Such a thrill to round the curve on the bus, look to the left and see Jerusalem in all her splendor, the capital of ancient Israel, the city of David. Our bus tour guide managed to have the song “Jerusalem” playing so loud on the sound system. It was quite an entrance (obviously not their 1st rodeo here 🙂
We arrived there after leaving the Dead Sea in the morning, stopping at Qumran to see the Dead Sea scrolls and driving for a couple of hours. The scrolls were discovered in Qumran in 1947, the same year that the UN voted to recognize Israel. The scrolls were originally cut up by the father of the young Bedouin boy who discovered them. He sold them to people, and they were later offered for sale in a Wall Street Journal ad. An Israeli flew to America, bought them for $98 and took them back to Israel. (Of course it would have been a different story if eBay and Facebook had been around)
So, back to Jerusalem–a stunning city, comparable in size to Indianapolis but more tightly compacted. The song which was played and sung on the bus became Israel’s anthem in 1967, following its victory in the historic Six Day War, which increased Israel’s territorial expansion at the expense of the Palestinians. The street signs in Jerusalem are written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, lending a cosmopolitan feel to the city.
We went straight to Bethlehem, passing through the security check points quickly as a result of our bus driver Zion (an Israeli Christian) vouching for our American status. The wall is of course omnipresent, having been built by the Israelis after the Intifada to separate Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Palestine is an occupied territory and no Israelis are allowed to live there. Tourism has been very scarce in Israel in the last few years, with American #s down drastically for obvious reasons (intifada violence, suicide bombings, CNN reports).
We were welcomed at our 1st stop in Bethlehem with great enthusiasm! Our guide took us to a Palestinian bazaar which specialized in jewelry and wooden products. (creches and crosses 🙂 They were bursting with happiness to help us (reminded me of merchants in Turkey trying to sell us oriental rugs or anything). When I went to make my purchase, they told me that they were not set up with the machine to accept American Express but that they would gladly accept my personal check (I’m not kidding). They had already told Martha the same thing. So I said that I would just not buy it. Voila–they found the machine!
Bethlehem’s unemployment rate is 40%, very sad. There are 30,000 people, Palestinians, living there and many refugee camps throughout. Approximately 3000 men start lining up at the security checkpoints at around 2:00 am most early mornings so they will be in position to pass thru the gates when they open at 5:00 am. Their goal– to try to find work, the impossible dream.
We visited the church of the Nativity, an obviously moving experience. We waited in line amongst many nationalities for about an hour and a half ( without being irreverent, think lines at Disneyworld-very tight quarters). I observed that we were the only Americans there that day by the languages and cultures mingling together. There was a true spirit of unity, however, in the humbling experience of being in the place where Christ was born. Once we queued up to take the few steep steps down into the chamber (with a couple of moments of panic by Martha before she could descend amidst the crowd and claustrophobia), we immediately heard the sounds of Silent Night. Our St. Luke’s group stayed in the birthplace for a few minutes and sang after touching the sacred star one by one.
We also visited the Catholic Church from which Christmas Eve services are televised from Bethlehem every year-it looked very familiar.
Following the church, we took the bus to Bethlehem Bible College, an interdenominational college conducting most of its instruction in Arabic. Its founder, Dr. Bishara Awad, was a college friend of Kent and Minnieta’s at Dakota Wesleyan. He told the story of how a Palestinian Christian (himself) ended up in South Dakota in 1959. The college is trying to educate Christian Palestinians in their own land in hopes that they will live and work in Palestine in the future, promoting peace and hope for the future. The college is not allowed to accept foreign students, per the Israeli occupation.The current Christian population in Israel has declined to only 1.2 %, as opposed to the dominance of Muslims and Jews so Dr. Awad’s dream is a worthwhile one.
I just finished the novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, a story of 3 young women who go into the Israeli Defense Force following high school graduation. This is a right of passage for all Israeli youth (except strict Orthodox Jews who are currently exempted, a rule which is being challenged). Although not my favorite book, it has given me such insight into the life of an Israeli, much as The Lemon Tree clarified the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This is a complex country. We heard of a drone attack last week by the Israelis to a target in Gaza, always troubling. When we got on the bus this morning, we found out that our bus driver Zion’s sister and family had been part of the Palestinian retaliation strike early this morning. Their kitchen and living space were destroyed by the air strike, but miraculously their 3 children and his sister and husband were all fine. We are taking a collection for them tomorrow. It seems that Eretz Yisrael (land of Israel) and Arde Falastin (land of Palestine) are still very far apart in reconciliation.
Good night from old Jerusalem, Karen