Haim Watzman

A Crack in the Earth

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A Crack in the Earth Summary

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A travel memoir by the American-born Israeli journalist Haim Watzman, A Crack in the Earth (2007) narrates the author’s journey along the Jordan Rift Valley from the Red Sea resort of Eilat to Kiryat Shmonah on the Lebanese border. Along the way, Watzman reflects on the area’s geological and human history, painting colorful portraits of the characters he meets. Ultimately, Watzman, a practicing Orthodox Jew, asks what relevance the historic valley has for contemporary Jewish thought. Given the extensive non-Jewish history of the region, some reviewers criticized Watzman for failing “almost utterly to bring in non-Jewish voices” (Publishers’ Weekly).

Watzman introduces his subject from a geological perspective. The Jordan Rift Valley is the world’s largest seismological rift, and it passes through the hypersaline Dead Sea, Earth’s lowest point on land. It is estimated to be around 5 million years old, although debate continues about how it was formed. Watzman meets the controversial geologist Aharon Horowitz, who argues that the Rift Valley is not even a rift, but an “internal drainage valley.” Horowitz argues that the region’s earthquakes are not centered, as would be expected, on the fault line itself.

Having introduced the Valley from this perspective, Watzman points out that its geological history is not what visitors perceive. Rather, “We see stories and ideas and our own histories.”

He sets out from the busy port and popular resort of Eilat on Route 90, Israel’s longest road (and since it passes the Dead Sea, the world’s lowest road). As he travels, he continues to narrate the valley’s history. It is significant in the early history of our species, forming part of the “Levantine corridor” of fertile land which made it possible for our ancestors to migrate out of Africa. Jericho—which Watzman passes but cannot visit, as it is a Palestinian settlement—is the oldest city in the Western world, with archaeological remains dating back 11,000 years. Watzman meets archaeologist Uzi Avner, who studies the numerous standing stones places across the region. We learn about Avner’s theory that the unworked stones may have represented a formless God. Watzman notes that Avner has been criticized for his habit of re-erecting stones when he finds them fallen.

The Biblical history of the region is especially important to Watzman, although he casts a cynical eye over most of the claims made for the Valley’s various religious sites, both Jewish and Christian. He meets a group of non-denominational American Christians undergoing baptism in the Jordan where it leaves the Sea of Galilee. They tell him that this is the spot where Jesus was baptized, and he doesn’t contradict them, although he points out to the reader that New Testament accounts identify a spot much further down the river. Watzman tells the story of the late scholar Yizhar Hirschfeld, who held tenaciously to the minority view that the Essene sect was not responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, found in an area once populated by the Essenes. Hirschfeld once found himself alone on a panel, because the other panelists didn’t want to appear with him. Watzman admires Hirschfeld’s bull-headed individuality.

Watzman also narrates the history of the Crusades in the region. He tells the epic story Battle of the Horn of Hittin, in which Saladin crushed the Crusading armies.

Much of Watzman’s historical narrative is given over to the region’s modern history, and particularly to the history of the scientists and engineers who have transformed its geography. At the Dead Sea, he examines the history of the Dead Sea Works, established in the 1920s by Moshe Novomeysky, a socialist engineer from Siberia, to extract the Dead Sea’s mineral wealth on an industrial scale. Established as a private company, it was occupied by the Jordanian League during the Israeli War of Independence and nationalized by the new Israeli government. Still in operation today, it has become controversial due to its environmental impact.

In Beit She’an, Watzman visits Kibbutz Tirat Tzvi, Israel’s first religious kibbutz, founded in 1937. He learns from those who have lived there over the last few decades that “creeping privatization” has eroded the communitarian values of the earliest kibbutzim.

Along the way, Watzman portrays the people who live in the region now. We meet Israeli fishermen on the Red Sea coast, an Arab friend of Watzman’s who works as a doctor in the Galilee, and a group of Israeli Bedouin. Lesser known historical figures also appear: the Muslim convert to Christianity who became the head of the Santa Katarina monastery more than 1,000 years ago, and the politicians who made the controversial decision to drain the Hula wetlands when the modern state of Israel was first founded.

As well as meeting others, Watzman introspects, particularly about his own Judaism and Jewish identity. He discusses key figures of Jewish religious history, including Yohanan Ben-Zakkai (whom he admires) and the Sicarii zealots who committed mass suicide on the rock of Masada (whom he does not). He thinks about his faith considering geological and historical evidence, declaring, “We’ve got to follow the evidence wherever it goes.”

The narrative closes at a gas station in the far north of Israel, where Watzman has a brief encounter with a Palestinian, which confirms for him that Israel’s complexity is its strength.