Rechovot, Ayalon Institute

I’m sitting at home recuperating from a three-day Tiyul in the Negev organized by Pardes. Israel’s desert is beautiful and stark and I didn’t want to leave. It’s only a few hours from Jerusalem, but I was really in culture shock when I got back. It was especially jarring to drive up to Tel-Aviv on Friday because Tel-Aviv looks more like a city in the U.S. than a small settlement in the Negev. The visit itself was really fun–we went up to meet with Schelley Dardashti, a genealogist and journalist that Eric had been corresponding with, and we partook in a delicious Persian barbeque.

Before I write about the Negev and Schelley, I should mention more about our visit to Eric’s cousins in Rechovot–2 weekends ago my how time flies! Muncie is the first cousion of Eric’s grandfather, and she has a daughter named Hannah and grandson Yeftah. We stayed with Hannah, who cooked a lovely Friday night dinner for us. Yeftah was there along with Muncie and Hannah’s boyfriend Amiram. Hannah is a radiologist and Amiram is a professional actor and mime who studied in France for several years.

One of the Bullet-Making Machines at Ayalon InstituteHannah took us to a museum outside of Rechovot called the Ayalon Institute Kibbutzim Hill.  Kibbutzim Hill was a training camp for people who would go on to establish Kibbutzim elsewhere in the country. It was like any other kibbutz except that in the mid 1940’s it contained a secret ammunition factory. The factory was hidden because they had to work in secret under the British Mandate–and it was literally underneath their nose. Underneath the laundry house and the bakery there existed a factory where 45 people made bullets. Between 1946-1948, 2.25 million bullets were manufactured here.

Admittedly, the movie about the factory was kind of hokey. You kind of felt this nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ when Israelis lived in kibbutzim and used their resourcefulness and tenacity to fight the War of Independence. You get that  good ol’ wholesome Zionism feeling when you visit places like Ayalon and the Palmach Museum. There almost seems to be kitschiness, folksiness and old-fashioned feeling to it especially when you contrast the Zionist ethic and the optimism that pervades these exhibits with the blase attitudes and skepticism that seem to pervade Israeli society now.  

Hannah, Eric and Simcha the dogIt was interesting to get another perspective about the Kibbutz period from Amiram. Amiram doesn’t have much love for the Kibbutz movement. He and his family are originally from Morocco, and he says the kibbutzniks were very exclusionary. He talked about how many Moroccans were confined to Ma’abarot, which were like shantytowns. I think I had mentioned them in reference to a movie I saw at Ulpan Etzion. Interestingly Hannah and her mother emigrated here from a completely different cultural region. They stayed in Europe after the war and lived in Czechoslovakia.

During the weekend, Eric talked with Muncie about family history and Hannah said that some of what she talked about she hadn’t heard of before. We also talked about Israeli society and some of the problems facing the country today. Hannah said that education was definitely problematic in Israel–becoming increasingly expensive and exclusive. Meanwhile, teacher pay is abysmal. Right now, public high schoolteachers are on strike, so many students haven’t been in school for weeks! Israel’s decreasing education standards are so bad, that they are going to hinder Israel’s economy in the long run, according to Business Week. Wake up Olmert!

She also said that healthcare costs are going up for the average person, even though they are still a lot less than costs in the states. Doctors in Israel are actually state employees, so they do not make the lucrative salaries that many of their American counterparts do.

I keep hearing that public benefits are becoming more like those in the U.S.–more expensive and less accessible. Public goods like education and healthcare formed the backbone of Israel’s socialist democratic system. Their eventual disappeareance would be a shame in my opinion. I don’t want things to become like the U.S. where students leaving college are burdened with over $60,000 in loans. That’s just not sustainable for the country’s future economic prosperity–not to mention that it sucks for the student. If prices are going up in Israel for these goods, what’s the reason? Well it’s possible that the country just can’t afford to give free education and healthcare anymore. I imagine that a lot gets eaten up by defense. Some of it probably has to do with politics.

Of course we also talked about U.S. politics. Amiram was not very happy about the Bush administration’s role in Iraq and got into an argument with Eric (but of course he would!). We also tried to explain a little bit about the American culture. Hannah and Amiram said that Americans were materialistic, and we said, well yes, that may be true, but there are other factors at work–i.e. a culture that reveres private property and loves independence, a culture that is suspicious of intellectualism and too much government. I don’t think most Israelis understand American culture or its history. I also don’t think Americans understand Israeli culture. So we’re both coming from perspectives of ignorance aren’t we?

In addition to hearing about Amiram’s theatrical work–he has performed for both kids and adults–and watching him juggle a few props, Yeftah, who is a film student, told us a bit about Israeli film and music. Some of the stuff they play on Israeli radio is good, but like the U.S. you don’t get all of the good stuff by just listening to the radio. You have to know the music scene and surf the Internet.  Yeftah let us borrow some of his CDs and I’m in the process of downloading them to my computer. One of the CDs is from a group called The Apples. Check them out y’all!

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