Israel is now the land of milk and whiskey

David Zibell is busy testing the alcohol level of the liquid flowing out of his outdoor copper still. Then, touching his head to ensure his kippah is in place, he heads inside to carefully place labels on the whiskey bottles lined up inside his distillery.

The small warehouse in an industrial zone in the Golan Heights town of Katzrin may not look like much from the outside, where his makeshift whiskey still is essentially a large metal pot connected to a blue plastic garbage pail. But Zibell — a bearded, bespectacled French Canadian who made aliyah in 2014 — is the first person to bottle and sell whiskey in Israel, where it hit the market earlier this month.

The Jewish state may be known for many things, but whiskey isn’t one of them. Until recently, Israel-made alcohol was basically confined to the likes of Goldstar and Maccabee — beer that few Israelis are proud of — and arak, a potent, clear liquor that even Israelis admit is a bit of an acquired taste.

Over the past decade, however, Israel’s alcohol industry has blossomed. It now boasts award-winning wineries that have become world-renowned, and Israeli micro-breweries have proven their prowess as well.

Now, with a total of three distilleries that have opened in Israel over the past four years, it may be whiskey’s turn.

“Whiskey was always my passion, but now there’s a bigger demand for it,” said Zibell, founder of Golan Heights Distillery. “Whiskey sales in Israel went up 45 percent in the last three years. This happened elsewhere years ago, but here things take a little longer.”

This new crop of Israeli whiskey-makers are capitalizing upon the spirit’s rising popularity around the world, said Jonathan Ishai, the founder of the Israeli Whisky Society. When Ishai founded his group back in 2003, he said he had few comrades. But today the group boasts 5,000 members who gather at whiskey tasting events, lectures and occasional trips to Scotland.

For now, the whiskey scene in Israel is a fledgling one, with all three distillers in a bit of a friendly competition to lay claim to the country’s “firsts” when it comes to this particularly evocative — and fetishized — spirit.

Pelter, a well-known winery in the northern Golan Heights, was the first operation in Israel to begin distilling whiskey in November 2013.

Inspired by other boutique wineries that have edged into the whiskey-distilling biz, Pelter’s founder Tal Pelter found himself buying a still from Cognac, France, that was once used by Remy Martin. “There was zero production in Israel so it was like diving into a deep blue ocean,” said Pelter, whose grandfather hawked homemade whiskey in the U.S. during Prohibition.

Milk & Honey was the first to build a whiskey distillery in Israel. They began construction on their 10,000-square-foot facility in Jaffa in June 2014 and started distilling in March 2015. Last month they opened a sleek visitor’s center, which offers tours, tastings and private events. With its poured-concrete floors and shared wooden tables, its industrial-chic atmosphere could easily be mistaken for something in Brooklyn.

“Six whiskey-loving friends decided they wanted to turn a dream into a reality,” said Eitan Attir, Milk & Honey’s new CEO. “Most of them are from hi-tech and have startups, and this is a bit like a startup.”

Meanwhile, the Golan Heights Distillery is a tiny, one-man operation. Zibell — a 36-year-old who was born in Paris and raised in Montreal — is founder, CEO and master distiller, as well as sole investor. His love of whiskey and his dream of making his own began innocently, inspired by many “l’chaims” at Shulounge, the Montreal synagogue where he drank whiskey with friends after Shabbat services every Saturday.

When Zibell moved to Israel with his wife and three of his six children, he intended to continue working in real estate but make whiskey as a hobby. He found romance in the idea of distilling in the picturesque Golan Heights, near his Katzrin home. Once Zibell bought a still,“I started distilling and haven’t stopped,” he said.

That Zibell succeeded in being first to market hinges on a technicality: There are no whiskey regulations in Israel, as there are in Scotland or the United States. In Scotland, the birthplace of whiskey (or whisky, as it is known there), laws mandate, among other things, that whiskey age a minimum of three years in oak barrels. In the U.S., federal law regulates the percentage of grains and alcohol in labeling various spirits. So while Zibell’s spirit may be considered whiskey in Israel, it wouldn’t necessarily be labeled as such elsewhere. (A previous attempt to distill whiskey in Israel, in the 1970s, failed when the Scotch Whisky Association successfully sued the makers of the Israeli brand, Ascot, for calling its  product “Scotch.”)

By contrast, Pelter and Milk & Honey are following the Scotch regulations. As their whiskey ages, both distilleries are producing and selling a variety of other tasty spirits. Milk & Honey is selling “new make” — a potent alcohol produced during the distillation process. (Aging in oak barrels is what gives whiskey its color and up to 70 percent of its flavor.) They’re also hawking “Levantine gin,” which featured spices from Tel Aviv’s Levinski market. Pelter’s non-wine offerings include gin, arak and mahjoul, a date brandy.

Fortunately for Zibell and his young spirit, whiskey matures much faster and more intensely in Israel due to the hot and humid climate, according to Ishai.

In September last year, after aging his two-grain sour-mash whiskey for one year, Zibell began selling a limited run at select stores in Jerusalem in order to test the response to such a young whiskey. The feedback was favorable and Zibell formally launched on Israeli Independence Day on May 12.

Calling his spirit “Golani Whiskey” — both for its geographic origin as well as the IDF infantry brigade whose logo inspired the bottle’s green label — Zibell is releasing 100 bottles each week of the 900-bottle run. An additional 600 bottles will soon be available in the U.S. through kosher wine distributor The River. Milk & Honey and Golan Heights and both kosher certified.

“People are eager to see an Israeli whiskey,” says Zibell. “I’m going to keep it as a young whiskey, because the Israeli personality is all about not wanting to wait for things.”

For those with patience, Zibell is also distilling single malt, rye and corn-mash whiskeys, all of which he plans to release between late 2017 and mid-2018. Golan Heights Distillery is producing other spirits as well, including an absinthe inspired by his great-grandmother, who owned an absinthe bar in France.

If further proof — pun intended — of Israel’s whiskey bonafides is needed, in June, Whisky Live, “the world’s premier whisky tasting show,” will come to Tel Aviv for its third year. And this year, for the first time, visitors will be able to sample locally made whiskeys.

Unlike Israel’s blossoming craft-beer and wine industries, home-grown whiskey has taken longer to catch on partly because high-end spirits were once too expensive for the average Israeli. That changed in June 2013, when former Finance Minister Yair Lapid issued controversial tax reforms. Though the new taxes were bad news for fans of cheap arak — bottles that once cost as little as $5 now start at $15 — they were celebrated by Israeli whiskey lovers, who could now pay $40 for a bottle of 12-year-old Glenlivet that previously cost $70.

And as Israelis’ palette grows more accustomed to this high-end spirit, the pioneers of Israel’s whiskey industry expect more of their fellow countrymen to join them in opening distilleries.

“If 30 years ago I told you Israel would have great wines, you’d have laughed at me, but today there are so many great Israeli wines,” said Ishai. “Whiskey will take a little longer, but it will get there, too.”

In Jerusalem, Biden criticizes those who fail to condemn terror attacks in Israel

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Jerusalem appeared to criticize the Palestinian Authority and some in the international community for not condemning terror attacks in Israel.

“Let me say in no uncertain terms: The U.S. condemns these acts and condemns the failure to condemn them,” Biden said Wednesday morning after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “This cannot become an accepted modus opperendi.

“This cannot be viewed by civilized people as an appropriate way to behave. It is just not tolerable in the 21st century. They’re targeting innocent civilians, mothers, pregnant women, teenagers, grandfathers, American citizens. There can be no justification for this hateful violence, and the United States stands firmly behind Israel when it defends itself as we are defending ourselves at this moment as well.”

Biden arrived in Israel on Tuesday just as separate terror attacks began unfolding in Jerusalem, Petach Tikvah and Tel Aviv. He told reporters at a joint appearance with Netanyahu after they met at the Prime Minister’s Office that his wife, Jill, and two of his grandchildren who are on the trip were having dinner on the Tel Aviv beach near the attacks Tuesday night at the Jaffa Port when they occurred.

An American tourist, Taylor Force, 29, was killed in the attack. The Vanderbilt graduate student was a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. Among about a dozen people wounded was Force’s wife.

“It just brings home that it [terror] can happen, it can happen anywhere, at any time,” Biden said.

Biden said he wanted to visit the Americans injured in the attack but it was not possible to arrange.

Netanyahu lamented that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had not condemned the attacks and pointed out that his Fatah party had praised the attacker as a “martyr and a hero.”

“I believe that to fight terror, all civilized societies must stand together. And while Israel has many partners in this decisive battle, we have no better partner than the United States of America,” Netanyahu said. “It’s a partnership anchored in common values, confronting common enemies and striving for a more secure, prosperous and peaceful future.”

The Israeli leader described as a challenge “the persistent incitement in Palestinian society that glorifies murderers of innocent people, and calls for a Palestinian state not to live in peace with Israel, but to replace Israel.”

Biden also addressed the defense aid negotiations between Israel and Washington, which were to be discussed during his two-day visit, telling reporters that the United States is “committed to making sure that Israel can defend itself against all serious threats, maintain its qualitative edge with a quantity sufficient to maintain that.”

The United States currently provides about $3 billion a year in military grants to Israel. With the current grants expiring in 2018, the U.S. and Israel are working to negotiate a new 10-year deal.

Providing books to Jaffa preschoolers makes Israel stronger

The children at the Arabic-speaking Ofek preschool in Jaffa spent a lot of time this past year thinking about a mouse named Samsoum, the character in a picture book all the kids have read at home with help from their parents.  

In class, the kids did a range of Samsoum-related projects inspired by the book “Samsoum the Mouse” by Jahil Khazaal, about a field mouse who relaxes while the other field mice gather food for the winter, but who later warms the hearts of the worker mice with his colorful stories. 

The children discussed the different emotions portrayed in the book. They also learned that every creature has a role to play in the community — and that food for the soul can be as important as food for the stomach. In the process, the children fell in love with the book.  

Throughout Israel, 45,000 Arab children in government preschools read “Samsoum the Mouse” as part of a reading-readiness program called Maktabat al-Fanoos (Lantern Library). The program began in January and is modeled after Sifriyat Pijama, which for the past five years has distributed children’s books in Hebrew to hundreds of thousands of Jewish preschoolers. Sifriyat Pijama is a sister program to the popular PJ Library Jewish family engagement program in North America, both founded by the Harold Grinspoon Foundation in Massachusetts. 

Lantern Library, created by the Ministry of Education in partnership with the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and San Diego-based Price Philanthropies Foundation, provided four books that the children took home and treasured. During the 2014-15 school year, the plan is to provide eight books to children in all government kindergartens and pre-kindergartens — 80,000 children in all.  

“As people who care about Israel and about the future of Israel, we feel it’s very important to help improve the lives of the Arab citizens of this country,” said Robert Price, president of Price Philanthropies Foundation, explaining his family foundation’s long-term involvement in the Arab community and the decision to be a partner in Lantern Library.

Culturally appropriate and with a strong storyline conducive to discussions on values and emotions, the books encourage parents and children to lay the groundwork for reading. As with books in the Hebrew-speaking effort, the Arabic books are chosen by a selection committee composed of experts in child development, children’s literature and preschool education. 

On the occasion of a visit by the Price family to Ofek, Keefah Masri Bassel, who teaches the 3- and 4-year-olds, said the program has transformed her classroom. 

“The first time I held one of the books, I began to dream that every child would have a shelf in their room reserved for their books,” Bassel said.  

A week later, the teacher invited the parents to the school, where she taught them how to create a library corner at home. The parents helped the children transform T-shirts into book bags and create “This Library Belongs to …” signs.   

When the children went outside for breakfast, a speech-language expert discussed with the parents ways to cope with the differences between spoken and written Arabic, and how to best engage the children — for example, allowing them to retell the story in their own words. Together, they explored the parents’ guide at the back of the book. 

Galina Vromen, executive director of the Grinspoon Foundation in Israel, said the Arabic-language program presented the organizers with some unique challenges. One of them is the dearth of quality Arabic children’s books that are accessible to the Israeli market. 

Vromen said the program “is largely dependent on what’s produced here in Israel, Jordan and Egypt” and noted that, due to political unrest, the annual Egyptian book fair, once the largest Arabic fair in the world, has been discontinued. Turmoil also has affected children’s book production in other nations, including Syria and Iraq. 

Because of the Arab boycott of all things Israeli, some Arab publishers have refused to sell reprint rights to Israeli publishers, who repackage the books, with a parents’ guide, for the program. That’s one reason the program has an interest in supporting the local Arab-Israeli publishing industry, which clearly benefits from a sale of 45,000 copies, whether the book is an original or reprinted.  

“We want strong readers, so we need locally made books,” Vromen said, adding that “there’s tremendous excitement” about the program in the Arab sector from publishers, teachers and parents. 

These same teachers and parents say the literacy program is particularly important for Arab children because it introduces them to formal written Arabic, which is different from spoken Arabic, at an early age.  

“Our goal is to encourage reading readiness with exposure to classical Arabic,” said Vicky Glazer, the supervisor of Jaffa preschools. 

Fatma Abu Ahmed Kassem, national supervisor of preschools for the Arab sector, said the program’s emphasis on interaction with adults “is critical to learning. Reading books offers an opportunity for quality adult interaction with children at home and in the classroom.”

The program, Kassem said, “promotes and enhances a culture of expression and discussion, and raises the awareness of language and enriches language use. Exposing children to a variety of literary works of Arab literature and culture as well as world literature encourages children to become curious and enthusiastic readers.”

On a bike, on a jet ski, climbing Masada — the sporty Bibi gets his TV special

“Can you get me a sandwich?” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said aloud to no one in particular in the film crew as he emerged from the back of an SUV, stepping into a bright, egg-yolk-hued sunset over Jaffa, Israel. A swarm of security dudes in sunglasses and secret-service earphones immediately closed in behind him. “Lo humus” (“no hummus”), the prime minister added over his shoulder.

Netanyahu had come to shoot a scene with CBS travel editor Peter Greenberg — one of the last in a grueling week of shoots for “Israel: The Royal Tour,” the long-anticipated special set to air on U.S. public television beginning March 6. This will be the latest in the “Royal Tour” series, in which Greenberg tours various countries — including Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Jamaica and New Zealand — with each country’s head of state as his guide.

For the Jaffa scene, Greenberg walked along a beach promenade with Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, as the trio admired the Tel Aviv skyline rising to the north and the Mediterranean shimmering to the west.

“When I first came here, there were no high-rises in Tel Aviv,” Greenberg tells the Netanyahus in the final cut.

The prime minister responds, coolly: “Well, that’s actually what my son told me. He was 5 years old, and he said, ‘Daddy, we don’t have a skyline!’ And I said, ‘Relax, kid. I’ll get you a skyline.’ ”

The Jaffa set had been pretty chaotic for the half-hour before Netanyahu’s arrival. Public-relations people from the Tel Aviv municipality, a bunch of extras on Segways who thought they were about to shoot a commercial for the Ministry of Tourism, and a couple of Israeli news crews darted about aimlessly, waiting for the prime minister’s motorcade to crawl through rush-hour traffic. Armed men, dressed in black, started to appear on hilltops overlooking the promenade. Greenberg himself paced nervously in a nearby parking lot, dealing with a helicopter problem for the scene at Masada the next day. “Let’s get this thing solved, man, right now!” he said into his cell phone.

When the SUV carrying the prime minister finally pulled up, chaos exploded into pure star-struck energy. Much to the crowd’s delight, after walking the promenade, Netanyahu and Greenberg hopped on two green bicycles, part of Tel Aviv’s prized bike-share program, and began to race.

“Hey guys, I hope you’re getting him on the bicycle, because that was totally unexpected — we won’t get that again,” John Feist, the show’s director, shouted at his cameramen.

The normally stony-faced prime minister, a gargoyle of strength for Israel and a divisive figure in the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, seemed to embrace this breezy, candid persona he was shaping for American TV. After the bike race, he said to Greenberg: “You have to come here once a year and we do this program, so I get out — ride a bike, run a jet ski, have some fun!” (A few days before, they’d gone jet skiing on the Sea of Galilee.)

Sara Netanyahu agreed — as long as no soccer was involved.

She was referring to the ankle pop heard round the nation in June 2012, when the “Royal Tour” first began filming: On an outing to a soccer match between Arab and Jewish youth, Netanyahu sprained his ankle while taking a penalty shot.

“When he came to the United Nations and he had this special speech where he showed the [illustration of the Iranian] bomb, he was actually limping, but nobody saw it,” Greenberg said in an interview with the Journal while driving on the freeway from Jerusalem to Jaffa.

Netanyahu and Greenberg on Masada at sunrise. Photo by Tina Hager, courtesy of WNET New York Public Media

With its star in a leg cast, the “Royal Tour” was forced to pack up and fly home. However, Netanyahu and Greenberg picked up where they left off the following summer — rafting, jet skiing, boating, hiking, driving and bicycling across Israel.

“His own security guard looked at me and said, ‘We have never, ever seen him like this,’ ” Greenberg said. “He and I went on dune buggies together, and he was driving like a madman. It’s great television.”

Although the Ministry of Tourism has taken credit for luring Greenberg to Israel, he said the segment was entirely his idea and was initiated through a friend of a friend who knew the prime minister.

No doubt, Israel stands to benefit from the show in a big way: According to Greenberg, tourism went up almost 20 percent in Jordan after his “Royal Tour” with King Abdullah II in 2002 and rose almost 10 percent in Mexico, Peru and Jamaica after his tours in those countries. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has predicted a boost of about 200,000 tourists thanks to Greenberg’s show, infusing an extra $285 million into the Israeli economy.

“Everyone who sees a program by Peter Greenberg, who is well known in the travel community — it’s going to be a major revelation, and hopefully it will lead to the creation of Israel as a desirable destination,” said Scott Feinerman, director of clergy and travel industry relations at the Ministry of Tourism’s office in Los Angeles.

Greenberg sees “Israel: The Royal Tour” as a chance for the world to get to know the nation through the eyes of its leader. However, he draws a firm line between travel reporting and PR: He said there has been “truly a separation of church and state” between him and the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office, which was not allowed to review the final cut.

“It’s not my job to promote Israel — that’s the job of advertisers,” Greenberg said. “If I’m doing my job right, it’s to present it in a way that’s credible and that’s real. You have two guys, like two guys on a road trip, and one of them just happens to be the prime minister. And he and I are talking to each other, like you and I are talking to each other. It humanizes the country.”

Although Greenberg succeeded in helping the prime minister let loose a little, chronic Israel critics are sure to attack the show for avoiding more contested parts of the country. Unlike food critic Anthony Bourdain, another half-Jewish TV journalist who toured Israel last year and covered all his bases — Gaza, the West Bank, the settlements — the closest Greenberg comes to controversy is when he enjoys a cheese pastry called kanafeh in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, sans prime minister.

“Look, there will be people out there who say I was too hard, and there will be a lot of people saying I was too soft. But that’s not what the show’s about,” Greenberg said.

At the beginning of the episode, Greenberg does sit down with Netanyahu for an eight-minute interview that addresses the elephant in the room: the Israel-Palestine conflict. “Every time I’ve come to this region, and I bring up the notion of peace, someone always says, ‘It’s not the right time in the Middle East’…,” Greenberg says. “So I have to ask you: When is it ever going to be the right time?”

Netanyahu’s response, in part: “I think when I bring a peace agreement to the people of Israel, they’ll believe me. Because they trust me to take care of that foundation of peace, which is: You can’t have peace without security in the Middle East. It won’t hold for a day. I’m a great champion of peace through strength. I insist on the strength; therefore, I can get the peace.”

The Israeli prime minister’s son, 23-year-old Yair Netanyahu (right), explained the Tel Aviv party circuit to visiting journalist Peter Greenberg. “We start the night around 1 or 2 [a.m.],” he said. “This is really early, so you call this the pre-game.” Photo by Simone Wilson

From there, the show takes a turn toward feel-good and never slows down. Netanyahu leads Greenberg to check out emerging technologies at Technion (“Israel’s MIT”), swim with wild dolphins in the Red Sea, raft the Jordan River, touch the little-known underground section of the Western Wall, climb the Masada fortress in the middle of the Negev desert and float in the Dead Sea.

“It’s best between the scenes,” said Mark Feist, the show’s lead sound guy, who was hooked up to Netanyahu’s feed. “When the mics are running off-camera, he gets really pushy.”

The shoot also coincided with a tense period of peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine, so Greenberg got to witness some residual state matters. “When I’m with Netanyahu, he’s on the phone taking a call from [U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry] at least once a day,” Greenberg said. “He and I have had a number of back-channel conversations about the issue.”

In front of the camera, though, Netanyahu never seems to fully let down his guard; ultimately, he remains the hard-to-pin-down politician the world knows him as. In a definitive Vanity Fair piece called “The Netanyahu Paradox” from 2012, reporter David Margolick called the prime minister of Israel “compulsively cautious” and “both its strongest and its weakest leader in memory.” Aside from revealing his more goofy, sporty side, the “Royal Tour” episode doesn’t do much to clear up the Netanyahu enigma. His one-liners often come off as slightly canned — perhaps because some were shot multiple times to avoid any stumbles in conversation.

On July 7, after filming a couple of scenes in Jaffa, the group headed to Vicky Cristina, a high-end, Barcelona-inspired bar on the edge of Tel Aviv.

“It’s become just a hub — it’s a high-tech city, fashion city, culture city,” Netanyahu says of Tel Aviv at the bar.

Upon arrival, the prime minister and his wife did a slow lap around Vicky Cristina to the tune of a lively Spanish guitar, posing for cell-phone pictures and shaking hands. And when they finally settled down at the bar, Yair Netanyahu, the prime minister’s 23-year-old son, showed up to order a round of elaborate pink cocktails and talk about his area of expertise: Tel Aviv nightlife.

Yair, not as practiced a politician as his father, spoke freely, giving some context to Tel Aviv by critiquing its neighbors (“We’re surrounded by countries that stone people and execute women”) and lending some insight into Birthright (“All the Americans come here because you can drink when you’re 18”). 

But any indiscrete comments were cut from the episode — as was a midnight visit to a club next door. After Netanyahu and his wife headed home, Yair and a group of good-looking girls led Greenberg to a V.I.P. table for a few rounds of shots. 

It was an Israeli tabloid’s dream — not in small part because the group of clubgoers included Sandra Leikanger, a Norwegian college mate of Yair, who would later see her face plastered across the Hebrew media when she was outed as his non-Jewish girlfriend. (“She’s great,” Greenberg said of meeting Leikanger. “I think anybody should be able to date anybody they want.”) Hanging back in the crowd, Yair’s bodyguard, who did not give his name, said his job often consisted of staying out until dawn at nightclubs to keep an eye on his young boss.

But Greenberg and the crew soon left the youngsters to their own devices, as they were on a tight schedule: They had to be at Masada in a few hours for a sunrise shoot. “Nobody slept at all. It was pure adrenaline,” Greenberg later said.

The next morning, at the historical site of the Jews’ last stand against the Romans, the crew would film their opening shot for “Israel: The Royal Tour” — a swirling aerial view of Netanyahu standing atop the fortress, looking out across the Negev. Goldberg narrates: “He’s a man who lives and breathes the past and future of his people. And now, he leads his nation as it faces one of the most critical crossroads in its history.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will attend the Los Angeles premiere of “Israel: The Royal Tour” on March 4, after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, D.C. The show will begin airing on public television throughout the United States on March 6. 

Tel Aviv eyeing way to let businesses open on Sabbath

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality is working to change a city by-law that bans businesses from opening on the Jewish Sabbath.

City officials told the Israeli Supreme Court late Tuesday night that the municipality would not fine businesses that until now have opened consistently on Saturday.

In June, the court ordered the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality to enforce a by-law that bans its businesses from opening on Saturday.

On Tuesday, the municipality said it would fine new businesses that open on Saturday in contravention of the law. The by-law also will be enforced against businesses that disturb the public order.

At the same time, Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai asked the city’s attorney to create an amendment to the by-law that “enables the existence of a day of rest alongside each resident’s freedom to enjoy it as he or she sees fit,” Haaretz reported.

The high court justices ruled in June that the municipality and two large supermarket chains violated the municipal bylaw against opening on the Jewish Sabbath. The court suggested the city could change the by-law to allow businesses to remain open on Saturday.

The owners of the small shops claimed they were losing customers to the chains that could afford to remain open on Saturday and absorb the modest fines levied for their transgression.

The justices also suggested that the municipality continuously violated the by-law in order to collect the fines.

Mass Arab grave from 1948 war discovered in Jaffa

A mass grave holding the remains of dozens of Arabs killed during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence was unearthed at a Muslim cemetery in Jaffa.

The discovery of the mass grave — six underground rooms with the skeletons of adults and children — was made last week during renovations to the cemetery, the French news agency AFP reported.

The bodies were placed in the existing crypts of several families and were not buried in accordance with Muslim tradition, according to reports.

AFP reported that the bodies were of people killed in the south of Jaffa, now part of the Tel Aviv municipality, in the final months of the 1948 war.

Lessons from Israel’s programs for the disabled

In a crowded living room in the dilapidated suburbs of Jaffa, the delegates from the Special Needs Study Mission from Los Angeles gathered closer to hear the testimony of an Israeli woman with severe disabilities tell the story of how proper intervention changed her life in countless ways. The program, which is subsidized by the State of Israel, provides Etty S. with home visits from a social worker, an emergency button to contact round-the-clock medical help, and perhaps most importantly, organized excursions with other disabled people in the vicinity.

After one teenager with autism had been calmed down from a terrible fright after he collided with Etty’s enormous blond Labrador in the bathroom, the group listened in respectful silence to her personal story. After she decided to divorce an abusive husband and raise her two children alone, she lost 60 pounds and spent six months in a psychiatric institute. Shortly after her release, she began to suffer from physical ailments that prevent her from accomplishing even the most menial tasks. Despite six doses of morphine a day to ease the pain, she can barely walk and is incapable of cleaning, cooking or shopping. Etty isn’t strong enough to open the front door of her apartment.

“Until I went out a few months ago for a visit to the sea, I hadn’t even seen the trash bins at the bottom of the stairs in six years,” she explained slowly. “I even went to see a film with the group recently after not being in a movie theater for 30 years.”

The home visits have given Etty a new sense of security. She knows the push of a button will summon help, and she no longer feels so alone.

“Even my dog loves Eli,” she said with a big smile as her Labrador nearly squirmed out of her arms upon hearing the social worker’s name. “He’s not just someone who buys me medicine, he also comes to fix things around the house and help me arrange dog walkers. Sometimes I call him just to talk and no matter how busy he is, he makes time for my chatter.”

This program was one of dozens that the Los Angeles delegates were introduced to on their whirlwind weeklong mission to Israel at the end of July. Sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the trip was designed to introduce participants to a wide variety of solutions that are considered cutting-edge in meeting the needs of those with developmental disabilities. Another goal of the trip was to provide opportunities for fact-finding and exchange.

“We’re here to look at what is being done that we can replicate when appropriate, but we’re also here to forge relationships that will help us learn from each other and collaborate in the future,” said Lori Klein, the Jewish Federation’s senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need.

Participants included an impressive array of well-known activists (many of whom are also parents of children with autism and other disabilities), therapists, program directors, lawyers, film producers, rabbis, teachers, social workers, parents and three young adults with autism. 

According to Andrew Cushnir, the Jewish Federation’s executive vice president and chief program officer, one of the most pressing social needs in the United States at the moment is the dramatic rise in autism. “We are going to see a 600 percent increase over the next 10 years of young adults who are diagnosed with autism, and we need to start creating a new batch of programs that will meet the needs of the new era,” he explained.

Josh Erenmark and Wyatt Isaacs with soldiers with special needs serving in the IDF. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Federation

Although some similar programs do currently exist in Los Angeles in a different format, the vast majority does not. “We don’t have socialized medicine in the United States, so we are working with a different system entirely,” Cushnir said. “Once we get home we’ll have to evaluate whether what we’d like to accomplish is possible and then we’ll have to decide if it’s economically feasible.”

Without governmental funding, many programs aren’t viable without philanthropic support. And that, according to some delegates, is an extremely limited resource compared to the financial backing Israelis can access.

“Israel is really a leader in special needs work because they care about all sectors of society here — from early intervention to teenagers to army service and beyond. We’re looking at all of the programs here but we’ll have to see which pieces of each program are applicable at home and could work well,” explained Sarah Blitzstein, the director of HaMercaz, a collaborative program that includes The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, among other agencies. But beyond the exposure to innovative Israeli programs and being inspired by many Israelis with special needs who are productive members of society thanks to integrative models, Blitzstein also noted that the trip created bonds between the delegates, many of whom did not know each other previously.

“I can go home now and e-mail people or direct my clients to an ally in the field,” she said. “I’ve already set up tentative meetings with people at home about collaborating. Sometimes we get in our own little bubble and it’s hard to see the big picture, so this kind of trip really gives us all an opportunity to see what’s going on in Israel and meet each other to find out more about what’s right in our own backyard.”

One of the most pressing issues on the table for groups with special needs is housing — not just within the Jewish community but also among the entire population. Many older disabled people are forced to get by on their own and cannot thrive as active members of society without a proper environment. As their parents die, some are left to fend entirely for themselves. Israel has come up with many different ways to approach this problem but the modus operandi is always the same: focus on what someone can do rather than what they cannot.

The dinner and ensuing play at Café Kapish was a great example of this policy. After being served a meal in the dark by blind waiters, the group watched a play with actors who are deaf, blind or both.

“The play was extremely powerful. It really showed us the resilience of the human spirit,” Elaine Hall said. “This is a great example of the community coming together and believing that the impossible can be made possible. If we value those with disabilities and give them the best rather than the crumbs, nothing is beyond our reach.”

Hall, founder of the Miracle Project (a theater and film program for children of all disabilities) and the director of the Vista Inspire Program, cited the theatrical, creative activities at the Nalaga’at Center in Jaffa to be a wonderful example of Israel’s positive outlook and appreciation for those with disabilities. In fact, Hall’s career path changed dramatically from being a leading child acting coach to a creative therapist after her adopted son Neal was diagnosed with autism 15 years ago. When traditional therapies failed to help him, she turned to alternative paths to bring him out of his isolation.

Members of the delegation celebrating the end of the mission at the Western Wall. Photo courtesy of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

Many delegates agreed that instead of looking for a miracle cure, society would be better off practicing acceptance and they were pleased to see the Israeli spirit of inclusion almost everywhere they went. The more personal stories they heard, the more evident this became. Reuven, a soldier with autism who completes organizational tasks for the IDF and is able to serve his country in a meaningful way despite his disabilities, was a source of great inspiration. The group also heard from a 35-year-old man with epilepsy who was homeless at the age of 15 and had attempted suicide multiple times until being taken in by a center for independent living in Jaffa. Now he has the support and care he needs to play guitar, act in plays and motivate others with his personal story. At Aleh Negev, once infertile desert sands have been transformed into a thriving oasis by disabled individuals. One resident named Dalia, who was severely disabled from polio, is proud of working 12-hour days at the village’s Internet cafe. The promotion of independence in order to become productive members of Israeli society no matter what they must overcome gives new hope to the hopeless.

“The wonderful ability to use every resource in order to accomplish great things is what we need to take back home with us,” Hall said with enthusiasm. “We can also learn a lot from the way social services work together with the government in order to promote inclusion rather than exclusion.”

Beyond meeting individuals and touring facilities, the delegates also attended a conference in Jerusalem where they heard from government officials, legal advocates, professors and other Israeli parents.

“The conference was a tremendous opportunity for dialogue,” Klein said. “For some of the parents on our trip, it was a chance to hear that Israeli parents are facing the same challenges and frustrations. For our autistic participants, it was a chance to express the need for choices. There is simply no one size fits all.”

The disabled community is made up of individuals who have different needs so providing various options to meet those needs should be a central focus for future planning. Klein is hoping that the connections formed among parents, children, industry professionals and legal advocates will create lasting partnerships.

As the group gathered for its final breakfast at the Alexander Suites hotel in Tel Aviv overlooking the sea, participants discussed their expectations versus reality.

“The rocks need to be cleared away so that acceptance can be celebrated. We are all individuals and if we stay focused on what we can do rather than what we cannot, we can overcome the bureaucratic pitfalls,” Hall said.

For Diane Isaacs, a veteran producer of film, television and music and the co-author with Elaine Hall of “Seven Keys to Unlock Autism,” the trip to Israel was not yet at an end. With her 17-year-old son, Wyatt, who starred in the HBO documentary “Autism: The Musical,” she attended an international conference in Jerusalem hosted by the ICare4Autism foundation.

As her well-spoken, highly intelligent and musically talented son took the podium to speak, she wondered what he would say since she never coaches him or dictates what he should share. He again amazed her with his precise ability to define the biggest issue in a simple but profound way for the international audience.

“Just like the wall that divides Israel and Palestine, there is a wall that divides the disabled from everyone else,” he said. “Our goal should be to get rid of the wall. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jewish, Christian, Muslim or autistic; there shouldn’t be walls. We have to find a way to break down these barriers.”

Michelle Wolf, a blogger for the Jewish Journal and co-chair of the mission, noted that the intensity of the trip was a life-changing experience, not just for her but for many others.

“In one of our great conversations on the bus someone compared us to the women’s rights movement seeking suffrage. I think that social movement aptly captures the energy and intensity of what we as parents and activists are trying to accomplish now. We have a long way to go, but this trip has given us more tools to get there.”

Palestinian principal punished for Israeli beach party

A Palestinian principal was punished over a spontaneous beach party that emerged during a field trip in Israel.

Mohammad Abu Samra, 33, says he landed in hot water when video and images of his pupils dancing on a beach in Jaffa with bikini-clad women and Israeli beachgoers were sent to the Palestinian Ministry of Education.

The incident took place at the close of the Qalqilya Al Salam Secondary School’s 11th- and 12th-grade field trip to Jaffa beach led by Abu Samra, reportedly the youngest principal in the history of the Palestinian Authority, according to the Dubai-based Al Nisr Gulf News.

According to Abu Samra, an Israeli DJ began setting up on the beach as he attempted to load the buses to leave before their day permits expired.

“My pupils started dancing, and I also joined them at the beginning to let them have fun,” Abu Samra told the news agency.

“Volunteers shot a video and took a couple of still photos and forwarded them to the Palestinian Ministry of Education, with a complaint that the incident would imply that there was normalization of ties with Israel and it exposed the young generation of Palestinians to Israel’s illicit code of conduct,” he added.

Abu Samra was reassigned to a school about 30 miles away. Students reportedly have protested the education ministry’s actions.

Arab restaurant torched in Jaffa

An Arab-owned restaurant in Jaffa was torched and graffiti pointing to a price-tag attack was spray-painted on its walls.

The Abu al-Abed restaurant, which has been in existence since 1949, was set ablaze early Monday morning. It serves Palestinian and Lebanese food.

The words “price tag” and “Kahane was right” were spray-painted on the building. The latter invective refers to the late Kach leader Meir Kahane, who advocated the transfer of Arabs out of Israel. Price tag refers to the strategy that extremist settlers have adopted to exact a price in attacks on Palestinians and Arabs in retribution for settlement freezes and demolitions or for Palestinian attacks on Jews.

Police investigating the incident told Ynet that they are not ready to say it was politically motivated.

In recent weeks, incidents labeled as price tag include the cutting down of 20 olive trees belonging to an Arab family in eastern Jerusalem, the desecration of two cemeteries in Jaffa and the torching of a mosque in a Bedouin town in northern Israel.

Also Sunday, the tomb of Elazar Hakohen, the son of Aaron, was discovered desecrated. The tomb, which is located near the West Bank village of Hawarta and is a popular destination for Jewish worshipers, was painted with graffiti including drawings of rocket launchers, and the headstone was shattered.

Meanwhile, Israeli police and soldiers on Sunday demolished four structures under construction in an outpost near the Bat Ayin settlement in Gush Etzion.

Jaffa Mosque bombing plan was to be blamed on right wing Israelis

An Arab-Israeli crime mob planned to bomb a mosque in Jaffa and pass it off as an attack by right-wing settlers, police discovered.

At least eight people have been under arrest for the last month in the case, from which a gag order was lifted Tuesday, according to reports.

The plan to bomb the Hassan Bek Mosque in Jaffa and the car of its sheikh was thwarted just hours before it was set to occur, when a police raid on a home in Jaffa last month uncovered the powerful bomb that was set to be planted in the building, Ynet reported.

Another plan included targeting a new Scientology center in Jaffa.

The would-be bombers had planned to spray paint the words “price tag” in the neighborhood to make the attack look like the work of rightists. “Price tag” refers to the strategy extremist settlers have adopted to exact a price in attacks on Palestinians in retribution for settlement freezes or their attacks on Jews. The incident was to have occurred shortly after five members of the Fogel family were killed in their home on a Friday night.

Indictments against the suspects, including several members of one Jaffa family, are expected to be made in Tel Aviv District Court later this week.

Jaffa rally protests Islamic Movement advances

Jewish right-wing activists demonstrated on a main street in Jaffa to protest what organizers see as the “Islamic Movement gaining control over the city.”

At least 16 counter-demonstrators were arrested during Wednesday’s march as a result of clashes with police.

Arab store owners closed their shops to protest the march and local residents came out to heckle the protesters, who were led by lawmaker Michael Ben-Ari and activists Itamar Ben-Gvir and Baruch Marzel. Hundreds of police and security officials protected the marchers and the route.

Israel’s Supreme Court had approved the march, though it ordered the organizers to change the route so that it did not pass through the Arab Ajami neighborhood.

The Islamic Movement recently held a rally in Jaffa with about 1,000 demonstrators. Some chanted anti-Israel slogans and waved Palestinian flags.

Approximately 46,000 residents in Jaffa; some 17,000 are Israeli Arabs.

Israeli nonprofit representatives meet

Hundreds of representatives of Israeli nonprofits met to discuss how to improve their own organizations and the entire sector.

The first Future of Nonprofit Summit Israel met Monday in Jaffa, a follow-up to the Future of Jewish Nonprofit Summit in New York last July. The summits are an initiative of REACH3K, a company that consults nonprofits on their development and fundraising strategies, and CAUSIL, a Maryland-based consultancy firm.

“The world of charitable giving and running an organization has changed dramatically in recent years,” said Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll, who founded REACH3K along with her sisters, Danielle Keats Berkowitz and Avra Keats Nedjar. “Nonprofits are seeking the tools to remain competitive as leaders of change alongside the business and government sectors in line with the latest trends.”

The program included sessions to help nonprofits achieve publicity and fundraising success in the face of challenges posed by the economic downturn and new trends in social and traditional media.

Israeli lawmaker Avishay Braverman stressed to the representatives that the nonprofit organizations could play a role in benefiting Israeli society as a whole.

Haredim riot in Jaffa over excavations

Hundreds of haredim rioted in Jaffa, attacking police officers with bricks and rocks, over an archeological dig.

Five policemen were injured and 15 ultra-Orthodox Jews were arrested in the riots Wednesday over the dig, which the demonstrators say is disturbing a nearby Jewish burial site. A luxury housing complex is set to go up on the site once the dig is completed.

Demonstrators called police “Nazis” and “murderers.”

The demonstrations have been going on for several weeks. Earlier in the week, demonstrators damaged an archeological excavation of ancient buildings, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Real life comedy at the flea market in Jaffa, Israel

Here’s all we know: A wacky college student on a Taglit-birthright trip to Israel found a kindred spirit at the flea market in Jaffa . . .

Jaffa flea market offers bargains and co-existence

A young woman from Tel Aviv made her way past tapestries, bracelets and scarves toward a row of brightly hued polyester shirts. She admired a blue button-down with white polka dots before flitting away like a butterfly into a narrow arcade of the Jaffa Flea Market.

“There is magic here,” said 25-year-old Dikla Delugathc, a regular visitor to this bargain-hunters’ haven in Jaffa, one of Israel’s — and the world’s — oldest cities.

The magic of the Jaffa Flea Market derives from both its past and present. The market began as a small bazaar in the mid-19th century. It is a rare remnant of the old Middle Eastern way of life in this modern Jewish country. But the market is also a place where Jews and Muslims work side by side as neighbors and friends.

I visited the market this month on a trip sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. The agency brought a handful of journalists to the Jewish state in an effort to combat the current tourism slump, which had worsened since the war with Hezbollah this summer. Only 25,000 Americans visited Israel last month, representing a 25 percent drop from last year.

We had come to Jaffa, a port city in southern Tel Aviv, to explore its ancient history. Jaffa is about 4,000 years old, and the Bible mentions it as the port from which the prophet Jonah sailed before being swallowed by the whale. King Solomon transported through Jaffa the cedars he used to construct the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some say Jaffa derives from yafeh, Hebrew for beautiful; others say it comes from Noah’s son Japhet, who, as legend has it, built the city after the Flood.
The Jaffa Flea Market sits to the east of a clock tower in the city’s center. It is open every day but Saturday from about 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Along the market’s main street, Olei Zion, antique dealers sell furniture and rugs from hole-in-the-wall shops.

On this particular day, a group of old men played cards on the sidewalk; Jews wrapped in tallit and tefillin led afternoon prayers from a tapestry store; and a grifter slid cards around on a cardboard box, attempting to lure passersby into placing bets.

The market extends onto side streets and winds into covered alleys, or arcades, where shoppers walk through narrow passageways, navigating a sea of clothing, jewelry and trinkets.

Inside an arcade, Ronit Raz, 47, picked up a string of decorative bells and gave it a rattle.

The market “gives you a sense of traveling back in time,” said Raz, who drove half an hour to Jaffa from her home near Kfar Saba.

A group of Delta flight attendants stood nearby, chatting about their purchases: a table runner and some pillow covers. A couple of the women sipped pomegranate juice purchased from a nearby drink stand, which blasted American music. (Of all the songs one might expect in the Holy Land, who would guess the Black Eyed Peas’ sexy hit, “My Humps”?)

David Desire Dahan, a Jewish antique dealer, strolled through an outdoor square when a vendor solicited his advice.

“What is this?” the vendor asked in Hebrew, showing him a small silver plate.
Dahan turned the plate upside down. “It’s Mexican silver,” he said.

Dahan recently opened a large furniture store at the market, where he had for sale a set of French chairs and a sofa from the time of Louis XIV and a $5,000 mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinet from Syria.

On a break from business, Dahan, 62, walked past the blankets piled with old watches and computer parts, through the sound of chitchat and the smell of cigarette smoke and incense.

Suddenly, his face lit up. Dahan walked over to a man in a black knit hat and thrust his arm around him.

“This,” Dahan said, patting the Muslim man on the shoulder, “is one of my best friends.”

Such scenes of religious co-existence are commonplace here. Jewish vendors wearing kippahs sit beside Israeli Arabs. They play cards together, joke with one another. One shop sells the traditional Arabic kaffiyeh headscarf; another sells Star of David pendants. Even observant Muslims and religious Jews live, work and play together in Jaffa.

In a carpet shop on Pinkas Ben-Yair Street, a religious Jew, Rami Sinay, had just finished putting on tefillin. Beside him stood his Muslim partner, Hussein Ali.

“We’ve known each other for 20 years,” said Sinay, 27.

“Here, Muslims and Jews have no problem,” he added. “Because we live together in Jaffa, we know everybody’s the son of God.”


How to Bargain Effectively at an Israeli Flea Market

Israeli antique dealer David Desire Dahan said he has traveled to Africa, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and more in search of antiques. He claims to have once sold a Stradivarius cello to a museum for $1 million. Here are his tips:

  • Talk to the person selling the goods. See if he’s a good man, if you can trust him.
  • Find an item that resembles something you own and ask how much it costs. You know how much you bought it for.
  • Collect the same type of things, made from the same material, in the same time period. Then you’ll have a beautiful collection at the end of your life.
  • Buy silver or antique jewelry, not large, expensive items like furniture. Collect big things only if you have a big house and a big pocket.
  • Don’t argue with a salesman over the price, but do bargain. If a seller asks for $100, start negotiating at around $60. If you offer much less than the seller asks — $20, for example — it might be taken as an insult.
  • Go with someone in the know, who speaks the language and is familiar with the flea market. When a seller sees a tourist, he typically asks for a higher price.
  • Contact a seller in advance. If you’re looking for a specific item, ask a seller whether he can find it for you. If you e-mail me about something you want, I’ll find it. Give me two weeks, and I’ll send you a picture and price by e-mail.

Dahan can be reached via e-mail at