The mysterious facility at Dimona.(The author)
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Israel Without Israelis

Three days in, and we have yet to really meet the locals

Marc Tracy
June 14, 2012
The mysterious facility at Dimona.(The author)

Two days ago, we hiked. Yesterday, we hiked some more. This morning, we hiked Masada and Ein Gedi and did the Dead Sea thing (it is Sebastopol-in-the-Levant: The Russians love them some mud and taking the waters). We have just arrived at our hotel in Jerusalem, albeit with instructions, at least tonight, not to venture beyond the hotel. In sum? One third of the way through our trip, we basically have not come into contact with everyday Israelis. The lone exceptions have been brief visits to mall-type places.

Yesterday, we ate lunch in Dimona, a smallish city in the south that is most famous for the nuclear facility that may or may not be nearby. (I jokingly use euphemism: In fact, Israel practices something called “nuclear ambiguity,” in which it, uniquely, is widely known to maintain a small nuclear weapons arsenal but does not formally declare it to the world. This permits it to maintain a deterrent while not being unduly pressured into the international nonproliferation regime, which would almost certainly require it to dispense with all atomic bombs.) I brought this up with Yoav, our tour educator, who is an active-duty veteran, he said, of an elite infantry intelligence unit, and is still in the reserves; he knowingly laughed me off. Later, we had a similarly light conversation about a “hypothetical” nuclear facility nearby, which he knew the location of but had never been inside of. Finally, driving past acres and acres of land walled off by barbed wire, with several civilian buses suddenly emerging from a side road that it turned out was guarded by military personnel, Yoav noted that this was the site of the “hypothetical” facility. Maybe he was joking.

At another, even smaller southern town, Arad, which lies roughly on the border of the Negev and Judaean Deserts (passing the town and looking to the east, we received our first view of the Dead Sea and Jordan), we had a 10-minute bathroom/snack break at a local mall. It seemed to be a poorer sort of place, which would fit with its being a small town in the south. Duly, there were a large number of what appeared to be migrants from Africa; there were also a smattering of religious Jews and Russian-speakers. A certain blogger, in dire straits, attempted to ask one African-looking gentlemen an urgent question, and while the gentleman initially failed to understand, eventually he helpfully suggested, “Pee pee?” and directed me—excuse me, the blogger—to the W.C. Later, I accompanied Leon Neyfakh, a Chicagoan, Moscow born, to buy a watermelon from a stand on the road outside the mall. My colleague asked in Russian; the man did not understand, and a full watermelon was a too-high 30 shekels. He settled for a slice for six shekels and a couple of free samples for the road. It was delicious, sugary yet refreshing.

Tomorrow we venture into Jerusalem and, more important, have our Mifgash, our encounter with Israeli soldiers. One of them will be sleeping a couple feet from me in my room Friday and Saturday nights. Maybe I’ll learn something about what makes them tick.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.