Have Overheads: Will Travel--# 7.


The Israeli Connection


This trip began with an e-mail invitation to talk at a conference of Jewish educators in Jerusalem. It came from the organizer, who cheerily introduced herself as Shira. She runs the education division of the World Zionist Organization. Their concern was the increasing numbers of Jewish children in the diaspora who were growing up with little vivid sense of Israel and their heritage--or this, anyway, is how many perceive it. I was asked to address how to engage the imaginations of children in Peoria or Pernambuco or St. Petersburg with the dramatic reality of Israel.

I had never been to Israel, so quickly got together a bunch of overheads, and was ready to go. This wasearly in August 1997. Just days before I left there was a suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and, I later learned, Israeli security were expecting more. (A few weeks after I left there was more, in precisely the place I had had dinner with Shira.)

Tickets were mailed to me from New York, and I set off. At Kennedy airport I transfered to the El Al terminal. It was a somber place. There was a more or less normal looking counter, but getting to it was not so easy. A young woman approached me and asked what I was doing there. Which seemed an odd question. I said I had come to catch a plane to Tel Aviv. Could she see my ticket? Sure. What was I going to Israel for? To give a talk at a conference. Could I prove this?

By this point I was led to something like a small lectern in the middle of the departures hall, onto which I was asked to put my ticket, and any other relevant papers. Did I have another passport? Yes. What nationality? Irish. In the circumstances, not a winning answer. Associations with the I.R.A. clearly sprang to her mind. Did I have an official invition to the conference? No, just an e-mail message with the name and address of the hotel I was to stay at. Had I met this Shira? No. Had I spoken to her on the phone? No. Did I buy my ticket? No. Was I in the habit of picking up and travelling across the world just on the basis of an e-mail inviation? Yes.

My very pleasant interrogator was then joined by another. Both young women, both Israeli security, both very intelligent, and both adamant that I was not getting on that plane till I could give them clear evidence that this was a legitimate conference and I was who I claimed to be. The "bad cop" of the pair took my passport and the e-mail message I had received and wandered off. The "good cop" asked to be persuaded that I was the mild Canadian academic I claimed and not an agent of Arab terrorism. Perhaps "Shira" was an Arab terrorist and my bags had had a small bomb added to them either in Vancouver or in transit in New York.

I showed her my overheads. She seemed unimpressed. Anyone could produce such things. Could I go through them; give my talk? She listened patiently as I delivered my lecture in the terminal; an occasional passenger eyeing me uncertainly, perhaps wondering what he might have to do to get such a fate thrust on him. She stopped me after about ten minutes. So I might be a professor, but perhaps I was a dupe. She put it so considerately.

The "bad cop" returned, asked me many of the same questions as the "good cop", but with patent disbelief at each answer. She had, it seems, phoned the hotel in Jerusalem, discovered there was such a conference, and that I was registered. Her parting friendly gesture was to tell me I was registered under the name Dr. Kieran.

They let me check in after about three quarters of an hour. I was left thinking how wonderful if seminars were full of such sharp-minded people. I also felt remarkably secure on the flight. But, whether intentionally or not, El Al managed to lose my luggage, so I arrived in Tel Aviv without it. It turned up the day before I was due to return.

Shira had asked me by e-mail how much I charged. I said that in North America I charged my usual Trump-staggering fee. She said that unfortunately they couldn't afford that, as the Israeli economy might be doing well, but it was not doing that well. Also all the money she had for the conference was being spent on bringing in deligates from Russia and other poorer places. I said that I really only needed a moderate hotel room and airfare, and was delighted that my fee was to be spent on bringing in the audience. In liue of a fee she said she would provide me with a guide.

I didn't think much of this until I woke up the morning after I arrived in Jerusalem and was to meet Alissa in the lobby of the hotel. The first day we "did" Jerusalem. Alissa was a professional guide, also completing a Ph.D. in Leeds, England on the politics of the public display of archeology. We started on the Mount of Olives, desended to Gethsemane, and then headed across to the old city. It was all so small, crowded together. In my imagination, the events that were centuries apart, like David's fights and dancing, and Christ's passion, were in vastly different cognitive spaces, but here they were a short walkfrom one another. And Christ went into the desert--I had imagined a bus ride to Calgary kind of space, or some equivalent. No, look over from the Mount of Olives--it's just down there, an easy morning's stroll.

I confessed that one of my main archeological interests was Roman engineering. So underground we went at various points, seeing old Roman streets and cisterns and baths. We had to look at the Holy Sepulchre, which is surely a challenge to any Chistian's faith. The battles of the various sects for space close to the site of Christ's crucifiction, and the garish displays with which they mark their bitterly won square meters, leaves all but the terminally pious weary and depressed. The Holy Sepulchre seems primarily a shrine to centuries of small-minded sectarianism. How odd, having been brought up a good Catholic lad, to experience a sense of sanctity only in the great mosque, the Dome of the Rock, where Mohammed is said to have left the earth for heaven, and where Abraham is supposed to have been prepared to sacrifice Isaac. It has recently been grandly refurbished with funding from Hussein of Jordan.

We looked in some of the shops along the Via Dolorosa, noting the Stations of the Cross where Christ stopped on his journey to calvary. Alissa pointed out that no-one knew the actual route, or indeed from where Christ started. The stations were determined by the Crusaders. To stop merchants incessantly battling for the best spots to suck money out of the pilgrims, some pragmatic Crusading bureaucrat fixed the Stations of the Cross to provide stopping points at which the merchants all got an adequate shot at flogging their stuff to pilgrims--which is much the way things are today.

Up early next morning for a run south. Alissa was at the door at 8 a.m. with her car, and we headed through the scorched and stark countyside, dry golden-red rocks and hills and mountains, the hill country of Judea to the right, and across the Dead Sea the shadows of the Moabite hills. On the way down, I had to ride the required camel as we passed sea level. How on earth anyone manages to stay on these shifting and bumping beasts for hours astonishes after just a few meters by the side of the road.

Bedouine tribes, of whom I had the romantic image conveyed by nineteenth century English literature, dotted the land to the sides of the road: "What needs't with thy tribes black tents/Who hast the red pavilion of my heart?"--that kind of thing. But the splendid black tents of my imagination, and David Lean's film (much the same things, I think), were little in evidence. There were indeed some bits of bedragled black cloth in places but the pavilions of Flecker's or was it Coventry Patmore's verse were now constructed more of corrugated iron, and bits of plywood and sheets of black plastic. Alissa said that those wonderful tents required many black sheep and many wives to transform the wool. We are into hard times for sable pavilions--you might bear in mind.

We took the cable car to the top of Massada, and she carried her well-thumbed copy of Josephus's The Jewish Wars. I hadn't known that Josephus had taken part in the wars against the Romans and had been involved in a seige very like that at Massada. The Jews in Joshephus's seige had also decided to commit suicide rather than be taken and killed by the Romans. The ten Jewish leaders agreed to kill each of the remaining men under them, and then they drew lots for whom among them should kill the other nine, committing suicide himself at the end. Josephus won the lot to be the last man standing. He dutifully killed his nine fellow officers--then surrendered himself to the Romans. He was spared, and wrote the vivid history which is our main source of evidence about this period.

Massada is astonishing. A huge plateau rising out of the arid land. Impregnable. Plenty of water in the vast cisterns at the top, room for goats and other animals. Herod's palace is rising again as the archeologists place the rubble of stones back into their earlier positions as walls. Alissa read me Josephus's account of the Roman seige as I looked over the edge at the outlines of the Roman camps still clear below. It was as if it all happened yesterday. And at the back, the massive mole the Romans had built, millions of tons of soil and rock, gradually built up bit by bit, and the seige engines pushing up along it, till they reached the walls at the top, then punched through them. The Jewish defenders saw it was all over and at that point committed suicide.

But the puzzle for some time was why there were so many Romans. Why the five separate encampments? One explanation that is gaining increasing support is that this central event of Jewish resistence history was just a training exercise to the Romans. Looking up at Massada, you can only accept its impregnability to anything short of nuclear bombers. It was a perfect opportunity for the Roman engineers to show that they could take anything.

Then north and east to the Dead Sea, where I did the tourist float on the dense waters. The lowest point of earth. The astonishing bouyancy. Turning over made one feel like a cork. Then north to 'En Gedi, where David used to hang out, and make raids on Saul's armies, just a few years back. We trecked through what is now a nature reserve, up to Shulamit's cave and the sudden waterfall and moringa trees in the midst of this incredibly stark and arid land. The water cut through the limestone and dolomite rock and runs along impermeable clay and marl till it emerges as springs at the top of the cliffs. Among the flora ofhe reserve are the northenmost sodom apples, and among the fauna are ibex and the endangered leopard. We saw a lot of female ibex with delicate and tiny young tripping around them. Though tripping is the wrong word, as they move with amazing sure-footedness on the rocks. The pamphlet handed out to visitors tells us "Be careful not to get bitten by snakes and scorpions." Either one, presumably, would be fine; it's the combination you have to look out for. And it was hot. I was still in my Tilly trousers and the heavy shirt I travelled in. So I was frequently refilling my water bottle from the warm taps, assured it was drinkable.

Then Qumran, to see the cave where the first of the Dead Sea scrolls was found, and, more engaging for me, to see the remains of the Essenes community. The rules of the Essenes' life echoed those of Pythagorean communities centuries earlier, and those of Christian monastic communities centuries later, and, no doubt recalled by readers of an earlier "Have Overheads, Will Travel", of Buddhist monasteries today. When groups of males get together and try to live sanctified and scholarly lives, the old Adam needs to be constrained. These communities all share techniques for controlling appetites and regulating daily lives such that each Pythagorean, or Essene, or Benedictine, or Buhddist serves to support each frail fellow in ascetically striving to live those odd ideals of male sanctity. The Romans who destroyed Massada dispersed the community from Qumran. But the scholars know one trick. I stood in the scriptorium of the settlement and, later that day in the Israel Museum, was able to see some of the texts they had written and preserved in jars for two thousand years.

Alissa dropped me at the hotel after a quick Shabbat run through Jerusalem. Orthodox Jews do not use any form of machinery on the Shabbat. This can cause something of a problem if one is staying on the fourteenth floor of an hotel. So hotels typically have a special Shabbat elevator. This opens on the ground floor, where one gets on. It then travels non-stop to the top floor, where it automatically opens. It then stops automatically at each floor on the way down, and you get out where you wish. This method of observing of the letter of the law warmed my ex-Catholic heart. The various means of avoiding the inconvenience of various rules would merit the admiration of any Jesuit.

The overheads were needed the next day. First I had to buy a shirt and some underwear, as El Al were constantly promising and constantly failing to deliver my luggage. But more urgent than the shirt and underwear was some immodium. That warm water was not as innocent of microbial life as the Dead Sea. As I talked I was aware of the immodium more or less gaining on whatever it was fighting against in my gut.

The talk was to benefit from translation into Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese. The jokes, which I rely on with a kind of desperation, flogging my audiences to some kind of responsiveness, received laughter from the English speakers immediately. As I was half way through the next sentence, the Spaniards laughed. At the end of the next sentence the Portuguese pitched in. The Russians never laughed. Didn't they know it was my fee had paid their fares?

Israel has the most vociferously abusive vocal interactions (shall we call them?) of anywhere I have been. Loud and violently abusive arguments seemed routine, about almost anything. What do you mean, it might rain tomorrow? Of course it won't, you pickle brained oaf! Have you learned nothing from life? Your parents must have been as brain-dead as you. Defective genes!! Idiot! etc. And--causally related?--it has a lower rate of violent crime than any society on earth. There are sometimes house break-ins, but not if anyone is home--that might lead to a physical confrontation.

Israel also has the highest per capita use of cell-phones in this arm of the galaxy. Into which their owners holler abusively. Shira took my lost luggage as a personal affront. All of the employees of El Al were clearly compared to lesser life-forms, evolutionary dead-ends, with frequent derogatory observations on their parentage, and the company from top to bottom received a tongue lashing that would have had any Anglo-Saxon cringing and whimpering in fear, but no doubt was taken as everyday conversation in Israel.

I was cautioned about terrorist bombings before leaving Vancouver. I tend to attend to statistics about such things, and realised my chance of being slaughtered by Israeli drivers was vastly more likely that by an Arab terrorist. They drive rather like the Portuguese, though, given Israeli history during the past decades, as though they were constanly running through volleys of gunfire, needing to get into the shelter of the next street or beyond that traffic light before the shells got them.

I was interested that pretty well every Israeli I spoke to thought the Arab problem would be settled soon. That wasn't a fundamental problem, but the role of the ultra orthodox in Israeli society was. There are now three divisions of non-army serving Jews in the country. Was Israel to be a Jewish country, or a country where Jews lived? The divisions around this question were of a kind and depth that seemed to many to have no obvious solution that didn't represent a real danger to the society.

Various trips were laid on for the conference group. We travelled in two buses, on each of which we would have a couple of young men or women with uzzis or A-K 47, which they used to sratch their backs or pick their noses. They also were required to have first-aid medical training, to deal especially with gunshot wounds. I could never decide whether this was more disconcerting or comforting. One of our trips took us on the fine roads around such Arab towns as Bethlehem. The fine roads were built after the rattle of stones on Jewish cars driving through them made the road building a cheaper option.

"We dig Israel" was the motto on the T-shirts of the archeological group we were to visit. A bunch of entrepeneurial young archeologists had found the perfect site for tourists. During the time a Judas Maccabeus, a settlement of non-Jews was given the choice of conversion to Judaism or banishment. While many chose the former, there was a group who chose the latter. The land thereabouts had a thin crust of rock over a deep layer of dry clay. Houses were built on the top and then the owners would punch through the rock to the softer clay below and scrape it away. Over a few years they would create substantial cellars beneath the houses, where the temperature stayed at 60° throughout the year. In one area, all those who were being forced to leave their homes smashed everything they couldn't carry with them, especially pottery, and dumped it into one of the larger cellers. Water and soil and, no doubt, fur, flesh, and faeces had accumulated over the centuries. Recent excavation exposed the cellar full of shattered pottery. It was all pretty routine stuff, but there was about thirty or forty feet of it. It thus makes a perfect tourist dig. While there is almost certainly nothing of value, every digger is bound to find something within a few minutes, and everyone of our group emerged with some shards of something.

The last day I joined the conference trip to Tel Aviv and Jaffa. Sitting on the balcony of a cafe, looking over the beach at the Mediterranean, it was hard to recognize "the central sea of all the earth" as the same holiday sea I had swum in it so often around France and Italy. Here it seemed a more menacing or menaced stretch of water.

And Jaffa has been Disneyized and so largely destroyed in an attempt to please tourists. Alissa fumes at it. This is the place from which God called Jonah to go up to Ninevah, and Jonah did the whale routine. But I left the group to look at some remains of the old city underground. There are chunks of the ancient walls, but also riveting memorials to the Crusaders. Saladin began butchering Christians once the Crusaders had left and were confidently assumed to be unable to get their ships back near the beaches. But those Geoffreys and Godfreys and Henrys and Williams, descendants of the Norman fighting aristocracy, plunged into the water in full armour and and carved their way up the beaches through Saladin's army till the few left standing fled, Saladin quick among them.

I had joined the trip to Tel Aviv and Jaffa on condition that the driver would drop me at the airport on his way back to Jerusalem. He grunted that he might. Getting me there meant a small detour, and he saved some time by pulling the bus over to the far sidewalk, stopping the traffic, then did a series of slow turns, sidewalk to sidewalk, traffic stalled both ways, till he faced the other direction. Seeing brutal fighting through at least two major wars creates a certain casualness about everyday traffic regulations. At one point, in a very narrow street, he couldn't get the bus past a badly parked car. He called over to some stranger. Or rather the randomly passing man would seem to us a stranger, but it was a man of his own age--about 60--who would have shared so much experience with him that a lot could be easily assumed. Our driver didn't say much, just nodded at the car. They settled on different sides of it, and began rocking it violently, and with each rock pushed it gradually into the sidewalk. The two waved cursorily to each other and went about their different businesses.

Andat the airport I was interrogated again. By two young men, this time. But now I had a letter from Shira, written in Hebrew, which made it clear under an official letterhead and in very direct language, that I was an honored guest of the nation and was not to be harrassed. After a few minutes of questioning I passed this over. The letter was read by the good cop, who smiled, and then by the bad cop who scowled. I was asked more questions. I asked wasn't the letter sufficiently persuasive? They said it was indeed unusually clear in its instructions to them, and very impressive. But they were just practicing. One of the young men had a beard in his I.D.picture but not on his body. I claimed that his identity was much more to be doubted than mine. He assured me that this was part of his disguise, a small indication of their legendary efficiency and inscrutabilty. The "good cop" had a wicked sense of irony, that I thought would do him ill in any North American agency of government, but might see him running Israeli security in a few years.

And then I was home in Vancouver. A quieter place. Hard not to feel that one is here on the sidelines of history, whereas in Jerusalem history continues close up against your face. They live in interesting times in an interesting place that God just won't leave be.

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