Wednesday, November 18, 2009

More about Israel-- Jerusalem

The first day in Israel had been disturbing. The right wing talk of the guide was less than helpful. Sadly, what made Israel, at least this day, seem so much like southern California was the feeling that I’d inadvertently turned on American talk radio. The guide’s anti- Palestinian rhetoric was delivered in the international language of hate. It was obvious to any observer that the Palestinians don’t enjoy the same standard of living as the Israelis. Most Israelis have had the opportunity to travel, and have benefited from Western secular education. They are heavily subsidized by American relatives and sympathizers. There is no AIPAC for Palestinians. In some cases, Palestinian communities have no access to electric power or clean water. It was hard to see the Israelis as the underdogs.

I’m sure the guide had reasons for hating Palestinians. They aren’t all saints and victims. The Goldstone report, which I read as objective reality, accuses Palestinians in Gaza of war crimes. After this first day in Israel, I was pessimistic about the country. I am not a Middle East expert. I am not qualified to pass judgment. I can only say what I saw. If a lot of Israelis are as racist as our guide, and if many Palestinians are as well, then there is no hope for peace in Israel.

The next day in Jerusalem was better. For one thing, we had a different guide. It was through the same agency, Patra, that the cruise ship contracted with. Both tours seemed geared toward devout Catholics. I encourage anyone who plans on travelling to Israel to do better research than I did, and find a tour geared towards particular interests. It is possible that most people who visit Israel want a religiously-directed tour.

Jerusalem was lovely. We stopped on the Mount of Olives, and had a panoramic view of the Old City. It was a wash of golden brown. It’s easy to why someone called it “Jerusalem the Golden.” We stopped at the Church of the Agony, also called the Church of the Twelve Nations. Twelve countries financed its construction, built on Gethsemane, the spot where Jesus was betrayed. We saw the old Jewish Cemetery, where rabbis and holy men of the ages are buried. From there we went to the walled city. Our first visit was to the Wailing Wall.

The Western Wall, or the Wailing Wall, is the sole remnant of Herod’s temple. The devout believe it is the closest place on earth to the Divine Presence. Men and women go to different areas to pray; you wrote down prayer requests on a scroll of paper and push it between the bricks. It was very moving. Anything more I say about it will sound trite or maudlin.

We walked through the narrow walls of the city, past numerous cramped market stalls. Catholics have the Stations of the Cross, a tradition not shared by the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants. We passed stations five through twelve, and went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was built outside the city walls, over the site where Jesus was crucified by the Romans. The church is broken up into chapels, each of which is owned by a different Christian sect. There is the rock where tradition says Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, and a grotto some believe was Jesus’ tomb.

The reverential aura was broken by a loud mouth woman from Mexico who kept asking, “Is this a church or a mosque?” There were crosses and pictures of Jesus everywhere, and she thought it was a mosque? The various priests and clergy of the various sects apparently get in to fist fights over access to the chapels, our guide told us. They show these tussles on Israeli television: it’s Israel’s version of reality TV. In fact, there is so much acrimony between the Catholics and Orthodox and Protestants and Coptics, the keys to the building are kept by a Muslim family.

This same Mexican woman kept demanding our guide stop so she could shop. The itinerary was full, and we were slated for shopping in Bethlehem. This gal was not amused by being told to wait. We ate lunch at Pavilion, a great big buffet diner. There was more great Israeli food, more yummy brisket and roasted chicken.

People write about the “Jerusalem syndrome.” Each year, a given number of tourists who visit Israel have a breakdown, and believe they are the Messiah or a prophet. As lovely as Jerusalem is, the air is heavy with religiosity. At the first table where I sat in the cafeteria, I was accosted by a Messianic rabbi. He was telling folks that the problem with Israel was the same as the problem with America: the left wing. Lefties, according to this jerk, have deliberately sabotaged both Israel and America by allowing immigrants in. I took my plate and moved on. Before I walked off, he was talking about his daughter’s courtship.

(to be continued)

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