Thursday, March 27, 2008

Reflections on Israel

For about 15 minutes on Tuesday afternoon I wondered whether we'd make it back home at all. Stu and I stood a few metres apart, each being interviewed questioned interrogated by a shaven EL AL security agent who seemed to consider us very much guilty until proven innocent. Where did you stay? How did you get there? What did you do? Do you have a guidebook? Show me where you went in Bethlehem. Did you talk to anyone in Bethlehem? When did you buy the guidebook? But you only booked the flights 3 weeks ago. How are you paying for this trip? Why did you decide to come to Israel? How do you know each other? What does your brother do? Do you know anyone who's been to Israel? What are their names?

After 20 minutes of that, 10 minutes of bag-swabbing and then the check-in queue, we were good and ready to come home.

As the last post may have made clear, Israel is an extraordinary country. If it weren't for the fact that they get attacked quite regularly, the security they - or the Americans, $3bn a year - pay for would be paranoid and ridiculous. You can't enter a bar, shopping centre, museum or bus station without having your bag searched or x-rayed and walking through an x-ray machine. Everyone who does these searches is packing heat - in fact, we saw a young man out for a date with his girlfriend with one arm round her and one round his M16!

Graffiti at Bethlehem
The Palestinians have it rather different, of course. Faced with an 8m high wall through their territory, economic sanctions, limited power and water and even airstrikes, it's perhaps not surprising that they feel aggrieved. In saying this I'm not by any means justifying the jihad posters we saw in Bethlehem. After 6 days I'd hardly consider myself an expert on the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it seems to me that the answer lies in reconciliation, not retribution. Who was that guy who said he was the Prince of Peace...?

Anyway, back to the travelogue. Photos from the trip are here and here.

In the pools at En Gedi
At 6:30 on Easter Day, we joined thousands of other believers at the Garden Tomb to celebrate Jesus' resurrection. That is going to be hard to top until the Second Coming! By 9:00 we'd hired a car for two days and had hit the road to Galilee. We wandered around Capernaum, ate broiled fish in Tiberias, watched the sunset from Mt Tabor and had a drink on Mt Carmel (now part of Haifa). That was one long day, but the next was slightly shorter: hiking around and swimming in the pools of En Gedi, floating in the Dead Sea, and wandering around Herod's fortress at Masada.

On Tuesday we had just enough time to get the bus to Tel Aviv, find the beach and swim in the Mediterranean for an hour or so, before heading to the airport for the ordeal described above.

This has been one of the most interesting trips I've ever taken. Quite apart from the awesome experience of seeing the places where Jesus walked and the Bible was written, experiencing a culture that is a mixture of the Middle East, Western Europe, the USA and the Second Temple Period was a blast. Thankfully not literally.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Holy Land


Who'd have thought that all those Bible stories actually happened? More than that, who'd have imagined that 2000+ years later, Jerusalem is still here, alive and kicking? Stu and I are living it up over here.

On Thursday we visited the Temple - or what's left of it - and saw Jews with phylacteries praying against the Western Wall. Apparently the Shechina glory never left the place, so it's still "a house of prayer for all the nations". Appropriately, there are still people buying and selling souvenirs in the courtyard as well. We went to Caiaphas' house, where Jesus would have been held on the Thursday night; and where Peter and John would have been imprisoned in Acts 4. On Good Friday we walked the Via Dolorosa up to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Golgotha could have been. We walked across the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane, and climbed the Mount of Olives. And we hopped on a bus to Bethlehem to check out the oldest church in the world. Today we saw the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum, which include a complete copy of Isaiah from 100AD. Tomorrow morning we'll be at the Garden Tomb at sunrise to celebrate the resurrection. Wow!

There's more to Israel than history of course. Among the more notable cultural sights, we had a Palestinian boy throw stones at us in East Jerusalem, we almost got shot crossing back from the West Bank to Israel (something that 2m Palestinians aren't allowed to do) and had Orthodox Jews rebuke us for carrying a bag on the Sabbath. (They were walking up the street, but never mind.) And who could forget the Palestinian man on the bus back to Jerusalem who was screaming with pain the whole journey - so much so the bus driver took him straight to hospital.

We've had some great chats as well. A Russian Jew called Sergei who's in the army (everyone is, for 3 years) as a bomb disposal expert told us he had to be ready - with his M16 - every second of the day for an attack. A Palestinian boy in Bethlehem called Ahmed who has to sell postcards to tourists to support his family, while also going to school. Not to mention our friend Nathaniel from All Souls who we ran into twice on Friday - once on the Via Dolorosa and once in a restaurant at night.

I think I've forgotten more than I've put down. The internet access here is too expensive and slow to write more or upload photos so more to come later... meanwhile we hope to rent a car tomorrow and Monday to go to Galilee, the Mount of Transfiguration etc. and down to the Dead Sea. Sweet!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

You can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs

Following the "Double Delia" recipe, we made 3 omelettes from the following ingredients:

6 medium potatoes
2 large onions
2 peppers
8 rashers of bacon
1 block of cheddar cheese
1 small chilli
15 eggs

I don't even like eggs, but in the company of such co-ingredients it was a meal to remember.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Holy sites

2008's travel season is set to begin in 2 weeks when a friend, a flatmate and I fly off to Israel for 6 days over Easter! It should be an incredible trip, and I even took the radical step of buying a guidebook to help us. As I read it last night it struck me how bizarre some of the recommendations are.

For Jews, the Western wall (which was part of the foundations of Herod's temple) is a holy site: they started praying there after AD70 because they were afraid of accidentally stepping on the site of the Holy of Holies. Fair enough.

But why is there a long list of sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere, each of which is a "holy place for Christians"? Is that not missing the point ever so slightly...?

1 Peter 2:
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:
"See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone,"
"A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall."
They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Christians are the holiest sites in Christianity. And that's because we have God's Holy Spirit living inside us, not because we go on a pilgrimage to the "Holy Land" (ahem).