The high priest of Apollonia's debut novel

Google Israel deputy CEO Oren Hefetz has transformed his love of history into a riveting debut novel that combines ancient kingdoms and modern Israel

Oren Hefetz and his book 'The Dagger of Apollonia'  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Oren Hefetz and his book 'The Dagger of Apollonia'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Oren Hefetz climbs to the top of a Crusader fortress on a cliff overlooking the pristine Mediterranean Sea.
We’re standing at the pinnacle of the Apollonia National Park in Herzliya, one of the country’s most beautiful locations and underappreciated archaeological sites, a location that Hefetz is as familiar with as his own living room.
Turning his back to the majestic view, he sweeps his hand across the vista in front of us and says, “You have an amazing glimpse here of the whole history of the Middle East in a nutshell. Here, we’re talking from an 800-year-old Crusader tower. And over there is a 2,000-year-old Roman villa,” he says, pointing a few meters away to the structure for which the park is named.
Straight ahead, abutting the park, a wobbly metal fence marks off a huge expanse that once housed an Israel Military Industries (IMI) munitions plant complex at Nof Yam. After a mysterious underground 1992 explosion killed two workers and injured dozens others, the plant never reopened. The area is now lush with trees, wildlife and gases that still seep out of the Earth and require regular monitoring.
Looking to his right, Hefetz, a 47-year-old deputy CEO at Google Israel, glances southward toward Herzliya and the minaret of the Sidna Ali Mosque poking out of the concrete landscape.
“That mosque was built in the 12th century after the Mamelukes expelled the Crusaders. Next to it is the Taggart Fortress, used by the British during the Mandate period, and further off you see modern Tel Aviv and behind it old Jaffa. The way I see it, everything in this amazing land that I love living in can be seen through this dimension of place and time.”
Sounds like it could be a great subject for a book, doesn’t it?
That’s what Hefetz, a lifetime history buff, thought as well.
Combining his expert knowledge and love of the area, an unquenched thirst for the history of the region, very vivid imagination spurred by a youth spent watching the adventures of Indiana Jones, and a need to connect ancient history with events transpiring in modern-day Israel, Hefetz has penned a page-turning debut book, The Dagger of Apollonia.
The suspenseful “alternative” historical novel toggles between the ancient Apollonia of Roman times, 60 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, and the early 1990s, soon after the IMI explosion. It includes everything from messianic schemes in both eras focused on Apollonia, a powerful, divinely fueled “rock of ages” that guarantees the well-being of the Jewish people, prime ministers who also act as high priests, the outbreak and downfall of the Bar-Kochba Revolt and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Hefetz’s gift is the ability to pull together complex historical elements and some clearly far-fetched premises into a character-driven thriller with an underlying moral message that presents a thought-provoking interpretation of the history of the Jewish people in their land.
“I GREW UP in Jerusalem’s German Colony and my father [Aryeh] worked for the Jerusalem Municipality. He had access to restricted areas in the Old City and we would take Shabbat walks to all these hidden places under the Kotel [Western Wall] and Temple Mount. My imagination just boomed with ideas and I was sure would end being involved with history in some form during my life,” says Hefetz as he strides confidently through the hill paths of Apollonia.
The married father of two resembles one of those striking Hollywood typecast Israeli heroes: tall, good looking, someone you would like to be in charge if there was a life-threatening emergency. An air force traffic controller in his military service, he was smitten with the early 1990s atmosphere of hope in the wake of the Oslo Accords.
“When I got discharged in 1994, I wanted to be part of the new Middle East that was shaping up, so I decided to study the history of the Middle East and Islam and then do an MBA so I could do something business-related in the open borders that the future promised,” he says.
By the time he graduated in 1998, the reality looked somewhat different in the post-Rabin era, and after getting married and moving to Ra’anana, Hefetz began working with Internet companies. But it was never enough for him.
“Wherever I went, I would always seek out the closest archaeological site. When we moved to Ra’anana that turned out to be Appolonia, which wasn’t a national park back then, but was a very nice abandoned unexcavated site.”
Appolonia has gone through many incarnations since being built by the Phoenicians in the 6th or 5th century BCE and named Reshef after Resheph, the Canaanite god of fertility and the underworld. During the Hellenistic period, it was renamed Apollonia, as the Greeks identified the Phoenician god Reshef with Apollo. Under Roman rule, the size of the town increased and became a thriving settlement between Jaffa and Caesarea. During the Byzantine period, the town grew to the second largest city in the Sharon Valley, after Caesarea, populated by Christian and Samaritans, having an elaborate church and a prosperous glass industry.
That pastiche of civilizations has become a magnet for Hefetz. When he completed a tour-guide course in the late 1990s, he gave his final presentation at Appolonia. On one of his many visits, the idea of the book emerged.
“I was walking on the cliff one day and a group of archaeologists were digging below uncovering this ancient Roman villa, and I suddenly had an idea. Here we are at an amazing historic location on a cliff by the sea, right next to this big abandoned IMI facility built in the 1950s that exploded in 1992,” says Hefetz with barely contained enthusiasm.
 “I put the history together with the explosion and it was like a movie taking place in my brain. I felt like there’s a big story here to be told.”
He started writing in 1997 as a student, got to 30 pages, and then experienced what he calls “the longest writer’s block in history. I was clueless, and I didn’t know where I wanted to go with the book.”
Meanwhile, life took over, including raising a family, joining Google Israel where, over the last decade, he’s played an integral role in the company’s development.
IT WAS some three years ago, during a transitional period between positions at the company, when he was feeling less pressure, that Hefetz began revisiting his book idea.
“One day I sat down with my father, and he reminded me: ‘Remember you showed me something you started writing as a student? You should go back and finish it.’
“I went back and found those 30 pages on an old floppy disc and managed to download it and I read it. And all of a sudden I had all the answers. After a couple of days, I had the entire book down in bullet points, and it took another year or so to write,” says Hefetz. “It was amazing to use Google as a research aid. Back in 1997, I had to go to the university library, now the information is on my smartphone.”
“My father was a great motivator. He’s 84 and not in the best of health. He said, ‘Oren, I don’t know how much longer I have here, but I want to see a book.’ I received that deadline and thankfully I was able to meet it and give him the book.”
Despite his demanding schedule at Google – or perhaps because of it – Hefetz was able to find quality time to write. As director of exports and start-ups, he was regularly flying to meetings throughout Europe.
“My biggest muse was writing on planes. One of my favorite scenes in the book, when Hadrian comes to Jerusalem, was written sitting in the exit row of a British Airways flight to London. There were kids running in front of me, but I was somewhere else 1,800 years ago.”
Since being released in Hebrew last year, the self-published book has been met with praise by Yediot Aharonot, which called it a “Jewish Da Vinci Code,” and by Israel Hayom, which wrote: “When Indiana Jones Met Shimon Peres: Context rich, The Dagger of Apollonia will delight all Fortnite addicts and conspiracy theory fans.”
It was released this month in English, and despite some occasional awkward prose, it’s difficult to put down. It’s already piqued the interest of some TV producers, and Hefetz revealed that he recently presented the synopsis for a TV series based on the book to executives from Netflix.
Without revealing too much of the plot, the “ancient” section of the book focuses on a Roman teen, Georgios, who lives at the villa at Appollonia and receives a gift from his father in the form of a dagger he bought during travels in Africa. The seller said that the dagger had some kind of connection to the Jewish Temple which had been destroyed 60 years earlier.
The remainder of that part of the book chronicles Geogios’s journey to Jerusalem to discover the connection and the peril it leads him to, including contact with Shimon Bar-Kochba in the midst of his ill-fated revolt, and Roman Emperor Hadrian.
The modern-day plot follows a young Israeli idealist, Tal, who stumbled upon Appollonia next to the abandoned IMI factory months after it was destroyed.
“He gets into his own huge conspiracy involving rituals of the Temple still taking place today and the resurrection of the Jewish nation in Appollonia,” says Hefetz, adding that there are many parallels to draw between the two eras.
“In the historical period, we have Bar-Kochba as the bad guy, the one who doesn’t want to compromise and live alongside others. In the modern era, we have all the prime ministers since Ben-Gurion serving as both prime minister and high priest. The Temple is here in Herzliya, and the explosion at the IMI plant is part of a big underground movement that wants to move it back to its original home on the Temple Mount.
“Rabin has created a compromise to move the Temple to Jerusalem but not on the Mount. He also planned for a Hall of Peace at today’s Har Homa, the center point between the Temple Mount, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, and it’s all connected with the Oslo Accords and his assassination.”
Hefetz cites Herzl’s Altneuland, in which he outlines his vision for a pluralistic open Jewish state that gets along with other cultures.
“He writes that the Temple will be built when the time is ready, and a Hall of Peace will be built next to it and all the people will live in peace and prosperity. I guess the message I’m trying to give, in addition to it being a thriller with lots of historical fact and fiction intertwined, is that we need to be more attentive to our surroundings and shouldn’t give up reconciliation and trying to find a way to live together with our neighbors.
Hefetz sees the extremist elements in both eras as the greatest threats – we all know what happened with Bar-Kochba – and he’d like the book, which ends with a surprise twist after Benjamin Netanyahu is named prime minister and high priest in 1996, to be seen as a warning for the future.
“When you have leaders that are very charismatic and powerful, they need to be extra cautious. The divisions within Israeli society are what really worries me. I fear for the future and think we need to learn from history. I want the country to be prosperous and a place my kids can live and raise their own families. The book is raising a flag of alarm.”
Readers can purchase the book using this link.