Eli Avivi, who was known as the president of Achzivland, his fancied independent state on the northern coast of Israel, died Tuesday night at 88. Beyond owning the Achziv resort, Avivi was a fighter, a lover and a bohemian, a combination not so common today. When has the word bohemian last appeared in the press?
You could certainly also say he was a statesman. I have been visiting Achzivland, which he founded a few minutes from Lebanon in 1971, every two months for about a decade. Somehow the place has been preserved as a magical site, autonomous in the face of the pressing forces of capitalism that would surely have built a luxury hotel on the site.
Despite her fondness for electronic gadgets, Avivi’s partner Rina, who runs place, didn’t connect to the internet-reservations world. She prefers to select her clients carefully and doesn’t like nudniks, so Achzivland was never too crowded and the prices remained reasonable. At first she even offered me a job, to help clean the garbage bins.
One can see Achzivland as a tourist anecdote. It can also be seen as a miniature of Israel. In 1948 Avivi came as a young soldier to the Arab fishing village A-Zib, where some 1,000 people had lived until the war. On a wall describing Achziv’s legacy, in a museum he founded, there’s a story of Eli Avivi “conquering the place with his spirit.” History is less romantic. After returning from a trip abroad, Avivi moved to the village ruins, sleeping in the lifeguard’s hut. Zionism added the “ch” to the name A-Zib, naming it Achziv, although this is a pessimistic name (from the verb “to disappoint”) that doesn’t aptly describe it.
In the ‘70s it became a magnet for hippies, especially after the post-Woodstock rock concert held there in 1972. But later in that decade Israel demanded the place back. Avivi dug in and fought. He founded Achzivland in protest and issued passports. Similar protests occurred later in Yeruham, where Mayor Baruch Elmakayis set up the State of Yeruham. The idea of the State of Judea was popular in the ‘90s, and in the Gaza Strip during the disengagement another “Jewish state” existed briefly in the settlement Kfar Yam. It sent letters to the UN and was evacuated shortly before its independence celebrations.
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Like Menachem Begin, who returned most of Israel’s conquered territories when Sinai was returned to Egypt, Avivi compromised and gave most of his entity’s land to the adjacent national park. A year ago, passports were reissued as a marketing gimmick.
Avivi didn’t hesitate to recount various security episodes he had been involved in. They were stories of the old kind, like cloak-and-dagger children’s adventure books. In contrast to Military Intelligence, whose people run operations via screens, Persian-born Avivi was a man of the Middle East who believed in boots on the ground.
I remember many a story I didn’t bother to look into. For example, that the first fedayeen (Palestinian guerilla) landed on Achziv beach, of all places. Avivi offered him coffee and meanwhile called the security forces to catch him. The same goes for his romantic escapades, his nude photograph collection, which he claimed was the biggest in the world. He and Rina wallowed in nostalgia over the days when Sophia Loren stayed a week at the site and tanned herself on the roof. Paul Newman hung out there while filming “Exodus” in 1960.
I first came to Achziv in 2006, right after the Second Lebanon War, and stayed in one of the more austere rooms – no toilet, but facing the sea, where poet Yehuda Amichai and author Emile Habibi liked to stay.
Achzivland remained a sort of mythology from another era, which somehow survived. I wasn’t there during its heyday, but after its decline. Sophia Loren no longer visits, Amichai and Newman are gone. No woman bathed in the nude when I was there and the artists and poets have been replaced by nice, solid families.
Rina tells me about celebrities who were there a week ago, but I never know their names, all kinds of doctors from the north. Every now and then someone tries to help run the place, but only Rina remains in the end, with Omar, the devoted worker from Abu Snan.
Achzivland didn’t renovate the place, preferring to keep prices reasonable. What helped produce income was the place’s becoming the Arab community’s wedding photography site. I would always shake Avivi’s hand and hear some anecdote he recounted in a pleasant voice like an old lion’s. In the last months I didn’t know if he recognized me anymore. Before the end the giggling Filipina dragged him in a wheel chair to a place overlooking the sea and he looked out silently with glassy eyes.
When I was last there 10 days ago, Avivi was in the hospital again. For better or worse, they don’t make characters like him anymore. Today you can’t invent unusual places like Achzivland. I only hope the place survives against the market forces and proper governance. Two states for one people.