Posted by: cedarsurf | February 16, 2010

Israel/Gaza A Year Later: Boards-Not-Bombs

Hard to believe it is now a year since the violent and distressing conflict in Gaza. Equally hard to believe that I was there a year ago at this time on a Boards-Not-Bombs mission. Included here are two pieces one for SBC Surf Magazine (edited by the talented Malcolm Johnson) and the other for This Magazine. Shalom/Ensala.

Walking on Water in the Holy Land

“Ha-coal Ba-sayder?” A middle-aged woman walking by noticed me sitting there and asked in Hebrew –if “everything was alright?”

I just finished a surf at Tel Aviv’s famed Hilton Beach and waited on the street for my buddy Arthur Rashkovan to show. My foot had a reef cut on it and I was exposing it to a few biblical beams from the mid-day Mediterranean sun.

This random act of genuine concern was something I was going to have to get used to in Israel. In a country that deals with existential crisis on a daily basis, an awesome sense of collective responsibility comes as second nature.

By the time Arthur had arrived I was given a homegrown orange by one passerby and advice on healing the cut by another.

Israel is a country built on sand and held together by passionate argument – there is a fiery sense of life and its brevity here.

Of course there are also random acts of hot-headed caution-out-the-window insanity known as Israeli driving – cause for a passenger’s thoughts on life’s brevity.

Arthur arrived all choked about the parking situation in Tel Aviv, texting a friend, talking on his cell phone, sipping a chocolate milk and asking after my surf. This sense of hyperactivity, intensity, warmth and feeling was another thing that was going to take some getting used to.

Rashkovan, 30, grew up two blocks from Hilton beach and has lived there his whole life. A former Israeli skateboarding champion, Rashkovan is a first generation Israeli whose parents are from landlocked Moldova in Eastern Europe. I asked Arthur what brought his parents to Israel and he told me: “the usual, anti-Semitism.”

The “usual’ has created an enormous amount of diversity and beauty in such a tiny country. Jews have fled: Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Spain, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Ethiopia, Sudan, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, France, Russia, Italy and elsewhere to come to Israel. Most recently refugees from the Sudan have unfathomably walked to Israel via Egypt.

Israeli Adi Gluska, a former WQS surfer who now trains O’Neill Europe’s junior team, best exemplifies this diversity with a mother from Poland and a father from Yemen.

Jews are like surfers-outsiders. And the Palestinians are referred to as the Jews of the Arab world.

In Israel either you are a Jerusalemite –a lover of the old city and its religious history – or passionate about Tel Aviv and its cosmopolitan view of the future. I can’t believe two vibrant cities exist in one country an hour apart.
Sometimes I think the Middle East is a case of localism gone crazy –spiraling out from the old city of Jerusalem divided into its quarters of Muslim, Jewish, Christian and uh, Armenian-the city of Jerusalem is more carved up than Bobby Orr’s knee.

Despite the conflicts, life continues as normal in Tel Aviv.  It is an extremely safe city.  In Tel Aviv, population 400,000, street crime and homelessness are virtually non-existent, children are free to play in the streets and parks by themselves and women can safely walk the streets late at night in the city that never sleeps.

“Tel Aviv is in a brew-ah. A bubble,” says former Israeli surf pro Maya Dauber, 36. “For me, the last war with Gaza it was like a reality TV show. You feel removed.

“You have to understand. This’s not like the first war we ever had,” says Dauber who served in the military while being allowed to compete on the WQS tour. “Every few years we have a war. Every few years I know a soldier that died or was hurt because of a war. You start to develop a thick skin. You start to protect yourself more and more. You don’t want to hear about it. That’s why Tel Aviv is one of the best cities to hang out in the world. Because people want to forget. They want to go out and have fun, to drink to clean their minds.

“Surfing,” says Dauber, a protégé of Doc Paksowitz, “is an extension of that.”

Tel Aviv is a beach bohemia built by Bauhaus with over 4,000 stark-white buildings clustered close to the Mediterranean. Along the sea wall that follows the length of the city there are four or five surfable beaches. With its parched earth, palm trees, boardwalks, kiosks and café’s Tel Aviv is reminiscent of southern California – except with much more style and yummier Mediterranean food.

The Bauhaus style, originated from the modernist ideas of the German Bauhaus School, is the product of an exodus of the Jewish people looking to forget their past and create a modern workers utopia. Bauhaus buildings here were inexpensive, simple and adapted to the hot climate. Bauhaus values of form following function, and the adaptation of art to machine-age technology translate easily into the basis for surfboard design.

What the Israelis have made into a modern state in sixty years leaves the mind reeling. In 1948 in the shadow of the holocaust Israel was declared a country by a vote of the United Nations. The Jewish people have made the most of this opportunity making the desert bloom and cities thrive. This determination has also characterized it surf scene.

[break]

In 1956, eight years after the formation of the State of Israel – surfing arrived with American surfer/physician Dorian ‘Doc’ Paskowitz, the Abba (father) of Israeli surfing.

Paskowitz was like Moses carrying the Ten Commandments down from Mt. Sinai – Thou shall surf.
On his initial journey to Israel Doc brought with him six surfboards, each with drawings depicting the  “Star of David”. He started cruising the coast in the hope of finding someone who would take responsibility for the project of teaching Israelis to surf.  Eventually he came to “Frishman”beach in Tel Aviv, where he bumped into local lifeguard Shamai “Topsi” Kanzapolski.  He told Topsi about his idea.

Nir Almog, Topsi’s son and owner of Almog Surfboards based in Tel Aviv relates: “It was love at first sight, my father decided to take on the project and be responsible for getting it started.” At that time the lifeguards only caught waves with the “Hasake”, a flat wide board that had been designed for near shore fishing by Arabs and later adopted as a vehicle for the lifeguards.

Paskowitz gave them lessons and slowly the locals who hung out by the lifeguard station started to surf.

Paskowitz came to Israel because he wanted to be a soldier. “I was down on the beach-checking out the waves and I heard these bombs,” Paskowitz, 86, told me over the phone from his home in Dana Point, California. “I thought ‘Oh, Oh.’ I went to the nearest recruiting centre and said I was a Jew and wanted to volunteer for the Israeli Army.

“They just laughed. They told me to go to Cypress for a couple of weeks find a nice girl have a good time and by then the war would be over. They though I was trying to be John Wayne. They also said-‘How do we know that you are even a Jew-how do we not know that you are a spy?’

“I was mad. Real mad. So I thought screw them, I’m going surfing.”

[break]

Israel’s temperate 300-kilometer beach break lined coast is interrupted with a few rocky points and jetties, and faces out to the greatest fetch of any Mediterranean country. Despite its enormous presence on the world stage, Israel is physically very small. You can easily fit it into Vancouver Island and check the entire coast in one day.

Today there are 30,000 surfers in Israel about twenty surf shops and dozens of surf schools.

The water temp of the Mediterranean in March is 18 degrees. I surfed in my trunks and the locals surfed in 3/2 wetsuits. They thought I was nuts. In the summer the water temperature reaches as high as 32 degrees Celsius.

The swell in Israel is windswell. There is not a whole lot of power to the waves and they die quickly. There is much duck diving between the very short intervals. This does not deter Israeli’s enthusiasm for surfing and in a country that offers so much history and natural beauty – being able to surf here is a special bonus.

Most dedicated Israeli surfers have visited many of the world-class surf destinations to hone their skills. The Maldives, a cluster of islands off of Sri Lanka,  is a popular surf destination for many Israelis due to its relative proximity.

The surf conditions in Gaza are similar to those of Israel – however there are considerably less opportunities to surf due to an absence of equipment. There are no surf schools or surf shops in Gaza. The Gaza strip is a region, which stretches 40 km long and eight kilometers wide, the distance from Ucluelet to Tofino and is one of the most densely populated areas on earth with1.3 million people in 360 square kilometers.

[break]

Last year, as part of something Doc Paskowitz describes as beginning as a “lark”, he along with Arthur Rashkovan and surfing god Kelly Slater (who is of Syrian descent) got together in Israel to teach surfing clinics to Arabs and Israeli’s. They dubbed it Surfing For Peace. Young Arab girls in hijabs (head covers) and young Israeli boys with yarmulkes (skullcaps) caught waves with Slater looking on.

A case of f-u-n versus fundamentalism.

Then pushing his luck Doc, his sons David and Josh Paskowitz headed for the border at Gaza to deliver some surfboards to Gaza. Despite-there being a total blockade on entry into Gaza Doc managed to slide under a border gate and deliver these boards to the waiting Gazans.

“Kissing,” was the secret to getting across the border says, Doc. “All the guys that want to shoot me, I grab them and kiss them,” says Doc.

Nobody believes that you can actually bring peace between the Arabs and Israelis simply through the act of surfing but you can create moments of peacefulness, create some friendships and demystify your so-called enemy. Or as Doc says “God will surf with the devil if the waves are good enough.”

I was inspired by Doc’s gesture, his “lark” and decided to come up with one of my own.

I had brought along 12 wetsuits, gathered through the efforts of Ralph Tieleman, a Tofino based surfer and former surf shop owner, made some t-shirts (a revolution is just a t-shirt away) with the logo Boards-Not-Bombs.

While I was not able to get into Gaza, the wetsuits eventually did.

A week after I returned home to Vancouver Island. Arthur  e-mailed me to say that a German based journalist received permission to get into Gaza. He took along four of the wetsuits I had left behind and took some photos of the surfers with the suits.

One photo shows the surfers ogling the wetsuits. Tieleman who grew up in Tofino at a time when equipment was scarce could relate. “It reminds me of when I began to surf in Tofino,” says Tieleman. “We wore bread bags over wool socks and sneakers for booties and had stiff wetsuits with beaver tails.”

[break]

Continue along the boardwalk of Tel Aviv and you will reach the predominately Arab sea port of Jaffa. In a simple flat with a patio garden lives Abdallah Seri an Arab-Israeli with his family. His father, a fisherman joins us over strong Arabic coffee while a soccer game plays on the Arab language TV channel.

Seri, 28 learned to surf just out the door from his house at the age of 12. Seri took part in the Surfing for Peace initiative with his friend Rashkovan. He told me of his love for Doc Paskowitz . He spoke of his love of surfing and how it can bring people together. But then he turned serious: “The people in Gaza are not an autonomous people – they don’t know how to think for themselves anymore and they can’t tell right from wrong anymore. They are victims of both the Israelis and their own Arab brothers and sisters.”

Seri’s father points to the soccer players on the screen, “Look at these guys they are from all over the world playing together as a team. That is what sport can do. That is what surfing can do.”

[break]

Surf etiquette in Israel is a nightmare. This is particularly true at a place called ‘Back Door’ in Haifa.

Driving our crew to surf Back Door was young ripper Yoni Klein, 20. Klein has been exempted from the army because he told them he was ‘crazy. “I said to the army all I want to do is surf all day and all I think about is surfing. They told me they wouldn’t need me.”

Along the route are orange and banana groves. The southbound lanes are choked by traffic heading for Tel Aviv.

While surfing is not the first thing you think of when Israel is mentioned, beach culture does have its origins in the Mediterranean beginning with the Romans. About halfway between Haifa, a high tech sea port, and Tel Aviv are the ruins of the ancient seaport Caesarea built by Herod the Great, who renamed it Caesarea in honor of the emperor.

Towering over Caesarea is Mt. Carmel, home to the Druze. The Druze are a religious community considered an offshoot of Islam. Most Druze are Israeli citizens and serve in the Israeli army.

Just north of Caesarea on the outskirts of Haifa we check the surf at Maxim’s. Maxims is known for its waves as well as being the site of a suicide bombing a few years ago. We check the waves, which are a bit mushy and move on.

Back Door is right beside a marine base and the soldiers were not at all excited about our cameras.

It got worse. When we were surfing my buddy Arthur was accused of dropping in on someone, which not only was out to lunch but also hilarious considering that dropping in is the Israeli way of surfing. Anyway this guy told Arthur he’d stab him if he did it again. So much for surfing for peace.

Fortunately we all survived and went and had post-surf shwarma. There Alon Dassa, a surfer and the photographer for our outing told us about surfing in Egypt at Alexandria. Dassa’s father was a Jew born in Alexandria and recruited by Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Eventually his father was exposed as a spy and served fifteen years in prison in Egypt. During visits to see his father in Egypt, Dassa would surf Alexandria, the only surfer in the water.

Another surfer with us, Simon told us that when he was a soldier in the Israeli army on an operation in Lebanon, he went back to Israel in a jeep to get his surfboard so he could surf in Lebanon. Yet another  Israeli soldier told me he surfed every morning before duty. Almost every morning when he reported to his barracks they made him pee in a bottle. With his freshly stoked features  they thought he was high – he was, on surfing, not anything else.

[break]

One day while checking the surf at Hiltons I saw a line of reddish brown filling the sea like a scene straight out of the movie the Ten Commandments. What could it be?

Well, shit unfortunately. Like here in good old Canada where Tofino and Victoria, pump their brown floaties into the sea – so does Israel. Environmentalism is the bottom feeder of issues as far as Israelis are concerned.

“In Israel we really need to work on our green education,” says Orian Kanzapolski from his Top Sea surf rental centre looking out over Hilton beach.  Kanzapolski is the son of Shamai “Topsi” Kanzapolski and grew up on Hilton Beach.

Kanzapolski faces an uphill struggle. “If it is not something that you can die from tommorow. Then it is not considered important enough,” says Kansapolski who organized a protest against polluting the Mediterranean while I was in Israel. “They don’t think about ten, twenty years from now. They are thinking about tomorrow: ‘My son will go into the army. Hopefully he will come back. …So what are you talking about plastic in the ocean?’ It is a bit ridiculous.

“I feel like I have the attention of the surfers. The people who can feel it, who can smell and taste it. They understand. They will be my voice, they will tell it to their friends.”

[break]

I traveled to Ashkalon, a modern Israeli coastal community of 120,000, located15 km from the Gaza border to visit Chico Mayaan, 42 who runs a surfing school there. Ashkalon has received considerable missile fire from Gaza.

Mayaan brings a whole other meaning to the idea of riding a bomb.

Mayaan told me of a lesson where he was setting the kids up with their boards and talking about the surfing while on the beach.

“I was in the army, okay – combat,” says Mayaan. “I hear this whistling. I know it’s a rocket. I tell the kids ‘Get down. Get down.’ The bomb landed 100 meters from us, a mushroom of smoke. We were shocked. All the parents call me and tell me to bring the kids home. Since then it has been a problem.”

Mayaan served in Gaza during the first Intifada and describes himself as hardcore right-winger.

And yet, Mayaan took part in the Surfing For Peace operation. “We started Surfing For Peace because we thought of it as not connected to politics, it is connected to the ocean. We’re surfing. The Gazans are surfing-why not? We should surf together. It won’t bring peace but we will see the enemy different,” says Mayaan.

[break]

Near the end of my trip to Israel I attended a Purim Party. Purim marks the deliverance of the Jewish people of the ancient Perisan Empire from Haman’s plot to annihilate them. The day is marked by mass celebration in Israel – much like Halloween with costumes and masquerade parties.

Arthur, a group of surfers whom I had befriended, and I descended upon a Purim party in Tel Aviv in costume. Rashkovan got to play his badass alter ego Bruce Dickenson of Iron Maiden, there were also sheiks and belly dancers amongst us. At the party it occurred to me how many close friends I had made over such a short time. I will miss them.

Israel is a resilient, warm-hearted country, perpetually fighting for survival but as Chico Mayaan told me: “As long as there are waves there will be a type of peace.”

Yes, Israel Ha-Coal Basayder.

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