For most Israelis, Ashdod is hardly on their road map. It's a signpost for others to turn off at - and "turn-off" has been the perception this coastal city has endured for half a century. Yet modern Ashdod is a growing city that boasts state-of-the-art architecture, a burgeoning nightlife scene and successful coexistence among its disparate communities.
In November, Ashdod began year-long celebrations of its jubilee, showcasing a model city that does Israel proud and belies common preconceptions.
Part of Israelis' historical ambivalence was poignantly captured in Amos Oz's 1983 book In the Land of Israel, where it was not the nation's capital but the unlikely city of Ashdod that the author dreamt of paving the way to a peaceful future. A modest dream, devoid of biblical longings and a desire to be at the center stage of history, "humble Ashdod, Israel at its best," recognized Oz. While not quite the "grandiose fulfillment of the Prophets," he wrote, Ashdod is "a city on a human scaleâ€¦ and from her we shall see what will flower."
Twenty-three years later, Oz's insights are all too evident. Ask any local from the mayor to port worker "What makes the Ashdod of today special?" and the answer is invariably "The people!"
"It's a city of tolerance hardly found anywhere else in Israel. Something quite unique," explains Arieh Azoulai, mayor of the city during the 1980s and, until recently, chairman of the Jewish Agency's Immigration and Absorption Committee. Azoulai, who speaks Hebrew, Spanish, French, English and Arabic, exudes the cosmopolitan ambience of his town.
Sitting in Caf Monart outside the magnificent new cultural center, Azoulai, who was born in Fez, Morocco, becomes quite poetic in describing this phenomenon. "At first glance, it's the beach that makes this place special - some 10 kilometers of white majestic coastline."
But for Azoulai, the sea is but a metaphor. "While it pounds the beach with each successive wave, it has really been the wave after wave of immigration that has enriched this place. We have here some 35 communities, and the place gels as a homogeneous living organism."
He points out that Ashdod has the third largest haredi community in Israel, after Jerusalem and Bnei Brak - a fact few people are aware of. "However, they don't high-profile their presence by imposing their beliefs as happens elsewhere in Israel," he notes.
Azoulai graphically portrays the cultural amalgam by listing the types of cuisine available in Ashdod. "There are Indian, Moroccan, French and South American restaurants, but I see them all as simply Ashdod restaurants. We are different, but we are one."
The degree of tolerance expounded by Azoulai was confirmed by Yigal Mizrachi, a Jerusalemite brought in a year ago by Mayor Zvi Zilker to organize the jubilee celebrations. "Can you believe it? In a city with so many haredim, there are over 10 shops where you can buy pork. Now, you may approve or disapprove of this, but the fact is that nobody publicly complains, and people just get on with their lives, respectful and mindful of others. This is not the case with my beloved Jerusalem. This city [Ashdod] is truly an example of cross-cultural coexistence."
Long-time resident Judy Jacobsen, originally from Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe), recounts that when she arrived with her husband Rolf from Bulawayo in 1963, "There were only 13,000 residents. There was just sand, sand and more sand. You had to ensure that you always had enough petrol in your tank to drive to Yavne, the nearest gas station to Ashdod. One hardly heard any Hebrew - it was mainly French and Arabic, as the immigrants who preceded us came from Morocco and Egypt. You had to go to Rehovot to feel you were in Israel. When my daughter was in first grade, I asked her teacher if it was apparent that she came from a home where Hebrew was not spoken. The teacher laughed, saying that there was not a single pupil in the class whose parents spoke Hebrew."
Jacobsen says that only when ELTA (a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries) established a plant in Ashdod did native-born Israelis start arriving in Ashdod in significant numbers. "Their infusion into the cultural mix of Ashdod had a huge impact on transforming an essentially immigrant town into an Israeli city."
The vision of Amos Oz was taking shape.
The rate of population growth is one of the highest in Israel. The city that started with 22 immigrant Moroccan families in 1956 is fast approaching the 230,000 mark. About 38% of the current population arrived within the last decade, primarily from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, Latin America and France.
While Oz played down the nexus between the ancient past of Ashdod and its future, hardly a patch of habitable land in Israel today is not biblically bound. Ruins found at Tel Ashdod reveal that Ashdod was built during the 17th century BCE as a Canaanite fortified city. After its destruction, the Philistines settled there and made it one of the five main cities of their kingdom. During the Israel reign, Ashdod became part of the territory of the Judas tribe and is first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Joshua.
At the beginning of the fourth century BCE, Ashdod fell to Alexander the Great. It typically passed from one set of conquerors to another until the Romans destroyed the city. It took some 2,000 years for Jews to return and rebuild Ashdod, and they arrived in the middle of the night.
Yuval Beaton, assistant curator of the Ashdod Museum of Art, explains: "It was a common tactic in the early days when establishing settlements in desolate areas. They learned from bitter experience that if settlers arrived during the day, they would refuse to disembark from the buses or trucks, so horrified with what they saw. Who could blame them! It was much safer to bring them at night. And this is precisely how 22 Moroccan families came directly from the ship that brought them to Israel to be deposited here on a cold, wintry November night in 1956."
Born and bred in Ashdod, Beaton attended university in New York, where he studied fine art. "I lived in Brooklyn and had a great time, but returned. I love this place," he says.
Members of all 22 original families were present at the opening of the festivities on November 26. It was an emotional occasion as they unveiled for the public one of the original, windowless tin shacks that had served as Ashdod's first dwellings. With no internal divisions, these primitive structures served as a home often for up to eight members of a family. Yet despite the hardships, all 22 families stuck it out, providing the bedrock for the waves of immigrants that were to follow.
Perched on the modern city's central piazza, surrounded and dwarfed by the towering futuresque architecture of the new municipal complex and cultural center, the tiny tin shack conveys a powerful narrative of a journey from primitive past to prosperous future.
Standing at the door of the shack, Mayor Zilker - a city engineer by profession - gazes up at the tall buildings casting giant shadows over the piazza, finally settles his eyes on the humble dwelling and stretches out his arms. "See how far we have come. We started from nothing, on sand dunes! I remember the early council meetings when, arriving at work, I would empty my shoes of sand at the entrance."
Having first served as mayor in 1969, it's been a long time since Zilker has had to empty his shoes. It's been more a case of trying to fill up the town's coffers to meet the growing demands of a burgeoning population. This in the main has been achieved by establishing Ashdod as one of Israel's major industrial cities. "Employment opportunities are not lacking," says Zilker. "The city is home to major companies in the sectors of electronics, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, plastics, metals, paper, wood and furniture."
Other important industries include the Eshkol electrical power station, an oil refinery (one of two in the country) and a coal terminal. Also located in Ashdod is ELTA, where radar equipment, electronic warfare systems, and electronic signals intelligence (ELINT) is now developed.
Ashdod's port is again the biggest in the country, boosted by the completion of the first stage of a major addition: Jubilee Port, renamed Eitan Port after Rafael Eitan, the former IDF chief of staff and government minister who drowned, having been swept off the pier he had helped build. A fighter all his life, Eitan went down "battling the sea and its waves," said former prime minister Ariel Sharon at the inauguration ceremony last year in paying tribute to his comrade who, having left politics, dedicated his time and energy to upgrading Ashdod's port.
"Eitan Port is the first computerized harbor in Israel and will offer a level of technology and service unprecedented in Israel," said Sharon.
The port operates one of the most advanced systems in the world - the terminal operation systems (TOS) that can reduce a ship's waiting time by 70%. "It is a wonderful gift to the city of Ashdod during its jubilee year," said the former prime minister, adding that he was delighted to see "a woman, Iris Stark, today heading the company as chairperson of the directorate of the Ashdod Port Company. It signals a new era."
That Stark holds such a high position traditionally occupied by a male is no less pleasing to Ettie Attias, advisor to the mayor on women's issues. While the Knesset recently mandated that all municipalities must create this position, Mayor Zilker was way ahead of the pack. Attias had been the mayor's advisor on women's issues for a number of years prior to the legislation. "We aspire for our city to be progressive and have legislated that following the next election, all municipal bodies must have a minimum of 30% women on their directorates," says Zilker.
A former chairperson of WIZO Ashdod, as well as serving on the organization's national executive, Attias is out "to empower women.
I want to bring them out of themselves and instill confidence. They have to strive for top positions in the running of our city. If women are to have an impact, they need to be where the decisions are made."
Rather than sitting idly by waiting for this to happen, Attias has been running leadership courses for women. "At the moment we have only three women on a council of 25. Next elections, this will change," she asserts. "I am hoping we will have as many as 10 to 15 woman candidates."
Expected or unexpected, another candidate in the next election will be the indefatigable mayor, who has held the reins of municipal power for a total of 30 years. If some thought that he might step aside, that's not going to happen. "The past is past, I am the future," he says, sending a clear message to his rivals that he is on the campaign trail for reelection next year.
Zilker is in high gear. "Our main objectives are education, public health and tourism. All three issues represent gaping holes - no university, no hospital, nor a proper tourist infrastructure. This will be the agenda in the years ahead."
While more than 30% of the municipal budget is allocated to education, indicating its high priority on the council's agenda, "we are determined within the near future to establish a university," says Zilker.
On the question of public health, while there are medical centers and clinics all over the city, residents requiring hospital services have to travel to neighboring Ashkelon. Again, Zilker is confident that "in the near future, Ashdod will have its first hospital."
Most residents agree that the reason Ashdod does not enjoy a thriving tourist industry is its proximity to Tel Aviv, only 32 kilometers to the north. "It's hard to compete," says long-time resident Jacobsen.
Nevertheless, maintains Zilker, "with our seafront promenade, restaurants, pubs, discotheques, summer festivities, the Mediterranean festival, nautical sports, as well as historical sites and natural reserves, we can become a premier tourist location. No longer do our youth trek to Tel Aviv for nightlife and action. It's all happening here in Ashdod."
Ashdod has more beaches - 10 kilometers of coast - than any other city in Israel. The recent completion of a 550-berth marina and the city's first major hotel is only the first stage in an ambitious plan to make Ashdod a major Mediterranean tourist destination.
Currently on display in the Ashdod Museum of Art is a photographic exhibition entitled "The Making of a City." The selection of photos spanning 50 years depicts a city that evolved and crystallized upon barren sand dunes to became home to various diasporas uprooted from their past. Each group, with its heritage, culture, language and customs, is "living side by side with other groups in harmony, tolerance and cooperation, proud of being Ashdodian. It's a city with its face to the future," says
One wonders what Oz is doing living in Arad.
A Francophile domain
Sharing Mayor Zvi Zilker's optimism for the future of Ashdod is the Jewish community of France. If the 1990s in Ashdod was the "Russian era," then the new millennium is the French era.
"The French are coming," says Arieh Azoulai who, as chairman of the Jewish Agency's immigration and absorption committee, had been instrumental in recent years in promoting and facilitating immigration to Israel from France.
"It's not only a question of anti-Semitism in France. Existentially, the real threat to French Jewry is not anti-Semitism but assimilation, so young French Jews who want to ensure Jewish continuity have set their sights on Israel. So why Ashdod? Well, the French love the sea and will always choose to live along or near the coast. That is why they are flocking mainly to Netanya and Ashdod and, to a lesser extent, Eilat."
While the number of French restaurants in the city testifies to Azoulai's analysis, the most emblematic visual pronouncement of this new phenomenon is the monumental glass pyramid at the entrance to the Ashdod Museum of Art. It is reminiscent of a similar structure at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris. Under the bold Hebrew lettering appears not English but "Centre d'arts Monart."
"I expect that as much as 40% of the city's residents can speak French," says Azoulai, "a factor that will continue to attract Jews from France to Ashdod."
Adding further credence to his hypotheses, Azoulai notes that during the jubilee celebrations, Ashdod was twinned with the city of Bordeaux. High profiling this event, Alain Juppe, the former French premier and mayor of Bordeaux, arrived in Ashdod with the French cultural attach , paving the way to establishing a French Institute to "strengthen the French language and culture," says Azoulai.