Eilat – home of sun, sea and symphonies

Once little more than a seaside resort, Eilat is rapidly becoming home to some of the country’s most exciting cultural events.The average Israeli or, for that matter, foreign tourist generally thinks of Eilat in terms of a sun-kissed fun-filled resort where the only potential minefields are over-exposure to the sun and splashing out on too many VAT-free shopping sprees. If that includes you, you’d only be partly right. The Red Sea town, it seems, is rapidly becoming something of a major cultural center too. And, if the recent Red Sea Classical Festival is anything to go by, Eilat is putting its money where its mouth is.

Consider just some of the cultural events that now take place down south: The long-running Red Sea Jazz Festival, which has become a permanent end-of-summer vacation feature over its 21 years, the annual Chamber Music Festival, the Teimaniada and the aforementioned four-day classical bash, sponsored by the Isrotel hotel chain. Add to that list, a burgeoning film festival, several sports events and a new theater festival and you start to get the emerging cultural picture.

“The classical music festival is a good example of what we are trying to do here,” says Red Sea Tourism Administration director Yossi Anni. “Yes, most people probably think of Eilat as a place where you just chill out on the beach or by the hotel pool. But we are trying to enhance that image. Most Israelis don’t think of Eilat as a major cultural center, but I think that is starting to change.”

According to Anni, cultural and sporting events bring in close to 170,000 visitors to Israel every year. “The Red Sea Jazz Festival has around 20,000 visitors and the film festival brings in another 3,500. Then there are sports events like the Sportiada, Triathlon and Ironman. They bring another 80,000-100,000 here.”

The timing of the festivals and other cultural activities is also an important factor, as is the type of tourist they target. According to Anni, having the Red Sea Classical Festival in January makes sense. It helps fill the hotels at a time of year when they don’t normally enjoy full occupancy. “Also, events like the classical festival bring in a different kind of visitor,” he says.

Judging by the patrons of the King Solomon Hotel during the Red Sea Classical Festival, it looked like half of the country’s better-heeled residents had relocated down south for a long luxurious weekend. No expense, it seems, was spared. Food was plentiful and frequent, and transport was laid on from the hotel to the hangar where the concerts were held at Eilat Port. Once at the port, we were treated to pre-concert cocktails and tasty niblets and, if that wasn’t enough, there were several steaming tureens of hot soup awaiting us on our return to the hotel after the musical entertainment. Isrotel and the festival organizers had pulled out all the stops to make sure the festivalgoers felt pampered and that the long trip down south was value for money, and then some.

“One of the things we are trying to do with the classical festival is to bring people to Eilat who wouldn’t normally come here,” declares Isrotel general manager Raffi Sadeh, “and at a different time of year than the normal high season.”

According to Sadeh, the classical festival has gained momentum over its seven-year history. “I think events like this festival are making a difference. In the first year most of the people who came were die-hard classical festival fans. This year, there all sorts of people here, and not just those who have a deep understanding of classical music – and they are all having a good time. Classical music fans can catch [festival artistic director and conductor Valery] Gergiev at concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places around the world. What they get here is culture and a vacation. That’s a great combination. The Kfar Blum classical music festival is based on a similar idea.”

Eilat is, of course, one of the great get-away places. It is almost like going abroad. As you drive or fly across the Arava desert you gradually leave the hustle and bustle and tensions of everyday life in “the real world” behind, and your pulse starts to settle into a more pedestrian pace. “The Swiss go off to ski resorts, where they mix taking it easy with sporting activities. That’s the added value of coming to a festival, for example, in Eilat. You get to rest, eat well and enjoy some top-quality cultural events at the same time.”

If there was anything of a “downside” to the classical music bash it was the premises used for the classical concerts. A hangar is not the most comfortable place to perform classical music. The seats were far from the padded pews patrons enjoy at, for example, the Opera House in Tel Aviv, although the sound people did an admirable job in ensuring the acoustics were commensurately audience friendly in the ad-hoc voluminous music auditorium.

Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevy was understandably a busy man during the festival, and is naturally delighted with the response to all the cultural events that now take place in his town. “It is wonderful to see 7,000 music lovers come to Eilat,” he beams. “And we want to upgrade all these events.” Does that include providing a purpose-built concert hall that would serve the classical music festival and some of the other music events in Eilat? “I would very much like that to happen,” says Halevy. “It is just a matter of time.”

Israelis and non-Israelis who visited Eilat in the 1970s and haven’t been back since would be amazed at the transformation that has taken place there. Back then, for many, Eilat was just a stopping-off and stocking-up point en route to the beaches of the Sinai. There were less than a handful of decent hotels and the beaches were dotted with tents and low-budget tourists. Today, there are dozens of top-grade hotels and restaurants, and the town is home to close to 50,000 residents.

Halevy sees Eilat’s cultural events as a means of attracting tourists on a grand scale: “I believe Eilat should invest heavily in education and culture for two main reasons. We have tough competition from the east – Aqaba – and the south [Sinai]. I think the only way we can compete is by making Eilat an exclusive place of culture, with festivals, fairs, congresses, symposiums and academies. We also have a branch of Ben-Gurion University here, and I want to reach a student body of 3,000. There is no reason why we shouldn’t achieve that. That will bring young people to Eilat, and will be good for the future of the town.”

Like Sadeh, the mayor also sees added value in combining relaxation with cultural and sporting endeavor. “I don’t believe that just offering sunbathing opportunities is the way to go for us. You’ve got to offer quality, and have a quality local community to support that.”

Halevy sees an even brighter future for Eilat. “I’ve got plans for more festivals and other events here. I think when you get the momentum going you get an appetite for more.” Judging by the mounds of food available at the marina-side get together, where we met, that appetite will be duly catered for.

Reprinted courtesy of The Jerusalem Post. The writer was a guest of the Isrotel King Solomon Hotel.

Bringing the kids back home

The residents of Hatzor Haglilit hope to turn the impoverished Israeli development town into a thriving community.The juxtaposition of expensive villas and poor slums is not unusual in many towns across the globe. But in the northern development town of Hatzor Haglilit, this occurrence is substantial. Almost 60 years after the development towns of Israel were formed, this town still hasn’t been able to channel the large amount of potential it holds, and 95 percent of its young citizens leave the city after their army service.

Last week, I went to Hatzor. I was early for an appointment with the director of the community center, and I found myself amongst a group of people – parents to children not much younger than myself – who gather weekly for a class in entrepreneurship and to talk about Hatzor and the problems it faces.

We went around the room and everyone shared their thoughts. One woman told us that her main concern was that her children moved to Tel Aviv and did not want to return to Hatzor. They moved to Tel-Aviv to study, she explained, but have long-since finished their studies and continued living there.

And that’s exactly what these meetings were about: these parents were prepared to do whatever it takes in the town in order for their children to want to return. Everyone in the group expressed their desire for Hatzor to develop and become a better place to live in – but how? How could they turn Hatzor into a place where people didn’t just drive by on their way to somewhere else, but where people would stop by and enjoy their stay – where its own residents would proudly return?

Well, the first step is through such gatherings. It was incredible to see this group of people come together to talk about the town’s problems. They weren’t politicians. They weren’t being paid to come. Most of them had never taken part in such an initiative before. Simply put, they were there to make a difference.

Like so many Israelis, these individuals, most of whom arrived in Israel as children in the early 1950s, had struggled through the economic and social hardships of the first years of the establishment of the State of Israel. This year, Israel will be celebrating its 60th anniversary. The country is flourishing, there is so much prosperity and economic growth, yet these people are still struggling. Now, however, they are struggling to bring Hatzor’s next generation back ‘home’.

I thanked the group for letting me participate in their meeting. They immediately replied by thanking me for being there – for coming all the way from Jerusalem, for investing my time in acknowledging them, and for the fact that the organization I work for, the United Israel Appeal of Canada (UIAC), is investing time, effort, and funds in their town. They were amazed that someone actually wanted to listen to what they had to say.

There is a lot to learn from this development town. It has much to offer. Every town should be so lucky as to have a group of people that care so deeply about the wellbeing of their town and its future. Investing funds in Hatzor, primarily in educational programs, is a noble and wonderful mitzvah (good deed). Philanthropists that do so are certainly improving the lives of many of its citizens.

But the point is this: without the citizens themselves being involved and wanting to change and improve their town, there is only so much that funding can do. This sort of change has to come from within.

As I entered my meeting with the community center’s director, I thought of another juxtaposition. Hatzor is situated not far from the quaint, well-known town of Rosh Pina. I wondered what it would take to make Hatzor become as well known and amply visited as Rosh Pina, and if UIAC’s allocated post-war funds, along with the efforts of the town’s citizens, would be enough to help Hatzor achieve such status.

I was glad I came early that day. After meeting with Hatzor’s group of dedicated citizens, I no longer think this goal is far-fetched.

Of course the world is flat

It’s a global world, and Israel’s right at the heart of the action.In 2005, Thomas Friedman published The World is Flat, documenting globalization and a world in which divisions such as geography are becoming increasingly irrelevant. While I’m an admitted Friedman fan and devotee, there is one thing I plan to ask him next time we talk:

This is news? Globalization smacks me in the face when I walk into the office at 9am on a Tuesday.

Boss: “Benji, did you hear who Tila Tequila chose?”

Me: “One… must… have… coffee… and two… what’s a Tila Tequila?”

Not ‘what’ …who? Tila Tequila is the star of MTV’s hit reality show A Shot at Love and I just realized one of two things: either globalization has hit Israel with full force or I’m further removed from MTV’s target demographic than I thought.

Yes, at some point, our little country the size of New Jersey went from two TV channels to a heck of a lot, including everybody’s favorite music channel and all the trash it can fit into a 24 hour schedule. And the delay that once existed between a show’s original broadcast and its arrival to Israel? It’s over before you can say 24: Season 7.

What’s that? Your Israeli cable provider isn’t showing Two and a Half Men How about Slingbox? This baby hooks up to a TV and sends a signal to a computer anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. Boom, you’re watching your favorite show, no problem!

When we think of globalization, we often think of technology. And make no mistake about it… it’s here. Which technology? Processors? Biotech? Yes, but try again. If you said Facebook, you win.

In the biggest invasion since the Beatles made American girls scream on the Ed Sullivan Show, Facebook took Israel by storm this past year. The social networking site expanded from 18,000 members in June to 340,000 at the writing of this article, staggering growth given the population of this country. Now the question is who isn’t on Facebook. Member of Knesset (Kadima party) Yoel Hasson is (I just wrote him.) My boss, my editor, and my roommates are. I know the Syrians aren’t, having been banned by their government. (So how do they waste time at work?)

The Israelis immediately added their own unique flavor to the proverbial Facebook stew, creating third-party applications like IsraPoke and Facts of Israel. Have you installed Superpoke which allows you to pinch, tickle, or throw sheep at your friends? Download IsraPoke and throw garinim (sunflower seeds) at the ones you love the most.

A few years ago, my reaction to the Facebook invasion might have been something to the effect of ‘how cute, the Israelis are using our website’, as if the Internet, all its toys, and American culture in general inherently belonged to America and was given to Israel on loan. In 2008, it’s clear that these things belong to no one, and the divisions between cultures and what belongs to whom will only continue to blur.

How else to explain that more of my friends in Israel have joined Facebook than in Atlanta, my old place of residence? Or that my co-workers sing Run DMC songs from when they were still in diapers? Maybe globalization should stop IMMEDIATELY.

Well, maybe not immediately. I don’t know if I’m willing to give up Skype, the software that allows me to video chat with my parents. With just a click of a button, I can watch my mom and dad turn into the Costanzas, trying to figure out how to turn the camera on while their voices rise (along with my blood pressure.)

The connection isn’t great but I’m not willing to pay the $30 monthly fee for a Vonage voice-over-IP line (VOIP) and the US number that comes with it. I do however have a new landline which makes cheap outgoing calls to the States through HOT, the company that also provides me cable. Of course the calls aren’t really through HOT, they’re through 014, the company I pay for my long-distance service which sends the calls through the cable company’s bandwidth. Still with me? Good-please explain to me what I just said.

I may not understand how my phone calls work but I do understand that olim (immigrants) have it easier here than ever before, at least in terms of adjustment to the new culture and distance from their loved ones. Between online social networking, the amount of cheap communication options, and the omnipresence of EVERYTHING around the world, things look pretty globalized to me. It’s a flat world and Israel’s right in the middle of it. Not a bad place to be, is it? See, Tom, I didn’t even need to buy your book.

Now if you’ll excuse me, the new season of American Idol is playing on Star World.

Equality and inclusion: A new vision for Israel

Jewish philanthropists work with Arab and Jewish leaders to try to bridge the chasm.For the past 60 years, Diaspora Jews have been deeply engaged in building a national home for the Jewish people. Our priority has been helping Israel to build hospitals and universities, absorb waves of Jewish immigrants and develop the country’s infrastructure. Focused on the survival of the Jewish State, we failed to realize that both our philosophy and our philanthropy were leaving behind 20 percent of Israel’s citizens – the indigenous Arab minority.

The issue of building a just and inclusive society for all citizens of Israel was the challenge that brought 60 American, British and Canadian Jewish philanthropists to Israel last week. During three intense days, we met with Arab and Jewish leaders who are committed to partnership and change, and learned more about the chasm that separates the Jewish and Arab communities.

We learned about a faltering educational system reflected in declining academic achievement, seen most acutely within the Arab schools. We learned about widening socioeconomic gaps, shortages of social services, the lack of programs for Arab youth at risk; and employment practices that limit opportunities for Arab college graduates to participate in the knowledge economy.

We also heard about crushing pressure on Arab municipalities to provide for their communities’ basic infrastructure needs; festering and unaddressed issues of land allocation and planning, most acutely felt within the Negev Bedouin communities; and longstanding exclusion of Israeli Arabs from meaningful participation in the state’s political processes.

During our trip we also heard from a member of a kibbutz that was established in the state’s early days to be a “security wedge” between Arab villages to the north and south. Listening to how the kibbutz had been constructed on land that was both purchased and confiscated from Arabs, we realized that the clock could not be turned back. We understood why our host felt obligated to pursue solutions that would benefit both the Jewish and Arab communities in the region.

While we were in Israel we were also surprised to learn that a few outspoken members of the Arab community had called for a boycott of meetings with our group. While the call to boycott fell on deaf ears among the vast majority of Arab leaders, it taught us an important lesson: that the lines of conflict in Israel are not between the Arab and Jewish communities, but rather between those Jews and Arabs who embrace a vision of a just and inclusive society and those who seem intent on pursuing an agenda of separatism and alienation. This only served to strengthen our commitment to advancing our vision of a society in which all citizens enjoy equal opportunity and feel equally at home, rather than being distracted by the separatist voices within the political fringes of both communities.

Until recently, few Diaspora Jews understood the importance of supporting Jewish-Arab cooperation. But this is beginning to change. Today American Jews help support some of the 200-plus Israeli organizations working in the field of coexistence and equality.

And recently, 70 major American Jewish nonprofit organizations from across the political and religious spectrum formed a powerful new coalition to tackle these issues and take action.

Although Israel’s government will be a critical part of the solution (just as it has been a part of the problem), American Jews and philanthropists have a meaningful role to play in advancing the vision of an inclusive society. How? By providing support to Arab and Jewish NGOs, using our influence to advocate for government action and drawing upon international experience in majority-minority relations.

From a deep and fundamental commitment to the welfare of a Jewish democratic Israel, we are determined to address what we believe is Israel’s central domestic challenge. We are gratified to find that senior Israeli government leaders, the Jewish Agency and other key institutions are more responsive to the agenda of inclusion and equality, and are beginning to translate words into deeds.

We invite all Israelis — Jewish and Arab — and Americans to join us in this critical undertaking.

Israeli wines come of age

Israeli wineries can feel more self confident today. The Wine Advocate, the mouthpiece of Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, published details of its first ever tasting of Israeli wines at the end of December 2007. The results were not at all bad – in fact for some wineries, rather good.

No less than 14 wines scored more than 90 points and this is an important threshold for Israeli wines to have passed. The highest scoring red wine in the tasting was Yatir Forest from Yatir Winery at Tel Arad. The best white wine was ‘C’ Blanc du Castel from Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem and the best dessert wine was the Yarden Heights Wine from the Golan Heights Winery. Four wineries excelled by receiving at least two wines with 90+ scores. They were Carmel, Castel, Golan Heights and Yatir.

The result of the tasting was the eagerly awaited judgment of the most powerful and influential wine magazine in the world of wine, which can make or break reputations with its much sought after opinions.

The tasting supports my long held opinion that Israeli wines are in fact world class and that we are producing the finest quality wines in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. Whilst proud of the successes, it also encourages us to continue the upward curve and be still more quality orientated in future. Israel has done well, but we still have a long way to go.

Not all Israeli wineries produce wines that are kosher. However, it is significant that no less than 11 of the top 14 wines in the order of merit are kosher.

Sometimes our most disbelieving followers are our Jewish consumers who have grown up with Manischevitz or Palwin sacramental wines and assume that all kosher wines are by definition poor wines.

However, The Wine Advocate summary of the tasting was very clear: “No one should avoid wines because they have kosher certifications… in fact Kosher wines are amongst the best in this report, such as those from Domaine du Castel and Yatir.”

This brings home another truth that we have known for years – a kosher wine can be a great wine and it is irrelevant to the quality if it is kosher or not. Coming from me, this is what you would expect, but from Robert Parker’s publication, it is a very significant statement that should help to change preconceived ideas.

Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than Wales or New Jersey.

Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Bible times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry in Israel. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous Bordeaux winery Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 with advice and expertise from the French. He built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa.

However, the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. The winery brought in expertise from California and showed the world, and more important Israelis, that it was possible to make international class wines in Israel.

The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights – which together control about 70% both of the local market and of Israeli wine exports. There are 25 commercial wineries in all.

Something close to wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The amount of vineyards planted with noble varieties has doubled and there are now over 200 wineries, many of them boutiques.

The majority of them have sprung up in the last 15 years. The most famous of these is Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem. Some of the new quality wineries, like Yatir, Flam and Clos de Gat have provided much needed variety and added color to the Israeli wine scene. This in turn has galvanized the larger wineries like Carmel, Golan, Barkan and Teperberg, all of whom have responded by building new wineries.

Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. The same high standards may be seen in our vineyards. The use of meteorological stations in the Golan vineyards or pioneering attempts to plant vineyards in the desert, show Israel’s viticulturists are dynamic and up to date.

Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is no surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. However, in the higher altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is even likely to be snow during the winter months. It is these areas where the new fine wines from Israel come from.

Most of the fine wines highlighted by The Wine Advocate are red. These are wines to buy as gifts, to lay down or to enjoy on an important occasion. Each of these will now automatically become sought after wines. I suggest you look them out while stocks last. For anyone who had any doubts, Israeli wine has arrived!