Seeing with the Help of Two Tour Guides

Jarod and Kamal were our tour guides in and around Jerusalem for four different days. Like most travelers, I relied upon input from others, such as tour guides, to try to make sense of ancient and contemporary Israel. These two tour guides navigated that terrain of talking about ancient Biblical times and about current, or near current, events in Israel and Palestine.

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Although Jarod grew up in New Hampshire, he has been in Israel 21 years. He is proud of his Jewish identity. He first gave us a view of “Jerusalem from the horizons.” From the west at the Kennedy Memorial, we saw that Jerusalem’s western suburbs could view the Mediterranean on a clear day. We could see Bethlehem, important to David and “that other guy from Bethlehem.” As we traveled north to Hebrew University, he made a comment about current life. “Whatever you think of the settlers, they are not simply trying to be an ass.” He went on to explain that much of the Israelite Biblical story takes place on the West Bank. Jarod simply said “their ideology supersedes politics.” When we reached Mt. Sephorus, Jarod reminded us that ancient Israelites were required to visit Jerusalem for three festivals a year. As they approached the ridge of Mt. Sephorus, they could actually look down and see Jerusalem for the first time on their pilgrimage to the city. As if that wasn’t exciting enough for the Hebrews, the Hebrews would also be converging upon the city at the same general time. Jarod exclaimed: “It would be like a large family reunion with all the Hebrews from different tribes and villages arriving together.” As we traveled to the Mount of Olives, Jarod pointed out the obvious. “In Jerusalem you don’t have to drive 1000 miles to see wilderness, it is right next door.” As we looked east, we could see the Dead Sea and the Jordan River Valley only fifteen miles away.

The next day, Jarod was our guide for the old city of Jerusalem. At first, he constantly asked questions: “When is Jerusalem first mentioned in the Bible?” “If people were going to settle and create a city, what did they have to have available?” He was trying to get us to think about the Biblical narratives in ways outside the box. To imagine the original “City of Zion,” he told us to forget about the city walls that everybody sees today. They didn’t exist. Instead, the first city of Zion is outside the current 16th century Jerusalem walls. The first city was to the south on a protected ridge which confined that earliest city to about 50 x 200 yards. The city definitely wasn’t large. The city was located there because at the bottom of the ridge was a water source. Unfortunately, there is no archaeological evidence from that first city. The first artifacts come from about the 8th century. Yet, Jarod reminded us by quoting Carl Sagan “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” As we moved to the Western Wall, Jarod reminded us that Herod was the main figure behind Jerusalem’s Old City of today. While extremely important, the First Temple area would have been small. When Herod gained power, he did not change the Second Temple which had been built centuries earlier. Instead, Herod had the land cleared and leveled so that additional buildings and entrances to that Second Temple could be built. Thus, Jarod reminded us of the ancient saying [Josephus] “Anyone who has not seen Herod’s Temple, has not seen a beautiful building.”

 

DSC_6669Kamal is in his 30’s. Although he studied the violin for 7 years, he studied in Germany and became a CPA. He is a Palestinian Christian. He returned to the Palestinian territory for three reasons. He wanted to find a Palestinian wife; he wanted to honor the Palestinian tradition that one son maintains the family home; and he wanted to play basketball with other Palestinians!

On our first day with Kamal as our guide, we toured the Herodium and Bethlehem. Kamal continued the narrative about Herod. Herod built for himself a magnificent palace outside of Jerusalem. Not known as Mr. Nice-Guy, Herod may have also built his own tomb at the Herodium. Kamal said: “Because he [Herod] knew that everybody would celebrate his death since he was so mean, he ordered that at his death, every family would have to kill one of its children. Thus, instead of all the people celebrating, all the people would mourn.” Fortunately, his intentions weren’t fulfilled. When we visited Bethlehem, we like countless others went into the Church of the Nativity carrying our small, lit candles. Like others, we went to Shepherds Field where Father Andy and Bishop Don conducted Mass.

As Kamal spoke to us about the Bethlehem region, he pointed out an illegal Israeli settlement. Although the Palestinian population is growing, the Palestinian population of the Bethlehem region is also growing. The relations are obviously tense. “We sell Israeli’s inexpensive tomatoes. They sell us expensive ketchup.” Kamal explained that one Israeli company handles water. “Israeli settlers pay 5 shekels for a unit of water; Palestinians pay 7 shekels. Israeli settlers get 70% of water; Palestinians get 30% of water.” Kamal’s passion for Palestinians certainly came through amidst his discussion of the sites relevant to the Biblical narrative.

Kamal led us on our day to Hebron. Hebron is the largest Palestinian city, maybe 600,000 in the region. It is held sacred by Jews and Muslims because of its association with Abraham and with the burial place of other patriarchs and matriarchs. As such it is one of the four Jewish holy cities alongside Shechem, Tiberius, and Jerusalem.

Besides its ancient connections, Hebron is a flashpoint for Israeli and Muslim tension. Years ago, Israelis built the first illegal settlement on land of an ancient synagogue. The Israeli government did not remove them. The government let them remain. Since then, numerous acts of violence occur in the region. Besides recounting those events, Kamal suggested that it is provocative that the Israeli settlers build a five-story building right on the dividing line between the Israeli settlement and the Palestinian area and that the building and numerous other Israeli buildings fly Israeli flags immediately adjacent to the Palestinian controlled land. Kamal and I talked about an amazing irony as I noticed the Star of David on numerous deserted buildings in the Israeli settlement area. During the early and mid 1930’s, the Nazis forced Jewish merchants and residents to display a star of David to warn others. In that context, the Star of David was a humiliating and degrading symbol. As we jump to Hebron in 2017, the Jews voluntarily place the Star of David on building after building. The Star of David has become a symbol of pride and defiance. Quite a contrast between 1930’s and 2017.

Both Jacob and Kamal were wonderful guides. They forced us to think about the ancient Biblical narratives and about contemporary Israeli-Palestinian life. Both are passionate about the land and about their people. Both want this land to know peace.

As a traveler, I find that Israel can be overwhelming. One can handle this complexity by denying it. One can overly simplify one’s experience by confining oneself to simply the ancient Biblical narratives. One can simplify one’s experience by listening to only one set of descriptions about current events and the current situation. If one chooses to complicate one’s travels, then listening to multiple people is essential. At times, these different people will produce completely different narratives about the ancient and contemporary events. Whose narratives are right? Maybe even before addressing that question, it is important to ask if the narrators know the alternative narrators? Maybe that is one of the necessary stages, not a sufficient stage in and of itself of course, to try to find peace in this land. I wonder if Jarod and Kamal have ever met.

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