In addition to the hundreds of kibbutzes built by the Zionist movement, there was also one little Muslim village that was built on the coastline. Here’s the story of this Sudanese-Bedouin-Arab-Israeli village.
Starting in the 19th Century, Zionism was a Jewish nationalist movement. It was a unique movement at that time, as its aim was to create a Jewish state for a widely dispersed ethnic group that had been living throughout the diaspora for thousands of years. The movement’s strongest tool to facilitate the return of Jews to their ancestral homeland was to settle the land by building hundreds of moshavot (small colonies), and kibbutzes and moshavs (communal agricultural settlements).
Towards the end of the 19th century, the wealthy Rothschild family from Germany began to invest in the Holy Land, which was still part of the collapsing Ottoman Empire. Baron Rothschild had cash, he was generous, and he invested in building industrious Jewish towns that would produce good wines. It took about another 120 years until good wine was produced in Israel, but that’s a different story.
The Rothschilds’ activities included ‘town rescues’, where they would buy failing Jewish settlements, bring in French administrators to run the show, and save the establishments through economic success. The most famous town established by the family is Zichron Yaakov, named after the Baron’s father. Zichron Yaakov sits on the southernmost tip of the Carmel mountain range, and below it, squeezed between the Carmel hills and a sandstone ridge is the small K’bara Valley.
K’bara was the second largest swampy lake in the land at the time. Around the 16th century, Bedouins from the El-Awarna tribe settled by the swamp and raised fish and livestock. They were expert weavers and were renowned for their baskets and woven goods. This tribe had slightly darker skin that other Bedouins in the region, and rumor has it that they are descendants of Sudanese tribes that were brought to Palestine by the Ottomans as cheap labor or slaves.
Back to the Baron. The Jews coming to Zichron Yaakov suffered severely from malaria – the swamp providing a mosquito heaven. The Rothschilds thought they had hit the jackpot: Hire the local Bedouins to drain the swamp, and in return the Rothschilds would buy land from the Ottomans and relocate the Bedouin tribe to a newly built village on the sandstone ridge, closer to the coast. This way, from the viewpoint of the Zionist narrative of the day, they drained the swamp, boosted the amount of fertile land for agriculture, and improved the lives of the local natives. Pretty classic story for the late 19th century, right?
Now called Jiser A-Zarka (the blue bridge), the town of 15,000 is now land locked between the coast, a highway, a national park, and a kibbutz, with no space to expand. The bad news is that this is the poorest town in Israel. Israeli Arabs are generally reluctant to mix with the Jisr locals, and Israeli Jews are still hesitant to even drive into the town.
The good news (although that is questionable), is that there is finally a buzz about this town as a result of its poverty, poor schools and crumbling infrastructure. Israel’s government has begun renewing the infrastructure, building a new neighborhood and a hotel, renovating the fishing port, and making the town more accessible for tourists. There are also plans to shift the highway eastwards, to allow expansion of the municipal space.
If you want to go off the beaten path, literally, come to Jiser. Mingle with the locals, taste their snack food (fava beans) coated with cumin, and take a walk along the picturesque Mediterranean coastline.