When you think of Israel, what comes to mind? Jewish, religion, Palestine, Jesus, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Turmoil…. Oh, come on, there’s more to it than that! What about the lowest place on Earth, the Dead Sea, so salty you can’t sink in it no matter how hard you try? What about the colorful corals of the Red Sea and the resort town of Eilat, the closest of its kind to Europe? What about ancient Templar caves and magnificent Herodian ruins overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and countless archaeological digs from before Roman times and untouched mosaic floors attesting to ancient ritual baths in the middle of the vast desert that stretches out as far as the eye can see? And that’s just the beginning!
Israel represents a messy melting pot of cultures, backgrounds and religions: Sephardic, Hasidic, Arab, Palestinian, Druze, Bedouin, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Yemenite, Iraqi, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Eastern European, South American and the list goes on and on. It is a very young country (declared independence in 1948) that is controversial globally for its cultural and religious differences, being the Promised Land of Abraham, the birthplace and resurrection of Jesus and the place from which Mohammad ascended to the Heavens. Even the Bab chose to be buried in Israel which makes it the holiest of places for the Baha’i. Everyone wants a piece of this land and everyone can find a bond, if dug deep enough, that justifies claiming it.
Beyond all this turmoil, there is life and there are people who simply live their lives. Our mission in the very short time frame of two weeks was to meet some of these people, explore the beautiful nature in which they reside and learn about the history that unearths (literally) beneath their feet. We would soon realize how complex this tiny country really is. We would soon realize that this tiny country is even more complex than we ever imagined.
Our journey began with two nights in a rather unusual type of settlement without which Israel’s existence would not have been realized: a kibbutz. A dictionary description explains that a kibbutz is “a collective agricultural settlement owned and administered communally by its members who receive no pay but gain housing, clothing, medical care and education from the cooperative.” This socialistic and idealistic view that just about anyone, from any background and social status, can be accepted into a community attracted many newcomers. In fact, during and immediately after World War II the kibbutz movement, coupled with the idea of a Jewish homeland, was so attractive that the population of Israel more than tripled. Today there are close to 270 kibbutzim spread throughout Israel who still welcome newcomers, although their growing populations and young and new ideas force them to modify their ways.
To get to our host kibbutz, Ze’elim, we had to drive toward the Gaza Strip while the radio warns us in Hebrew of a potential rocket attack on the area. Our route led us through fields of potatoes, carrots and peanuts, and orange, pomegranate and avocado orchards. When the first inhabitants arrived to this area in the 1940’s, they encountered a desert of sand dunes, hard ground, little shade, exhausting sunny days, and cold nights. These were the pioneers that would water the ground and contribute to Israel’s self-sufficiency in agricultural products. These were the freedom fighters that guarded their precious desert from the artillery attacks of the Egyptian forces with small stocks of ammunition provided by the underground movements hidden from the British occupancy forces. These people are today the kibbutz’ aging population and the movement’s last stand.
Our tour of Ze’elim took us to the dining hall, the grocery store, the Laundromat, the daycare center, the homes of the teenagers, the family homes, the bunkers, the dairy farm and the fields. We were told about the very first operations of the kibbutz and then shown how it has changed and developed since its creation. Until the early 1990’s, all children lived together in the dormitory and shared clothing between them. Today, kids have bedrooms in their parents’ houses and choose their clothing from their closets. In the past, family houses included a living room and a bathroom. Today, each house has a fully equipped kitchen and a laundry machine. The dining room and Laundromats are still open for members’ use but are less frequented with every year that passes. Thus the socialistic standards of the kibbutz slowly lose momentum and an individualistic approach hangs imminently in the air.
Following our enlightening visit to Ze’elim, we continued on desert roads to Joe Alon Bedouin Center and a visit with a modern Bedouin family. We soon realized how the addition of borders affected the Bedouin way of life. They were once a nomadic people who roamed the deserts from Sinai to Jordan. When borders were established in 1948 and redrawn following the Six Days War of 1967 the Bedouins found themselves confined to only ten percent of their original lands. Some chose to integrate into Western society and built towns with schools, medical facilities and mosques (they are Sunni Muslim). Others continue their traditional lives to this day, herding sheep and camels and living in tents in unregistered communities.
Our traverse of the Negev Desert continued to the south and through the Arava Desert to Eilat. En route we stopped for short hikes at Ein Avdat, a true desert oasis, and the Ramon Crater, a natural phenomenon whose geologic roots are debated to this day. But Eilat was the real treat: a city full of fun activities ranging from hiking and camel-riding through the deserted mountains bordering Sinai to diving and swimming with dolphins at the reefs of the Red Sea. We raced from one activity to the next and only took time in the evening to appreciate the location of the southern tip of Israel, bordered by Aqaba (Jordan) only a few kilometers to the East, the Sinai (Egypt) to the west, and the flickering lights of Saudi Arabia in the distant south.
Time passed quickly and we were soon heading back up north along the Jordanian border toward the lowest place in the world, the Dead Sea. At under 400m (-1300ft) below sea level, the Dead Sea boasts the highest salinity level of any other body of water in the world (32% compared to the ocean’s 3%), which is why nothing is able to live in it, let alone sink in it. Our new experience taught us that swimming in this water is extremely dangerous due to a number of factors. First, we quickly understood the meaning of the expression “salt on open wounds” that burned for hours after we exited the water. And second, we had to develop and practice the art of rolling over from floating on our stomach to floating on our backs, which is much more difficult than it looks. Having mastered the skill, we were ready to move on to our next destination: Masada.
Sitting on the top of a hill overlooking the Dead Sea are the ruins of the historic winter home of King Herod. Complete with two palaces, servant quarters, ritual baths and an advanced watering system, it is clear that this was the home of a very sophisticated civilization. It was also the ideal location for the ancient Jews in which to take refuge following the destruction of Solomon’s Second Temple by the Romans. For this reason the site adopted the name Masada: a fortress. As the famous historian of the time Josephus Flavius wrote, the Roman forces surrounded the site in all directions and cut off the water and food supply to the top. The Jewish refugees understood they ran out of options. They preferred to die by their own hands than be taken prisoners and slaves. Thus when the Roman forces arrived, they found to their great embarrassment 900 men, women and children who had taken their own lives.
Only one other site in Israel is capable of evoking such strong feelings as Masada. That place is Jerusalem and that is where our faces were headed that same day. Our journey through the holiest city in the world began at the Mount of Olives, looking down at the Garden of Bethesda, which is also an endless Jewish cemetery from which it is believed that the dead will be resurrected when the Messiah comes. From a viewpoint we searched the wall that was recently built between Bethlehem in the West Bank and the rest of Israel and contemplated the clashing forces of the past and present. Shortly thereafter we walked into a different world through the Jaffa Gate and found ourselves in the midst of the Christian Quarter of the Old City. We maneuvered through narrow alleyways to find one of the holiest places in the world: the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the agreed upon place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. To protect the church from any unauthorized alterations, a Roman Catholic priest, a Greek Orthodox priest and a Russian Orthodox priest lock themselves up in the Church every night and await a local Muslim man to open the Church in the morning. One alley away is the Muslim Quarter and the bazaar of all goods: modern necessities, antiques, souvenirs, fruits, candy and everything you can think of. This is where the Via Dolorosa passes, where countless pilgrims each day retrace Jesus’ final footsteps, carrying a Cross through a busy Muslim marketplace.
Another alley away we entered the Jewish Quarter where our eyes finally fell upon the Wailing Wall, the only remaining foundation of Solomon’s Second Temple. On top of this foundation, the holiest site for the Jews worldwide, sits today the Dome of the Rock from which Mohammad ascended to heaven. This intermingling of three religions in one small area is a portrayal of the countless cultures that coexist in the entire country of Israel. This tiny area is rich in history, culture, religion, war, peace, hope and belief. This simple complexity is its true charm.