I’m back from my earlier mentioned trip to Israel; it was truly an amazing experience. Rather than blogging during each very busy day overseas, I decided to instead take notes, savour the experience, and share my experiences on my return. This will also allow a little time for contemplation. So I’ll be posting a blog for each day of my trip (six in all), one each day, followed in a week’s time with an overall post of my impressions, thoughts and learning. Some of my commentary may creep into these daily posts but I’m saving the bulk of my conclusions for that final post, so these first six daily posts will be mainly sharing the thoughts of those we spoke to and what we saw, largely without my commentary or criticism.
Myself and Steve V/Far and Wide were booked on a 12-hour flight direct from Toronto to Tel Aviv with El Al, the Israeli flag carrier. While I was a little disappointed to not be on Air Canada (so many Aeroplan points missed!), I was interested in the El Al experience, particularly their notoriously stringent, and different, security regimes.
I arrived over three hours early for the flight and there was already a very long line for check-in. I was questioned before getting to the counter by an El Al agent, who found the whole idea of a blogger trip to Israel a little crazy, I think. May have been why I was flagged for secondary screening. This didn’t involve anything more invasive than getting to the gate a little early, where they unpacked my carry-on and swabbed it, as well as my shoes (which I never did have to take off). No biggie at all.
Our plane was an ageing Boeing 767, with only mainscreen video – no personal seatback video (one of the many things Air Canada does right). However, as my headphone jack wasn’t working I was given one of the personal portable video systems reserved for business class customers, so that was nice. Ended up sleeping much of the 12-hour flight anyways. Dinner was passable chicken and rice, breakfast an uninspiring omelet.
Immigration formalities at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv, and in no time we were motoring toward Jerusalem to pick-up the other bloggers (Terry Glavin, Grant Shilling and Erin Sikora), who had arrived the night before from the left coast. During the drive I was struck by all the green I saw; it certaintly wasn’t how I pictured Israel. There were many planted forests, apparently many trees were planted following the independence war. We also saw the narrowing of the highway to Jerusalem where Jordanian snipers tried to stop the resupply of the city during the 1948 war.
After getting the rest of the group we headed to a promenade in south Jerusalem for a sweeping view of the city, from Old Jerusalem and the Golden Dome, to the Mount of Olives, to the Security Wall. The wall was quite a jarring site to see in this ancient city. I was also struck by the uniformity of the colour in the city – nearly everything is made with the beige Jerusalem stone.
The view from the promenade really drove home how small this highly contested city is – East Jerusalem is under claim by the Palestinians – particularly as our guide pointed-out Israeli and Arab villages, side-by-side, and not easily separable.
We headed down from the promenade to old Jerusalem, entering through the Jaffa Gate. It was bustling in busy, narrow and roughly-cobbled lanes lines with vendors eager to sell their trinkets and made a deal. Interesting to t-shirt vendors selling both PLO and Israeli Defence Forces shirts – capitalism clearly trumps politics.
As we came by one of the stations of the cross (which Mel Gibson made seem much longer in the movie) we came across a group of Christian pilgrims carrying crosses, re-tracing the stations. The devotion of their belief, and their obvious joy in being there, was inspiring.
We proceeded to the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which houses the final stations of the cross, including the what are believed to be the spots of the crucifixion, entombment and resurrection of Jesus. You can touch the stone on the spot of the crucifixion, and where his body was prepared for entombment. Even for a long-lapsed Catholic, it was powerful.
Having been up some 24 hours, it was time for lunch. Funnily enough, we went to an Italian restaurant – and I can report pasta is pasta. What I found most interesting about Israeli meals though were the copious appetizers that, if you weren’t careful, filled you up before the mains. Delicious fresh vegetables were plentiful. Excellent pitas, breads and humus. And the important Israeli appy rule – if you don’t know what it is, it’s egg plant.
After a much-needed nap at the hotel, it was back again to Old Jerusalem, visiting the Jewish Quarter this time to see the Western Wall. It’s the most sacred spot in Judaism, the remaining wall of the second Jewish temple. And it’s in the shadows of the Dome of the Rock, the second most sacred site in the Islamic faith. With some of the holiest spots in Judaism, Islam and Christendom in such proximity, one can’t help but wonder how history could have unfolded if they’d only had a little breathing-room. Still, despite heavy security and the occasional flare-ups, all three were worshiping peacefully, side-by-side. The long-term status of the area, though, is highly contentious.
As we approached the Western Wall we realized the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were holding an induction ceremony there for new recruits, which was interesting to see. The Israeli people seem to hold their soldiers in quite high esteem – unsurprising in a country that feels under siege from all sides, and where most have lost someone or know someone who lost someone in the service.
We toured the Western Wall Tunnel excavations, and then approached the Western, or Wailing, wall itself. Again here, as at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was powerful to see the devotion of the faithful, as they wrote prayers on little pieces of paper and slipped them between the cracks of the wall.
Finally, we ended the day with dinner where we met with Yossi Klein Halevi, fellow at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, and a contributing editor of the New Republic.
Yossi spoke with us about the evolution of Israeli political thought, and how, like many Israelis, he has tried both left and right as we’d define them in North America, and both have failed Israel. Indeed, the theme could have been the death of the Israeli left – we’d hear in again from other speakers – from a one-time lefty.
He told us how he wrote a book on interfaith dialogue -- At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land -- that, in a case of incredibly bad timing, launched on September 11, 2001. In preparation, he spent a year trying to immerse himself in Palestinian society, to learn their perspective and to feel as comfortable in a mosque as he does in a synagogue. He says once he showed an interest and respect for their faith, he found them incredibly warm and welcoming. He realized later though that the interest was largely one-way; rarely was he asked about his culture and traditions as he learned about theirs.
Like many Israelis, he says he became deeply disillusioned over the rejection of Oslo and Camp David in 2000 by Yasser Arafat. He says many felt Israeli has offered everything for peace, and still it failed. This has led to a disillusionment with the left in Israel, which has pushed hard for the peace offer. And it has led to a certain fatalism in Israeli society. A strong majority – the figure we kept hearing was 70 per cent – of Israelis believe a two-state solution is a necessity. They see the occupation as an unacceptable moral blight for a democratic society and, if continued, will lead to the creation of an apartheid state. But at the same time, they don’t believe a two-state solution will necessarily solve anything as far as the security threats to Israeli.
Finally, he said that the uncritical support for the Palestinians from the international community serves to “infantilize” them and is counter-productive to long-term solutions. And on Barrack Obama, he said the new administration’s Middle Eastern policy, particularly it’s new tone on settlements, is not popular with Israelis and is unlikely to be successful.
A very interesting and busy first day, followed by a heavy sleep. Tomorrow, more perspectives in Jerusalem, including an Arab-Israeli blogger who hopes citizen blogging can transform the West Bank.
(I'll have video for each day as well, but the video for the first day is still uploading to YouTube. I'll add it to this post and update when it's available.)