees, dating back to the time of Abraham.

The Ark itself was the most sacred piece of furniture in the tabernacle or worship tent used during the Israelites desert wanderings.  Moses gave its specifications and the instructions for its care and transport, in the Book of Exodus.  The sacred chest, was constructed of hard desert wood, overlaid with gold. According to the New Testament writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, inside were the two stone tablets inscribed with the ten commandments, a golden pot containing manna, and a budding almond rod that belonged to Moses brother, the first High Priest, Aaron.  The most striking thing to an observer would have been the two angels or cherubim [Ancient representations of ‘cherubim’,  both Jewish and Sumarian, are totally unlike the cherub pictures of children’s books.  They were understood to be among the fiercest and holiest of angelic beings.] of beaten gold, at each end of the ark, their wings stretching forward and touching each other, while their faces gazed into the ark, or onto the lid or ‘mercy seat’ of pure gold, that was sprinkled with sacrificial blood.

While King David made all the preparations for the construction of a Temple to house the Ark, he was disqualified from building it as his hands were stained with blood from his many battles and war experiences.  It was left to his son Solomon, whose name meant ‘peace’, to build the temple that he came to be associated with.  Solomon’s temple, on a mound called Ophel, stood for over 4 centuries, till it was destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar who took the Jewish people into captivity in Babylon.  Rebuilding work started during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus, led by Zerubbabel and other Jewish leaders of the exile period, like Ezra and Nehemiah.  The work was finished in the time of Herod the Great (the first Herod we read of in the New Testament), and that is why the second temple sometimes bears his name.  It was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.  But from the time of the destruction of Solomon’s temple, there is no mention of the location of the Ark of the Covenant.  This has led to much speculation, some of it quite fanciful and bizarre.

Following the destruction of the second temple, the site in old Jerusalem was eventually built over during the first millenium AD.  The Romans had a fortress there, - Fort Antonio, and later the followers of the Prophet Mohammed were to construct the Dome of the Rock, and the Al Aqsa mosque which remain there to this day.  The western wall, or the ’wailing wall’ where devout Jews pray, is believed to be all that remains of the second temple.  Jesus was often in that temple, where he taught and challenged, and drove out the money changers.  Nearby were the Roman and Jewish scenes of his trial, and the place of his crucifiction, and burial.  Few locations on the face of the earth, have such historical and religious significance, or such potential to stir powerful feelings of faith or nationality.

Model of the Ark of the Covenant

So, what became of the Ark of the Covenant?   As suggested in the Indiana Jones film, some believe it was taken down through Egypt to Ethiopia, by devout Jews pledged to protect it from Nebuchadnezzar.  The basis of that idea is the belief that the kings of Ethiopia were descended from Menelek, the child it is thought that the Queen of Sheba bore to Solomon.  Whether that tradition has factual basis, we do not know, but certainly since Solomon’s time there have been strong links with Ethiopia, and the existence of the tribe of ‘black Jews’, the Falasha.  Christian era tradition also plays a part.  There has been a Christian church in Ethiopia since New Testament times when the Ethiopian Minister of Finance visited Jerusalem and met with the evangelist Philip.  And strangely, many of the Ethiopian churches contain old relics or replicas of the Ark. 

However, mainstream thought in Israel is that if the Ark is still around, it is buried under the temple site, possibly near to the tunnels and caverns related to the water system, that date back to the time of King Hezekiah.  So we do not know.  But for those with an interest in Jerusalem’s history, or a fascination with the historical origins of their faith, whether Christian, Jewish or Moslem, the subject never fails to excite the imagination.

Arab and Jew together in peace and friendship, - when might it become a reality?

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