Highway 40 Revisited: As the Landscape Changes, So Do the People

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Neot Hovav, an “eco-industrial park in the Negev,” October 2017.
Neot Hovav, an “eco-industrial park in the Negev,” October 2017. Credit: Alex Levac

Near Be’er Sheva and more intensely afterward, the land turns yellow and the landscape metamorphoses rapidly. The cascades of bougainvillea and the fruit orchards give way to desert, the earth turns from hard loam to rolling loess. Instead of moshavim and gated communities, the roadside is blighted with squalid hovels and tin shacks, tents and animal pens. Few roads branch off from the main highway; only dirt trails and forlorn, unsheltering bus stops offer silent evidence that people live here, too, and have built dwellings, though they aren’t recognized by the state authorities. Welcome to the “dispersion,” the land of the Bedouin.

No electric power or running water, but plenty of demolition and expulsion orders. Who and what is bothered by their settling here isn’t clear, in a country whose founding father – who is buried not far from here – posited the settlement of the Negev as a supreme value. No one in Israel longs more to settle the Negev than the Bedouin; no one belongs more to this land and is more deeply connected to it than they, far more than the trendy single-family farms, B&Bs and khans – and no one has consistently degraded them than their country. Looking at the empty expanses, anyone who isn’t familiar with Zionist real estate greed would not be able to imagine why this is the case. There’s plenty of room for everyone, and everyone is Israeli, no?

>> Part 1: The Israeli dream – or nightmare – is found on both sides of Highway 40 ■ Part 2: Tall tales and desert mirages in southern Israel

An anomaly on the right side of Highway 40: Neot Hovav, an “eco-industrial park in the Negev.” Sparkling clean, verdant, designer-smart, immaculate, well-planned, cultivated: sidewalks, public squares, fountains. Ecology, technology, biology, geology, recycling and conservation. Frescoes, sculpture garden, landscaping. The 21st century. The parking lots are half-empty, no one wanders around here outside. The plants have names like Teva (nature) or Adama (earth). Systems of pipes that look like abstract sculptures produce desert-based minerals and chemicals for the whole world, some of them dangerous pollutants. The last word in the field.

Opposite the eco industry, on the other side of the road, different words are heard: the desperate cries of the natives. The Bedouin who still cling to this arid land in Ramat Beka are a dying breed, situated across from the pollution generated by the Israel Electric Corporation and other industries, juxtaposed to the green abundance of Neot Hovav. No contrast is more grating than the one on the two sides of the highway here. Ecology, biology and technology on the west side, life without electric power or running water on the east.

A rusty, tilting sign in the middle of a sand field for the “Smiley Clalit” dental clinic run by Dr. Munir Shalibi leads to what is another anomaly in the landscape, near Mashabim Junction: It’s a rare Bedouin-owned tourism site in the Negev, run by a family living at Amir Farm, making it the only Bedouin single-family farm. Dr. Shalibi’s dental clinic is located at the entrance to the Desert Ship Khan operated by his father, Farhan Shalibi. Outdoor adventure activities for groups, haflot (Arab-style parties), weddings, bar mitzvahs, even kosher desert-style meals, according to the brochure. You can start with root canal work at the hands of the son and then proceed to a desert-style meal from his father, or vice versa.

Mitzpeh Ramon, one afternoon in October 2017Credit: Alex Levac

Dafna Yitzhak is probably the only Jewish woman in Israel who works for Bedouin. A resident of Kibbutz Or Haner, near Sderot, a former Sinai devotee and tour guide, she has been working here for 13 years, organizing “fun days” and group activities. Amir Shalibi, 23, the dentist’s brother, is a riding therapy student at Wingate, the sports college north of Netanya, and helps run the khan. A smiley young man, he’s married and has a 2-week-old daughter. His family’s desert mirage can accommodate 1,000 people in huge tents on spick-and-span grounds. Camels wait to transport the next group of riders across the desert sands.

Every success is extensively reported, though it’s usually followed by failure, in this unconventional town that has never really taken off and succeeded.

It’s empty here on weekdays. A music festival planned for the Sukkot holiday was canceled, and now they’re waiting for other vacationers. Opposite, under different ownership, a luxurious “desert spa” that offers thermo-mineral ponds is closed for renovations.

The single-family farms and B&Bs further along are in part trendy desert yuppiness – somewhat alien and artificial in these surroundings. A wine cellar and wine store at Nahal Boker Farm; American-Indian tents at Zayit Hamidbar Farm; a lush vineyard in the midst of the parched land at Carmey Avdat. Visitors are rare on these warm fall weekday mornings.

Warplanes flash by in the sky and a herd of ibexes nibble at the shrubbery in the park, as we visit the desolate grave of Pola and David Ben-Gurion, next to Kibbutz Sde Boker. There are few sights as grand as the mountainous desert view from the founder’s grave. I was 20 when he died, and at dawn that day I traveled to the Knesset plaza to pay final respects as his coffin lay in state. Not likely I’d do the same today. Two nights earlier, I’d chanced to sleep in the Sde Boker youth hostel and had awoken to the beeps of wireless radios announcing the arrival of the organizers of the state funeral. That’s how I learned about the death of the person whom my grandfather tried to get me to venerate.

In the meantime, we’ve reached Mitzpeh Ramon.

At midday, there are more ibexes in the town’s streets than people. The ibexes here are the cats’ best friends, and the residents are enamored of both, even though the local council has posted notices everywhere urging people not to feed them. In one backyard, we counted about a dozen cats, half a dozen ibexes among them – rubbing shoulders, so to speak. This is perhaps the most fascinating of the desert towns, and the one with the most media coverage. Every success is extensively reported, though it’s usually followed by failure, in this unconventional town that has never really taken off and succeeded. If in the Bedouin city of Rahat all the problems revolve around housing, here employment is the nub.

The typical 1950s row houses have been preserved and most of them renovated, the town is quite clean, and from every corner looms the unrivaled primeval grandeur of Machtesh Ramon. This is also the quietest town in the country: traffic on the streets is sparse. The population is only some 5,000, most of them falling at 4 on a socioeconomic scale of 0 to 10.

Chabad House in Mitzpeh Ramon, renovated to look like the Rebbe's house in New YorkCredit: Alex Levac

Before it became a permanent settlement, Mitzpeh Ramon was a camp for the workers who built the road to Eilat. The human mosaic is perhaps the most varied in Israel, consisting of at least seven distinct communities. There are the North African immigrants, who have been here the longest; the 1990s immigrants from the former Soviet Union; veteran Israelis – artists, entrepreneurs and others of their ilk – who moved here from the center of the country, many in recent years; families of prison warders – two prisons, Nafha and Ramon, are close by; families of career army personnel who serve on bases in the area; Hardelim (Zionist ultra-Orthodox Jews), whose numbers are increasing rapidly; and a few hundred Hebrew Israelites who broke with the mother community in Dimona. Prison guards, army officers, black people, Russians, Hardelim, admen and artists, all in one small town. Some see the place as their home, while for the warders and officers it’s a way station. The artists and entrepreneurs try, but only a few remain.

There is a McCann Valley sign, in English only, at the offices of the local branch of the McCann Erickson advertising agency, across from the dorms of the yeshiva high school for environmental religious education. A Chabad House and, on the corner of the street, a vegan snack bar run by the Hebrew Israelites; the sounds of afternoon prayer can be heard from the former, black gospel music from the latter. Do such places really exist?

To passing guests like us – well, guests for two days – it looks as though everyone gets along. Still, the secular folk from the center of the country are increasingly anxious about the growing dominance of the ultra-Orthodox, who already account for about a third of the town’s residents if the yeshiva students are included.

The sign announcing the hours of activity of the municipal pool tell the story: only two to three hours a day for “general,” meaning coed swimming, with women and men having separate hours the rest of the time. Still, the pool is open on Shabbat. There are already a few yeshivas in Mitzpeh Ramon, including a hesder yeshiva that combines religious study with army service, and now a school for religious girls is in the offing, too. It’s not yet comparable to the situation in Arad, still less Beit Shemesh, but that might be the future.

The secular population is worried about the Hardeli takeover of public buildings and also the way of life. The presence of the yeshiva students is inescapable, knitted skullcaps and fringed garments, along with T-shirts of “To run in biblical landscapes – a decade of Talmonim races,” referring to an annual race in the West Bank.

Acre after acre, one immigrant town after another. A nonreligious film producer who lives in Mitzpeh Ramon, with a view of the crater from his designer tenement apartment, says that if the yeshiva students (most of whom do not have a registered address in the town) were allowed to participate in elections here, the Hebron settler activist Baruch Marzel would be elected defense minister.

A refrigerator stands in the stairwell at 15 Nahal Mishor Street. The holiday dates of a preschool are pasted on its front door. The refrigerator is empty; why it’s in the stairwell isn’t clear. Few names appear on the broken mailboxes – maybe there’s no need for them.

'I met my French wife and followed her to Mitzpeh. I’ve been here 13 years. I struck roots here and fell in love with the place.'

In the parking lot of a commercial center, S.A. gets out of her car, accompanied by her three beautiful children, all of whom have special names. We sat at a wooden table in one of the empty restaurants. S.A. smiled constantly and was very sociable, answering every question, telling her life story openly and identifying herself with her full name. She’s a sort of success story.

And then, as we are about to leave and go our separate ways, we ask her a final question: Do you ever fell that you suffer from racism? At this, a total change comes over the young, impressive woman. Tears run from her eyes and stifle her speech; she can’t control herself. She’s never talked about it, she says, and in the end asks that we not use her name.

Her family moved to Mitzpeh Ramon from Eilat about a year ago. She and her husband, both of them Ethiopian-born immigrants, work in the tourism industry. Her husband, whom she met via Facebook, holds a relatively senior position. She arrived in Israel in 1991, when she was 7, straight to the Diplomat Hotel in Jerusalem, which was converted into an immigrant absorption center. I was there at the time, when hundreds of immigrants arrived from the airport. It was an unforgettable occasion.

From there, her family moved to a trailer camp in Poria, near Lake Kinneret, where they lived for four years, and then to Lod. Her father was a cleaner at Israel Aerospace Industries, her mother was a cleaner at the Elite food factory in the city.

There aren’t many Ethiopians in Mitzpeh Ramon. Their three children attend educational institutions here, but the parents’ plan is for each of them to be sent in turn for a least one year of schooling in Ethiopia, to deepen their roots. They have grandparents there who can look after them. The first daughter will probably go next year, to enter the first grade. “Roots give you strength,” her mother says. “There’s a big difference between growing up into it and hearing stories about it. My husband feels a lot more secure here, because he immigrated when he was 17. He knows who he is. I, who came when I was 7, know less.”

Racism? “Of course. I’ve experienced it since I was a little girl. I tend to forget, but it always comes back to me. Now that I am a mother and find myself dealing with institutions and offices, I feel the attitude. I am addressed differently from other people. Some will possibly say I’m exaggerating, but I feel these things keenly. I go to the girls’ preschools, and it seems to the teachers that my quietness reflects naivete. With other parents, the teachers are more flattering and make more of an effort. When I ask how my daughter was that day, the teacher will tell me she was alright. And then she’ll go over to another mother and tell her her daughter was wonderful.

“I don’t want you to think this is whining,” she continues. “I check it all the time. But it’s because of my skin color. I am always spoken down to. ‘Do you understand Hebrew?’ Why shouldn’t she talk to me in regular Hebrew, like she does to everyone, and we’ll take it from there? What is this low-level way of talking to me? When I gave birth, the doctor straightaway asked the nurse, ‘Does she speak Hebrew?’ It’s humiliating and irritating. I got really upset. I hate it when I’m spoken to like that. Today, when people talk to me in that way, I look for the highest, politest words in Hebrew to answer them. In that way, I try to change their opinion about me. I have no other way to fight it.

“You know, I’ve never talked about this with anyone. Not even with my husband. It makes me really sad.” She falls silent. Chokes up. Looks away. Her daughter asks her if she’s crying and she replies, “I’m not crying. I’m tired and I yawned. That’s the reason for the tears.” To which the girl replied, “Let’s go home, I need to go to the toilet.”

S.A.: “I never cried about it. Never. You are making me look at the whole picture. My husband is stronger. He knows where he came from. When we’re asked, ‘Where did you come from? Did you have clothes there?’ he doesn’t get upset at all. Because he knows where he came from. With me, it’s less so. When I got here I wanted to be an Israeli. You’re a child and you do everything to become like everyone else. And then, when you get older, you’re told, ‘You are not one of us.’ And if I’m not part of Israeliness, who am I? What am I? And then you start to look for who you are. It’s frustrating. And in Ethiopia they’ll say, ‘You’re a Falasha.’

“Our parents couldn’t help us. I hope I will be able to help my children. People tell me, ‘So what if there is racism? It exists everywhere.’ But I don’t accept that. I am told, ‘A person can succeed in overcoming racism if he has willpower.’ I have willpower, but I’m not succeeding. You are taking me to places I’ve never examined for myself. And then they strut out some Ethiopian officer or doctor and say, ‘Here, this is the first one.’ The first officer. The first doctor. As though we’re all in a competition with some finish line. That kind of thing makes me boil.

“I don’t want my daughters to have to Google in order to know who and what they are. Sometimes, I think that maybe I’ll leave the country for a few years and live somewhere else, and maybe then I’ll feel like I belong here. I know there’s racism abroad, too, but it’s harder to experience racism in a place that’s your home. Over time it’s become revolting here. Not just toward me. Our society has been divided nicely into groups. There’s no one to talk to, because not many understand this program of dividing society into groups. There are people for whom that’s convenient. It’s convenient for the powerful. I feel I am having the wool pulled over my eyes here.”

Where will you be 10 years from now?

“Not here, I hope. I have nothing against Israel, but it’s hard for me here.” She wipes away the tears, gathers up her daughters, gets into the family car and disappears down the street.

Moshe Ashur comes over to the table. He says he’s the brother-in-law of Kochavi Shemesh, who was a member of the Jerusalem-based Black Panthers social-activism group in the 1970s, and adds that he established the first restaurant in the city’s Mahane Yehuda produce market. He was dubbed “Moishe and a Half” in the market, because his partner was very short. He scatters hints about arrests and police interrogations when he was young, and about his activity in the Black Panthers. Now he’s here. “I got tired of Mahane Yehuda,” he says. “I met my French wife and followed her to Mitzpeh. I’ve been here 13 years. I struck roots here and fell in love with the place.”

Moshe Ashur's wife in her clinicCredit: Alex Levac

Moroccan-born, he looks younger than his 68 years; he feels good here. He tried his luck in the local restaurant business, but it didn’t work out. He built a clinic for his wife, an osteopath, in their home. Now he’s working as a tiler and says there’s work to be had. “For anyone who wants to work, there’s work in Mitzpeh, too.”

What do you like here, we ask. “That there’s no chasing after mammon. That was the biggest negative in Jerusalem. That constant pursuit. Here it’s all quiet and tranquil.”

And what’s not good here? “I can’t bear to see poverty. And there is poverty here. But there was in Jerusalem, too.”

There’s only one supermarket in the town, and everyone complains about the high prices due to lack of competition. At the local lottery kiosk, Na’aman Zvi, a retired warder, Tunis-born, sends forms for his clients. He’s the proprietor and opens when he feels like it. For 25 years he ran the canteen in Nafha Prison, where he got to know the entire Palestinian leadership down through the generations. He throws out familiar names faster than he sends off lottery forms.

“We were like one family. I was the best friend of all of them. Samir Kuntar, Jibril Rajoub, Mohammed Dahlan, Yahya Sinwar, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, Hisham Abel Razaq [who was the Palestinian prisoners affairs minister] and Salah Shehadeh [whom Israel assassinated in 2002 with a one-ton bomb that killed everyone in his house]. One time, Marwan Barghouti asked to meet me. He told me, ‘Everyone talks about Na’aman, Na’aman – all the time Na’aman. I wanted to meet you.’” His four children all moved to the center of the country.

“I am Yaakov,” says a tie-wearing client, possibly inebriated, who has come to fill out a lottery form. “I play garmoshka. I have big Israeli flag. Two and a half meters. Come on Shabbat to hear me play garmoshka,” he says, referring to the Russian accordion.

There’s an open-air market in the town on Mondays. Beneath a large acoustic shell, next to one of the commercial centers, a greengrocer and souvenir peddler lay out their wares. It’s a pathetic sight. Under the adjacent roof are a few clothes stands; 30 shekels ($8.50) is the highest price. The old water tower, perhaps the first and most iconic image of Mitzpeh Ramon, observes the goings-on in the town from the hill on which it’s perched. There’s an electronic schedule at the bus stop next to the yeshiva students’ dorms, but only the internal bus is slated to arrive in another 15 minutes. A stone sign for the “community grove,” placed here in 2005, leads to an empty, deserted lot. A few withered trees are all that’s left of the grove.

Mitzpeh Ramon’s first hotel, Nof Ramon, is now a Chabad House. The building’s exterior was redone to emulate the home of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe in Brooklyn, New York, including the street address 770, stuck on diagonally like at the original in America.

Its director is Zvi Slonim, a 45-year-old father of 11 and a grandfather. “There are secular people, religious people, Arabs here,” he says. “Actually, no Arabs.” The Four Species are on the table, ahead of Sukkot, the rooms are simple and there’s a pervasive sense of neglect. “It’s not the Beresheet Hotel,” he says, referring to the most beautiful and luxurious of the hotels here, which is on the other side of town – distant, cut off, hidden from the eye.

The fourth and final installment of this series will be published on Friday, October 13.

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