Hiking the Israel Trail
Walking is an intimate relationship with the land. A sightseeing tour is wonderful and rich, and so much can be learned, but one is still insulated by wheels and glass and a plan. Walking covers much less ground, but gives one a chance to merge with one’s surroundings in a full-bodied experience. This was, at least, my experience walking with my brother for three days on the Israel Trail.
The early Zionists were in love with the land, literally the soil and the rocks of Israel. Connecting with the land was a central theme of Zionist ideology. Many early Zionists believed that the centuries-old Jewish condition of exile and homelessness had stunted and warped the Jewish soul. The cure lay in a return to the land, and a simultaneous reclaiming of the Jewish body, so long neglected, and the ancient Jewish homeland, so long left behind. These Jews were anything but religious – they rejected religion and Jewish religiosity in particular as a condition of exile. Yet they embraced the reclaiming of the land with their own labor with religious fervor. And so a familiar image of the Zionist has him or her walking the land of Israel with a map in one hand and a Bible in the other, identifying plants and flowers and ancient ruins mentioned in the Bible, learning the terrain like a lover passionately exploring the flesh of his beloved.
To this day hiking the land is a favored Israeli pastime. Many Israelis take great pleasure in knowing the history of a locale and being able to identify the flora and fauna. This is a direct outgrowth of Zionist culture. In recent decades the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel has marked off more and more trails around the country. The most ambitious of these trails is the Israel Trail. It winds up and down the length of the country some 580 miles, from the wellsprings of the Jordan River in the northern Galilee all the way down to Eilat and the Red Sea. A subculture has sprung up in Israel of Israel Trail hikers. Websites list places to get water and to sleep the night, and most importantly “Malachim” (Angels), individuals who live near the trail who are happy to take you in and give you a bed and a shower, and maybe even a meal. My brother Dan loves to hike and has been hiking the Israel trail in sections when he has a free weekend. Danny proposed that I join him for a 60-mile stretch of the trail that he had yet to undertake. Though I didn’t have exactly the right shoes with me, I jumped at the chance. Here is an account of my observations and highlights. I think it provides an interesting cross-section of Israel that I could not have otherwise experienced.
February 12: Kibbutz Beit Guvrin to Kibbutz Dvir
I met Danny at the Tel Aviv train station. He was carrying two backpacks, one of which he had kindly packed and supplied for me. We took the train south to Kiryat Gat in the northern Negev, and then found a taxi to take us to Kibbutz Beit Guvrin, which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But the Israel Trail passes right by the kibbutz, and on the kibbutz some of those Israel Trail Malachim (angels) offer a free bed to hikers.
These particular angels are a group of young people who have finished High School and are doing a Mechina, or preparatory year before entering the army. The “mechina” concept has been growing in Israel in recent years. I believe it began with religious young people who wanted to study in Yeshiva for a year before their army service. It has since spread to many less religious Israelis as well. They gather at various locations around the country for a year of communal living, service and learning. The kibbutz we were entering leases space to one of these programs. Danny and I walked into their common room as some 30 18-year olds were enjoying their dinner. They welcomed us warmly, with an exuberance particular to a bunch of young people living for the first time on their own. One of them asked if we were twins, as my newly grown beard makes me even more of a match for my brother. They invited us to a lecture they were having later that evening on civics and the Israeli electoral system, but we opted for an early bedtime. We would need to get an early start to meet Dan’s always-ambitious hiking goals the next day.
Before dawn the next morning Dan and I hoisted on our packs and began walking. Our first obstacle was the locked gate of the kibbutz. I managed to scramble over the gate, pleased with my middle-aged agility, and Dan followed suit. (We later realized that there was a button we could have pushed instead, which would have been a lot simpler!)
Our first steps took us past the Beit Guvrin National Park, an area with many archaeological sites dating back well over two millennia. I had visited Beit Guvrin with one of our synagogue tours several years ago, and we participated in a “Dig for a Day”, descending into the hewn limestone caves of the area and sifting the earth for pottery shards and other treasures. Archaeology is like a treasure hunt, and occasionally you strike gold. A remarkable find had just been made at Beit Guvrin by another group of tourists: they had found fragments of an inscribed tablet from 178 B.C.E., the period just before the Maccabean Revolt. The royal inscription described the activities of Emperor Seleucis IV. Three years later he would be assassinated and was succeeded by Antiochus IV, the Antiochus of the Chanukah story. In Israel you sometimes get to actually touch our ancient past.
As the day brightened the trail took us along several miles of dirt road passing fields and vineyards. This was the region in which all the seriocomic exploits of the biblical Samson against the Philistines take place. In one episode of revenge, Samson catches 300 foxes and ties pairs of them together by the tail, then attaches a torch between them and sets them running loose among the Philistine fields, setting the grain on fire. As Dan and I walked among the wheat fields we didn’t spot any foxes, but we did see antelope in the early morning light. It was a beautiful walk.
In the expansive vineyards of the modern farming community of Lachish I saw a few unpicked hanging bunches of withered grapes left over from the previous year’s harvest. A Biblical verse came to mind: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9-10). Even though I wasn’t literally carrying a Bible in one hand and a map in the other, I nevertheless was engrossed by the Biblical verses that kept popping into my mind as I walked the land.
A little ways down the trail we encountered a young hiker who did have a Bible in his hand. We had stopped to take a break at the base of an ancient “tel”, or hill that bore the accumulated remains of the Biblical city of Lachish. The hiker’s name was Daniel, and he was clambering up the side of the hill to get a look at the excavations on top. (We had considered climbing up and taking a look, but at our age and with a long day ahead neither of us was too enthusiastic about climbing!)
Tel Lachish, by the way, was one of the main fortress cities of the Kingdom of Judah in Biblical times, and is mentioned frequently in the latter books of the Bible. Jeremiah relates the conquest of Lachish by King Nebuchadnezzar and his army from Babylonia. The Babylonians then besieged Jerusalem, and ultimately destroyed it in 586 B.C.E. The modern archaeological dig at Lachish produced one of the most dramatic physical confirmations of that Biblical account: pottery shards inscribed with correspondence from a Judean commander of an outpost to his commanding officer in Lachish: “…we are watching for the signal fires of Lachish, according to all the indications which my lord gave, for we cannot see [the signal fire of] Azekah…”
Back in the present, the young hiker Daniel joined us and he and I struck up a conversation. Daniel was hiking the southern half of the Israel Trail solo from Jerusalem down to Eilat. As I had guessed, Daniel was a Christian, on his own spiritual pilgrimage in the Holy Land. He was sweet and sincere, a seeker, and his story was interesting. Daniel had grown up homesteading with his parents and siblings in a log cabin in remote Montana. Homeschooled and homespun, he had felt called to come to Israel, and had been here for some time studying Biblical Greek and Hebrew. He was on his way to India to work with the poor. He asked me if I was a believer, too, which was his code for Christian. I told him that I was indeed a believer, but of the Jewish flavor, and that I was even a rabbi. This put us in a position to have the inevitable discussion about faith. It is a conversation I typically try to avoid with fundamentalist Christians, because I do not find these exchanges to be particularly fruitful, but Daniel was clearly open for discussion, and we had a lot of time to kill on the trail!
And so, warning him that I was not a believer in the traditional sense, I explained that I just couldn’t see how the Creator of all would have placed the Truth in just one Book, or one Culture, or one Place or one Savior. If the Creator made a world of infinite variety, and a human species of countless languages and cultures, then the Creator must love variety. It seemed to me that it was a human mistake to think that any single tradition had the sole claim on God’s word, including both Judaism and Christianity! In fact, the battle between Christians and Jews for God’s love seemed to me like the longest running sibling rivalry in history, a “Dad loves me best!” argument of epic proportions, and I suspected that God was pulling His figurative hair out over His children’s misguided understanding of Divine Love. My conviction was that we humans were true witnesses to the reality of God when we treated others with love, mercy, and kindness, not when we persuaded others that they should agree with us.
Daniel was open to my point of view, and we continued talking. Our reverie was broken however when we encountered Highway 6 coursing through the desert, a superhighway so new that our trail maps didn’t include its route. A long detour ensued to the nearest highway bridge and then we relocated the path.
I should mention that my brother Dan was of course still with us, maintaining his astonishing pace as we marched along behind trying to keep him in sight. Dan is not much of a talker. Truly, I spent most of the three days trying to keep up with my older brother, a position with which I was deeply familiar.
The day was getting unseasonably warm, and we had left the fertile valleys for the huge open fields of the Northern Negev. Our view westward extended toward the Mediterranean, and had the day not been hazy perhaps we could have seen the sea, and the coastal plain and the Gaza Strip as well. Had the war still been on I’m sure we would have been able to see the plumes of smoke from explosions. It is a small country. We arrived at a roadside stand and campground serving cold drinks, and rested. Young Daniel was going to stay awhile, so we bid him farewell and set out. We had a long slog ahead of us through the midday heat if we were to get to our projected destination that evening. We were each carrying 6 liters of water, and drinking constantly. Locations to refill our water bottles were not numerous, and required advance planning, which was why we carried so much. We settled into a rhythm and walked for several hours. The fields of the northern Negev through which we walked were all plowed and sown with wheat, thousands of acres. But the fields were a uniform brown. These fields rely on the winter rains for irrigation, and this winter had been dangerously dry. So instead of miles of green winter wheat waving in the breeze, we only saw bare earth. And instead of the wildflowers that grace the desert most years at this season, there was virtually no color. It was distressing, and a water crisis looms in the region for this coming summer, as reservoirs remain dangerously low. (After our hike there were significant heavy rains, alleviating some of the most immediate concerns about drought.)
This was certainly a part of Israel I had never expected to visit, let alone walk through. For a good while we followed an old railroad bed that ran straight as an arrow. The bed was the remains of the railroad that had been built by the Ottoman Turks in the 19th century, before their empire crumbled and Palestine was lost to the British. We came to the ruins of an impressive arched railroad bridge, and then the trail veered off.
The monotony of the landscape was next broken by the sight of horsemen on a nearby rise. Whooping and hollering, they careened across the plowed fields at a full gallop. We wondered what they were up to, and after several passes we found out. An antelope raced down the draw just a few meters away from us, and on its heels were hunting dogs bounding at full speed, followed in short order by the galloping horsemen. It was a hunt, almost certainly illegal, as the antelope are a protected species in Israel. But these Bedouin were hunting here long before the rolling land was plowed and long before endangered species legislation, and so they continue with their hunts.
The semi-nomadic Bedouin and their flocks have been wandering this arid landscape for thousands of years. Almost 4,000 years ago Abraham and Sarah set out across the Fertile Crescent with their flocks and herds, arrived in this very region, dug wells and pitched their tents. The Bedouin carry on these traditions. Like many indigenous nomadic peoples however, the Bedouins are facing extreme pressure to settle down. Open land grows ever scarcer, and with access to modern health care Bedouin birthrates and hence populations have skyrocketed, stretching traditional resources even more thinly. These pressures combine to make the fate of the Bedouin a burgeoning social problem in Israel. We would hike past several of their impoverished shantytowns in the days to come.
The day was getting late and I was moving very slowly by now. Dan had to wait periodically for me to catch up. We had been planning to sleep on the ground in our sleeping bags, but a kibbutz was visible up ahead. I begged for a bed to sleep on. We entered the kibbutz and lo and behold, a Trail Angel lives there. She maintains a room that is set aside for hikers, with a hot shower! Danny graciously heated up our dehydrated dinners, and then I lay down, unable to do anything else. Dan estimated that we had walked about 25 miles. Honestly, I cannot remember ever walking that far in one day in my entire life, but I guess there is a first for everything!
February 13: Kibbutz Dvir to Beit Ya’aran
I slept for 12 hours and my muscles had a chance to recover. Early the next morning, before sunrise, we were off on the next leg of our journey. I noted gratefully that I felt surprisingly good. As we walked briskly in the cool morning air, the landscape slowly became hillier and less cultivated. We were heading east and approaching the “Green Line”, the armistice line that existed between Israel and Jordan from 1948 until the Six Day War of 1967, at which time Israel conquered the area of Jordan known as the West Bank. That West Bank, along with the Gaza Strip, are generally understood to be the territory of a future Palestinian state, and the Green Line is the theoretical future boundary of that state. Until recently there was no physical demarcation of the Green Line, other than at checkpoints on the main roads. Several years ago however, in response to repeated suicide bombing attacks within Israel the Israeli government began constructing a security barrier, in some places a fence and in others a wall. The goal was to prevent further bombing infiltrations into Israel. The security barrier follows the Green Line in some sections, while in others it veers into West Bank territory. It does so in order to encompass Israeli towns and villages known as “settlements” that have been built on the far side of the Green Line since Israel took control of that land in 1967. Where completed the new “Security Fence” has become a de facto border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. It has successfully deterred suicide bombers since its construction, but it has also increased the isolation of the Palestinians and their sense of being held captive in their own homes. This is so especially where the wall veers across the Green Line in order to protect Israeli settlements, carving the landscape into jigsaw puzzle shapes. I favor the security barrier, as it appears to have prevented the loss of many lives, but I seriously doubt the wisdom and value of the gerrymandered boundary in many of the places where it crosses the Green Line and takes in pieces of the West Bank.
In the sparsely populated area in which we were hiking the security fence hews to the Green Line, and for a good stretch the Israel Trail runs parallel to it. Here it is an imposing-looking mass of fencing and barbed wire. The Palestinians who used to walk to their jobs inside Israel as factory and construction workers can no longer do so, and their economic situation has deteriorated badly. As we walked near the fence the silence was broken by the sound of racing engines. A beat-up car came bouncing down the dry riverbed ahead of us and sped onto the pavement nearby. Another car pulled alongside and after a brief exchange they both raced away. We turned to see an Israeli Border Police jeep now round the bend, but when the policeman saw that the car he was chasing was out of sight he turned his jeep around and headed back up the wadi. Perhaps he had radioed ahead. In any case, my brother and I speculated that these cars were smugglers, not terrorists; there was something very laissez faire about the whole chase. A short while later we were surprised once again when a teenage Arab boy appeared like a wraith walking across the field ahead of us, heading towards the fence. The boy was wearing a typical t-shirt with a logo and track pants, and he was carrying a plastic shopping bag filled with merchandise. As our paths crossed he muttered “shalom” to us in heavily accented Hebrew, and continued on his way. Dan suspected that the boy was probably employed illegally in Israel and was going home for Shabbat. As I scanned the Security Fence, it was difficult to see how this lad would breach it, but he was certainly heading in that direction. Whatever the case, Dan and I both felt that we were walking through a strange no-man’s-land in this barren region.
Soon we would need to refill our water bottles. The map indicated that we were approaching a tiny village with the odd name of Sansana. Perhaps we could find water there; beyond that we knew nothing about the place. The trail climbed into a pine forest, and the patchy shade brought some small relief. As we neared Sansana we heard the sounds of adults talking and children playing. To our surprise, Sansana was a religious Jewish community. This was Saturday morning, the Shabbat, and services had just ended. The entire community was mingling together outside the synagogue. Much of the crowd was in the courtyard of the synagogue sipping soda and eating cookies. Some of the men sat under a veranda discussing Torah, and children were running and playing everywhere. It was a delightful scene.
I am not a strictly observant Jew, and for me a hike with my brother is a wonderful way to spend an occasional Sabbath. But two sweaty guys lugging backpacks are not a picture of Sabbath peace to the more observant. As we entered the village some people eyed us uncertainly, but then one man came over to us and wished us Shabbat Shalom. We explained our need for water, and he offered to take us to his house.
In my understanding of Jewish law and tradition, certain commandments take precedence over others. Hospitality is at the top of the list, or, as the Talmud describes it, hospitality is one of those commandments with no upper limit or expiration date. This gentleman understood those Jewish priorities and was willing to disturb his Shabbat to serve two strangers. I was touched by his kindness. Shlomo (I think that was his name) walked us up to his family’s home, a rundown trailer, or caravan as mobile homes are called in Israel. The little trailer was crammed and overflowing with clothes, toys, dishes – it was a mess. But Shlomo didn’t hesitate to bring us inside, shove some items aside on the table, and set down the sweetest, sickliest looking green mint flavored soda I had ever tasted for us to enjoy. He then rummaged in the cabinet and found a box of Whoppers chocolate malted milk balls, which his sister had recently brought back from a visit the States as a gift for Shlomo’s children.
Shlomo explained to us that Sansana was a Modern Orthodox community of about 100 families celebrating its tenth anniversary. The residents were all professionals and tradespeople who were looking for a nice location and quality of life in which to raise their children. They tended to commute to Beersheva to work, and then return home to this remote hilltop at the end of the day. For ten years the residents had been living in these temporary dwellings, but just around the corner from Shlomo’s caravan the first real houses were nearing completion. I remember well how when Dan and Roberta moved to Israel 30 years ago, they and their small children also lived in temporary digs, waiting many years for their new community in the Galilee to be constructed. Here in Sansana, I hope Shlomo and his family get their permanent home soon.
Shlomo was of course curious about us, and he asked my profession. This presented a problem for me: if I told him that I am a rabbi, it would likely seem absurd and offensive to my Orthodox host. In his worldview, how could a rabbi be violating the Sabbath, lugging a backpack instead of attending synagogue? I instead explained to him that I am a teacher of Judaism, bringing American Jews closer to their heritage. In this way I hoped Shlomo and I might find common ground as Jews, and a pleasant conversation did indeed ensue.
Refreshed and restocked with water, Dan and I continued on our way, hampered only by the occasional mint-flavored belch. By now, tired though I was, I was curious about the next unanticipated encounter that might come our way. We descended from the Sansana forest and continued eastward in the broad open flats, eyeing the next forested set of hills several kilometers away. The map told us that we were looking at the Yatir Forest, and that in the heart of that forest was our next Trail Angel, where we hoped to spend the night.
But before we could reach that green vision the day got hotter and the hills once again got steeper. It appears that the Israel Trail blazers had a sadistic streak, sending us up to the top of every hill they could find. I paced myself carefully and watched the ground in front of me. Only armored creatures braved this midday heat: beetles, land snails, and the occasional tortoise with head and limbs retracted sitting in the middle of the trail. Lugging my backpack along, I told the tortoise: “I have my house on my back, too, but it isn’t protecting me right now!” To the rhythm of my footsteps I sang a Hebrew song that my kids had been learning in ulpan – I sang it hundreds of times.
As the afternoon began to wane we finally entered Yatir Forest. One of the great accomplishments of Zionism over the last century has been the reforestation of huge tracts of barren land within Israel’s territory. By the late 19th century most of the native forests had long disappeared and much topsoil had subsequently washed away, leaving a traditionally rocky landscape even rockier. I understand that the Ottoman Turks had denuded much of the remaining forest in search of railroad ties for their rail system.
The Jewish National Fund has since planted millions of trees, and there are hundreds of new forests all over Israel. These new forests are primarily pine trees, chosen for their rapid growth and low water needs. The monoculture of the pine forests has left them susceptible to blight and insect infestations, but the JNF has been learning from its mistakes and continuing to refine its planting practices.
The JNF forests marvelously enhance the landscape of Israel and the quality of life. Here in the northern Negev, these new forests were greening a barren landscape that may never have had any tree cover at all. As Dan and I walked through several forests, I noticed that some groves “took” better than others. I joked to myself that some of the forests looked like bad hair transplants – thin rows of struggling saplings casting little shade. Other more successful areas were lush and shady, creating microclimates under their boughs filled with songbirds and grasses.
Yatir Forest is the largest forest in Israel, planted entirely by hand. It is a National Recreation Area, with trails and picnic areas and lookouts, but because of its remote location it doesn’t seem to be heavily trafficked. Dan and I entered the forest gratefully and began a gradual and lengthy climb. My blisters had popped and my feet were killing me, but the scenery was gorgeous. I was reflecting on the verdant forest and on the barrenness that it had replaced when we turned a bend and came upon the stone ruins of a former village. My romantic reverie was shattered; nothing about Israel is as straightforward as it might first appear. The land has been inhabited for so long, somebody was always here first. These were the ruins of an Arab village. The villagers probably either fled or were forced out during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and the village was subsequently destroyed. The village looked ancient; the building stones were formidably large. How long had people dwelt here? Was this perhaps one of the many villages mentioned in the Talmud once inhabited by Jews, and later by Moslems or Christians? I was enveloped by a familiar sadness, knowing that so many lives had been dislocated or lost in the desperate scramble to create a nation and safe haven for the Jewish People. So it is.
Our destination was a compound called Beit Haya’aran: The Forester’s House. Beit Haya’aran perches on top of a hill. It’s fire tower takes in a commanding view of the entire Yatir Forest and of the plains of the Negev extending southward. Beit Haya’aran was nicely appointed, with an amphitheater, a dining hall (closed for the day, unfortunately), and plaques thanking the Canadian Jewish community for funding. There was also a dedicated guest room for Israel Trail hikers, which had a bottle of ice-cold Coca Cola in the refrigerator! Dan passed on the soda, so I said a quick prayer of thanks, and drained the bottle. We then met the forester himself, the forest ranger who staffs that lookout and manages the place. To my initial surprise, he was a religious Moslem man, with a full beard and head covering. It appeared he had a fairly solitary job, but he pleasantly helped us get settled.
Our veranda held a commanding view of the plains of the Negev, and as the daylight waned the lights of Beersheva began to flicker in the distance. It was gorgeous. I could barely move. Meanwhile, Dan gave a call on his cell phone to Effi Stenzler. Effi is Dan’s new mechutan, meaning that Dan’s son Eitan is married to Effi’s daughter Shir. Effi is also a macher, meaning a big shot; he is the head of the Jewish National Fund, a quasi-governmental position that places Effi in charge of a huge amount of public land in Israel, including Yatir Forest. Dan was calling him to thank him for the place to stay, and to report on how lovely Beit Ya’aran was.
If there are six degrees of separation in most parts of the world, there is perhaps only one degree of separation in Israel. That evening Dan also checked in with his wife Roberta. Roberta told Dan that their son Nati had flown a helicopter rescue for an injured hiker that day. (Nati is a helicopter rescue pilot in the Israeli Air Force.) That was interesting to learn, but of course I thought no more of it. However, meanwhile in a valley outside of Jerusalem, my family had been taking a hike with some friends. There was some unexpected excitement on the trail. When I returned home the next day Nomi reported to me that she, Ellen and Timna had met an injured hiker and that our friends had offered assistance, but the injured person’s companion had already contacted the emergency rescue service. A helicopter then began to circle. Nomi showed me a great photograph she had taken of the helicopter overhead. Since Dan had relayed to me Roberta’s report, I knew who the pilot of that helicopter was: cousin Nati!
February 14: Beit Haya’aran to Arad
I didn’t sleep as well as I had the previous night. Two scrawny dogs howled incessantly outside our window. As the sky lightened and Dan and I got ready for our final push, I went outside to retrieve my shoes and shirt, which I had hung out to dry. The dogs had chewed off part of my shoelace, and torn gaping holes in my shirt. Oh, well. But it turned out we were not saying goodbye to these dogs. They did not belong to the fire ranger, as we had thought. They were homeless wanderers, and as we set out on the trail, these two dogs became our steadfast companions for the day. Not that we encouraged them, but they were looking for company, I guess.
Our trail now climbed steadily higher, through beautiful forest. The higher altitude meant cooler air, and in places under the tree canopy thick grass flourished and wild flowers blossomed, despite the arid landscape beyond the forests’ edge. As we ascended, the man-made forest abruptly ended and it felt as though we had climbed above the tree line. In fact we were only about 2,500 feet high, but a brisk wind encouraged us to put on our jackets for the first time on the trip.
The trail now followed the ascending ridge, but it did not feel like a mountain trail. The trail was wide and orderly, with lines of stones on either side. Dan and I realized that we were walking on the remains of a Roman road! Much had washed away in the intervening millennia, but the outline of the road was clear, the paving stones sometimes apparent, as well as the gutters and the curb. The great road builders of the Roman Empire saw fit to place a road even in this remote region. Perhaps it was a road that came northward toward Jerusalem from the Nabatean spice caravan routes. Perhaps its commanding views meant that this was a garrison road, designed for military purposes. Perhaps it was a route for King Herod to take to his desert fortress of Masada.
We paused for a break at the highest point of the trail. Next we would begin our descent into the final leg of our hike, and we wanted to savor the view. To our west was the Yatir forest, and much of the route we had traveled. To our south spread the endless Negev. To our east lay our destination of the desert town of Arad, not yet in sight. And to our north extended the entire massif of the Judean and Hebron Hills.
The view to the north captivated me. As I have expressed, Israel is a very small country; the area known as the West Bank, or Judea and Samaria, or the Occupied Territories, or Palestine (each name reflecting a different political position) is smaller still. From my perch within Israel proper I could see the entire southern half of this region. I could see the large city of Hebron, and beyond I could see landmarks near Jerusalem, though not Jerusalem itself. I could see where the hills dropped off into the Jordan Valley to the east, and into the coastal plain to the west (where our trek had begun).
In my mind’s eye, I could also see thousands of years of Jewish history, influenced by the striking geography of this land. When Abraham first wandered here, he sojourned in the hill country of Hebron, and purchased a cave there for an ancestral burying site. Isaac too wandered this spine of hills, down to the oasis of Beersheva at its southern base. Jacob settled in the northern reaches of the hill country, near the ancient city of Shechem, or later called Nablus. Centuries later, when Joshua led the tribes of Israel in conquest, these hills were their prize. The Book of Joshua tells us that the twelve tribes also battled for the more fertile coastal lands, but were unable to secure them, for there lived the powerful Philistines, who possessed chariots. The chariots ruled the lowlands, but could not traverse the rocky highlands. And so the battles continued for generations, the Israelites living in the mountains of Judea and Samaria, at times subject to and at times shaking off the domination of the Philistines. At the peak of Israelite power, King David united the tribes into one kingdom, and made Jerusalem their capital. But the coastal plain never became an integral part of Israel’s territory. The fertile plains resisted conquest. The touchstones of ancient Jewish history all take place in the hill country, with Jerusalem at its center.
Thousands of years later, the topography of the land remains unchanged, but the pattern of Jewish settlement has ironically been reversed. The main Jewish population centers of our time are in the coastal plain (with the crucial addition of Jerusalem and its environs). But with the exception of Jerusalem and its environs, the remainder of the hill country is primarily inhabited by Israel’s contemporary rivals, the Palestinians. To understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one must understand this: the hilly massif that I was looking over is generally agreed to be the territory that the Israelis will need to give up in order to make peace with the Palestinians. Yet those very hills are also the true heartland of the Bible and the location of many of the Jewish People’s holiest and ancient sites. Many Jews understandably do not want to relinquish this claim. And yet, if we do not share the land the alternatives appear grim and cruel.
Mercifully, I was not required to solve the conflict, only to keep walking. We hoisted our packs and descended on the Roman road. At the base of the mountain a gigantic, noisy, very modern stone quarry swallowed up the ancient Roman way, and our path veered off eastward. We entered the bleakest landscape we had yet encountered. The earth was packed hard, and virtually the only color was provided by the assorted plastic trash that blew across the waste. A stiff, continual wind battered our legs with sheets of dust and sand. Periodically we would pass a Bedouin settlement, shacks with tin roofs and tarps strung around, seemingly deserted except for many dogs. The two dogs that had chewed my shoelace the night before were amazingly still with us, even though we had given them neither food nor water. Our canine companions drew the attention of many of the resident dogs, and Dan and I trudged along with rocks in hand, hurling them at any animals that came threateningly close. It was a bleak scene, compounded by my increasingly bruised feet. But we were nearing our destination, and I certainly was not going to quit now.
Our next landmark was the ruin of the ancient Canaanite city of Arad, now an archaeological site. Dan and I huddled in the lee of the small visitor center and ate the last of our salami and bread. The modern city of Arad was finally visible in the sand-blown distance, and I girded myself for our final push. The barren landscape was incongruously punctuated now with neat orchards of fruit trees and fields of grain. Our goal was the Arad municipal park, which beckoned to us with waving greenery. I could now barely walk, and willed myself forward. But the park disappointed: no amount of plantings could hold back the ferocious sapping wind.
I had to stop. Even pride could no longer keep me going. The trail now paralleled the main road, and I could hitch a ride or take a bus the remaining several kilometers. Dan of course was going to walk into town, so we pulled out our cell phones and agreed to rendezvous in the main square. I was left alone at the side of the road. Well, not quite alone: one of the dogs was still with me! Amazed by his fortitude, I decided to finally offer him some food, whatever remained in my pack. But to my consternation the dog would just sniff and reject whatever I tossed his way.
A bus soon arrived. I hobbled aboard and collapsed into the first seat, bidding a silent farewell to my erstwhile companion. Within minutes I had gratefully arrived in the center of Arad. I sat down on a bench, peeled off my shoes and gingerly put on my flip-flops. (I won’t sicken you with a description of my feet – they have since healed.) I sipped a cool drink and looked around while I waited for my brother to arrive.
Arad is a very interesting place. It was founded in 1962 as part of David Ben-Gurion’s vision to populate the Negev, and it is the most prosperous of the desert development towns that string across the southern part of Israel. Arad is home to an incredible variety of ethnic and cultural groups. The storefronts around me were filled with Hebrew, Russian, and English lettering. Passing before me in quick succession were Russians, Bedouin, ultra-Orthodox Jews with coat-tails flapping, Ethiopian Jews, North African Jews, Eastern European Jews, Black Hebrews (a sect of African-Americans from Chicago with their own unique take on their destiny, worthy of a separate essay), and a significant number of very dark-skinned Africans, presumably among the many foreign workers who have moved to Israel over the past couple of decades. Arad’s central square offered a microcosm of contemporary Israel, an outrageous ingathering of Jews from seventy lands, along with many others from near and far. Somehow, through sheer determination or stubbornness or God’s grace, Israel happens. Arad was a great place to end my journey.
Navigating toward each other by cell phone in that uniquely modern way, Dan and I made visual contact and greeted one another. We cleaned the garbage out of our packs, checked the bus schedule and bought falafel. And it was time to go. We needed different busses, as Dan was heading back to his office in Tel Aviv and I was going back to my temporary home in Jerusalem. We hugged quickly and climbed aboard our respective vehicles. It was only mid-afternoon. I had actually walked almost 60 miles in less than three days. I could barely move, but I was already daydreaming about which piece of the Israel Trail I would get to hike the next time.