I’d always wanted to visit Israel. As the son of a clergyman, religion has always been a part of my life. Half of my ancestry is Jewish. I grew up with Bible stories. I had mental pictures of Moses in Sinai, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Jesus on the Mount of Olives. I wasn’t certain what to expect when seeing these places. Would I be disappointed with the reality? Was Israel dangerous? How did politics and religion mesh in Israel? I was anxious to find out, and fortunate to have the opportunity to visit Israel. I wasn’t sure what I could learn in a two-day visit.
We anchored in Haifa, a Mediterranean port in northern Israel. Israel is a small country, about the size of New Jersey. In early November, the weather was sunny and warm, in the mid 70’s F. Haifa looked crowded and a bit polluted, very modern. We had come from Turkey, which is exotic and beautiful. Israel reminded me a lot of southern California, or even Florida. The climate and topography reminded me of home in San Diego. My group boarded a bus bounded for Nazareth and Galilee. Most of my fellow travelers weren’t American: we had Filipinos, Japanese, Mexicans, and Canadians in our group of about thirty.
Our guide was a young Israeli who spoke English well. His voice was loud and projected, but he still used a microphone--- to make sure we didn’t miss a syllable, I guess. It was about an hour ride from Haifa to the Galilee, a large, lovely lake. The guide bombarded us with facts about Israel, and pointed out various things on the landscape. Much of the agricultural land was drained, it had previously been swamp. There weren’t a lot of trees, and Jewish groups around the world plant trees in Israel. There were gently rolling hills, and everything was new. There were signs of construction everywhere, maybe another reason it reminded me of southern California.
Our first stop was the Church of the Beatitudes. It was on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, supposedly built on the exact spot where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount. I was skeptical: how do they know, all these years later, exactly where Jesus may have preached? I kept my doubts to myself, as my fellow travelers seemed to be a devout lot. The church was built in the 1930’s, commissioned by Mussolini. Now that’s a guy who exemplified the gospel of peace… The church was crowded and small, and there were a lot of traditionally dressed nuns from the nearby convent.
Next we visited the ruins of Capernaum. That was more interesting. There was, of course, a church, but we couldn’t enter the Church of St. Peter because of an ongoing service. This church dated from the mid-twentieth century as well. There were ruins of a synagogue where Jesus may have preached. Our guide was talking a mile a minute, and it was grating. He was from Patra tours, and I figure that must be the Israeli version of the Chamber of Commerce. Everything was wonderful, beautiful, amazing, and gee, aren’t we Israelis swell? A military plane flew by overhead, and the guide told us that like a lot of military machinery, it had been provided by the U.S. government. Great. I was feeling so religious: churches built by Mussolini and U.S. weapons.
The guide and fellow travelers color perceptions of a country. What did I know of Israel, really, before I visited? Yes, I’d read Aaron David Miller and Jeff Goldberg. I follow the news, but I’m confused. Americans are expected to side with Israel in its Palestinian conflict, but that isn’t always easy to do. The Goldstone report came out over the summer, detailing Israeli (and Palestinian) war crimes during the war in Gaza. The U.S. objected to this report at the U.N. Goldstone is, however, unimpeachable. He investigated the Serbo-Croatian war, and the ethnic cleansing in Rwanda. He has an excellent reputation. In addition, he is a Jew and a self-proclaimed Zionist. That hardly makes him biased against Israel.
(Stay tuned for Israel part 2)