The JNF trail: sun, cycling and shabbat

“Life in Israel can be difficult. A six-day work week for many. Mandatory military service. Maintaining a sense of normalcy in a region that has been plagued by wars and terrorism. With parks, forests, historic sites and recreation areas developed by JNF, Israeli citizens can enjoy much needed respite from the pressures of daily life.”

JNF website

We awoke on Saturday morning, the 7am alarm scarcely indenting our deep sleep,  finally opening our eyes to the world at 10am. Picking our way through the soggy clothes we had flung off the night before, opening the door to a world whose night time rain now sparkles off the trees in the sunshine. Delighted to see the blue sky hanging above us.

We make tea, munch on some peanut butter and banana topped oatcakes and attempt to cleanse the mess we have muddied about the room.

Then panniers on, and off we go – to find the JNF bicycle trail that isn’t too far away.

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It doesn’t take long to get back into a steady cycling rhythm – the bliss of off road biking. All the memories and smells and treasures from our cycling days come back to us. This is what we love. To be on our bikes. To meet the world like this, with our eyes wide open, on two wheels. How could we be doing anything else?

As we swoop past olive trees and the beautiful wild flowers that bloom on the sides of the path, we can’t help but think of the friends we have left behind, on the other side of the wall, whose last words to us now frame the picture before us: “we wish we could come with you”, “we’d love to go cycling and camping in Palestine (the Israel of today)”.

We heave ourselves up hills, one bike – the one we affectionately call “the tanker” – unable to move below 3rd gear, another bike ridiculously heavy with the bulk of our possessions, and the third with an oh so wobbly back wheel. We are quite a sight! Puffing up these hills, rolling down others, bumping into men in lycra with light mountain bikes – faces of leisure and bemused expressions.

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We pass endless forests, every so often discovering tall stone pillars bearing the signs of the JNF/KKL. The JNF are prolific commemorators, we learn. We pass innumerous signs memorialising Jews who were killed during the Holocaust or in fighting for Israel; particularly memorable is the epic Lehi memorial which commemorates those who died from this extremist Zionist militia. Also known as the Stern Gang, the Lehi used terror tactics – such as assassinations and bombings – to further their ambitions for a Jewish state. The Lehi were also involved in the Deir Yassin massacre, where over one hundred Palestinian villagers were murdered on the 9th April 1948.

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This selective memorialising is another method to erase the existence of the Palestinians. The strange pillar of the Lehi memorial fits into a narrative of the Jewish struggle to create Israel. All along the path, the carefully chosen monuments present a picture of the suffering of the Jews and their eventual success; quite literally one side of the story. A history given in order to create new memories for this land. To replace one story with another.

As a granddaughter of Jews who fled to the UK from Poland just before the war, I wince at this pattern: using the catastrophe of the Holocaust as a justification to hide the memory of another people who lived here – and the injustice served to them. Holocaust memory must be preserved, but it cannot be used as an excuse to deny another people’s trauma and uprooting. It cannot be used to oppress another.

These forests and parks are full of trees planted by the JNF and full of picnic benches. We pass hundreds of them. Will there ever be enough picnicers to fill them? They are perched, desperately, as if to say WE WILL BE PARKS. WE ARE NOT PALESTINIAN VILLAGES ANYMORE. COME AND HAVE A PICNIC.

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We shudder, because we see through it. We know what lies beneath, the stories of our friends and the people we have met in the refugee camps before this trip, stories that go untold, but that sit beside the trees and these picnic benches if you really look. And when you do, it’s pretty haunting.

(See Eitan Bronsteins work on this; he explains the Palestinian past in all the JNF forests and parks – most of which lie on sites of destroyed Palestinian villages.)

Israel will never be the same for me again. The past few years have been hard, remapping a land that for so long served as the site of my homeland, as a spiritual centre – slowly coming to see it as another land. A land that is the homeland of many Palestinians and Palestinian refugees who have never been able to return after they or their families were expelled in 1948.

This land is multiple places at once. and that must be known. Lisa Malki once said, “one country cannot at the same time be another country”, but here it is. Meeting and clashing in the national imaginations of the Israelis who live here and the Palestinians who remember living here.

We snake on golden paths for miles and miles. We meet two Germans who are walking Israels National Trail for an art project called the ‘4th Pole’, we meet a family driving a buggy, the older guy in the front wearing a KKL hat. We proudly give them our cards, hoping that they might learn another version of the story of the trails they are taking.

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Our bellies begin to rumble, but it’s Saturday – the Jewish sabbath – and we haven’t seen a shop in a long while.

Red roofs loom on the hill up ahead; at least we can ask to fill up our water bottles, we think, hoping that we won’t disturb families as they honour Shabbat.

We trudge up, knock on the door and are met by smiling eyes who say “of course, of course”, grabbing our bottles. We wait on the doorstep, the hills looking so beautiful, the scene so tranquil. Another guy comes to say hello and offers us a tray of round brownie balls. Hydrated and sugar boosted we get back on our bikes.

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We cycled just a few yards when a jeep attempted to pass, windows were rolled down and two young Israelis smiled out. “Are you hungry’? one of them asks, and I yelp YES before i can stop myself.

The guys confer and let us know animatedly that they are off on an adventure to have a picnic and have lots of vegan food and Arabic coffee and they’d love us to join. We don’t need much persuading and ride on a bit before finding a nice picnic spot, where we sit to a feast of fresh bread and raw tahini, quinoa, avocado, wonderful salad, and roasted aubergine.

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It is one of the more curious parts of this trip: worlds colliding – the three of us, adventurers on a political mission meeting two wonderful Jewish Israelis, who readily offer us anything they possibly can. Eager to hear about our trip, but more eager it seems, just to connect, to share the world they live in, to chat about life post army and to discover, to our surprise, common values.

Our experiences of Palestine, though, could not be more divergent. One told us that he had only ever met the ‘bad Arabs’, that he had only ever been to the West Bank in the dark, on missions, to arrest said ‘bad Arabs’ who were planning to bomb Tel Aviv or something. We listen. Thinking of all the stories of the young boys who get taken by the army in the middle of the night; our friends and neighbours. Boys who have done nothing wrong. People who are non violently resisting their illegal occupation and a perpetual Nakba. ‘Intelligence’ obtained by torturing people. The thoughts come in waves, our minds filled with the faces of those who have suffered at the hands of this Israeli army policy.

But we listen, and we witness the loveliness of the occupying forces a couple of years on, without uniform and with the clarity of a few years spent travelling, reflecting, and thinking.  It is simultaneously interesting, bizarre, and humbling. How can this man before us have been so active in such an obscene occupation? None of it makes sense. But it feels important to have these strange pieces of the puzzle with us now.

It can be difficult, faced with such an immense, complex, structure of oppression, to direct energies in a constructive way in order to support Palestinians in the struggle for justice.  The Israeli forces that we see exercising their control over Palestinians throughout the West Bank every day are just the front line of this occupation. Behind them are institutions such as the JNF. which are instrumental to the process of dehumanisation that permits this systematic mistreatment of Palestinians.

It is a strange encounter.

We sip our tea, leaving some of the more difficult questions unsaid.

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