Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Barbecue for Independence Day

Israeli Independence day began yesterday evening with pageantry and fireworks. It lasts until sunset today. Our friends David and Judith invited us to celebrate with them, their three children, and their friends Audrey and Fred and three of their six children. The children ranged in age from thirteen to early twenties. We joined them in what they say is the most typical Israeli way to spend the day: to visit a National Park, learn about history, and then have a barbecue.

Our friends chose Mamshit National Park in the Negev Desert. The drive begins in the green and productive farming region near Rehovot, and continues towards Be'er Sheva, where the desert becomes drier and drier. Near the town of Dimona are many Bedouin villages. Flocks of sheep and goats graze, and roadside signs warn drivers "Beware of Camels on the Roadside."

While we were driving -- at David's suggestion -- we listened to the Independence Day radio special of Israeli music from the early days. Many of the songs are vaguely familiar, a few we know like "Shoshanna, shoshanna."

The historical interest of this park is the ruins of a Nabatean city, which once served as a stopping point along an important trade route from the East towards the Mediterranean Sea. The city now lies among very arid, scrubby hillsides, but 20 centuries ago was better watered.
The population at that time was around 1000. Low walls made from the local yellowish stone define the buildings that once stood on the site. Most date from the Roman and Byzantine eras, including two fourth-century Christian churches with large mosaic floors and a few surviving architectural details.

Throughout the ruins one sees cisterns. A carefully-engineered
water system stored rainwater. Some dams on a nearby stream, now very dry, also provided a source of water. We walked and climbed to see a watch-tower, two large houses with a variety of arched rooms, two stables where around 20 horses could have lived, a flour mill with black basalt grinding stones, and a Roman bath. Placards located throughout the ruins depict reconstructions of the buildings as they once stood, and show a few of the smaller finds from the site, such as coins and jewelry. The park has no museum, so these articles must be displayed elsewhere.

We barbecued in a picnic area with very nice cement tables. Judy and Audrey had brought portable grills, charcoal, and many things to grill: chicken, hamburgers, kabobs, hot dogs, potatoes, garlic, skewers of vegetables, and marshmallows for toasting. They also had prepared salads, vegetables, hot dog buns, pita bread, catsup, mustard, olives, and a few other foods.

As we drove home we saw a number of roadside parks that were mobbed. Families had driven cars onto the grass, set up tables and grills, and were all observing the barbecue tradition.

Israel is a very complicated place. I sincerely rejoice in the existence of a Jewish state, and celebrate her success in 1948. I am very glad that the then small number of committed Israelis avoided
destruction by powerful enemies. I believe that the state of Israel is a legitimate state that should never be annihilated. However, in Ha'aretz today I read a description of the Arab view of this celebration: "More than 2,500 people gathered Wednesday afternoon in the abandoned Galilee village of Umm al-Zinat to commemorate 58 years since Nakba Day, the term used by Arabs to describe their defeat in Israel's 1948 War of Independence." The Israeli Arab view was reflected in the following description of their protest: "Participants carried signs ... rejecting occupation and demanding the right of return for Palestinians, adorned with Palestinian flags and even one Iraqi flag." Another article describes the sentiment about Arab homes in Jerusalem and villages whose names have been changed since 1948. ("Israel marks 58th Independence Day with countrywide celebrations" and "Entrepreneur's dream, historian's nightmare", Ha'aretz May 2, 2006)

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