The first day of my second visit to Israel comes after a first night meal at Mul Yam, “confronting the sea” in Tel Aviv, a high-end diner with reputedly the best food in Israel. As befits a country unlike any other on the planet, this restaurant, listed among the world’s 100 best, mixes superb cuisine with oddball music. Walking in to the sounds of Dion & the Belmonts singing 1959’s “Teenager in Love” does not mesh with seared clams in white wine and parsley sauce, nor with poached turbot in leek sauce, nor Mul Yam’s version of crepe Suzette — four mini-purses of the classic crepe dish, plus four mini-purses of strawberry with vanilla sauce inside, plus Grand Marnier ice cream. A half-bottle of Chablis grand cru seals a superb repast, while the mismatched muzak drones on in the background. At least it wasn’t heavy metal.
On to Acre, the Crusader base that launched Richard II on his abortive quest to retake Jerusalem from Saladin’s army. New excavations in the past twenty years greet me. My guide, thirty-plus and knowledgeable, informs me that Napoleon failed to take Acre because he did not use observation balloons. His troops stormed a fort, manned by Ottoman troops, not knowing that the fort was double-walled. In between was the killing ground that did in Bonaparte’s troops. The next day, in Jaffa, finds our group standing before St. Peter’s Church, rebuilt in the 19th century. Blame this one on the French, as the original, dating back 1,700 years, became the death house for Napoleon’s wounded. Bonaparte dynamited the church so that his wounded would not talk to the victorious Ottomans.
Alas, the British weren’t much better. There is one clock tower left of the many that once decorated Jaffa. Seems the Brits were miffed that the Young Turks, who in 1908 overthrew the last Ottoman Sultan, had used clock towers as a symbol of their modernist aims. So the Brits figured destroying the clock towers would stem the tide. Considering the atavism that Arab depredations of the past century have exhibited, the Brits succeeded all too well.
But the Mideast has always been a rough neighborhood — Jets v. Sharks from time immemorial. In the 17th century B.C., the Egyptians and the Babylonians rumbled for control of the coastal road leading through Jaffa to the North. The Egyptian king contacted his Babylonian counterpart and asked for a parley. They signed a treaty — call it Old START. As a peace offering the Egyptian king had 200 wine barrels rolled in as everyone was feasting and enjoying festivities. Out popped 200 soldiers, and let the massacre games begin.
Israel’s beaches are eroding, thanks to an act of ecocide by Egypt. The massive Aswan High Dam, completed a generation ago by the Russians, required blocking the drainage of sand from the Nile into the Mediterranean. Carried eastward for millennia, that sand had wound up in Israel. In its absence the beaches are rapidly being eroded by the sea.
Which brings us to Haj Amin’s palace. In 1921 a student firebrand from the University of Cairo named Amin el-Husseini was a ringleader in the Arab riots aimed at killing Jews. Sir Herbert Samuel, the first of six High Commissioners who ruled Palestine via the League of Nations mandate, decided that the way to placate Arab hostility was to re-create the ancient office of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, a religious honorific post. Samuel, a Zionist, chose Amin, who promptly took the title “haj” — for pilgrimage to Mecca — and proceeded to foment hatred for the next 62 years, until his death in 1974. Haj Amin spent part of World War II in Berlin, plotting with Hitler as to how to kill Jews. But his hatred of Jews did not prevent him, before the war, from securing the services of a Jewish architect to build the Lux Palace for his excellency. The architect discovered that using the site would impinge upon a Muslim burial ground, and so told Haj Amin. Not a problem, replied the Mufti. Asked by the architect what if the locals found out, Haj Amin said that so long as neither of them talked the secret was safe. And so it was. Today the palace is in the midst of being converted into a Waldorf Hotel. They could name it the Hotel Haj Amin. Then, maybe, this time the Jews might riot, with good reason.