Slaying Dragons in Lod

These people live in a place that does not officially exist and is not marked on maps, and from which even those who see it - mainly its immediate neighbors - avert their gaze.

A friend who telephoned me on Tuesday last week and heard I was in Lod (the city, not the airport ), wondered what I was doing there, in the city of "ATMs" - those little openings in the walls enclosing several homes in the Dahmash or Harakevet neighborhoods, through which junkies insert money and an anonymous hand passes through the fix in return. No, that wasn't why I had come. I am on a tour sponsored by the Lod Community Foundation, surrounded by industrialists and executives and other dignitaries. We just heard a Bach sonata for four flutes performed by a local ensemble in an ancient olive-oil factory. "An Ashkenazi dream," the friend commented before hanging up.

That was just two days after Peace Now's highly touted aerial tour of the occupied territories. And I, with no plane, in a shared taxi, was witnessing an oozing infestation that no righteous person would ever want to go near.

About a dozen years ago, at a movie theater in Berlin, I saw two heartbreaking autobiographical films by a well-known daughter of Lod, Tsipi Reibenbach: "Choice and Destiny," about her parents, Holocaust survivors, who lived out their days in a public-housing tenement in Lod; and "A City with No Pity," about the town surrounding the story of the family wound; back then as well, Lod looked like a decadent heap of trash, a city in ruins that occasionally enjoys a moment of grace and suddenly yields a spectacular flower.

In the latter film, such a moment involved the discovery of a Roman-era mosaic that had been unearthed accidentally during the construction of a road in Lod - one of the most beautiful mosaics ever discovered in Israel. Also of great beauty is Lod's church, named for the dragon-slaying saint, Georgios, or George, who was born and buried in the city. A Greek priest clad in black opened the door to the large sanctuary, which is dominated by an immense golden chandelier, an extravagant gift to the city from the Russian czar.

Inspired by the courageous George, every generation sees a new hero arise and declare that he will slay the dragon that is devouring this city's inhabitants. The name of the current knight-on-duty is Aviv Wasserman, CEO of the Lod Community Foundation, who is accompanied by his wife, Ruth; together they are a remarkably beautiful Israeli couple. For the past several years they have tied their fate to Lod's, and on that Tuesday afternoon led the guided tour through the alleyways of the city's roughest neighborhoods - the ones that make headlines in the crime columns, or, as in a recent case, when in one of the tin-shack neighborhoods between Ramle and Lod, a toddler is trapped inside a car and dies. Others die while crossing the unmarked train tracks. At least they draw attention for a little while.

There is far less discussion, however, about Lod's live children. We saw them through the bus windows, gesturing at us, the invaders, with obscene hand movements.

The foundation's vision is a great one: for one, to develop the "Peace Triangle" around the Lod church, which is adjacent to the city's main mosque, on one side, and on the other (since the 1970s ), abuts the Sha'ar Hashamayim synagogue, which serves the Georgian-immigrant community; and second, to vanquish the dragon.

It turns out that there are several of these. For instance, there is the illegal "Samech-Het" neighborhood, a refugee camp set up by Bedouin who were expelled from the Negev after Israel's withdrawal from Sinai in the '70s, which developed into a wild agglomeration of lavish villas, assorted houses and shacks.

The dragon of Lod has also had time to spawn babies, such as the Pardes Snir area, infamous for the violent settling of scores between drug dealers. But the most important baby dragon is the Harakevet neighborhood, which has 20,000 residents, who include drug lords but also many decent folk. These people have lived for several generations now in a place that does not officially exist and is not marked on maps, and from which even those who see it - mainly its immediate neighbors - avert their gaze. These include the thriving Jewish neighborhood of Ganei Aviv and Moshav Nir Zvi, which erected a high, concrete separation wall, a la the security barrier in the territories, to "protect" itself from its neighbors. Except that no peace activist has ever, or probably will ever come here to demonstrate against it.

For in this city, as in feudal times, one fortress borders on another: a closed fortress of a Chabad neighborhood, and a new one, glittering in its extravagance ("like Ramat Aviv Gimmel," Aviv Wasserman comments over the microphone, referring to the upscale neighborhood in north Tel Aviv ) and built by young adherents of religious Zionism.

And there is also a vestige of a recent, failed idealistic effort: the Neve Shalom neighborhood, where the Lod municipality hoped to resettle Arabs living illegally in various places in orientalist-inspired, ochre-colored cement cubes, and to legalize their residency status. The city named the streets after the heroes of Islam and built a state Arab school and a kindergarten. Today the houses are partly inhabited, partly destroyed. And the dragon, Lord help us, is alive and well.

And now, St. George, our prayer goes out to you: Please ensure that today's gallant knight does not wind up being yet another statistic - yet another of the idealists who do not ever die, to paraphrase a familiar saying, but are only replaced.