Spotlight: Rabineau explores Israeli hiking trails in new book

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Hiking as an Israeli national activity? That may not be the first thing that comes to mind when people think about the country, but according to Shay Rabineau, assistant professor of Israel studies and associate director of the Center for Israel Studies at Binghamton University, “Hiking is very much a part of Israeli culture, and its roots go all the way back to the early days of Zionism.”

Rabineau, who teaches courses focusing on Israel and pre-statehood Palestine, has written a book about hiking, “Walking the Land: A History of Israeli Hiking Trails” (Indiana University Press). In an e-mail interview, he noted, “As early as the First Aliyah, Jewish educators in Ottoman Palestine incorporated outdoor walking into the geography curriculum in Zionist schools. Later, during the Second Aliyah, the young men and women who went on to build the key institutions of the state of Israel – people like David Ben-Gurion and Manya Shochat – loved to walk through the country in order to ‘know the land’ and discover new places. Today, most schools in Israel still require their students to take annual hikes, to the point that by the time many students graduate high school, they have walked the length and breadth of the country.”

“Walking the Land” began as Rabineau’s Ph.D. dissertation for Brandeis University. The topic was inspired by personal experience. “The initial research questions came from my first experience hiking the Israel National Trail in 2006,” he said. “It seemed like every hiker I met, upon finding out I was American, wanted to know what I thought about the route, or the sites the trail accessed, or whether I thought the trail should go through the West Bank, or what I thought about the guidebook author’s political persuasions. I couldn’t imagine American hikers ever asking these questions on, say, the Appalachian Trail.”

He realized that these hiking trails meant something more to Israelis than it did to Americans. “It became apparent to me that for Israelis, trails were much more than just trails, and hiking was deeply interwoven with politics, history, archaeology and, most importantly, what it meant to be Israeli,” he added. “So I suppose I wrote this book in the hope that it might teach readers something about how Israelis define their identities in relation to their country, its soil, its borders and so on. The great Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky famously wrote, ‘Man is nothing more than the image of his homeland,’ and for many Israeli hikers, that statement is much more than a mere figure of speech.”

The importance of hiking began before Israel became a state. “Hiking played roles in British Mandate Palestine and the early state of Israel that went far beyond mere education,” Rabineau said. “As the Jewish community grew, and conflicts between Jews and Arabs became more frequent, Zionist youth organizations used hiking as a tool for paramilitary training, and as a way to scout out territory in order to eventually conquer it. The first marked hiking trail in the Middle East, in fact, was created by the Palmach along the route to Masada in November 1947, just one week before the United Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. It’s interesting that even at a time like that, military leaders like Yitzhak Rabin and Yigael Yadin, both of whom went on to become chiefs of staff in the Israel Defense Forces, saw trails as absolutely essential for the future of the Jewish state.”

Most tourists to Israel have remained unfamiliar with the trails and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has shown little interest in encouraging tourists to hike. “Trail maps and guidebooks were only written in Hebrew, and were never translated into other languages,” he noted. “Even today, even Israel’s flagship trail – the Israel National Trail – is difficult to hike without a working knowledge of Hebrew.”

Rabineau believes this is because “walking the land” is seen as a Jewish-Israeli activity. “People hiked because they loved the country and saw it as their homeland,” he added. “They couldn’t imagine that anyone else would want to go hiking there. One of the personal stories I tell in the book connects with this: in 2006, I set out to hike the Israel National Trail, and tried to order a Hebrew-language guidebook to my house in the United States. I soon received an e-mail from the publishing company, asking whether I had placed the order by accident. ‘Not many outsiders are interested in hiking in our little country,’ the employee wrote. But that wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. Some Israelis have begun to market Israel as an international hiking destination, but a lot remains to be done if that’s ever going to be successful.”

During his sabbatical in November, Rabineau returned to Israel to hike with his friend Julian Bender. This time, he wanted to see if he could repeat a legendary hike taken in 1934 by members of a Zionist youth movement: the group walked around the Dead Sea on foot. “The trek eventually became legendary among Israeli hikers, but for all kinds of reasons – national boundaries, regional wars, minefields and so on – the trek was never repeated,” he said. “As I completed this book and began thinking of a new research project, I wondered whether it would be possible to organize the second trek around the Dead Sea in recorded history.”

Rabineau and Bender hiked for two weeks through Jordan, Israel and the West Bank. “My next book will use the trek as a narrative thread that offers jumping-off points for talking about the life of the Dead Sea throughout history, and its slow death over the last several decades,” he said “The Dead Sea has been famous throughout history for many things: it is the lowest point on the surface of the earth, the saltiest body of water in the world, and the site of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Bible. But more recently, it has become famous as the scene of a tremendous environmental crisis. Overuse of the Jordan River has caused water levels to drop catastrophically, opening sinkholes and destroying settlements, highways and farmland. The sea’s southern basin has become an industrial zone where chemical corporations profit enormously by further depleting the water and extracting valuable minerals. In short, the Dead Sea is disappearing, and it seemed that if anyone were ever to try to walk around it again in a single push, this might be a good time to do it.”