A little less than 24 hours ago I left a hotel in Jerusalem and, after two plane trips spaced with long spaces of not-much-to-do in airport terminals, I’m back in familiar surroundings, at home, with the washing machine gurgling, the dryer tumbling and the gentle forces of a winter day returning me to…
Normal? Not quite.
I hadn’t visited Israel in 40 years and I began too many conversations “forty years ago…” Now I ask, what’s the difference between 40 years, and 39, or twenty, or two weeks ago? I saw much newness: architecturally exciting condo towers, a Calatrava bridge, a widened highway, a light-rail worm sliding along what was the border between Israel and Jordan. More of the area around and beneath the Jersusalem’s Old City has been excavated and made accessible to tourists. The Dead Sea has shrunk perilously. The Sea of Galilee remains one of the world’s most beautiful, though it, too, is shrinking.
- You can apportion the newness into areas of wealth, hi-tech business, funded religious enclaves and that dreadful wall that slices off portions of what divides Palestinians from Israelis. As in America, much of what is new is about privilege, advantage and a desire to make what is merely fortunate appear as the result of righteous struggle or God-given right.
- What remains of the excavations requires a narrative to comprehend. Tour guides struggle to be heard in the popular areas, and the clever tourist can position himself to experience a traveler’s version of cognitive dissonance. The stones don’t talk, so guides, video presentations, illustrations, interactive displays and scale models–all presented with an air of utmost certainty–give you a version of a past that of which we cannot be absolutely certain. When I came to Israel as a tourist and then a volunteer archaeologist, I learned that the science of archaeology began as precision treasure hunting in the 19th century but became a well-funded passion in the 20th century dedicated to proving that the Bible was “true.” When Israel became a nation, it developed a third preoccupation: establishing a Jewish presence as far back in recorded history as possible. You can find the treasures in museums, and you can visit cities and regions that were mentioned in the Bible, but there is precious little physical evidence to confirm what so many people want to believe is true, or historical.
- One of the guides told us that Israel recycles 95 percent of its waste water and sewage. I looked at the bottle water in my hand. The label in Hebrew. I couldn’t read the fine print. I wondered: what happens to the five percent that refuses to be anything more than what it is?
Some things get better. Israel has better restaurants and potable water throughout. For the first time, I did not develop some kind of digestive ailment. More people speak English–I did not have to speak Hebrew.
A cable car makes it easier to visit Masada. I would have tromped up the “snake trail,” a switchback path along the mountain’s western face, if pain in my knee had not stopped me.
I heard one of the two guides on the group tour talk briefly of how both sides of the current Arab-Israeli conflict hate the way the British tried to govern Palestine after carving it up (with the French) and creating–with the Balfour Declaration–a national homeland for Jews. “Everybody hates them, which means that they probably were fair.”
The comment is problematic. We have no way of judging the overall behavior of a forty-year colonial military force. Colonialism–that urge among powerful nations to invade, conquer, exploit and “civilize” the inhabitants of a seemingly primitive territory, has been discredited as a political aim, though it continues as an economic goal.
This led me to speculate: does disorder and antagonism spring inevitably from attempts to be equitable and just? We like to think that peace should be the result of any conflict. But when we read any of the historical or religious texts from the Middle East, we see war following peace on a more or less regular basis. The reasons vary. The gods and goddesses vary. The conquering nations come and go.
Ying and yang dualities don’t work in the Middle East. You get no satisfaction in taking sides, especially when you notice how divided each side is. Because our trip was sponsored by our synagogue, and included our rabbi, the sites visited emphasized spirituality, with an emphasis: Jewish people are here, they persist, they remain and, in most places within Israel’s borders, they are in the majority.
I did not feel any closeness, or sense of commonality, with that majority, though I met several Israelis who were born in America and spoke English with accents that contained the inflections of home. Others had the middle European and Slavic tones that I heard when, as a child, I visited my grandmother in Florida. All of them had powerful justifications for living in THE Jewish homeland.
The Balfour Declaration was careful to suggest that Palestine could be “a” Jewish homeland. There is a subtle and enormous difference between “a” and “the.”
Throughout the trip, I savored the privilege of being in a place that was like no other, and sharing the experience with my wife. Such experiences are easy to cherish.
While there is no place like Jerusalem, there is also no place like home. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz movie, I noticed I wasn’t in Kansas, paid attention to the man behind the curtain, saw the equivalent of a horse of a different color, found that the Emerald City wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. After a few days, I wanted to click my black Clark shoes together and wake up in my own bed.
Alas, my shoes were not ruby slippers. At 3:30 a.m. we boarded a cab in Jerusalem for a flight that left a little later than 7:30, having been warned of the intensity and depth of Israeli security. I then waited nearly six hours for another flight to leave London, where I was singled out (for reasons never revealed) and had an explosive-residue probe passed over my arms and legs, and then asked to roll up my pants legs to reveal my black compression socks (a holiday gift). Both flights featured screaming babies, kids that kicked the back of our seats, people coughing and tripping me when I went toward the lavatories.
As flights go, they were uneventful. I am now home, on a cold, bright winter day.
It feels good.