Israel was a pleasure I had not expected. Most people I knew who had gone to Israel had religious or political motivations – Christians wanting to walk in Jesus’s footsteps, Jews seeking a place in their promised land, political organizations on all sides wanting to promote their agendas. I resisted Israel for a long time; I didn’t (and don’t) want to take a side on the Israeli/Palestinian situation, I didn’t (and don’t) want to defend or criticize U.S. policy there, and I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable as Jews, Muslims, and Christians went about their religious rituals in a holy land for all of them.
Raised Christian, married to a nominal Jew, and long-time former teacher of Muslim students, I’m hard-pressed nowadays to commit to any religion that holds itself up as the one and only true path to anything. But Sunday school lessons die hard, Chaim Potok’s fictional characters still resonate, and present-day Muslim friendships challenge me to understand a currently controversial faith, so being in the cradle of the three Abrahamic religions turned out to be an enlightening and enjoyable experience after all. (It didn’t hurt that the country is also a sunny, vibrant destination on the Mediterranean Sea!)
I spent much of my time in Israel in Jerusalem, dictated by a 5-day business meeting my husband had there. I wandered the city in both small groups and alone during that time. As I moved through numerous sections of the city, visiting tourist sites and interacting with local people both randomly and through our business connections, I saw a unity that surprised me in some ways and reinforced in other ways the skewed view of the world that we get through the media.
More than a few Jewish residents talked of the feeling of safety and security they feel in Israel, where they are free to practice their faith overtly, without fear of discrimination or oppression. I met Jews young and old, reformed and conservative, who had come to Israel for this feeling of belonging. Yet they lived and worked side by side with those of many other political and cultural identities – Palestinians, Ethiopians, the French, and many more – perhaps nowhere better illustrated than by the yarmulkes and hijabs and colorful headwraps I saw side by side on bus shelter benches. My hotel itself was a microcosm, staffed by Muslim Palestinians, catering to a conservative Jewish clientele, and filled during my visit with several huge Christian Bible study groups on a pilgrimage.
I spoke with Palestinians, both Muslim and Christian (to my ignorant surprise), in the West Bank, and I spent an hour as one of perhaps four or five non-Muslims on the Temple Mount at the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque one morning. I stared at huge groups of Christian pilgrims prostrating over a stone slab in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and followed them unwittingly through the stations of the cross along the Via Dolorosa. It all felt fascinating to me in an intellectual, historical way, seeing their holy shrines mashed up one against the other all over the Old City, but the overall feeling I came away with was the total normalcy of seeing these three major religious factions, and those of many different political identities as well, co-existing in an unremarkable way.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre side by side with a minaret
More than once, I heard a similar thought expressed, one that underscored the un-newsworthy daily reality of life in Israel. One was that people-to-people, day-to-day, many Israelis and Palestinians get along fairly well; it is their leaders and a more visible minority who propagate and perpetuate the divisiveness we all see in the press. Likewise, a Palestinian guide in the West Bank, asked by a fellow traveler if the Palestinians hated the U.S. and Americans, replied that “we do not confuse the American people with the U.S. government. We can love Americans and dislike your government at the same time.”
Am I hopelessly naïve, glossing over a turbulent underbelly? Maybe, but I don’t care; I saw peace and enough surface unity here (as I have seen elsewhere) to convince me that one-on-one, most of the world is pretty content to just go about the daily business of living and surviving. Yes, this region is volatile and potentially explosive, but the goodness and peacefulness of most Israelis and Palestinians, Muslims and Jews and Christians, and the whole beautiful mix of nationalities here, was palpable to me in the short time I had.
Moving beyond religion and politics … well, Israel totally rocks! It is modern and historic, high-tech and old-fashioned, business-savvy and beachy, conservative and avant-garde. Gallerias of luxury goods and fresh local cuisine, in shops and restaurants both quaint and grand, nestle up against the sunbaked limestone façades of centuries past. Teens in-line skate past black-hatted rabbis, and young women is strappy camis and killer suntans share the sidewalks with their fellow females in burkas. Lunch might be Moroccan, dinner French, with a nice, sloppy afternoon snack of falafel on the street.
I spent hours getting lost in all four quarters – Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and Armenian – of the Old City in Jerusalem, and I rambled through the city’s neighborhoods on my way to a local home for dinner.
I spent a day visiting the imposing site of Masada, the waterfalls and natural pools of Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea, where I bobbed buoyantly in the salty water and slathered my skin with the black mud from the bottom, all in 110-degree temperatures that were entirely bearable with no humidity.
I spent a morning ambling alone on the outside of the Old City walls, seeing nary a soul until I entered through the Dung Gate and went through a rigorous security and a passport check to avail myself of the short non-Muslim visiting hours on the Temple Mount inside the Old City.
I picked apples on a farm north of Tel Aviv as part of a visiting delegation supporting the local foodbank, Leket.
I passed through sunny Eilat, on the far southern tip of Israel, on my way to Jordan, and I strolled the Tayelet, a beachfront walkway from the port of Old Jaffa to the northern port of modern, bustling Tel Aviv.
After three straight trips to the far northern and southern hemispheres, it was heavenly to be back in the middle of the globe, basking in the glow that only an ancient Mediterranean country exudes. May that warm, steady sun continue to thaw the years of tension that bedevil this beautiful land that is special to so many people.