Enthusiasts Flock to This Israeli Pigeon Market, a Rare Nest of Dovish Coexistence

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Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

Every Saturday, amid the sooty garages that dot its dusty industrial zone, the town of Kafr Qasem, some 20 kilometers east of Tel Aviv, holds its bird market. But despite the name that has become attached to the market, most of the booths here are not offering feathered creatures. In fact, the birds, and the pigeons in particular, are mere interlopers among all the cheap Chinese goods on sale and the fruit-and-vegetable stands that are situated in the center of the market, and have much better shade.

The pigeon zone is in an exposed area at the back. Already at 8 A.M., some 30 sellers, each of whom paid 30 shekels ($8) to be here, are pressed up against an unplastered wall, seeking some shade. Jews alongside Arabs (men only), each with a cage that holds his beloved pigeons. Casting a proud eye on the birds, they await buyers or at least some praise for their pigeons’ beauty.

These are not your regular street pigeons. They are fancy birds, a different breed in each cage. One pigeon has a peculiar beak, another a curved neck, a third boasts a magnificent peacock-like tail. Prices vary accordingly. Some of the birds are more beautiful than others. For my part, I hold back and offer no compliments. I don’t want to display my ignorance by getting enthusiastic about the wrong birds. The looks on the faces of the pigeon fanciers recall the collectors in the stamp-collectors club I frequented as a teenager.

Brought together by a basic and shared love for raising fancy pigeons, Jews and Arabs become fast friends.

By 8:30, the angle of the sun has shifted, and the wall’s beneficent shade is vanishing. For sellers, buyers and birds alike, being here becomes less comfortable. In fact, buyers are scarce – money hardly changes hands. What is here in abundance is genuine, below-the-radar coexistence of Jews and Arabs. Brought together by a basic and shared love for raising fancy pigeons, they become fast friends.

“Relations are warm,” says Yisrael Azaria. “The reception we get here shows how the street talks in a different way from the politicians, who tend to play up the less pleasant things. Look at the way everyone is full of praise for others’ birds.”

Azaria, 56, a truck driver from Kibbutz Givat Haim Meuhad, is one of the major breeders on hand, specializing in Nuremberg lark pigeons. Azaria exchanges hugs with a few Arabs. “The Arabs and the Jews in our WhatsApp group greet each other every morning,” he says. “‘Our Jewish brothers,’ they write. From the media, you would think we are in a helpless bind, but the situation on the ground is different.”

In what way?

Azaria: “I have pigeon-fancier friends from Tul Karm, from Qalqilyah. You would be amazed at the relations we have: I meet with them, they come to my house. There’s none of the dirt of politics. We talk with regret about our leaders and theirs, who are disconnected from the grass roots.”

White doves at Kfar Qasem's bird market Credit: Moti Milrod

There must be political arguments, too.

“There are arguments sometimes, but they’re at a reasonable level. I say, for example, that I am proud to be part of this army and this nation. I give the example of Elor Azaria [the soldier on trial for shooting a wounded Palestinian] – after all, he was arrested.”

You’re also “Azaria.”

“It’s a different spelling [in Hebrew]. The people here are tired of fighting. If they feel they are being respected, they give unending love. Listen, they find themselves in unpleasant situations at the checkpoints, in their jobs. I prefer my large number of Arab friends to a few Jewish friends. I prefer many of my Arab friends to some of my Jewish friends. There’s a horse show every year in Jericho. You should see what happens there, how Jews and Arabs enjoy themselves together, eat together and sleep in the same hotels.”

It’s illegal for Israelis to enter Jericho.

“Illegal, but it happens. Those relationships don’t make it into the media. If a boy throws a stone, the media will make a big deal out of it. They don’t see fit to offer an iota of sweetness or optimism. I believe that true peace will come from the grass roots and not from a signature on a piece of paper.”

Azaria’s parents immigrated to Israel from Tunisia. Arabs, he says, don’t always realize that he’s Jewish, because of his facial features and his fluency in Arabic. I put it to him that most of the Jews here at the market are Mizrahim – of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

“There are Ashkenazi pigeon fanciers, too,” he replies, “though it’s possible that Mizrahim identify more with this culture, because of the language and the humor. But there are also Mizrahim of a different kind – you have ’La Familia’ [a violent group of fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team]. Still, since you brought up the subject, when I see demonstrations against the army by the extreme left – they’re supposedly enlightened, but their stomach will turn if a Yemenite moves in next door. The real coexistence is what we do here.”

Bird traders haggel in Kfar Qasem's bird market Credit: Moti Milrod

Still, raising pigeons isn’t a substitute for human rights or a peace process.

“Raising pigeons sounds like something marginal, but it’s in the place where something is done together by the two sides that you have to cultivate the ties. Think of the son of the Arab from Tul Karm, who’s never seen a Jew in his life – and when he meets me he sees warmth and likability, a smiling guy. Think what that does to the boy – he understands that you, too, are a human being, like him.”

Does your family worry about your trips to the West Bank?

“They don’t have to know everything. That’s my small mission. It’s important for everyone to contribute. Maybe it’s a little bit, but we mustn’t think a little can’t have real influence.”

‘Pigeons are like drugs’

The moving spirit of the bird market is Nasim Regbi, 36, an electrician from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Wazi Joz and a pigeon breeder. A congenital optimist and smiler, Regbi glides through the market from one embrace to the next, like a groom on his wedding day. Asked to pose for a photo, Regbi takes a pigeon out of a cage, kisses it and breathes air into it as though it were a balloon, so its neck puffs up splendidly. Like many of the others, he doesn’t come to the market to buy or sell, but in order to meet with his brother pigeon breeders, Jews and Arabs alike.

“You have to understand that pigeons are like drugs: There are pairs that you have to have at any price,” he says. Opposite him, a redheaded pigeon breeder named Red, who lives in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Shoafat, explains: “There are some pigeons that I wouldn’t sell for even 10,000 shekels [$2,650]. If you love a pigeon, you won’t part with it.”

Regbi, who is a member of both the Israeli and the Palestinian pigeon fanciers clubs, and is also active in the various WhatsApp groups, tells me about his far-flung business transactions. In recent years, since it has become possible again, he exports surplus pigeons to the Gaza Strip. “They see the images on my Facebook page and trust me to sell them a high-class pigeon,” he says.

You have to understand that pigeons are like drugs: There are pairs that you have to have at any price.

Pigeon breeder Nasim Regbi at Kafr Qasem's bird market.Credit: Moti Milrod

But now, after the ban on exporting pigeons to Gaza has been lifted, Regbi feels victimized by the prohibition on bringing pigeons from the territories into Israel. He has a dovecote next to his house in East Jerusalem, he tells me, but it’s small; he keeps most of his pigeons in Jericho, where they have more room.

“Because of the racism,” he says, “Israeli Arabs are stopped and checked, and they’re hassled about bringing in pigeons. But breeders from [the West Bank urban settlement] Ma’aleh Adumim don’t get stopped. The fact is that any disease in a Palestinian coop will spread to an Israeli coop in the territories, and vice versa. The Jewish and Arab villages are adjacent to one another.”

He continues: “At a checkpoint I tell them, ‘Look, I’m a member of the Israeli pigeon fanciers club and the pigeon has leg bands with an Israeli symbol. If I were from Ma’aleh Adumim, you wouldn’t stop me.’ After that they usually think for a minute, and let me in. My good luck is that I’ve learned how to imitate a Jewish accent, and I have a name that can also be read as ‘Nissim’ [a Hebrew name], so sometimes I’m not stopped.”

Regbi recalls an incident he witnessed in which settlers took revenge on Palestinians after the recent murder of a Jew in Hebron. Masked settlers threw stones at Arab cars near the Hawara checkpoint, he says, and the soldiers stood aside and allowed the rioting to proceed. Regbi, in a car with his pregnant wife, was frightened. An teenage settler positioned himself next to the car and started to curse him. Regbi’s wife wore traditional clothing, so he couldn’t pose as an irascible Jew, but he had the presence of mind to pretend to be a Druze who had served in the Israeli army. “I protected you and this is how you behave?” he shouted at the young settler. Only then did a soldier grab the youth and hustle him off the road.

“If I hadn’t spoken like that I would have been stoned,” he says. “And my wife was in her seventh month. I asked the soldier why he let them throw stones at me. I told him that my brother is a physician at Shaare Zedek [Medical Center in Jerusalem] and that many of the people at the checkpoint want peace. The soldier explained that a rabbi had been killed in Hebron. ‘The people here are innocent,’ I told him.”

You sell pigeons to Gaza and they move the birds through the tunnels to Egypt and from there to Libya and the Emirates. So you have pigeons with an Israeli band in Libya.

Another serious problem faced by the pigeon fanciers I spoke to is the ban imposed by Israel’s Agriculture Ministry on trade with the ostensible pigeon kingdom to the east: Jordan. “And if there’s no importing, there’s no exporting, either,” Regbi explains: “There are special, high-class pigeons in Jordan no less than there are in Germany and Bulgaria. We are ready to provide veterinary certificates, but the Agriculture Ministry refuses to allow the birds to be brought in. There is peace with Jordan, after all. The head of the pigeon breeders association in Germany goes to the fairs in Jordan.”

Other Arab pigeon breeders I spoke to admit that they can’t resist the temptation and simply engage in smuggling.

“What’s better for you – to let us bring in birds under supervision or for us to put them in our luggage?” a pigeon junkie from an Arab village snarled. “I’ve smuggled in pigeons in my hands, and unfortunately they suffered, but nothing can be done. One look at these pigeons and you’ll want to steal them. They have a red ring around their eyes. In Israel they’re $1,000 a pair today, in Jordan $500. Luckily we’ve had the Gazans for the past three years: You sell to them and they move the birds through the tunnels to Egypt and from there to Libya and the Emirates. So you have pigeons with an Israeli band in Libya.”

Yehezkel Menashe at Kafr Qasem's bird marketCredit: Moti Milrod

Closed market

Pigeon fanciers come from all social classes. Wahid Arar, 58, from Jaljulya, an Arab town near Kfar Sava, is the deputy manager of a bank. I met him in the Kafr Qasem market with his friend, Yehezkel Menashe, a former career-army man from Ashkelon, whose income consists of a disability allowance from the National Insurance Institute.

Arar became interested in pigeons because his son wanted them when he was a boy. (He’s now in veterinary school.) “Everyone who has a bond with animals, whether it’s birds or cats or whatever, is always a good person. That’s my feeling,” Arar says. “We can forgo the whole Israeli Knesset and the whole Palestinian parliament. You’ll see how we get along well without them. The people here aren’t friends, they’re family. We go to each other’s weddings. When Yehezkel’s mother died, we came to pay our condolences – Arabs and Jews.”

And when there was an intifada or a military operation in Gaza or Lebanon, did people still come to the market?

Arar: “There was a falloff, but it bounced back fast.”

“If Jews met more with Arabs and saw the respect they show others – their approach would change,” Menashe declares. “But in the media they show the person who perpetrated an attack, not the one who wants to live with us. And I come to the market even in periods of terrorist attacks. What can you do? There are also terrorist attacks by settlers, and that hurts. When those children were killed on the Gaza beach during the military operation in 2014, my mother and I cried. It hurts.”

I ask Menashe whether he sees himself on the right or the left, but he’s evasive. “I am not right-wing or left-wing. I’m interested in human beings, not their race. I’ve been around Arabs ever since I can remember. My grandfather, who was also named Yehezkel Menashe, had a factory that made arak [an alcoholic beverage]. When I was a kid, people came from Gaza and slept at our place, and we went to their weddings. I was born with Arabs and I’ll die with Arabs, come what may.” To prove his point he shows me his WhatsApp profile photo: an Iraqi flag.

Like many people in the pigeon world, Menashe is not a fan of the Agriculture Ministry. In one case, he says, a shipment of dozens of pigeons from Hungary, which cost 80,000 shekels (about $20,000), was destroyed because the ministry claimed that one pigeon was diseased. “They killed them in sacks, like the Germans killed in gas chambers,” Menashe says bitterly.

“Breeding pigeons is in my blood,” says Rami Natsheh from the Ras al-Amud neighborhood in East Jerusalem. “Sometimes you see a pair for 20,000 shekels and you just have to buy it, otherwise you’ll die. It’s a craving.” He explains to me at length the difference between German and oriental pigeons – he prefers the latter and sings the praises of the breed, which was traditionally dominant in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine/Israel, and can be imported not from Germany or Hungary, but only from the Hashemite Kingdom. “A pair can cost 15,000 shekels [almost $4,000],” he says.

Everyone who has a bond with animals, whether it’s birds or cats or whatever, is always a good person. We can forgo the whole Israeli Knesset and the whole Palestinian parliament.

Natsheh, a greengrocer in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market, comes to Kafr Qasem solely to meet his fellow pigeon lovers. “Anyone who wants to buy, let him come to my place,” he says, adding, “The problem in Israel is that if you import a pigeon from Hungary, for example, and it breeds rapidly, you have dozens of pairs and nowhere to send them. How many can you sell to Gaza? There’s a glut and the prices drop fast. Fortunately, there aren’t many of the oriental birds that I breed. If it were possible to sell to Jordan, we could export through there to Kuwait and Dubai. There’s a healthy market in Jordan, the prices don’t go up or down. In Israel there’s a closed market, so the value of the pigeons drops fast. The breeder loses money, because the pigeon he bought for 15,000 is suddenly worth 1,000 or less. But the main thing for me is the pleasure, not the commerce.”

One of those who has been affected by the closed market is Zohar (who asked to be identified only by his first name), a dog groomer from Lod. He’s standing next to an empty cage and gazing forlornly at passersby. He came here with two pairs of special birds, from Uzbekistan, which are worth at least 1,400 shekels ($370), but parted with them for 900 ($240) for each pair. “There’s no market for pigeons, I lost a lot of money,” he complains. “I sold because I don’t have any more room at home, I had no choice.”

Zohar relates that his wife was worried when he went to Kafr Qasem at the height of the recent wave of terrorist attacks last fall. But he is fatalistic: “You can’t escape fate. And when I’m here, I’m never afraid. People don’t make a distinction here between Jew and Arab.” Then, remembering the low price for which he sold his birds, he mutters disconsolately, “I made a mistake.”

Feathery encounters

Another venue for feathery encounters between Jews and Arabs is the spacious yard of the Naor family in Gan Haim, a moshav close to Kfar Sava, in the center of the country. In fact, it was my visits there that got me interested in the subject. Jewish and Arab families meet on the lawn there every weekend. In the yard are numerous pigeon and duck coops, along with other animals and old refrigerators.

Noam Naor isn’t sure how far back these weekly “parliaments” go. Probably, he thinks, from the late 1970s, when his father, Moshe “Mussa” Naor, a well-known figure among Israeli pigeon fanciers, founded the weekend event. Noam, who displays cowboy affectations, occasionally twirls a pistol, which turns out to be a huge cigarette lighter. A regular at the conclaves is Naor’s mother, Tzipi, who was born in 1926 and was a member of the pre-state Palmach strike force. (She was also the muse for a popular 1948 ditty, “Tzip-Tzip-Tzipi,” by the iconic songwriter Haim Hefer.) In a sense, the late Mussa Naor continues to preside over the event: His photo is perched on his regular chair.

Nor does the mythology end with Tzipi. According to Naor, his father, who used carrier pigeons in the War of Independence, was the inspiration for Meir Shalev’s bestselling 2006 novel, “A Pigeon and a Boy.”

Noam Naor - an Israeli pigeon breeder Credit: Moti Milrod

“It was my understanding that Meir and Dad met,” Naor says. “There are many things in the book that recall Dad, some of them quite precisely – whether it’s raising pigeons or their use for communications in the Haganah [the pre-independence army of Palestine’s Jews]. But Meir Shalev didn’t see fit to mention that.”

Shalev is not surprised by the criticism. “Almost every one of my books contains fragments of true stories and anecdotes about real people,” he notes. “So naturally, I get responses from people, some of whom I know, who find themselves, their grandfather or their ex-wife in the plot. I too find myself in stories by others. Every hero who falls in love reminds me of myself.”

When Mussa was alive, hundreds of visitors showed up each week for the parliament; these days it numbers between 10 and 20.

Naor: “Everything revolves around the subject of pigeons. We talk about raising pigeons and other animals. There are Jews and Arabs, including from the territories – those with a permit.”

Do you talk politics?

Naor: “We try not to. Israeli Arabs sometimes do. From the territories, less. It’s hard for them to speak their mind.”

Naor says he doesn’t like the Kafr Qasem market; it’s been some time since he was last there. “What’s brought to the market is of lesser quality, remnants. And the prices there are low – it’s not worth it for me to sell. Both you and the pigeons suffer from the heat and the sun, and in the end you go home with pennies.”

Why is it about pigeons that creates an atmosphere of coexistence?

“Trade in pigeons has always existed and always will – it cuts across nations, cultures and ethnic groups. It’s been grounded in the culture here since ancient times.”

Why do you raise pigeons?

“I love animals. Plants, too.”

Naor’s business partner, Amir, praises pigeon breeding in Arab society. “About 1,000 Arabs who are citizens of Israel raise pigeons, compared to around 200-300 Jews,” he says. “The pigeon culture among the Arabs is like in Europe, it’s part of life. With us it’s seen as defective. We had amazing commerce, but the [2005 Gaza] disengagement brought the business to a halt.”

Kfar Qasem bird marketCredit: Moti Milrod

Amir is shocked at my question about the image of pigeons as spreaders of disease. “It’s not pigeons,” he asserts. “It’s migratory birds, water birds – look in the books. Avian flu is from ducks and geese.”

For his part, Naor is nostalgic for the days of yore. “People came here from the whole Middle East,” he says. “Pigeons were transferred via UN people and Israeli Arabs who were guests here, before official relations were established with Jordan and Egypt. But it all disappeared. There’s a disconnect with the territories, which were our pipeline to the Gulf states. Now, instead of buying in Israel, the sheikhs go to Europe and pay any price.”

Will the rock dove, a domestic pigeon, bring peace?

“There’s a rumor to that effect.”

It turns out that Hebron, too, has a pigeon market. Every Friday, Mohammed Abu Sabih, a Hebrew teacher of 34, auctions off birds, taking a commission of five shekels for each sale. Every few years the market moves to a different location, he says, at the politicians’ whims.

Like most Palestinians, Abu Sabih is denied an entry permit into Israel. But just as the law can’t stop Yisrael Azaria from viewing pigeons on the Palestinian side, Abu Sabih, too, gets to the Israeli side. Fortunately for him, he has no accent, and apart from his tendency to say “barukh Hashem” (“thank God”) way too much and to use outdated slang, it’s hard to tell that he’s not an Israeli. All of which allows him to pursue his pigeon pursuits freely.

“I can get in by bus or by hitchhiking with settlers,” he says proudly in a phone call. “My Hebrew, barukh Hashem, is superb, and I go wherever I want, even though I’d prefer for it to be legal. I’d like to go to Tel Aviv and back with the wife and kids. But soldiers assume that everyone is a terrorist, even though the majority want to live, not blow themselves up. In civics you’re taught that the basic rights are freedom of movement and of expression. We don’t see any of that, it all stays in the books.”

Trade in pigeons has always existed and always will – it cuts across nations, cultures and ethnic groups. It’s been grounded in the culture here since ancient times.

Abu Sabih knows the pigeon breeders inside the Green Line, either through Facebook or through the (Hebrew-language) website Yonim Be’Yisrael (Pigeons in Israel). Nothing will stop him: “I took two cages filled with pigeons and caught a bus near Kiryat Arba [a settlement adjacent to Hebron] to Jerusalem. The settlers spoke to me enthusiastically. They said the birds were beautiful and asked me what I do with them. On the spot, I invented a story that I’m a dove flyer at weddings and was on the way to Tel Aviv. Right away they took my phone number, because someone was getting married. I don’t know how I came up with that lie. They had no idea I was an Arab, otherwise I’d have been in big trouble.”

Why are there hardly any women in this field?

“They hate pigeons. They’re afraid of pigeons.”

Like many of those interviewed for this article, Abu Sabih, too, is outraged that he can’t import pigeons from Jordan. “Because of the ban, people smuggle them in their luggage. Sometimes they get caught, sometimes the pigeon dies from the heat or lack of air.”

Do you think these birds can bring peace? [In Hebrew the same word, “yona,” means both “dove” and “pigeon.”]

“Not by themselves. There has to be a will by both nations. It’s a pity for every drop of blood that’s shed.”

After visiting the bird market, many breeders, Jews and Arabs alike, head for the garden of Raad Badir, 45, in Kafr Qasem. “People have coffee at my place,” he says. “I have a yard and we release the pigeons there; it’s a pleasure to watch them when they’re free. We stay friends even in periods of war.”

Why is it that in other areas Jews and Arabs fight, but with pigeons there is coexistence?

Badir: “Pigeons generate calm, which brings mental tranquility.”

Official response

In response to the complaints about the ban on commerce with Jordan and discrimination in security checks for Jews and Arabs leaving the territories, Dr. Shlomo Grazi, the Agriculture Ministry’s chief veterinary doctor for import-export, told Haaretz: “The veterinary services are constantly working to prevent the introduction of diseases from other countries, based on international standards. We carry out an organized process of evaluating the system of veterinary supervision in the country of origin. To bring in pigeons from Jordan to Israel, an agreed-upon certificate of health between the countries is required.”