Israelis in Goa: "Israel is an Empty Place"
Gupta the swastika salesman arrives at sunset, fires a kerosene lantern and displays his gold-painted trinkets on an Indian beach filled with hundreds of young Israelis dancing in a fog of hashish.
Draped in garlands strung with jasmine blossoms, the pulsating Israelis are freshly decommissioned from the military and seeking a cheap retreat to unwind from their obligatory two-to-three years of safeguarding the Jewish state. The conscripts find sanctuary in the thousands of dilapidated wicker seaside shacks and dozens of isolated jungle ghettos that weave along a 78-mile coast and snake up treacherous dirt tracks into the impoverished mountain villages of Goa.
According to Israeli and Indian officials, between 40,000 and 60,000 young Israelis have either permanently moved or established long-term residence in India. They have created new lives for themselves alongside the country's 900 million Hindus and 150 million Muslims and caused tension among the local population because of the widespread use of recreational drugs.
``Our souls need a permanent break from Israel,'' says army veteran Tomel Basel, 24, pocketing one of Gupta's 10 cent charms, the ancient cross with bent arms that is venerated by Hindus as a lucky adornment.
``We're all runaways,'' Basel says before filling his lungs with potent smoke and exhaling his separate reality on the squalor of Anjuna Beach. ``There's nothing for us back in Israel.''
What began in 1994 as the great post-military escape to India has turned into a new-age Diaspora of young and embittered men and women looking to flee what they say is their country's armed turmoil with the Palestinians and the spiritual emptiness of Judaism.
Many of the revelers on the sands of Anjuna Beach and elsewhere along what's known as the Karma Kosher Trail say they have no intention of returning to Israel, despite the efforts of four local rabbis and a $200,000 joint government-private sector campaign funded by Israeli banking and telecommunications magnate Nochi Dankner, a devotee of the Dalai Lama and chairman of IDB Holding Corp.
Shlomo Breznitz, a director of the campaign and founder of the India-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group in Israel, says the exodus is worrisome and potentially tragic. ``Karma kosher is much more of a widespread phenomenon than Israelis want to admit,'' says Breznitz, 71, a retired member of the Israeli parliament and former president and provost of Haifa University.
``India is about to become one of Israel's biggest trading partners,'' Breznitz adds. ``And we have 40,000 kids down there who have no idea when or if they will come back. Their attitude has already fueled very real anti-Israeli elements within the Indian government and created sufficient motivation for people in Israel and India to harm our bilateral trade agreements.''
Between 1992 and 2006, trade between Israel and India grew to $2.7 billion from $200 million and is poised to top $3 billion annually.
``Forty thousand over-enthusiastic Israelis in India are not going to get in the way of more than $3 billion of bilateral trade,'' says Indian Minister of Commerce and Industry Kamal Nath. ``And there's enormous scope for increasing that trade.''
``Too much is at stake,'' Breznitz says. ``India has the world's second-largest Muslim population. There's a strong symbolic element to these youngsters, so it's not a question of if something might happen, but when it will happen. I read the security reports.''
Leanna Peled-Rosen, 27, doesn't care. She stripped the sergeant stripes from her sleeve in 2000, abandoning a promising military career as a self-defense instructor and anti-terrorist specialist to become a ballet dancer and live a Hindu lifestyle in Israel.
She is in Tel Aviv, saving money for a likely trip to India and aware of the growing economic ties between Israel and India in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, construction, real estate and military hardware.
``The trade will further speed up the process of integrating Indian culture with Israeli society,'' Peled-Rosen says at the Sub Kuchmilga (Anything Is Possible) Indian restaurant. The sign on the door reads ``No Elephants Allowed.'' There's a bottle of bourbon on the bar and, on the jukebox, Bob Dylan is singing ``Changing of the Guards.''
``The government has absolutely no clue why we go to India,'' Peled-Rosen laughs, pointing to a group of uniformed Israeli soldiers huddled in a corner. ``The politicians will tell you that we live in a bubble, but it won't burst. Our spiritual lives are beyond the politics and religion of Israel.''
Peled-Rosen gestures toward a picture of Ganesh, one of the Hindu gods that decorate the restaurant. ``Those who have been forced to return from Goa because they've run out of money are vocal critics of the political and religious status quo,'' Peled-Rosen says. ``We won't back down.''
Two hours south of Tel Aviv, along the hardscrabble frontier of the Negev Desert, retired flower grower Rachamin Efraim pours a sweet drink on the Moshav Nevatim farm and smiles at the thought of young Israelis roaming the land of his forefathers.
``India is calm, a good place for young people who have grown up in a country where everyone is going crazy,'' says the 71-year-old Cochin Jew, one of some 70,000 Indian Jews Breznitz
helped repatriate in the 1950s, more than 2,000 years after the tribe first arrived in southwestern India from Jerusalem.
Accompanying Efraim on the trip home to Israel in 1954 was Esther Atraham, then 18. Now 71 and living in the moshav's nursing facility, Atraham says it's foolish to begrudge the young Jews who have settled in Goa.
``Southern India is paradise on Earth,'' Atraham says, tugging the sleeve of her sari. ``I understand why the children go. They had a difficult time in the army. They want joy.''
Just how a disparate group of former Israeli soldiers over the past 13 years managed to build a stronghold in India without government oversight remains a mystery. Why they're leaving Israel is no secret among those preparing to head south from the 26 Rupee restaurant on the roof of a Tel Aviv warehouse.
``The war with the Palestinians never ends,'' says Smadar Waisman, 26, an Israeli Defense Force intelligence analyst who left the barracks to join an ashram in Israel.
``Military service turns good young Israelis into corrupt and insensitive people,'' Waisman says. ``We're forced to follow orders and do and see horrible things that no young person should be involved with. If you want your soul to survive the anxiety and depression of Israel, you leave for Goa.''
The long march from the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to Curlie's bar in the rocks overlooking Anjuna Beach would probably challenge Moses. Lapsed Israelis say it often requires
skirting Indian visas, residency permits and making side trips to ``friendly'' Indian consulates in Beijing and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Some fly to Sri Lanka and jump a boat for the short ride across Pamban Channel, blending in among locals who are mostly exempt from Indian immigration checks.
``It's easy to pull off,'' says Anjuna Christian, a 66- year-old Frenchman who renamed himself after the beach he has lived on since moving here in 1977. ``The Israelis are Goa's
next generational wave. They're coming no matter who likes it or not.''
Those who manage to secure a legitimate visa from the Indian Consulate in Tel Aviv pay $629 for a round trip that begins with a rickety bus ride to Amman and a Gulf Air flight to Bahrain and Mumbai. From there it's a sweltering and crowded nine-hour train ride to Panaji, Goa's capital.
The cost of deliverance is initially underwritten by the Israeli Defense Force. Combat veterans leave the army with a maximum cash bonus of $2,100. Combat support staff walk away with $1,800. Everyone else pockets $1,452.
On the beach, life is cheap and flea-ridden.
A room with a plank bed and a pink mosquito net costs $5 a night or $11 for three people. Sleeping under a fragrant cashew tree is free. Kitchens with names like the Outback Indian Israeli Restaurant come with Hebrew-speaking Hindus who ladle vegetarian fare for a few cents a plate.
``A lot of us either never served in the army or left it more than a decade ago,'' says Asaf Rottenberg, a 30-year-old waiter who abandoned his job at Tel Aviv's LaLa Land restaurant.
``People my age come here because Israel is an empty place.''
Historically, foreigners looking to sate their spiritual appetites begin at STARCO, an Anjuna hotel and restaurant that for 30 years has been celebrated as Goa's hippie headquarters.
The sign on the roof still advertises ``Booze, Food & Shelter,'' dished out in that order by Swedish Maggie, who arrived in Anjuna from Stockholm 24 years ago and never left.
``You must respect the people in the country where you go,'' Maggie says while a young Indian boy massages her feet in the garden.
``The Israelis don't. They're real bad, causing trouble and getting too heavy in the drug-smuggling scene.''
``I'm not concerned about the drug use,'' says Indian Industry Minister Nath. ``The presence of Muslims in India is also not a concern. India is not just the world's biggest democracy, it's the world's rowdiest democracy.''
For Breznitz, a psychologist who once worked for the U.S. National Institutes of Health, karma kosher is more than a curious national crotchet with stark parallels to the American and European hippies who preceded the Israelis to Goa during the 1960s and early 1970s.
``It's dangerous,'' Breznitz says. ``There are hordes of young Israelis moving around India and
too many of them fail to blend in and look down on the locals.''
Breznitz's apprehension can be heard during conversations on the porch of a crumbling stone villa in Anjuna. It's from this old Portuguese house where Rabbi Meir Alfasi, 22 and an envoy of the powerful Brooklyn-based Hassidic group Chabad-Lubavitch, cheerfully spends his days tending two goats, three chickens and riding a motor scooter equipped with walkie-talkies around Goa, trying to bring Jews back to Judaism.
As Alfasi sees the scene, the 40,000 Jews wandering through India are prisoners in a new Babylonian Captivity.
``India is the lowest place on Earth, an impure place in the middle of idolatry'' Alfasi says.
``Lots of idols and lots of Jews looking to be assimilated in the local culture. Our mission is to prevent that from happening.''
The Chabad outpost, which includes a kosher kitchen and a room for a synagogue that holds Goa's only Torah, opened its doors in 2000. A dozen Jews for Saturday service is considered a
good crowd. The chocolate cake is delightful.
``It's a big draw,'' Alfasi smiles.
Alfasi says Israelis generally remain in India for five to 10 years, adding that the Indian government is now quietly trying to help him reduce that time by limiting the number of visas it issues to Israelis and the period they can legally remain in the country.
``It will be hard for them to find us here, Meir,'' says Yomtov Yoni, 23, an air-conditioner repairman and Israeli air force fireman whom Alfasi is trying to bring back into the fold.
``India is huge,'' Yoni adds, straddling a motorcycle. ``Israel is the size of Anjuna Beach. We are free here, Meir.'' ``You see, the situation is not so good,'' Alfasi says,stringing flower necklaces around a 12-foot-high menorah and preparing a Friday Shabbat dinner under the stars.
Dancing alone atop a hill behind the nearby village of Arambol, 2,500 miles (4,022 kilometers) south of Mount Sinai, a young Israeli man with a mane of curly hair quotes the scripture according to Goa Gil, a roadie for the San Francisco band the Sons of Champlain who landed here in 1969 and transformed himself into a guru.
``The psychedelic revolution never really stopped,'' reads the gospel according to Goa Gil. ``It just had to go halfway round the world to the end of a dirt road on a deserted beach, and there it was allowed to evolve and mutate, without government pressures.''
As dawn breaks on Saturday, holy cows, Toyota taxis and sacred elephants clog the filthy, packed-mud path that coils through Arambol's slums, market stalls and genuine Indian massage parlors. The vapor of beer, saffron and breakfast hashish overwhelm the human chaos in the early morning heat.
Near the bottom of the beach road, a few dirt alleys down from an Israeli tattoo parlor, is the crisp white tent office of Ashok Kumar, a fifth-generation ayurvedic Indian healer.
The marquee above Kumar's turbaned head guarantees a remedy for a long list of afflictions that range from ``leprosy'' to ``typhoid.'' There are potions to relieve ``sexual disorders'' and spices to cure``madness.'' The line of patients is long.
``I see two or three Israelis every week,'' the 28-year-old Kumar says. ``They all have the same problem: madness. Their nervous systems are spent and they need their brains rebalanced.''
The cost of sanity is $16 to $35, depending on severity.
Back in the cool of his Haifa home, Breznitz likens the treatment to emancipation.
``They feel entitled to clean their heads from Israel,'' Breznitz says. ``I hope that those who come back return with a desire to change Israel, but a lot of people don't like new ideas and are frightened about what these youngsters represent for the future.''
To contact the reporter on this story:
A. Craig Copetas in Goa, India, at