Coffee, Camels and Conscience


“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”.
--Martin Buber


Have you ever wondered what you would do, if our country required mandatory military service? Would you give in and do your "duty", exile yourself to another country, or spend time in jail as a conscientious objector? In Breaking Ranks: Turbulent Travels in the Promised Land, Ben Black finds himself in exactly this situation. Black, born in Scotland to a Jewish family, moves to Israel in his 20s, knowing that if he becomes a citizen, he will be expected to serve in the Israeli military.

Breaking Ranks weaves together the story of a man working for peace in a conflicted land and the fantastic sights he sees while traveling in the area, gaining a better understanding of the region and its people as he goes. He tells us about daily life in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, where he hunts down the best hummus spots and drinks Turkish coffee, also known as “mud,” because it is so thick and strong.

When he travels, he spends his time looking for deals in the souks of Jerusalem, learning about the merits of olive oil in Haifa and searching for a hidden oasis on the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. He recounts the thrill of a camel race in the desert: “Squashed into the back of a Toyota pick-up truck, we are at least twenty keffiyeh-clad Bedouin strong, burning down the highway chasing camels that look like their legs are about to get tied in a knot” (182).

Shortly after Jordan opens its borders to Israelis, Black also spends some time exploring the (formerly lost) ancient city of Petra. He gives us a traveller’s tip: “It is intoxicating. The more you see the more you want to see. Wandering around the sight, it’s hard to grasp the scale of the place. A week would barely do it justice” (53).

Even when he’s traveling through beautiful and historic places, Black wrestles with his conscious, trying to decide if he will conscript or evade the military and suffer the consequences. Can a man working for peace actively take part in war? Or must he leave the land and people he has come to love to remain true to his personal values?

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