“Too much history, not enough geography.” That was how a veteran of the 1948 Israeli War for Independence described Israel. His name was Dan and he came to our house for dinner about ten years ago in the company of some old friends from San Francisco. My wife and I later toured Israel in May, 2007 and I can attest to Dan’s summation. It doesn't take long to drive the length and breadth of that tiny nation. There’s a definite lack of geography and every bit of it is contested almost constantly. In Jerusalem, it’s not unusual to see Jewish civilians walking around with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders while pushing a baby carriage. They’re in a constant state of war. Israel is located at what has been a crossroads between empires for millennia — throughout recorded history, actually.
Last month, Italian journalist Giulio Meotti wrote a short piece objecting to how the Vatican advertises tours of “Palestine,” or “The Holy Land,” but not tours of “Israel.” It seems the Vatican has as much trouble saying “Israel” as soon-to-be-former President Obama has saying, “Radical Muslim Terrorism.” Israel is a constant victim of radical Muslim terrorism — hence the profusion of AR-15s I saw there — and I’m thinking my church and my president are both refusing to recognize what is quite obvious to anyone visiting Israel.
“Catholic pilgrims spend virtually all their time visiting holy sites in Palestinian-run territory,” wrote Meotti, “staying in Palestinian Arab hotels and listening to Palestinian Arab tour guides. As a result, these pilgrims return filled with hatred towards Israel.”
Bus advertisement in Rome
That reads true because it’s exactly what our tour was like. We had a Palestinian guide and bus driver who were Christians from Bethlehem. In spite of the harassment Palestinian Christians were receiving from Palestinian Muslims, however, our guides were loyal to the Muslim view of things in that troubled land. For example, three times our bus passed the Battle of Hattin site in northern Israel at which Saladin defeated a Crusader army in 1187. Each time, our guide proudly described how Saladin outsmarted the Christians and slaughtered them. I was dismayed, but none of the other Mainers on our tour were disturbed by it.
Notre Dame Guest House in Jerusalem
Our first hotel was the Vatican-owned Notre Dame Guest House just outside the New Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem. Outside it, I could see bullet holes from battles during 1967’s Six-day War during which Israel took control over Jerusalem for the first time since the Revolt of the Maccabees in 164 BC. The entire hotel staff was Palestinian and I was awakened by a Muslim call to prayer broadcast from a minaret just inside the Old City wall.
Inside the Church of The Nativity in Bethlehem
From there, we traveled to nearby Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity — the oldest church in Christendom. Five years before, it had been seized by Muslim terrorists who held hostages for 39 days, until an agreement allowed them to leave for Gaza. While we were there, Hamas terrorists in Gaza were fighting other terrorists from the Palestinian Authority — Yasser Arafat’s organization. Bethlehem was peaceful when Jesus Christ was born there during the Roman occupation, but it was relatively brief respite.
Your's Truly outside Seven Arches Hotel
At the end of our tour we stayed at the Seven Arches Hotel in East Jerusalem overlooking the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock, but were instructed not to venture outside the hotel because it wasn't safe for Americans. This was the neighborhood where they danced in the streets following the September 11th attack.
Celebrating in East Jerusalem 9/11/01
I was surprised to learn that populations of both Bethlehem and Nazareth are majority Arab Muslim. When I asked why the Palestinian Christian populations of Nazareth and Bethlehem were leaving after 2000 years, both the bus driver and the guide said it was because they were looking for better jobs in America. I knew different, but neither would acknowledge that much of the migration is because of severe Muslim harassment. I saw posters of Yasser Arafat on buildings and each time we passed through an Israeli checkpoint going into and out of the West Bank they complained bitterly. Neither, however, would answer my questions about the war then raging between Hamas and the Palestinian authority even though we had to cancel our trip to Hebron’s tomb of Abraham because of it.
Yasser Arafat poster in Bethlehem
Finally, they said we would go to a dinner in Bethlehem at which the police chief and other municipal officials would be present and I could get answers to my questions. The restaurant was right beside the tall, Israeli-built, black wall. As we got in, however, the music was so loud conversation was impossible. Instead, we had to watch a solo dance performance by a Palestinian using his Yasser Arafat keffiyah as a prop. I could go on, but yeah, Meotti got it about right.