Tuesday, May 22, 2007

First Days in Israel

“What the heck are you going there for?” That was the usual reaction when I told people my wife and I were going to Israel for ten days. “Aren’t you afraid?” Truth be told I was, a little, but the perceived danger only made the trip more exciting. My wife went seven years ago and I promised to go with her some day. We planned a tour for last October, but it was postponed when Hezbollah attacked and Israel retaliated in late summer.

After landing in Tel Aviv, we took a bus for our hotel in Jerusalem. Our first guide was a Palestinian Christian who used a microphone to explain what we were seeing out the bus window. I saw wreckage of olive-green military equipment next to the highway, including the wreckage of a 1940s era aircraft. I knew them to be purposely left as a reminder of Israel’s 1948 War For Independence but our guide didn’t point them out. He was an Israeli citizen - one of over a million Arabs who are - but evidently he didn’t feel any patriotic pride in that phase of Israel’s history. It was a pattern I was to notice among other Israeli Arabs over the next few days. Can’t blame them, I guess.

There were small groups of young Israeli soldiers here and there along the highway. Most carried automatic rifles resembling M16s. Some were women who looked like teenaged girls. All Jewish citizens of Israel, male and female, must serve two years of active duty and about twenty in the reserves. Arabs are exempt, but they may volunteer. Of seven million Israelis, one million are Arab.

Our hotel, the Notre Dame Center, was built by the French in the 1880s and is owned by the Vatican today. Two popes, including John Paul II stayed here. It’s just outside the “New Gate” of the wall around the Old City. This wall - Jerusalem’s newest, was built by the Turk Suleiman five hundred years ago in preparation for another European Crusade that never came. Earlier walls mostly failed to keep out invaders because Jerusalem was destroyed seventeen times over its three-thousand-year history. Our hotel had been used as an Israeli bunker during the Arab invasions of 1948 and 1967 when fighting was intense. According to the hotel’s brochure: “The south wing, facing the Old City, became uninhabitable as a result of bomb explosions . . .” There were still pock marks of bullets in the limestone exterior, especially around windows.

We were warned not to go into the city alone and I needed sleep, but I was too excited just to be there. While my wife took a nap, I went through the gate into the old city looking for a bottle of wine. Walking the old, narrow, stone streets, I saw men sitting around and checking me out as I walked by - it was obvious I wasn’t a native. I found an old hotel not too far in and bought a nice bottle of red from Bethlehem. Back in our room I drank a glass and went to bed. I was woken up around 4:00 am Israeli time by a Muslim call to prayer from just inside the old city across the street. It went on for about fifteen minutes and I went back to sleep.

Wednesday morning, we took the bus into Bethlehem’s arid hill country, a few miles south of Jerusalem. It’s an Arab town inside the West Bank and under control of the Palestinian Authority. We had to pass a checkpoint through the large fence constructed by Israel to seal it off from the rest of Israel. Our guide disdained it. He said we should be building bridges, not fences. The Palestinian side was covered with graffiti, but in Arabic. I wished I could read it.

In Bethlehem there are twice as many Muslims as Christians. A few years ago it was just the opposite and I wondered why the change. There was little evidence of prosperity. Every dumpster overflowed with trash. Graffiti showed on most walls at street level. One was a spray-painted symbol with crossed automatic rifles which I think represents Hamas. Not wanting to ask, I decided to look it up when I get home.

The bus pulled into a parking garage next to a poster of Yassir Arafat. That was near Shepherd’s Field, where an angel appeared to them and announced the birth of Jesus Christ. You remember the carol: “Where shepherds watched their flocks by night . . .” There was electricity but the water wasn’t on to the restrooms. We met our new guide, I asked him why Christian Arabs were leaving. He said it was “the situation” and because they went away looking for jobs. I asked why Christian Arabs were moving away in greater numbers than Muslims but he didn’t want to talk about it. One of the first things he told us was that we could ask him questions about anything but politics. My question was demographic but, increasingly in Israel, as in Europe and in the United States, demographics is politics.

My first days in Israel, I learned about politics and people. During the next two, my religion was to come alive.

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