The Scientology Centre in Jaffa sticks out like a store thumb. Located in a richly renovated and cavernous theatre evidently from the 1930s, the centre is pristine and gleaming on a street mostly populated with kiosks selling candy, cigarettes and falafel.
Jaffa is one of the oldest cities in antiquity, said to be where Andromeda was rescued by Perseus and where Jonah came forth from the belly of a great fish. Jaffa has been conquered and ruled by King Solomon, Saladin and King Richard the Lionhearted. Today the population in Jaffa, which is part of the municipality of Tel Aviv, is a mixed population of Jews and Muslims known not only for its history and beautiful architecture but also for poverty, crime and violence. Hipsters love Jaffa. It is, in other words, a very mixed plate and a very peculiar place to find the only Scientology centre in the Middle East.
The Church of Scientology opened its doors in August, 2012, and has drawn little attention except for some mildly uncomfortable coverage of an anti-psychiatry exhibit in 2013 in which the suicide of a faded Israeli celebrity, Dudu Topaz, was used as an example of psychiatry gone wrong.
I have walked by the incongruous Scientology Centre in Jaffa many times and have never been able to wrap my mind around why on earth they have a presence in a country that is overwhelmingly religious, with Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians. Who is the target audience of Scientology here?
Having recently delved into the world of NGOs and other peace organizations operating in Israel I have learned quite a lot about the numerous programs here, who funds them and why. I have been doing so out of my own curiosity, as a way to assuage the despair that sometimes comes over me, and because I have my own baby peace initiative in early stages, Truth & Beauty, which teaches media literacy and diverse thinking. I have been looking for partners and funding.
So Scientology -- I thought, the other day, as I walked back through Jaffa to catch the bus home after having sat with yet another NGO to discuss their efforts. Huh. I couldn't help but wonder if this large and legendarily monied organization also has initiatives to address the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
What would be wrong with simply asking, I thought, as I prised open the very heavy door to the centre. What I found inside was not surprising and yet still so out of place in Jaffa. The interior of the centre is a gleaming expanse of rows and rows of Dianetics books in English, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic. Several wall mounted televisions showed videos about Scientology, available in a number of languages, on what seemed like a continuous loop.
I introduced myself to the receptionist and asked if I could speak to anyone about peace initiatives that Scientology is involved with here in Israel. This seemed to set off a flurry of activity and some concern. In the 40 or so minutes I was there, I was plunked in front of one of the videos and asked by four different people, four different times, what my name was, who I was writing for, and why I was writing an article about them. I'm just a blogger, I said. I'm just curious. I'm interested in the peace initiatives in Israel and I simply wondered if -- how do you spell your last name? It was written down scrupulously -- again.
You blog at the Huffington Post? one of my chaperones asked, with a smile. I spend every afternoon dealing with the Huffington Post. Are you sure they'll publish this? He smiled broadly. It only struck me later that I had been given a warning of some sort. Or had I? Being in a Scientology centre comes with a degree of paranoia.
Scientology isn't new to Israel and in fact there was a major falling out between the Church and the Haifa branch -- the entirety of whom are considered "suppressives" now, which is to say that they have been excommunicated.
After a pleasant yet strangely arduous period of time, being bounced between two Scientology leaders in allegedly important positions, two receptionists, a very nice woman who, it was emphatically pointed out, was not a Scientologist, a brief tour of the cafeteria and an awkward elevator ride, I still hadn't had my simple question answered. What does Scientology do in Israel connected to the conflict.
Finally, I eked out a kind of an answer to my question about Scientology's possible programs connected to this conflict. Many things! Drug prevention programs and -- no, I mean the conflict, I said. Do you have programs specifically to address this conflict in Israel or in the West Bank? Well, yes, in the West Bank.
I was incredulous. What is it called, what is the agenda, where is the cooperation coming from? These, apparently, were questions not of particular interest, as they were not answered.
There are two ways to operate a conflict/resolution program in the West Bank. Under the radar, at your own personal risk, without the cooperation you need and therefore with a minimal promise of impact, or on the radar, with the permission and cooperation of the Palestinian Authority and the US or other foreign consulates. Being on the radar is obviously the more productive way to go but it does mean closer scrutiny of your program.
Having not found any actual answers of substance at the Scientology Centre, and after having politely declined a longer meeting the next day, and a tour of the facility, I went home and began to Google, and found that several years ago, there was some suspicion cast on a youth group activity here found to be backed by Scientology. It wasn't anything shocking, necessarily. I was slightly put off by the fact that the gentleman mentioned in the article was the selfsame man who I had just spoken with at the centre. Eli is very handsome and charming, actually. As I left the centre and headed toward the elevator, he called after me -- Julie! I turned. Are you sure you know how to get out of here?
Israelis and Palestinians alike are generally very dubious of any "foreigner" who tries to insert themselves into the conflict here. They come by their suspicions honestly; unless the party in question is transparently on one "side" or another, or can convincingly prove that their efforts are truly only humanitarian in nature, resistance will be met. Just about everybody has some kind of agenda when it comes to this place and this conflict. A less pleasant agenda that does seem to rustle around in an under current is, of course, greased palms.
I didn't find any answers but you will forgive me for wondering -- what is the Church of Scientology doing in Israel?