A Visit to Israel

While 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.

Full 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.


Perhaps 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.

The 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.

There 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.

Of 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.

All 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.


Even 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.

So 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 any problems.

Or 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.

Jerusalem 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.

It 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.

Several 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.

Mr. 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.

Sadness and irony. Can hostilities that lead to such incidents ever be resolved?


This 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.

I 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.

This 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.


We 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 of Hanukkah.

An 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 Seleucid empire.

Zionists 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.

I’m 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.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).