Sinking Lod: a tour of Israel’s Crime Capital By Lucas Liberman
Part of the Masa Israel Teaching Fellowship is to take fellows on trips, or tiyulim, across the country, but often with a focus on the poorer socio-economic regions in what is broadly termed as the periphery of Israeli society. It thus seems only appropriate to start our first daylong tiyul at Israel’s crime capital, Lod.
Lod is a mixed Arab-Jewish city in the Center District of Israel, conveniently located a short half-hour commute from Rehovot. As we would later discover it possesses an illustrious history as being among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, with Wikipedia putting its date of initial settlement to 5600-5250 BC. Lod served as an important center of administration all the way to the time of the British Mandate when the British built the first airport in the region now famously known as the Ben Gurion International Airport. Lod continues to carry significance in Israeli society today, albeit for less attractive reasons.
The tour began with a rendezvous at a Café Café shop in the city center of Lod where the fellows gathered after their usual weekend dispersion to family and friends. At first glance Lod seemed like any ordinary Israeli city, with sand-colored beige buildings surrounding a central market plaza. That is, until gossip regarding Lod’s notorious reputation began to surface among the more knowledgeable peers.
Our first stop brought us to a parking lot in the ill-reputed Lod train stations. In the short travel leading there the tour guide brought us up to date with Lod’s history, from its reputable past to its disreputable present. He explained that the city’s decline began the beginning of this past century when the Israeli government forced the settlement of Bedouins into the city, a move which ended in disaster due to a lack of urban planning. From then on, things only went downhill: crime levels skyrocketed and Lod became the crime capital of Israel and the central hub of illegal drug trafficking and weapons smuggling. In the past fifteen years, the city has seen something like ten mayors come and go due to criminal charges. This is not to say the city’s problem was due to a lack of money; our tour guide made it clear that the city had received ample supplies of funds from the state, but poor fiscal management meant there is little visible trace of this investment in Lod today.
The first half of the tour took place through the neighbourhood immediately adjacent to the train station. There, the tour bus weaved its way through narrow, tightly knit streets covered in dirt and dust. Signs written in Arabic hanging on the front doors of the houses made it abundantly and tragically obvious what was the ethnic make-up of this neighbourhood. Interestingly enough, however, we learned something new: there is a socio-economic gap among the Arabs themselves, with the higher caste being occupied by the urban and sedentary Arabs, the descendants of those who had stayed inside Israel following the war of independence, and the lower caste being the recent Bedouin migrants and their descendants. Bedouins, it appears, have the added of problem of bringing in their tribal customs and rivalries into to this new environment, with incidents of honour-driven violence against women being an important issue. Lod, however, is perhaps most famous for its “ATMs”, a euphemistic term for exchange sites located within the maze of rundown buildings where, for an under-the-table exchange of money, one can acquire illegal narcotics and firearms.
Near the end of the train-town tour, we witnessed a wall built around the edges of the town. We learned that the wall was built under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to separate the Arab and Jewish neighbourhoods in the hopes that it would prevent crime from spilling over onto other parts of town, a stark reminder of the socio-economic inequalities still inflicting this tiny pluralistic democracy. Driving along the wall, one could see Arabic graffiti drawn by a disenfranchised youth overlooking piles of rubble and rotting rubbish. Some length down, the wall was fractured; we were told this was done by a disgruntled father who understandingly did not want to see his children’s lives sealed off from the rest of the world. The last highlight from this leg of the trip was a visit to the local mosque, the second largest in Israel after the Al-Asqua Mosque in Jerusalem.
From the Bedouin neighbourhood, the bus driver took us to a more historic district at which point we bid farewell to the first guide and welcomed the second one. We visited a complex containing a synagogue, an Orthodox church, and a mosque all inside one walled compound, the only one of its kind in the world. We only entered the church, however: a small Greek orthodox temple adorned with golden Byzantine-era mosaics. Beneath the church was a catacomb containing the supposed remains (or part of the remains) of St. George: the relics of a fourth-century Christian martyr and the patron saint of England. The tour guide then brought us to another impoverish neighborhood to showcase a new community center that had just recently been built a few years back, providing the Lod youth with options for extracurricular activities that they otherwise would not have enjoyed. The hallmark of the community center was a small auditorium that houses regular extracurricular events from dancing to martial arts.
To many, the last leg of the tour was the most memorable one. The guide took us to what he termed “student apartments” which were in fact an ingenious architectural project to house new student volunteers in the city. They consisted of an assembly of large shipping containers stacked on top and next to each other with cement balconies built on the above-ground levels that lead to the upper apartments from below. From there, we bid farewell to our guide and headed back home to Rehovot…
Of course, no tiyul would be complete without a stop to an authentic Middle Eastern restaurant, where the fellows feasted on plates of hummus and sheesh kebabs.