Israelis Need to Stop Turning Their Backs on the Red Sea

The conventional wisdom is that Israel is torn between two cultural options: Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But there’s also a third option: Eilat.

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Beachgoers in Eilat.
Beachgoers in Eilat. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Ofri Ilany
Ofri Ilany

I hate the Mediterranean Sea. More precisely, it casts a pall of gloom over me. Some people feel becalmed by the Mediterranean, or inspired. I just feel bored. Standing on its shore, I get the feeling of watching a television series I’ve seen too many times before.

What is there to be said about the Mediterranean that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? It’s thrilled people since the time of Pericles, even long before him. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Venetians all paddled across it. We live atop layers of clichés about the Mediterranean. Fernand Braudel, Henri Pirenne, Shelomo Dov Goitein, Shlomo Artzi – each has added a layer. But precisely because of that, it’s impossible to attach any clear trait to it.

In some European languages, the name of the Mediterranean sounds like the word “medium.” That’s not by chance. The Mediterranean is the average of Western civilization. The regular sea. Bland, lacking a defined taste. So, every restaurant that lacks a clear-cut style calls itself “Mediterranean.”

When you want to say nothing, say something about the Mediterranean. You’ll always be right. The Mediterranean is also always fashionable. Moderate intellectuals in open shirts and a desire for life and a healthy sexual instinct bestride its shores – consider Albert Camus and Nikos Kazantzakis. They enjoy the breeze. I find it depressing.

Nowadays, almost any culture you can choose in the temperate climate region boasts of its view toward the Mediterranean. In the condominium of the Old World, the Mediterranean is like the living room. But for the most part, anyone who wants to understand the deep, essential aspect of any of those cultures needs to look at the side from which it is escaping: the North Sea, the Black Forest, the Sahara Desert, the Caspian Sea, even Belgium. Israel, too, has a side from which it is escaping, which also has a sea – the Red Sea, it’s called.

Eilat. Credit: Mori Chen

Seemingly, the two cultural options Israel is torn between are Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: a fanatical land-based city and a scrambled Mediterranean sprawl. But there’s a third option: Eilat. Not the Mediterranean Basin, but the Red Sea Basin. Not Greece and Italy, but Yemen and Djibouti. Every so often, tiresome debates erupt over whether Israel is a Mediterranean culture. But has Israeli culture ever considered the Red Sea option?

Not really. At the heart of the Jewish people’s founding myth is the splitting of the Red Sea. The act of overcoming the Red Sea is the formative event of our life here. In the modern era, the Red Sea is also perceived as a Muslim sea. Indeed, Islamic civilization sprang up around it. By capturing Umm al-Rashrash (present-day Eilat) in the War of Independence, Israel became a wedge in the heart of the Muslim world. As such, we also split the Red Sea Basin.

Still, in certain periods, it seemed as though Israel was opening a window to the Red Sea Basin and trying to play a constructive role there. “Palestine is blessed with two seas, the Mediterranean, which links us to Europe and Africa, and the Red Sea, which links us to the great continent of Asia,” David Ben-Gurion wrote in a memorandum to Judge Louis Brandeis before the creation of the state (translation source: “Ben Gurion State-Builder,” by Avraham Avi-hai).

In the state’s early period, some viewed the Red Sea as the wellspring of our cultural renascence. The copper mines of Timna were considered to be Israel’s economic future, and daring young people looked for their future in the country’s far south. At the same time, sabra girls dreamed of their lover returning from beyond the wall of dunes. “What will he bring, what will he bring me upon his return from the desert?” the songwriter Naomi Shemer asked.

And Shoshana Damari sang in reply, “A precious stone of gray / Will he bring me from the copper mines / A stone of flint or amber / For me an ornament and a treasure / And an amulet on my neck / Until he comes back from the desert!”

An Eilat beach. Credit: Daniel Bar-On

I grew up in the area of Red Sea influence. When we said “the sea,” that’s the one we meant. To this day it’s beyond me how anyone can get excited over a grayish-bluish body of water in which pale fish swim and that is lacking coral reefs.

Our upbringing included figures such as the Ethiopian empress Eleni, the Emir Mahfouz, Ibn Battuta, Alfonso de Albuquerque and Arthur Rimbaud. We studied the history of the wars between Kaleb King of Axum and the Jewish Himyarite king Yusuf. They are personages unknown by anyone on the shores of the Mediterranean. It’s pointless even to mention their names.

Zionist empire

Lately, though, the Red Sea has been in the headlines, after Egypt decided to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. Geopolitical commentaries were declaimed in the news studios. But what stood out was the Israeli media’s alienation from the sea on whose shores we reside. Hardly anyone mentioned that Israel controlled the two islands for a lengthy period. No one recalled the nature inspectors who toured Tiran, negotiating their way between the sea tortoises and the nests of the ospreys. The Red Sea heritage has sunk into oblivion.

True, Israel’s control of Sanafir and Tiran marked the height of the country’s colonial period. The Red Sea orientation, as far it existed, was bound up with the Zionist empire, which stretched from Africa to the outskirts of Damascus.

But that’s only part of the story. For decades, Israel has been turning its back to the Red Sea. Eilat has become a polluted resort town, a magnet for Eastern European tourists and Eritrean refugees. But no one really cares.

In the meantime, the condition of the Red Sea itself has never been gloomier. The countries along its shores are blighted by religious extremism, dictatorship, starvation and piracy.

The Red Sea is today perceived as a maritime corridor running from nowhere to no place. For that to change, we have to start by remembering that it wasn’t always so. As late as the 1970s, the countries abutting it were widely considered progressive-revolutionary bastions, the hope of the global left. And even if the hopes that were pinned on South Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea were exaggerated, they were at least hopes.

The geologists tell us that the Mediterranean is gradually receding. Already now, when all is said and done, it is merely a puddle left over from the primeval Tethys Ocean. The Red Sea, in contrast, is young. Its future lies before it. It is still expanding. Ultimately it will become an ocean. It’s best to prepare before it is too late.

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