Two Scenes from Israel
By Kenneth Westby
(Photographs to be added shortly)
Travel brochures romance every foreign destination with words like enchanting, quaint, beautiful, and of course, unique. Occasionally the hype fits, frequently it doesn’t. How would I write a brochure on Israel? What would I tell the innocents traveling abroad to expect of Israel? Among nations, Israel is in a category all its own.
Israel is all about one thing: the Bible--its history, its peoples, its faith. Israel is wall-to-wall religion, not withstanding the fact it is a secular state and most Jews avoid synagogue. Visiting Israel is like a trip through a biblical history theme park the size of New Jersey. Instead of Disney characters there are Jews and Arabs, ancient antagonists fighting new battles with new weapons, real and lethal.
It seems mystical to drive through towns and cities with names like Bethlehem, Ashkelon, Bethel, Jezreel, and Jerusalem; to read road signs pointing toward Jericho, Samaria, the river Jordan and the Dead Sea. Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches and shrines compete with synagogues and mosques in city skylines.
Ancient cities are slowly rising from the ground as archeologists peal back the centuries. Like ghosts, the glories of Greek, Roman and Jewish culture appear from the ruins of cities like Megiddo, Caesarea Philippi where Peter confessed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus’ headquarter city of Capernaum, the spectacular Greco-Roman city of Bet She’an above the Jordan, and three miles northwest of Nazareth, Sephhoris, a sophisticated Hellenistic city and Galilee’s most important--Jesus would have spent time working there.
Any direction you go--Abraham’s burial plot, Joshua’s march route, the waterfall and caves of En Gedi where David surprised the pursuing Saul, John the Baptist’s home town and his baptizing site on the Jordan, the beautiful hill of beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Armageddon, the bloodiest battle ground on earth. In any direction, you traverse the most famous real estate on earth.
Two snapshot events from our recent trip capture for me the continuing strife and contrasts of modern Judea. Beholding the daily struggle of life in Israel today I found to be every bit as stimulating and educational as touring ancient biblical sites—perhaps more so.
Scene One: Teddy Bears and Guns
Our group traveled twenty miles south from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion, one of the so-called settlement cities, to visit a Jewish grade school. Each of us was armed with brand new Teddy Bears of a variety of shapes and colors. Between JoAn and me we had six bears to give as gifts to some poor Jewish pre-kindergarten kids. Having Christians give Jewish children these token gifts was intended as a loving gesture of support and goodwill.
Before we entered the classrooms we were given an outdoor welcome by one of the town leaders, Cheryl Mandel. A professional woman, she told of her commitment to this town, this school and to Israel’s struggle for survival. Seven months ago her son was killed while leading an elite squad of commandos. Rather than indiscriminately bombing a terrorist hideout and risk killing innocent Palestinians, this young officer followed Israeli policy of visual identity. This meant he and his comrades had to enter the structure. Before he could enter the building the terrorists opened fire killing her son and wounding others.
The mother was angry at her loss, angry at the enemy, and angry at God. Speaking through tears she proudly praised her fine, young soldier-son and shared a few vignettes from his life. She said she is still asking God, “why my good son?”
As she spoke, behind her, I could see an Israeli soldier slowly walking the street fronting the grade school, hanging from his shoulder a fully automatic rifle gently rocking with each stride. A school of Jewish children is apparently a juicy bomb target for perverted Islamists.
A few minutes later an attractive young woman in civilian clothing walked past me heading for a door into the school. I noticed a large caliber semi-automatic pistol wedged inside her jeans belt at the small of her back, like where a restaurant waiter might holster an order pad. No doubt she was making her continuous rounds through the many classrooms. Jewish security was quiet, but vigilant. The little ones must be watched over.
Our group was divided and led into various classrooms, our arms full of Teddy Bears. The teachers knew we were coming, but the children didn’t. JoAn and I entered into a room of about 30 pre-kindergarten children sitting on little chairs arranged in a square. Their eyes were wide with surprise upon seeing all these old people enter their room. Among some there was detectable fright at these foreign people with big smiles speaking a strange language. The children spoke Hebrew, and since many of them were the poor children of Russian Jewish émigrés, they may have spoken Russian at home. Latter in their schooling they might learn English.
I was transfixed by their eyes staring at us. They didn’t smile, just sat on their little chairs wondering what all this meant. There were two teachers for the class and they explained to the children who we were and why we had all these Teddy Bears. The children didn’t seem to understand. We were given the go-ahead to find specific children to give our bears to. I already had a couple picked out.
I entered into the center of the square and holding up two different bears gave my dark-eyed boy a choice between them. Taken aback and unsmiling, the little fellow reached for neither. I felt like a Santa Clause with presents the kid didn’t want. What were we doing to these precious little people? I noticed his big brown eyes beginning to look frequently at the bear in my right hand. I figured this is the one. One of the teachers in the background was coaching the children that it was alright to accept these gifts. I handed my boy his bear which, without emotion, he grasped firmly while keeping his eyes fixed on my silly smile. He couldn’t understand my requests for his name, but a teacher from behind spoke for him. Regrettably, I have since forgotten it.
Then I sought out my second recipient, a precious little girl (amazingly, all the kids were the exact same size as if they were machine sorted), and gave her a choice of my remaining two bears. Seeing what was happening she quickly took one. No smile. Since each of the children now had his or her own bear, the teacher asked us to leave the remaining bears on a table so they could be distributed to other classrooms later.
We were all talking, taking pictures, and smiling our faces sore. Those poor kids didn’t know what to think. But as we began to slowly move toward the classroom door and away from the square of children things began to change. It was as if a switch flipped. These same tots became animated and began talking excitedly, smiling, and holding up their new bears for classmates to admire. We couldn’t understand Hebrew, but we could imagine what they were saying.
The bears were accompanied with notes from us that I presume were taken home to the children’s parents. I wonder what mom and dad thought of Christians traveling half way around the world to give their Jewish child a Teddy Bear.
We all thought it was great fun. Probably the best experience we had in Israel. JoAn and I, doting grandparents that we are, talked longingly of taking a few those darlings home with us. God bless the guards with guns and may those little innocents always be kept safe.
We boarded out bullet proof bus and headed through Palestinian territory back to Jerusalem.
Scene Two: Signs and Guns
My traveling companions (JoAn, Linda and Dixon Cartwright) and I volunteered to take part in a Jerusalem Solidarity March--a demonstration through the heart of the city in support of Israel and its right to exist in peace and safety. This event was a surprise to us, but the cause seemed noble so we joined in. The sponsoring group, Bridges for Peace, wanted to convey to Israelis that they had friends, Christian friends.
Jewish mistrust of Christians is rooted in centuries of anti-Semitism, pogroms and persecutions. Attitudes change slowly and our efforts were but a small step toward dispelling old, ingrained anti-Christian feelings. Bridges for Peace has a permanent presence in Jerusalem distributing food and help to the poor—especially to émigrés from poorer nations. They distribute more aid than any other organization, Jewish, Arab or Christian.
Busses dropped off about 100 of us in the central business district of Jerusalem (now Israel’s biggest city, although the population of the greater Tel Aviv area is larger). It was a cold grey afternoon with occasional light rain. The plan was to walk about a dozen blocks down Ben Yehuda Street—the city’s busiest. We picked up our demonstration signs and milled around waiting for the full complement of our police escort to arrive.
Our group had secured a parade/demonstration permit from Jerusalem’s mayor—not a routine grant in this city of weekly suicide bombings. Police arrived in trucks and by motorcycles (Japanese-made trail bikes for both on- and off-road use.) Every policeman/soldier carried a fully automatic rifle and wore a flak jacket. They took positions on foot at the head of our march, along both sides, and following along the rear. Police vehicles paced the march on adjacent streets. We were probably in the safest position of anybody in Israel, and it felt that way. The Israeli police and military are not showy; they have a way of moving quietly in the background.
Our crowd of mostly middle-aged pilgrims from the USA, UK, S. Africa and Australia began slowly walking down the shop-lined street. Since the Palestinian Infatata was unleashed upon Israel over three years ago tourism has dried up, thousands of businesses have gone under, and many more are struggling to survive. These shop keepers were among the survivors and our parade was arousing their curiosity. Merchants and customers came out to their front stoop looking surprised and carefully read the signs we carried.
Our signs were large, a few were in English, most were Hebrew. Mine was in Hebrew and I hoped it didn’t read “Shoot Me.” Our Israeli guide said my sign read something like, “Yahweh Is Your Defense.” Other signs read, “Christians Support Israel,” “You Are Not Alone,” and similar sentiments.
The mood is Israel was a bit gloomy that week as it seemed the whole world was once again turning on them. Jimmy Carter, some out-of-office Israeli politicians, and the usual internationalist suspects had just met in Switzerland and called for Israel to leave its settlements and give up the West Bank to the Palestinians. If that would happen Israel would be decimated, and most Israelis knew it. The international conference had no authority but received much praise around the world, giving further aid and comfort to Israel’s enemies. Perhaps our signs of support offered a bit of encouragement during that bad-news week.
As we marched along some in the group began singing popular Jewish religious songs that they must have learned back in their home churches. I didn’t know them, but after hearing a song repeated a dozen times I could chime in with an off key word or two. The singing helped draw people out of the stores to watch the passing parade.
Some shop keepers waived, smiled, and shouted words of appreciation. One owner who saw us coming ran back into his store and came out with a large shoffar and blew his lungs out as we passed. Hearing the shoffar joyfully sounded in Jerusalem was moving. Several merchants stood silently as if at attention, with tears in their eyes, watching us slowly pass. Others stood expressionless, observing.
As we came upon a covered sidewalk café I heard loud shouting. I paused to see the cause of the commotion. An older man seated at a table was berserkly shouting, violently waving his arms in the direction he wanted us to flee. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such an unhinged human. I couldn’t understand his Hebrew, but I knew its content was hateful and vitriolic. Tom Brimmer, one of our Hebrew speaking guides, approached the man to see if he could be calmed down, but he only became more venomous. A policeman stood nearby observing.
The wild man didn’t stop his screeching until our group had passed. I asked Tom later what the crazy guy was saying. Tom said the pathetic fellow was using every filthy word he could muster to curse Christ, Christians and all of us. He was telling us to immediately get out of his face, out of his country, and to go to hell. The episode brought to my mind the behavior of some demoniacs described in the Gospels.
Our march reached its termination point and the placards were loaded in a van. We now had a few hours on our own to shop before the buses would arrive to take us back to Ramat Rachel, our Kibbutz hotel,
JoAn and I did a little shopping, bought a bottle of Israeli wine at one of the Ben Yehuda shops and then found an inside café where we could rest our feet. It was now dark and we had a pause to reflect on our strange adventure. Imagine, demonstrating on the streets of Jerusalem!
One needs time to sort through the contrasts that abound in this “Holy Land.” Here we had Christians marching in friendship and solidarity with Jewish Israel. The banner at the head of our march read “Bridges for Peace,” but this bridge needed a phalanx of military police to protect it. Israel has few friends in the world, but we wanted it to know many Christians are among them. Our march was received with welcoming warmth, with apathy, and with hatred—a combination not unusual in Jerusalem.
How many marches had Jerusalem witnessed in the millennia since David conquered the Jebusite fortress and made it his city? Who can count them? Not harmless little friendship marches like ours, but bloody house-to-violence. One empire after another sent conquering armies through Jerusalem’s streets: Babylonians, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks, British, and a host of others--with more fighters yet to come.
We Christians have a particular interest in Jerusalem, both historical and prophetical. It is a city that both attracts and repels. The mention of its name conjures images of strife, irresolvable religious arguments, and bombings—a far cry from a “city of peace,” which is the meaning of its name.
Jesus wept over the place and warned of its coming destruction. God has called Jerusalem by some unflattering names—Sodom, Babylon, Egypt—and has brought it to deserved ruin many times. Yet here it is today, rebuilt and bigger than ever. Once again, it is a city at the center of a gathering storm. It seems peace must wait until the Prince of Peace arrives to forever change things. No one or nothing else can.
These two scenes I’ve described, sweet little children clutching Teddy bears and peace banners in the streets of Jerusalem, are the poignant pictures of Israel I carried home. Of course I enjoyed visiting the sites, seeing the sights, and taking in the history lessons, but I found the present Israel more moving and important. Thanks to God’s good revelation, I can look at Jerusalem’s bright future in hope and not despair.
Perhaps you share my idealized picture of a future Jerusalem with its streets full of happy children safely at play, children like the ones I saw being guarded in the settlement city of Gush Etzion.
The prophets spoke of that glorious new age. Scripture presents the coming Messianic kingdom akin to a cozy scene from a Thomas Kincaid painting—welcoming, warm lights, safety everywhere, happiness, peace and pleasure abounding. But it’s the little children the prophets place in that inviting scene that bring great delight to my heart. “A little child shall play…and they will not hurt in my holy mountain for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord” (Is 11:). We can now hope for that better day. May Christ make it happen…soon.