“I opened my eyes. The entire hallway was red. My first thought was: wow, an unidentified flying object come from outer space.”
—Nureet Granott, quoted in Ha-aretz newspaper (Tel Aviv), June 11, 1993
Turned out Ms. Granott’s house was on fire. But what interests me is that this lady, an Israeli living in Beverly Hills, first imagined the red glow that awakened her in the middle of the night to have been a UFO. A generation earlier, that thought would never have occurred to her. UFOs just weren’t, if you’ll pardon the expression, on Israelis’ radar screens.
I discovered this in 1964, much to my dismay, as a teen-age UFOlogist visiting the Holy Land and eager to report back on the UFO scene there. There wasn’t any UFO scene there.
Even the word “UFO” had no Hebrew equivalent. The current word abam, acronym for etzem biltee m’zuheh (“unidentified entity”), hadn’t yet been coined. You had to talk about them as tzalachoht m’ofefoht, “flying saucers,” which sounds a good deal sillier in Hebrew than it does in English.
“We are a practical people,” one Israeli woman explained to me. That’s why we don’t see such things, don’t believe in them. An astronomy professor at the Hebrew University, whom I phoned to find out who might be able to tell me something about UFOs in Israel—I had a fair amount of chutzpah at age 16—answered gruffly: “I hope there is no one in this country who will be able to help you.”
Eventually I did stumble across a tiny group called “UFO Friends in Israel,” composed mostly of German-speaking immigrants, who fell far short of my notion of how “scientific UFOlogists” ought to approach the subject. I came away disappointed. I wrote to my friend Jerome Clark, back in the States:
“The absence of UFO activity in Israel can only be explained as a conscious lack of interest on the part of the UFO beings. The Israelis are no more realistic or hard-headed on such subjects as [sic] the Americans and English, although they like to think they are. [How that “we are a practical people” remark had rankled!] The skies of the Negev are so fantastically clear and bright (the meteors are like fireworks) that it would be an ideal place for atmospheric illusions—if the skeptics were right in attributing the UFOs to such. The UFOs apparently just have more important things to occupy themselves with—and the situation of both UFO activity and research in Israel is as barren as the Desert of Judah.”
Around the beginning of the 1990s, it would seem, the desert began to bloom.
Yes, I know what you’re thinking: the Israeli woman I quoted at the beginning of this post lived in southern California. No wonder she had UFOs on the brain.
Could be. BUT—
In March 1992 appeared the first issue of a Hebrew periodical entitled simply Ha-Abameem, “UFOs.” The subtitle: “The exclusive periodical covering the phenomenon in the world and in Israel.” In his opening statement, entitled “The Riddle of the UFOs,” the editor, one Avi Greif, announces that “this periodical comes to cover an area … practically disregarded in our local media.” There follow 78 pages of UFO stories, mostly translated from sources overseas. Titles like “Hypnosis found helpful for UFO abductees” and “Chilean man makes love to female alien.” (My translations from the Hebrew.)
I have this “first issue” of Ha-Abameem in my files. I don’t remember how I got it. Were subsequent issues published? I don’t know.
Yet the UFOs had taken root in Israel’s ancient soil. The Jerusalem Post International Edition for December 15, 1990, reports on a rash of UFO sightings from the Haifa area in the late 1980s, the more dramatic of them occurring on Jewish holidays. Jerusalem Report, February 6, 1997: “Thousands of Israelis waited in vain on Tel Aviv’s beaches in the wee hours of January 6 for the arrival of UFOs after Israeli psychic Elinor Harar predicted that extraterrestrials would visit that night.” In the English-language Israeli comic strip “Dry Bones,” the hapless middle-aged hero Shuldig grumps: “We now have shopping malls, cable TV, fast food chains, UFO sightings … and a shallow national leader who looks ‘good’ on television?! [Benjamin Netanyahu was then, as now, Israel’s prime minister.] How much more like America can we get!?!” (To which Shuldig’s wife responds: “I don’t know but … did you hear the latest assassination conspiracy theory?”)
(Source: Jerusalem Post International Edition, November 15, 1997.)
I’ll post next week on a Hebrew novel published in Jerusalem in 2000, Shlomo Shoval’s intriguingly titled Why Do UFOs Normally Fly in Threes, and Why Don’t Extraterrestrials Like to Have Their Pictures Taken? (Hailed by the Sirius Book Review, in one of the blurbs on the back cover, as “something good coming at long last out of Planet Earth.”) A book like this presupposes that UFOs have already found their niche in the Israeli consciousness.
How did this happen? Did the UFO pilots change their minds, decide that Israel was a worthwhile tourist destination after all?
More likely it was the country that changed. Became like America, as Shuldig says. More broadly, and I think more profoundly, it ceased to be the Third-World country that I visited in 1964. With the exception of South America—which I can’t explain—UFOs are mostly a phenomenon of the developed, industrialized world. US, Western Europe, Japan. And now Israel.
Or perhaps UFOs blossomed in the skies as Israeli self-confidence waned on the ground? The bumptious assurance that “we are a practical people,” realistic and hard-headed, has taken a few blows since 1964. The worst, perhaps, was the traumatic Yom Kippur War of 1973. Others, traumatic in different ways, have followed. When people, collectively, stop believing in themselves, do they collectively hunt up something else to believe in?
I don’t know the answers.
What I do believe is that the story of how UFOs came to Israel is an important story—important for understanding Israel, important for understanding the UFO as a human phenomenon. It needs to be explored, needs to be told. By someone who knows Hebrew, has some acquaintance with the Israelis and their land and their culture. Who combines this with a serious interest in UFOs and what they mean for us all.
Will somebody else please go ahead and do it?