A decade or so ago I went to Israel on an unusual junket—all expenses paid to study terrorism from an Israeli perspective. My reactions were all over the map.
As a kid, “shekels” was a slang term for money, but now I was buying chewing gum with that decidedly non-biblical currency. Back then I had often looked at the pictures and maps in my Thomas Nelson Revised Standard Version Bible during the boring parts of church, but only when I went to Israel, did I realize how small the country is. (Bethlehem is but six miles from Jerusalem.) More than once on the trip, I was told that Israel is about the same size as New Jersey. (Is there any other way that New Jersey is like the Holy Land?)
Of course, especially on this trip, there were constant reminders of terrorism—the disco across from our Tel Aviv hotel where partygoers were bombed waiting to enter; the Gaza checkpoint where soldiers had been killed; the meeting with the man disfigured by an incendiary device tossed into his car. These reminders of terrorism made it hard to remember that someone in Israel is more likely to be killed in a car accident than by a terrorist and that per capita more people are killed by guns in America than by terrorists in Israel even though guns are everywhere in Israel. Soldiers carrying guns are a common sight. (My favorite—a soldier in sandals carrying a gun slung over one shoulder and the biggest, reddest purse I’d ever seen balancing on her other side.)
One image of Israel: security, security, security. Searches to get into the hotel; lengthy interrogations and more to get into the Knesset. Sometimes I did wonder about the efficacy of these measures. The first time I went to a restaurant the guard controlling admission did a cursory search. The second time, he simply said, “Have you got a gun?” I said no and was nodded in. Would a terrorist tell him he had a gun? By the third day at the hotel, our group was generally waved around the security check point. Does that mean a terrorist committed to staying at the hotel for at least three days could then avoid security? Or is it that I and the rest of the group did not look Palestinian?
My northern European looks did not stop El Al from subjecting me to rigorous scrutiny. Going I was pulled aside from the other passengers, interrogated, and my suitcase thoroughly, I say thoroughly, inspected. Returning it happened again, but then I had a touch of turista, and the experience seemed to take even longer. I did get on the plane even though I had fudged the truth. On the day of departure, it was market time near the hotel. I went to poke around and ended up buying some gifts of Dead Sea mud and some bee products. I did not give much mind to these casual purchases until I was asked at the airport whether my items came from the stall in the market, or whether the seller had gone into the back to get the facial mask and pollen rejuvenator. Sick I may have been, but the mind quickly decided the right answer for getting on board—I picked them off the shelf, handed them to the proprietor, and then paid for them. Everything was in my sight. But as soon as I said that I was not absolutely sure that I really knew how the transaction went. Wanting to get home, I did not voice this little doubt. I was a bit a nervous on most of the return flight.
We were exposed to many intriguing people—terrorism experts in academic institutions; drone pilots; agents who were incredible marksmen and, as indicated by a film of an actual incident, could snatch a suspected terrorist off the street, throw him in a van, and drive off in a matter of seconds. Perhaps most striking was the professional interrogator for one of the intelligence agencies. He entered the room, and his bearing, his aura was such that I would have told him anything he asked me. He maintained that a professional interrogator almost never needed to use physical force, implying that Americans did not have professional interrogators, but he also went on to discuss whether shaking a subject should be considered torture.
I also saw more usual tourist sights—the cars haphazardly parked; the Tel Aviv waterfront; Caesarea being set for a beautiful evening, seaside wedding reception; the I-would-not-believe-it-if-I-had-not-seen-it rest stop in homage to the King, not David or Solomon, but Elvis Presley.
We spent a few hours touring Jerusalem. Our guide for the day impressed me when, for reasons no longer remembered, he talked about the obverse of a coin. Note, not the obverse side of a coin, which would have been incorrect. I was unsure if I had ever heard a native English speaker use “obverse,” and my admiration increased when I found out he was certified to give tours in many languages in addition to English. He took us in and out of many religious places, and of course, it was important to remember whether the place was Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, or Muslim in order to put a hat on or take it off. I think the Upper Room was pointed out, but then another place was said to be perhaps the site of the Last Supper. Mary’s burial place was there, but, then again, a location in Turkey is venerated as the place where her Assumption took place, and of course, it is not clear to Assumption believers whether she actually died. (And I think that some believe she died in India.)
We passed stations of the cross and the crucifixion and burial places. I wondered how people could be so sure that these were the right locations and why there was no marker for the doorway where the Wandering Jew refused aid. Perhaps these doubts about authenticity led me to blasphemous thoughts. I was told to plunge my arm through a hole so that I could feel the rock on which the True Cross stood. As I did, my mind returned to the sixth grade Halloween parties where, blindfolded, we put our hands into bowls of grapes and spaghetti and told we were feeling eyeballs and guts. Of course, many of these now revered sites were “authenticated” centuries after the events by, I believe, Constantine’s mother, who also collected many relics, perhaps the relics that Mark Twain later saw, and amusingly wrote about, in his travels to the Continent and the Holy Land. Even if they are in the places where the events happened, I wondered why they are regarded as holy sites. If a religion is universal, then no place could be more sacred than another.
But the most striking part of the Jerusalem trip was its beginning and end. Before we entered, the obverse-coin guide brought us to a place that overlooked Jerusalem. He pointed out things in the old city; where Bethlehem was and is; the Palestinian-controlled territory; the wall marking the boundary (although Israelis called it a fence, not a wall); and the mural-painted wall (this was called a wall) behind us, which prevented Palestinians down below from shooting into Israeli apartments up above.
Our location was a parking lot, and a nearby food van was, like many other Israeli places, playing old American rock and roll. The third song I noticed was Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive. I almost laughed at the remarkable fortuity. I know that the song is about a woman’s strength in rejecting a lover who walked out, but what better chorus could there be as I looked out over Israel and Jerusalem than I WILL SURVIVE.
During this trip because of the sensitive places we often visited—military and intelligence facilities—we were accompanied by heavily armed, young men, and in Jerusalem I fell into step with such an escort. A few moments later, some men rounded a corner shouting and elbowing others aside. I asked the escort, born and raised in Israel, what that was about, and he replied, “Just some Arabs showing off.” He and I exited the old city together, and I was visually assaulted by a row of tacky tourist shops. American rock and roll came from them, too, and the first song I heard outside the old city was R.E.M.’s Losing My Religion. I smiled and said to the escort, “That doesn’t seem right for Jerusalem.” He stopped, paused a beat, and thoughtfully said, “I think that is the only way.”
Is that right? Can there only be peace if we lose our religion?