Mid-day we stopped at the Jordan River. The water was green, from the flora in the water. There was a tourist shop, and people had the opportunity to wade in the Jordan, or, if they had pre-arranged it, to be baptized. Many people were being baptized: they wore white robes, and a pastor or priest dunked them backwards in the river.
We ate lunch that first day in a kibbutz. The kibbutz movement in Israel, this experiment in social communism, is on the wane. Israeli politics are veering more and more to the right. The few remaining kibbutzim are inhabited by older people--- folks my age. The food was delicious: I had the best brisket I’ve ever eaten. I sat across from a lovely young woman from Panama. She was thoroughly enjoying herself. I was trying to stay optimistic, although I was getting weary of seeing churches every five feet, and tired from the guide’s endless happy talk. It was becoming clear our young guide was a right winger. He said that the only politicians in Israel that were really able to accomplish peace were on the right. God help us.
The Panamanian woman smiled and said to me, “You have to be Christian to really appreciate Israel.” A piece of cucumber salad fell from my open mouth, and before I could stop myself, I added, “Or Jewish or Muslim.” It seemed to me that Muslims and Jews had as good a claim on Israel as the Christians. The woman stopped speaking to me.
Although the weather was warm, the air felt like winter. It was about two in the afternoon, and the wind picked up. It was beautiful at the kibbutz, flowers were still blooming. We drove on to Nazareth, to see, surprise, another church. There are two Churches of the Annunciation. The Orthodox disagree with the Catholics about the precise location where Gabriel visited Mary. The churches are about a block apart. Although Nazareth is under Palestinian control, we didn’t pass through any check points. The guide was quick to alert us to a pile of trash on the sidewalk; “See how dirty the Palestinians are?” he said.
The Catholic church of the Annunciation was built in the 1960’s, and there are murals on the outer wall from all the countries that donated money for its construction. The focal point of the church is a cave where Mary is supposed to have lived. I bit my lip, and didn’t ask how they could be sure Mary lived there, especially since the Orthodox thought she lived across the street. A few yards from this church, there was the Church of St. Joseph, built over Joseph’s carpentry shop. Modern scholars believe “carpenter” is a mistranslation, that Joseph was either a stone mason or day laborer. Of course, since they’ve spent all this money building a church, it would be a shame to acknowledge this mistake. At this point, after this visit to the umpteenth crowded, modern church, my mother, the clergyman’s wife whispered to me, “If I see one more church today, I’m going to become an atheist.”
The ride back to the ship was long and disappointing. Our Israeli guide launched into an anti-Palestinian tirade. He assured the group that Arab Muslims were dirty, lazy, and violent. His hate-filled rhetoric was very similar to the rants of anti-immigrant groups in America like the Minutemen. His tirade was so similar to that of any rightwing Republican in America: change “Mexican” for “Arab,” and it’s exactly the same. Even more disturbing was the reaction of my fellow travelers: they loved this kind of talk.
One problem with hate and racism is that once you’ve opened it up, you can’t channel it. Our guide found himself the target of racism. A Japanese woman asked him why Jews were so “standoffish.” She worked with a Jewish man who was very unpleasant. Why were Jews like that, she wondered. That gave the guide pause, but he quickly recovered.
(to be continued)