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August 31, 2015 | 16th Elul 5775

Wheels III

Galilee Diary #209
November 28, 2004
Marc J. Rosenstein

While Joseph was sitting in the pit into which his jealous brothers had thrown him…
“Then they sat down to a meal. Looking up, they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead, their camels bearing gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt.” (Genesis 37:25)

Since the most ancient times, caravan routes have crossed through Eretz Israel, connecting the lands east of the Jordan valley with Egypt and Africa beyond. Spices and textiles, jewels and salt and minerals have been carried back and forth along the routes that run up the coast, across through the east-west valleys, and up and down the Jordan rift valley. And often, armies have followed the same routes, as this land was the meeting – and confrontation - place between east and west.

From the early 20th century until 1948, these same routes were plied by railroads. You could get on a train in Haifa and travel to Cairo, to Beirut, to Damascus, and even to Mecca. Palestine was a hub for the whole middle east; first the Turks and later the British invested heavily in the development of rail transport – for goods, for pilgrims to Mecca, for armies. Those days are almost forgotten today. You can walk along the track toward Beirut at Rosh Hanikra, right up to the cement wall that blocks it at the Lebanese border. I remember, in the late 60s, traveling in the newly conquered West Bank, seeing the remnants of the tracks that had led eastward, before they were ripped up for scrap. You can still visit the shells of train stations in towns that haven’t seen a train in over 50 years (for example, in Afula and Bet Shean).

Today, we tend to see ourselves as an island, as if we had no land connection – our “nearest neighbors” are in Europe, to which our only connection is via Ben Gurion airport. This perception is, by the way, obsolete to some extent; you can drive to Egypt, and many Israelis do, to vacation in Sinai and beyond, even in these years of “cold peace.” And there is all kinds of traffic over the bridges to Jordan: tourists, merchants, pilgrims to Mecca – and Israeli Arabs studying at Jordanian universities, coming home for the weekend. When the peace treaty was signed with Jordan and the “new middle east” seemed to be dawning, the tabloid papers ran front page maps showing the driving times to various destinations in Europe via Syria and Turkey. That enthusiastic optimism has dimmed, but the fact is that we are no longer the island we once were. However, for now, the rails still stop at the borders.

For years, the trains in Israel were quaint, inconvenient, uncomfortable, infrequent, and not taken very seriously. The passengers were mostly soldiers, who rode for free. But in the past ten years or so, there has been a quantum leap, as huge investments have been made in rail travel. New trains, new stations, new routes, a new mentality, have made the trains a showplace of what we can do. They are packed with commuters and students and families on outings. A few weeks ago, the new terminal at Ben Gurion airport opened – a massive structure meant to put Israel on a par with European destinations. And the terminal is served by a rail line that connects hourly to the main line between Nahariya and Beersheba. I suppose, in a sense, that what this means is that you can get on a train in Nahariya and get off in London or New York. The seamlessness of the connection reduces our isolation by one more degree. However, it’s still not the real thing, and I continue to wait for the day – which I believe will come - when we’ll board the train in Karmiel and transfer in Istanbul for the Orient Express to Paris.

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