Monday, April 15, 2013

The (Galilee) Spice of Life

I am a resident of the Galilee, the part of Israeli north of the (relatively) crowded center of the country and southwest of the Golan Heights.  Its topography varies from sea and agricultural plains to hills and forested peaks.  Its climate also varies, generally depending on the distance from the sea and the Sea of Galilee, known locally as the Kinneret.  Many tourists visit Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Eilat, and even the Bahai Temple in Haifa.  Generally they skip this highly diverse and interesting area.

One of its most striking features is its cultural diversity.  Residents of the Galilee include ultra-religious Jews, observant Jews, traditional Jews, non-observant Jews, Russian and Ethiopian Jews and sort of Jews, Messianic Jews, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, Druze, Circassians, Greek Orthodox, and complete atheists.  A sensitive observer can identify each group by its clothing or facial features.  The various forms of head covering are generally a sign of identity.  Locals can tell from the accent or last name to which group the person belongs.  Amazingly, the vast majority of time, people get along and work together perfectly fine.  Money is a wonderful social glue apparently.  For example, the town where I live, Karmiel, is the commercial center for this part of the Galilee.  Many of both the salespeople and customers are Arabs from the local villages.  Likewise, many Jewish inhabitants appreciate the quality and price of the Arab restaurants in the area.  So, this heterogeneity functions rather well on a day-to-day basis.

In terms of language, the Galilee is a Tower of Babel.  In cafes, the listener can easily distinguish five languages here: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, English, and even Yiddish sometime, not to mention the occasional French or Rumanian.  More importantly, local Arabs speak Arabic inside Jewish towns without any hesitation.  The local Arabic is also quite unique, especially among the Christian and Druze population.  It is heavily sprinkled with Hebrew words, often because of the extensive intercommunity commercial relations and/or service in the IDF in the case of the Druze.  This leaking of Hebrew also affects Russian speakers, especially those that have been in Israel for many years.  They are almost incapable of saying a sentence in Russian without a Hebrew word or two.  So, the polyglot can truly enjoy the sounds of the Galilee.

The picture is not entirely roses.  Many younger Arabs and Jews, often due to their living in separate communities in my opinion, profess strongly racist and/or nationalist opinions.  These issues sometimes arise when groups of Arab boys come into Jewish town on Friday or Saturday nights and start trying to flirt with Jewish girls.  On a more serious note, every decade or so, an incident ignites riots among the younger Arab population in the villages, creating mistrust that takes many years to repair.  However, to be fair, even within the communities, tensions run.  Muslims and Druze in Rama, Moroccans and Russians in Karmiel, and religious and non-religious Jews in Zefat are some examples of intracommunity schisms.  Still, all things considered, the Galilee has some components of the American “melting pot” experience (which was never completely a melting pot in itself, to be honest).

So, aside from its beautiful physical features, the Galilee is a fascinating site for social tourism, i.e. seeing how other cultures live.  In this case, the visitor can see how each culture lives in itself and in combination with the other residents of the Galilee.  I strongly recommend the experience.

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