Tag Archives: Israel

Pause for Reflection

Firstly apologies for the hiatus – a batch of Real Life intervened!

Our first days in Jerusalem were a whirlwind of impressions, sights, information and people, with very little time to process what we had seen and heard.  This is, in one sense inevitable in a place which has had such a long and at times bitter history.  It is a place which has been fought over from antiquity, with invaders from – amongst others – Rome, Byzantium, the Ottoman Empire, the Crusaders, down to 1967 and the aftermath of continuing conflict today.

Close up of bullet holes in the Lion Gate from 1967

Close up of bullet holes in the Lion Gate from 1967

It would be both naive and presumptuous to make judgements and draw conclusions about today’s circumstances after just a few days in the place, taking in the atmosphere and looking at the local English language editions of the newspapers, and glimpsing the tv programmes, but certain impressions stand out and need to be considered.

One essential is to discount much of what is reported in the Western  press.  Sadly much of the reporting, particularly but not exclusively in the tabloid section, is ill-informed and comes from a particular viewpoint.  Getting an unbiased viewpoint is extremely difficult, and so I stress that these following comments come from what I have experienced in our first five days.

The first impression is that of hospitality.  It is more of a genuine welcome than the usual approach of tourist places  to relieve the visitor of as much cash as possible and then move on to the next group.  Yes, some of the street vendors can be quite pushy, and you need to be prepared to pay if you want to photograph a camel, but I stand by my comment.  At the Bethlehem Co-operative there was a painstaking introduction to what was available and the ethos behind the work.  There were refreshments and there was absolutely no pressure to buy anything.  You could talk to the stallholders who were quite happy to show and talk about their wares, and were courteous if we didn’t want a particular item.

Friday’s visit to Yad Vashem was a stark reminder, if one were needed, of why Israel

Wall of Remembrance, Warsaw Ghetto Square Yad Vashem

Wall of Remembrance, Warsaw Ghetto Square, Yad Vashem

collectively says “never again”.  It is a place of infinite pain but it is also a place of division.  There is no mention of the other groups who were slaughtered on an industrial scale by the Nazis.  Every recruit to the Israeli Defence Force is taken to Yad Vashem as part of their initial training – we saw some whilst we were there – and I cannot help but wonder whether the story told there leads to some of the problems at the checkpoints when these no longer recruits are deployed to guard the  borders.  Does the enormity of the history there mean that even friends are regarded with suspicion, just in case?

The other side of the coin we saw on the day after our arrival.  Some Palestinians reckon 15th May as Nakba Day, the Day of Catastrophe, which commemorates the  time in 1948 when Israel became an independent state after some 700,000 Palestinians had been expelled or fled, and many villages depopulated and destroyed.  A short way down the road from our hotel there was a gathering dispersed by the Israeli Police and military with tear gas, water cannon and a cavalry charge of some youths who came running down the road in front of us.  No more than eight Palestinian men under the age of 50 are allowed to gather in one place in Jerusalem, a prohibition which does not apply to Orthodox Jewish men: the following day there was a procession of forty or so walking down the road with a police escort to clear the traffic.

But it is important to remember that neither Israeli nor Palestinian society is a homogenous grouping.  Even  in Jerusalem there are tensions between Orthodox Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews and secular Jews.  The ultra-Orthodox pay no taxes, nor do they serve in the Army, and whilst we were there a debate was being held in the Knesset as to whether they, together with others like the Christians, should be required to serve.  The motion was defeated – for now.

As we passed the Knesset building (which I was intrigued to learn was built on land leased from the Christian Church in the form of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate) we reflected on the nature of the Knesset (or ‘Great Assembly’) which has 120 members elected by proportional representation from a party list.  It is a method almost guaranteed to require coalition government, since it is unlikely that any single party will amass 61 seats to provide a majority.  It is widely recognised that this means that progress on any matter is likely to be slow, or blocked by a minority party.  Again there is divison between those who see this system as needing reform and those who are content with matters as they are.

All in all, we have quickly learned that Israel is a complex society, and one which is, rightly, determined to survive even if there is a forthcoming clash between the secular and the various forms of Orthodoxy.

But one has to wonder sadly how a nation which suffered the horrors of the Holocaust could now inflict such suffering and humiliation upon its nearest neighbour.

Festival! – Day Two, Wednesday 15th May 2013

Despite the long day yesterday as our coach entered Jerusalem I found myself mentally reciting the opening of Psalm 122:

I was glad when they  said to me / Let us go to the house of the Lord:            And now our feet are standing / within your gates O Jerusalem;

and no sooner had I got to that part when Bishop Stephen started reading the Psalm at the front of the coach.  It was quite exciting, but it added to the sense of slight unreality of the day!

But now after a night’s sleep and breakfast we are assembling on the coach for a 8.00 am start to today’s tour.  We meet for the first time our local guide Saeed, who tells us that his name means ‘Happy’ and our driver Ali who, we quickly realise, is a really expert driver.  Although, as Saeed explains, today’s traffic is relatively light as it is the Feast of Shavuot, the third of the major Jewish Festivals which celebrates the giving of the Torah, and the first harvest.  We note crowds of Orthodox Jews making their way to worship, and also some of the differences in dress.

This morning we are due to go to the Mount of Olives and walk down to the Garden of Gethsemane, but by the time we arrive there the rain is so heavy that it would be unsafe to attempt the walk so, after a brief orientation talk we get back on the bus for a tour to Bethany, where we encounter the security wall for the first time.

DSC_0019The direct walking route from Jerusalem to Bethany is about 2 miles, but the wall means that we have about 35 minutes drive to get from one to the other.  We hear of the probems encountered by those who live outside Jerusalem but work in the city, and of those who have been separated from their land by the wall.  The stories are told factually, not emotionally which adds to the impact.

Our next stop is the Church of St Peter in Gallicantu, traditionally the High Priest’s house where Jesus was taken for questioning and Peter denied him.  Saeed explains to us what, in the context of the Holy Land, “traditional” means – clue: it does not mean ‘certain’!  However, right by the Church is a road which was certainly there in the first century CE and, since it is the ancient route from Bethany to Jerusalem it is one place where we can be sure that Jesus walked.

We move to the Old City for lunch at a restaurant in the Armenian Quarter then, suitably restored, visit Mount Zion and walk through the Jewish Quarter to the Western Wall.  The area in front of the Wall has been significantly enlarged since my brief visit in 1999, and there is now an area where women may go to pray. DSC_0072 (This is on the far right in the photo below.  There are also crowd barriers to allow access and there is a large number of people on the approach as well as at the Wall.

The weather is now fine, though not as warm as expected, and we return to the Mount of Olives for our visit to the Dominus Flevit Church, where Jesus wept over Jerusalem and down to the Garden of Gethsemane.  I was interested to see, at the top of the Mount of Olives, one of the many archaeological sites in and around Jerusalem.  This dig was relatively recent and had discovered some first century tombs cut in the rock.  One thing this trip is already doing is dispelling the images left over from the Victorians  that  were so popular in our childhood!DSC_0015

In this context it was rather a shock to some of our companions that the way down to the Garden of Gethsemane was not a stony track but a tarmac road, albeit rather narrow, but cars were a hazard.  The oldest olive tree  currently  in the Garden is about 800 years old, so none of those that are here now were in place at the time of Christ, but what was very interesting was to see how new growth came from old wood, and a tree that had apparently died was putting out new shoots.  There must be a sermon in there somewhere!

Up, up and away! – Day One: Tuesday 14th May 2013

Originally we were to fly out on an afternoon flight with El Al, but for some reason this flight was cancelled and so we were transferred to flight BA165, Heathrow to Tel Aviv.  Snag was that this flight left at 08.10, which meant that we had to be at Heathrow by five in the morning, which in turn meant leaving Ely at 2.00am!  Fortunately there were sufficient of us for a coach to be arranged, and in order to ensure that we were at the pick up on time we booked a taxi to take us to the pick up point.  We carefully built in some time in case the taxi was delayed – or forgot us! – so of course it arrived early and Yvonne and I and our suitcases were therefore the first arrivals in a cold, dark Ely car park with more than a suspicion of damp in the air.  Even our coach hadn’t arrived yet!

All was well, however, and eventually other members of the party arrived as did the coach, and our journey properly began.  Next problem, on arrival at Heathrow,was to find Maureen and the other members of the party and find the check-in.  That accomplished there was time for a very early breakfast whilst we waited to find out what our departure gate was.  And yes, it was one of the further gates at Terminal 1 so a longish walk ensued

If this part of the journey is so memorable what is Israel going to be like!?

I confess that I’m not madly keen on flying but our Airbus seemed to be slightly more roomy than I remember from 747s in the past, and the screen built in to the back of the seat ahead is a great improvement on the old drop down screen on a far away bulkhead.  Not that this time I was worried about the in-flight movie; it was more a case of trying to doze comfortably.  I opted to follow our journey on the live map.  Great fun!

We had breakfast and lunch on the plane before arriving at Ben Gurion airport at 15.10 local, ten minutes later than scheduled, but since we had taken off 24 minutes late I thought that wasn’t too bad.  Once again there were long walks before we passed immigration, were reunited with our baggage and each other and found our guide and coach to Jerusalem.

One of the benefits of an afternoon arrival rather than an evening one was that we were able to have an orientation tour of Jerusalem before going to the hotel. Featured were Mount Scopus, the Kidron Valley and the Mount of Olives, where we stopped and got out of the coach so that various landmarks could be pointed out.

Finally at the Hotel we found our rooms, the baggage retrieved a wash-and-brush-up then it was time for our first meal in Israel – an open buffet.Image

And so, some 18 hours after our journey began (and with no sleep on Monday night) to bed!

In the beginning …

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem Old City

Damascus Gate, Jerusalem Old City

In May 2013 Yvonne and I went on a group pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Our first days were spent in and around Jerusalem, and the second half around Galilee.  The pilgrimage was led by our Bishop, Stephen Conway, the Bishop of Ely and by the Revd Maureen Allchin of McCabe Pilgrimages.  There was a lot to take in: Israel and Palestine are places of contrasts, some having aspects that speak to our deepest emotions, so rather than try to keep a daily blog I decided to wait until I got home and allow time for reflection.  And so this blog has been created.

One of our group, Trevor, did blog daily and his reflections are at The Cross and The Cosmos <http://tinyurl.com/k4ddmbd>.

So, on with the travelogue!

Alan