December 12, 2018

Goyspiel: A First-Timer in the Holy Land

I was born two years after the State of Israel. It has taken all that time for me to visit despite the urging of Jewish friends over the years. In two weeks, I, my wife, Dawn, and a few other friends traveled north to Tel Dan and the Golan, south to Eilat, west to Akko and east to the Dead Sea and Masada with Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Negev in between.

Although I had read extensively in preparation, I wasn’t ready for the wonder of Israel with all its contrasts and contradictions. The ordered compactness of Jerusalem and the chaotic urban sprawl of Tel Aviv. The hip modernity of Florentin and the strict conservatism of Mea Shearim. The vast agriculture fields of reclaimed desert and the ramshackle Bedouin encampments. Hip-holstered Glocks and kosher phones. The Wailing Wall on one side, the Dome of the Rock on the other. The architectural magnificence of Yad Vashem and the confronting experience within. The modesty of late Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s desert home and the grandeur of his oasis memorial.

Reviewing the hundreds of photos we took is an instant reminder of our trip’s sensory overload. Visiting sites of sacred and historical significance (Tower of David, Stations of the Cross, Hurva Synagogue, Church of the Beatitudes, Crusader City, the Roman aqueduct in Caesaria and Independence Hall, to name a few) was extraordinary. Even the more mundane things such as hummus at every meal, swimming in the Galilee, slapping on mud in Ein Bokek and tracking down shakshuka pots to take home were memorable. 

Perhaps what was most informative were the conversations we had. Our guides, Fredi and Danny “the Digger,” delivered a crash course in Israel’s history and modern-day politics. Hana, the Christian Palestinian, gave us an intimate tour of the Church of the Nativity. The rather sour shop attendant selling sweet pastries at the Kashash bakery said nothing but communicated a lot. Four young female IDF recruits photo-op’d with us at the Aroma Café in the Arava desert — assault rifles and all. Omri at the SOSA tech hub explained the dynamics of Startup Nation. Chef Barak Yehezkeli and crew at Burek gave us a dining experience we won’t soon forget. 

The two weeks did lead me to conclude that the nonreligious will never be as committed to their secularity as the religious will be to their faith.

Western media had conditioned us to expect more tension than we felt. Granted, we saw the countryside through the lens of a five-person, five-star guided tour that bypassed Gaza and Ramallah. But other than the walls and entry turnstiles into Bethlehem and being stopped at the steps to the Temple Mount, we saw little evidence of conflict. Even the Syrian border that flared up two days before we left didn’t seem to raise much alarm. Our conversations with locals gave us an appreciation of the need for an existential approach to living in Israel “one day at a time,” or, to quote Yitzhak Rabin, “Expect anything.”

As a lapsed Protestant in places holy for Muslims, Christians and Jews, and surrounded by so many pilgrims, I became aware of the intensity of belief that inspires the religious. At times I felt guilty that I was taking the place of an overseas Jewish person who could be enjoying the opportunity of “coming home.” The two weeks did lead me to conclude that the nonreligious will never be as committed to their secularity as the religious will be to their faith. Perhaps that is a root of the Israeli-Arab dilemma.

Israel remains a “frontier oasis surrounded by a desert of threat,” but what has been built out of nothing is nothing short of a miracle. After so many years of conflict and distrust, it is not clear to me how peace can be achieved. However, after my visit, what is clear to me is that the world must have a Jewish homeland, and that homeland is Israel. n

David Simpson was born in Montreal, got married in Chicago and is now semiretired in Melbourne, Australia.