January 6, 2004
Visit to Israel
by Alan Bock
I was pleased finally to have been able to visit Israel, and I certainly
know a little more than I did before about how to place events in
Jerusalem in context, I would not want to suggest that a visit of
four or five days makes me an expert; in fact my dislike of those
who want to claim expertise based on whirlwind visits is rather
intense. I've been reading, writing and talking to presumed experts
on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis for more than 20 years, and a
visit to Jerusalem didn't change my perceptions radically. Nonetheless,
I garnered a few impressions that might interest readers.
disclosure. The conference at which I spoke was sponsored by the
Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace, which
is one of the constellation of organizations sponsored by Rev. Sun
Myung Moon. My experience with their organizations is that they
have not tried to censor or proselytize me once they figured out
I was unlikely to be a convert. But they do have what I consider
an unusual theology, and I know some people consider any contact
with them to be suspicious. So take this with whatever ration of
salt seems appropriate.
the first dose of culture shock came from seeing so many young Israelis
– I'm well beyond the age when 18 to 20-year-olds look like sallow
kids to me – in uniform with their machine guns, walking the city
streets as casually as you please. I've long believed that an armed
society is a polite society anyway, so perhaps I should have had
nothing but positive feelings. But for an American it was a bit
– not unnerving, exactly, because a moment's reflection was enough
to dispel actual nervousness, but just a little surprising.
most unsettling experience for me was visiting Bethlehem – at least
getting there. I remember back in 1998, talking to Sir Martin Gilbert,
who had just put out a history of Israel in time for the 50th anniversary
of the state. At the time, he said to me, when he visited Israel
and wanted to go to Bethlehem or some of the other cities in the
West Bank, it was not much more complicated than crossing from one
state to the other in the United States.
were Israeli policemen on one side of the border checkpoint, Sir
Martin said, and Palestinian police on the other side, but the process
was generally fairly uneventful and friendly. His point was that
when it came to facts on the ground, whatever the legal technicalities,
there were already two states in place. He figured (or hoped) then
that it wouldn't take all that long for what was a fact on the ground
to be translated into legal recognition of two states.
course, that was before the Bill Clinton's Camp David attempt to
secure himself a legacy and the subsequent Intifada. A year ago
Bethlehem was under occupation by Israeli troops. Now it is controlled
by the Palestinians. The result is that tour buses have to stop
at the border checkpoint and all the passengers then walk across
the border and get on a Palestinian tour bus. The driver and tour
guide, as they explained, are not allowed to cross at this point
in time because they are Israeli citizens, so they stay with the
bus until the passengers return.
this struck me as almost as sad as the horde of Palestinian kids
begging for small change as soon as you move into Palestinian territory.
The guide on the Palestinian bus helpfully explained that something
like 80 percent of Bethlehem's economy is based on tourism, when
you include all those who make souvenirs and grow olive trees to
be carved into trinkets of various degrees of sophistication. For
the past two years tourism around the Christmas season has declined
precipitously, in part because of these uncomfortable security provisions.
So Bethlehem is hurting.
though Israel is on the State Department's official list of places
Americans should think twice about before visiting, I felt little
discomfort or fear walking around Jerusalem or even taking tour
buses. You can't help remembering, of course, that buses have been
targets for suicide/homicide bombers. But there hadn't been any
attacks for several months, and one comforted oneself by believing
– hoping? – that if Palestinian bombers wanted to take out a bus
it would more likely be one regularly used by Israelis than one
that was obviously a tour bus for foreigners.
those of us at the conference swallowed whatever fears we might
have had and took the tour buses anyway. And aside from the discomfort
at the border checkpoint on the way to Bethlehem, none of us experienced
maybe it was all those dewy-faced youngsters casually shouldering
their machine guns that gave us a sense of security, whether false
or genuine. Whatever the reason, walking to the shopping mall or
just walking around gave me little or no sense of fear or trepidation.
An Arizona state legislator who attended an event in Gaza, however,
told me he heard bullets whizzing, not quite overhead but close
enough for discomfort, from a source unidentified, when his group
stopped to look at what they thought were ordinary sights.
is still a beautiful city and inspiring to be in, in its way. What
is striking is how many of the sites that have resonance, for Jews,
Muslims, and Christians, are so close together. The most striking
example, of course, is the Western Wall (we were told they no longer
call it the "wailing wall") which is just below the Dome of the
Rock and Al Aqsa mosques. Here the two great religions seem inextricably
intertwined yet irreparably separated in an almost tragic fashion.
is almost impossible to go very far in Jerusalem, however, without
coming across a synagogue, church or mosque with some historical
significance. The Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane are
cheek-by-jowl, and from the Mount of Olives on a reasonably clear
day you look out on the arid vastness of the Judean desert. The
Via Dolorosa in the Old City seems almost the same as when Jesus
walked it on the way to the crucifixion, although it has changed
over the centuries.
of us were at the Al Aqsa Mosque – on the grounds, where tourists
are allowed and encouraged, rather than inside – just a few hours
before the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Ahmed Maher, was attacked
by Muslims after a visit with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
(If you ever get a chance to see close-up pictures of the golden-domed
Dome of the Rock, please note and appreciate the beautiful and colorful
mosaics on the walls, which don't show up in long-distance photographs.)
It was odd – a little discomfiting, a little thrill-of-recognition
– to see the event covered so closely by CNN International and Israeli
TV and to reflect on the ironies.
Maher had come to try to reestablish some kind of relations with
Israel and perhaps ease the Palestinian conundrum if possible. But
when he went to the mosque Palestinian worshippers began cursing
him and throwing shoes at him. Israeli security people, who ordinarily
don't go into the mosque, had to help rescue him from people who
thought he was selling out to Israel. Apparently he wasn't actually
hurt in the incident, but if the TV pictures are at all reliable
(one should wonder in most circumstances) he was seriously shaken
by the incident.
and irony. Can hostilities that lead to such incidents ever be resolved?
is strictly impressionistic and based on limited experience over
a couple of days (including time spent watching Israeli, Jordanian
and Turkish television with various degrees of incomprehension).
But it still seems to me that resolution is a long way off. At least
on the Israeli side (this is based on walking streets and a few
conversations so it's hardly scientific or representative) people
seem resigned to the inconveniences of living in a garrison state
and find ways to make the best of it. You can find discussions of
the longer-range implications and the inherent instability of the
current situation in newspapers, but people adjust.
had a fairly long conversation with a black Imam from a mosque in
Detroit one evening after he had spent more time walking in the
Old City than I had. He saw some Palestinian street merchants –
old ladies, probably somebody's grandmother – trying to sell a few
vegetables and treated roughly by Israeli military people. The young
kids with their rifles kicked the old lady's little box of vegetables
all over the street and laughed about the incident. The Palestinian
men, he told me, stayed in the alleyways, able to do nothing to
help the old woman, but obviously frustrated and challenged-but-helpless
in the manhood department. He could see how this frustration would
become rage and perhaps a determination to do something violent
in the future.
was a second-hand account, of course, and from a man who was notably
affected and saddened by the incident. He might have exaggerated
it, he was still so upset, but I seriously doubt if he made it up.
It didn't shake his own determination that religious leaders should
work toward finding ways to achieve something resembling reconciliation
in the Holy Land, but it impressed on him just how difficult this
work was likely to be.
were in Jerusalem during Hanukkah, and our hotel was filled each
night with black-hatted Hasidic Jews and their families, lighting
another candle, praying, singing and dancing. This was certainly
the most intense, sustained and exuberant celebration I've seen
article in the Jerusalem Post, however, suggested that Israeli
attitudes toward Hanukkah might be about to change. The writer noted
that for many centuries Hanukkah had been a relatively minor festival
in the Jewish calendar. It was given a larger emphasis in the United
States, of course, as a way to develop a "Jewish Christmas" for
young people who might feel left out. In Israel, however, the reason
for an increased emphasis on Hanukkah was different. Hanukkah celebrates
Judah Maccabee, a warrior hero who eventually was successful enough
to force recognition of Jewish uniqueness in the Hellenizing old
and others in Israel, which has felt at least potentially besieged
since the beginning of its modern existence, have found it useful
to emphasize a warrior hero from the Jewish past. The Post
article suggested, however, that with increasing Israeli discomfort
over the occupation of the West Bank – a significant number of Israelis
apparently see it not just as inspiration for terrorism but as just
plain wrong, let alone the demographic implications if the area
were ever to become incorporated into Israel and lead to Jews becoming
a minority in Israel – Hanukkah might become less important in Israel
than it has been. This was an aspect I hadn't thought about.
still processing my impressions of this trip. Among the convictions
it reinforced for me, however, is that real people are involved
in this conflict, real people whose lives will be affected by the
next military or diplomatic moves. This makes the chutzpah of
Americans (and others) who think they can come waltzing in with
road maps and other "solutions" to be imposed from the outside all
the more unconscionable. The Israeli-Palestinian impasse is tragic
to a fault. But reconciliation, if it is to come, will have to come
from them rather than from George W., Jacques Chirac, Tony Blair
or any other foreign leader.
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