Israel is a mind-boggling country, to say the very least. The following post is an attempt to collect my thoughts on our experiences there.
Traveling to Mexico back in July already taught me a thing or two about fear. It taught me not to buy into the ceaseless fear-mongering of the mainstream media and those who regurgitate it’s endless tales of doom and gloom. It reminded me that countries are big and varied and nuanced places that could never be captured in a five minute news bulletin or in the offhand comments of a person whose cousin had a friend from high school who once went somewhere and had a terrible thing happen to them.
And yet, whilst I knew this and believed it, I still felt a little bit nervous as our plane touched down at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. Only a week or so before, I’d received an email alert from Smartraveller, the Australian government’s travel advisory, detailing a recent spike in violent incidents in Jerusalem. Landing in an unfamiliar place in a volatile region, I briefly wondered whether we had made the right choice in coming here. The stories of shootings and stabbing attacks that I was reading were scary, after all.
But I also didn’t want to succumb to the fear proliferated by these stories and feel as though I was constantly in danger throughout my time in the country, because I knew that this was certainly not conducive to learning from and making the most of my experiences. Instead, I tried to remember that a thorough reading of the Smartraveller website almost always results in feeling as though death will be the most likely outcome of leaving the safety of Australia and the western world. This made me feel a little bit better, and so we got on with seeing and experiencing as much as possible.
The trip started with four nights in Tel Aviv. I really had no idea what to expect from it – all I knew was that it was a modern city famous for its nightlife. To get to know the place better, Zac and I did what we always do: we walked absolutely everywhere (a trend born of my dislike of city buses and Zac’s dislike of my whinging about trying to catch city buses). On our first morning this took us 45 minutes across the city, down the famous Rothschild Boulevard, along the beachfront, and into Old Jaffa, the oldest part of the city.
The history in this area is amazing – it is mentioned in texts like the Egyptian Amarna Letters and the Old Testament. For centuries it was the port through which pilgrims arrived on their way to Jerusalem. Alexander the Great stationed troops here. It was conquered by Saladin, and then the Crusaders, and later by the Ottomans, Napoleon, and then the British. It was ruined and rebuilt. It felt strange and exciting to walk through its pretty streets, trying to imagine scenes from thousands of years of history.
The new city is vastly different, but also charming, with its own 20th century stories to tell. On our second day, we took a walking tour of Neve Tzedek, the first area to be built by Jewish immigrants to the city in the late nineteenth century. We also explored on our own, examining the city’s collection of Bauhaus architecture, and spending a morning at the Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art. Along tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard there were many quirky cafes and cool eateries, and quite a few sushi bars (we had sushi for dinner twice) and people always seemed to be out walking, running, or riding on their electric bikes, which seem to be hugely popular.
Already, everything felt so much more normal than the media would have you believe, and though we knew that Jerusalem would be vastly different, it was interesting to see the way that everyday life plays out in one of Israel’s most modern and secular cities.
Visiting Tel Aviv at the beginning of our Israel trip was probably a good way of ‘easing into’ the country. After a few days in Nazareth we headed for Jerusalem, whose vastly different vibe was obvious to us before we had even stepped off the bus. A few people we had met along the way had talked about the intensity of Jerusalem; it is a fervently religious place, for obvious reasons. Home to some of the holiest sites in three major religions, it is little wonder that people flock here from all corners of the globe.
On our first day, we took a four hour walking tour of the Old City (which actually turned into a five and a half hour tour, because our guide Ryan had such a love for the history of the place) and by the end I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by the incredible things we had seen. We first visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is believed to have been built on the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. Enclosed in a glass case inside the church is the rock of Golgotha or Calvary that protrudes from the ground, which you can reach in and touch. You can also walk down several stories into the belly of the church where you can glimpse the remains of previous churches that have stood on the site, as well as a shrine to Aphrodite, and enter a cave containing tombs dating to the time of Jesus. A chapel within the church’s rotunda is also believed to house the empty tomb of Jesus himself. It is therefore no surprise that this place is the holiest site in Christianity.
Later on we visited the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, two of the holiest sites in Judaism and Islam respectively, and the history of these places is fascinating. The Dome of the Rock was completed in 691 and houses the Foundation Stone, believed to be the place where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son. It is also believed to be the site from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven. It is a stunning piece of architecture, and its golden dome is the most iconic site in all of Jerusalem. And despite often being the focal point of conflict, the entire complex seemed blanketed by an atmosphere of calm and quiet (unlike the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the sacredness of which is somewhat diminished by packs of rowdy tourists).
Its association with Abraham meant that this place was also once the site of the Jewish Temple of Solomon, and later, the Second Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. All that remains of the latter structure is the famous Western Wall.
On Friday evening, which is the beginning of Shabbat or the sabbath in Judaism, we would return here to witness many people gathering for prayer as darkness fell. All that could be heard in the quiet streets of the nearby Jewish quarter were the voices of a group of young men who were singing together as they walked towards the Western Wall. It felt as though a sense of excitement was building as more and more people arrived; the atmosphere was incredible, and was one that I could only compare to the sort of feeling that I have experienced on Christmas Eve with my family, or at Easter with Zac’s family. The difference here though (apart from the obvious fact that I am talking about two different religions) is that Shabbat takes place every week.
I cannot do justice to the history of these places on the pages of this blog, and I don’t think I can capture in my words here the truly awe-inspiring nature the city of Jerusalem. It impacted me more deeply than I expected, and I think that Ryan’s words at the end of our walking tour may partly explain why. I can’t quote him verbatim, but before bidding us farewell he reflected on the fact that everyone who comes to Jerusalem has a connection to the city in one way or another – whether this is through the Jewish, Christian or Muslim faiths, through history lessons at school, through Christmas songs, through popular culture or the media, or whatever the case may be. For me, I feel that Jerusalem evokes memories of Sunday school, church, and Christmas stories from my childhood, and connects to my interest in the history of different religions that developed in high school. And, as is the case with Nazareth, I feel like I’ve known about Jerusalem for as long as I can remember – so perhaps the visit was some sort of culmination for me, I’m not sure. But I do know that exploring the four quarters of the city that day was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
But matters of faith, personal connection and ancient history do not paint a complete picture of Jerusalem today – it is an incredibly complicated and complex city. Whilst it might make life easier to steer clear of politics, I don’t think you could come to Jerusalem, visit the Old City and its ancient holy sites, and really ignore the modern history that is playing out around you. Could you really pretend not to notice the hundreds of security cameras watching you as you walk around the cobblestone streets? Could you pass through security checkpoints manned by military personnel and pretend that that’s normal? Could you just act as if it’s no big deal when you walk down the street next to a guy in his early twenties with an assault rifle slung over his shoulder? Visiting Israel is no ordinary holiday; it’s not all fun and smiles and selfies and floating in the Dead Sea.
In fact, the days that we spent in the West Bank weren’t fun at all. These days evoked a wide range of feelings – sadness, anger, fear, hope. They were sometimes scary, and often uncomfortable. The personal accounts of division and violence that we heard were heartbreaking. The concrete and wire of the separation wall was almost unfathomable (has history taught us nothing?) But our experiences were also incredibly valuable, because they opened up our eyes a little more.
On one day we visited Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem, and on another we took a ‘dual narrative’ tour of Hebron, accompanied by both Israeli and Palestinian guides. On these days, we heard from a range of different people with completely different perspectives and opinions – people who believed in a one-state solution, people who believed in a two-state solution; people who were angry, and people who were more reserved. I still trying to process my observations and all the stories that I heard, but I do know that I am very grateful to those who spoke to us about the difficult and emotionally-charged issues that they face on a daily basis.
If you visit a country whose very existence is a point of significant conflict, I think you have a responsibility to seek out information, to ask questions, to hear the perspectives of local people, to keep your eyes and your mind open, and to think critically about everything you experience.
There is no use in dwelling on ideas about what could have been done differently in the past. Sometimes, as a history student, I focus on this too much. “If only they’d done it this way instead,” I think to myself, “how different the world would be!” Whilst I think it is important to know what happened, and to try to figure out why, and to use this knowledge to inform solutions for the present and the future, the fact remains that you cannot change the past; you can only try and head towards something better.
But we should also remember that it is only Israelis and Palestinians who can make the changes needed to move forward. If you’ve ever studied history, you would know that the West just loves to meddle in an effort to ‘solve the world’s problems,’ and I think that perhaps a cultural byproduct of this trend is that we often go to foreign countries thinking that we have things pretty well figured out.
But if visiting Israel has taught me anything, it’s that we really have no idea. It’s one thing to read a textbook and criticise and problem-solve from afar; it’s another thing entirely to live a particular reality. We should always be careful to make that distinction as we learn, form our own opinions, and report back on our experiences.