My first awareness of the Jews and Israel probably was typical for Catholics, the stories of the Bible told to us as children at school and church. But my first awareness of the State of Israel and the Jews fighting to keep their state alive was in October 1973, in the TV news pictures and videos coming out of Israel during the Yom Kippur War. I wasn’t very old at that time, but I had been sensitive to political events starting with Nixon’s visit to China the year before as well as the snowballing Watergate hearings that gradually preempted weekday afternoon soaps and game shows. Although young the importance of far away events in and around Israel made an impression upon me, and my admiration for the country and its people quickly took root. Those feelings grew the older I became and the more I studied about the Jews and their religion as well as the politics of the region in high school, and especially while pursuing a degree in political science in college. Even in the years afterwards through my liberal phase and as I aged into conservatism and libertarianism I never wavered in my respect and admiration for the Jews and their fragile state in the Middle East.
But I had never been there and seen the place for myself. Until now, deep into middle age.
Jerusalem, The Western Wall, May 6, 2017
The seeds of our next trip are always planted in our last, and I remember the Wife mentioning Israel while we were roving the streets of Rome last October. A few days after our return she began tracking air fares and reading about the best times to visit, and when prices dropped soon after Trump’s election we had our tickets. A few weeks later we had our hotel, a highly-rated hotel in the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. Over the next few months the Wife developed an itinerary centered around Jerusalem with day trips to Masada (a must given my interest in ancient Rome), the Dead Sea, En Gedi, Caesarea (more ancient Roman stuff), and Acre. Due to the necessities of our careers we couldn’t spend much time on the trip – only 7 days in country – so we made an important decision: we hired a private guide and car for 2 days. Traveling is always a balance between time and money, and being tight with money I balked at the expense. But like so often in Life in the end the Wife was right.
I’ll admit I was nervous about our safety on the trip. Every news event involving Israel or happening in Israel caught my attention. I queried my Jewish friends and others about their experiences in Israel. Was it safe to walk through the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem? How about Mount of Olives and the pilgrim’s walk to the various sites on its slope? I figured that our Israeli private guide would avoid taking us through the so-called “Occupied Territories”. In the end I would bathe in the Dead Sea outside of Israel proper, travel numerous times in and out of the “Occupied Territories,” and experienced the Arab Quarter like so many tourists who travel to Jerusalem without incident. And besides, I was with the Wife, my best friend in the world. If anything happened to us we were together – and what better way to exit the world than with your best friend in the holiest country on Earth? I’m sure G-d awards extra points for that. But being the cautious man I am, I did make sure the Kid knew our itinerary and knew where important papers were (those of us deep in middle age need to pay more attention to that even when we’re not traveling abroad). For the past several trips I carry my Verizon cell phone and for $10/day I can use it abroad without difficulty except for things like getting woken up by a US originated junk call at 2:30am in Jerusalem.
Israeli soldiers waiting to be taken on a tour outside the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem May 7, 2017
Our itinerary had us arriving on Saturday afternoon and leaving the following Saturday morning. Traveling on Shabbat limits choices in terms of restaurants and activities, but in the end we managed just fine. The New Israeli Sheckel (NIS), the currency of Israel and the Palestinian Territories, was a new experience for the foreign currency desk of our regional bank (I’ve yet to meet a practicing Jew in North Carolina after living here almost 8 years), but a few quick Google searches got us a few hundred dollars in local currency to start our trip off. There are a handful of bank ATMs in Jerusalem that Americans can use their ATM cards in without getting killed by fees, none in the Old City, and our guide took us to one after I’d exhausted the sheckels I’d brought into the country.
The big preparations for the trip had been made during the Winter, and we made the final preparations as the months remaining turned to weeks then days. For once we were packed and prepared in advance, so our last hours at home passed leisurely instead of the stressful, panic-filled way they usually do.
So here I was, a self-proclaimed non-Jewish Zionist, heading to Israel for his first trip. All the articles I’d read over the years. All the classes I took in college. All the Bernard Lewis lectures and books, all the media I’d consumed discussing the Jews and the Muslims and Arab-Israeli conflict I’d devoured over the decades would now be put to the test.
And what would this trip to Israel teach me?
That I didn’t know jack about any of it.
Desert near Ma’ala Adumim (West Bank), May 9, 2017