Galilee Diary: Periphery
And you shall also take a chieftain from each tribe through whom the land shall be apportioned for you… From the tribe of Asher: a chieftain, Ahihud son of Shelomi.
-Numbers 34:18, 27
Recently the Israel Youth Hostel Association opened a beautiful new hostel at the entrance to the old city of Acco. Since our seminar center here at Shorashim has accumulated quite a bit of educational tourism experience in Acco, we approached the Association to see if they might like to use our services. The discussion is ongoing, but along the way, the director of education said to me, “Maybe you could help us with Shelomi…” And we both laughed. Shelomi, located near the Lebanese border in the western Galilee, is a development town which is kind of a symbol of the depressed peripheral development towns that the government set up in the 50s and 60s to distribute the influx of new immigrants (sort of like the Galveston Plan for Jewish immigrants to the United States in the early 20th century) – and to create facts along the as yet somewhat uncertain borders. These towns, Shelomi included, started out as tent camps for immigrants who didn’t exactly choose them as destinations (there are jokes about the “Jerusalem Street” found in many of these towns – so that when the unsuspecting immigrants were dumped there upon arrival in Israel, they would see the sign and believe they had been brought to Jerusalem). While they have come a long way, most development towns suffer from a poor image in the eyes of the residents and in the general public perception. Most don’t have a strong economic base, and are not magnets for business and industrial investment or for migration from the large cities or from the surrounding rural areas. (Recent Israeli movies The Band’s Visit and Turn Left at the End of the World depict life in development towns). That’s why we both laughed – Shelomi indeed has a nice (under-utilized) IYHA hostel, but the idea of developing it as a tourist attraction seemed like a joke.
But she meant it, and a week later we found ourselves exploring Shelomi and interviewing community professionals. Shelomi is a 30 minute drive from Shorashim (through Ahihud junction – see text above), but I never had a reason to go there. It is near the border and hence has a history of security incidents. We discovered magnificent views of the mountains to the north and the sea to the west. From the hostel it is a few minutes walk to the JNF Hanita Forest, where a trail leads to Kibbutz Hanita on the border, one of the “Tower and Stockade” kibbutzim, founded in 1938. We learned that the site sat on The Kings Highway in ancient times, a major caravan route down the coast and then eastward. Which is why El Batza, the Arab village on the site before its inhabitants fled north in 1948, was known for smuggling and “toll collection.” The village was mixed, Moslem and Christian; indeed, right in the middle of town the ruins of a small mosque are clearly recognizable next to a large church visible from afar. The church is in disrepair – no one maintains it, the windows are mostly gone and the roof is not fully intact. The iron door is not locked; inside we found lots of pigeons and their droppings – but also the remains of carved woodwork – and a table with candles and icons and a prayerbook in Arabic. Someone, it seems, still prays there.
Shelomi was settled by North African Jews who are still the dominant population; their Jewish orientation is “traditional.” Recently, an influx of Russian Jews has entered, who tend to be “secular.” This has led to a number of “issues” and interesting compromises – and to the creation of an experimental unified junior-senior high school that seeks to serve the whole population (i.e., no separation into “religious” and “secular” schools as is the norm in most Israeli towns). And there is an active community center that seeks to foster expressions of local culture through such activities as photography contests and art exhibits.
In short, once again it turns out that there is no place that is not interesting if you really look.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah