Innocents abroad (in Palestinian territory)

Here's Steve channeling his inner Israelite on our visit to the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Steve and I took the Abraham Hostel’s “Best of the West Bank” tour on Saturday (when everything in Jerusalem is shut down because of the Sabbath), and the “Hebron Dual Narratives” tour Sunday. Both were long and in some ways grueling days (almost 12 hours each) that took us deep into the ideological heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We found them spell-binding, for the most part, and learned a lot about how each side sees things. In fact, I came away feeling that I’m finally beginning to understand the situation. But the reason it has taken me so to do so is because it’s way too complicated to cover in a blog post. Instead I’ll present Six Things I Learned about the Jews and Arabs in This Country (and the big chunks of land adjoining this country that aren’t really countries but where millions of Arabs live and Jews are increasingly moving to).

#1 It’s grossly inaccurate to generalize about how all Jews or all the Arabs do anything here.

Opinion among the Jews here ranges from ultra-Orthodox folks who are deeply anti-Zionist to left-wing peaceniks to the militaristic supporters of Bibi Netanyahu to many other shades of thought. Among the Arabs you can find pacifists, suicide bombers, and everything in between. But everyone here generalizes about the Jews and Arabs. So damn it, I will too.

#2 You can feel quite safe in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Of course our timing was good. Had we come last summer, during that nasty little war that killed about 2100 Palestinians (including at least 1500 civilians) and more than 60 Israeli soldiers (and several Israeli civilians), it would have been another story. But Steve and I have felt very safe everywhere, I think because everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve seen men, women, and children out in public, going about their daily lives and not looking tense or nervous at all. One of the guys on our Hebron tour was a young Czech foreign exchange student who has lived in Israel for several months. He laughed at how much safer he feels here in Jerusalem than he does in Prague. He said his Israeli friends were appalled to hear that he was going on the Hebron tour. They warned him he was likely to be killed. We all laughed at that one. Steve and I had the strong sense that the last thing the Hebron Palestinians would want to do is to hurt any foreign visitors who were there trying to understand what their life is like. They feel aggrieved and victimized and want to get their story out. (The Israeli government does not currently permit anyone with an Israeli passport to go into the parts of the West Bank that are under Palestinian control, nor do they allow West Bank Palestinians to enter Israel without a special pass. I think the explanation for this is that the government thinks someone might get hurt if Israelis and Palestinians freely mingled. But I’m not sure.)

I’m not surprised that I feel so unthreatened (by anything) in Jerusalem. I’d heard that from other travelers; it is a world-class tourist destination. It was more of an adrenaline charge to be strolling through the Palestinian refugee community in Bethlehem

A typical Bethlehem street scene.
or hanging out in a shisha cafe in Ramallah (a surprisingly lively, cosmopolitan center).
Someone's got a sense of humor....
#3 People here lie.

Okay. They lie everywhere. And I can’t say who here fibs more — Israeli Jews or Palestinians. But we’ve heard a couple of real whoppers in the last few days. I’m not talking about the guys in the souq who called out that they would give me a special price. Instead I’m thinking of the (licensed and highly experienced) Israeli (Jewish) guide, named Amitai, who toured us through the Old City and the Mt. of Olives Friday and told us that Muslims don’t believe Mohammed ascended to heaven from the spectacular golden Dome of the Rock but rather from the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque. (From everything I’ve heard and read, both from our guidebooks, the Internet, and a Muslim guide, this is patently untrue.) Amitai also told us that the way to identify when you were in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (as opposed to the Jewish, Christian, and Armenian Quarters) was that the Muslim Quarter was the dirty one. Then there was the Jewish settler in Hebron who declared to our group that Hebron was a really peaceful place where life was very relaxed. He was packing a pistol as he said this. A little while later, we watched a convoy of Israeli armored vehicles take off rolling into town, lights flashing. When we hear statements like that here, Steve and I tend to suspect there’s some political agenda, though we often don’t have a clue what it is.

#4 Many Israelis and Palestinians are very likable.

That guide Amitai also talked to our group for several minutes about the rudeness and obnoxiousness of his fellow Jerusalemites. He said we shouldn’t take this personally; instead he advised us to ignore it. But in fact, Steve and I have not found it to be true. Many times we’ve paused on the street to consult our map or guidebooks and someone has approached us, asking if we need help. I was completely smitten by the intense young waiter at the stunningly good restaurant where we ate last night. We’ve found many of the Israelis we’ve met to be sweet or charming, if often edgy.

As for the Palestinians, several of them won our hearts. One was Tamer, the (also) edgy but hilarious guy who led us on Best of the West Bank excursion Saturday.


“Welcome to the terrorist tour,” was his first statement to the busload. “You are now officially kidnapped by me.” Throughout the long, tiring day, he never harrangued us, never lectured, but seemed to devote a lot of thought to finding ways for us take in the scenes of everyday life. In Hebron our guide was an endearing, rail-thin 28-year-old graphic artist named Motasem who calmly and quietly recounted some of the vicious events that have unfolded over the last dozen and a half years in Hebron (where the Israeli government has installed more than 100 security posts and checkpoints in the one-square-kilometer Old Town, closed the main street and barred the doors of more than 500 Arab businesses, and employed more than a 1000 (or was it 2000?) soldiers to guard the 400 or so settlers living in the central city.

Our Palestinian guide, Motasem, talking to the group.
The Israelis have welded shut the storefronts on this close street, and the Palestinian occupants live behind bars to protect them from rocks thrown by the settlers.


A welcome break from the tension was our lunch of chicken and rice in the calm courtyard of a Palestinian home.

When Steve asked Motasem what he and his fellow Palestinians want to see happen here, he answered (as Tamer had earlier) that they wanted Israelis and Palestinians to live together in a single unified democratic state, with equal access to jobs and other opportunities, and protection for everyone’s rights (what’s become known as the “one-state solution.”) As Americans, that sounded reasonable to Steve and me. But we learned that…

#5 Many Israeli Jews think they deserve to live in all of former Palestine and that the Arabs here can never be trusted.

The really terrific thing about the Hebron Dual Narratives tour was that it exposed us to both perspectives in Hebron — that of the Palestinian natives and the Jewish settlers. Our main guide, Eliahu, was a Hassidic Jew born in Hawaii who immigrated to Isreal a couple of decades ago. He forcefully articulated several key points throughout the day.

Our Jewish guide Eliahu shows off 300-year-old Torah scrolls.
One was that Hebron is an ancient holy city where Jews have lived for millenia. (Indeed Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all of their wives except for Rachel) are believed to be buried here, along with Adam and Eve.)
The fantastic Tomb of the Patriarchs (which today is sadly divided into Muslim and Jewish sections.)
Eliahu also told us several bloodcurdling stories of Palestinian terrorist attacks on local Jews, most notably a famous massacre that killed 67 Jews in 1929. In contrast, he described the Jewish settler who barged into the central mosque in 1994 and started machine-gunning the worshippers (killing 29 and wounding more than 100 others) as a “vigilante.” (The gunman apparently believed that some of the local Muslims were going to attack some of the settlers.)

6) History casts particularly long shadows in this part of the world.

In the gloom of those shadows lie explanations for many of the seething antipathies. Understanding the history is tough, but I’ve made an effort on this trip. I’ve tried to summarize it in the Appendix to this post. But it is ridiculously complicated, isn’t it? Time for me to quit trying to explain it.


The Jews weren’t the first folks to live in what today is Israel and the West Bank. But they were here a very long time ago. The Romans essentially kicked them out in 70 AD/CE, and many other people took their place, including (starting in the 600s) Muslim Arabs. The Crusaders kicked them out for a while but then other Muslims conquerors struck back, with Mamluks and Ottomans (Turks) ruling until the British took over in 1917. The Brits used the old name Palestine to refer to the place they ruled.

By 1947 the Brits were sick of ruling, and the 1.3 million Arabs and 600,000 or so Jews who lived here then were sick of them. After the horrors of the Holocaust, Jews all over Europe were also looking for a sanctuary, and they finally convinced the UN to come up with a plan for making Palestine a Jewish homeland (with small sections reserved for the Palestinians who had once lived pretty much everywhere here.) The day the Brits actually left, David Ben Gurion declared that the Jews were turning “their” part into the state of Israel. Several Arab countries contested this but lost the so-called 1948 War (except for Jordan, which took the whole big West Bank chunk that was supposed to go to the Palestinian Muslims.) In the 1967 (so-called 6-Day) War, the Israelis took back the West Bank and a lot more. But they’ve been unwilling to give the Palestinians sovereignty over their parts (the West Bank and Gaza), nor are they willing to make Arabs in the occupied territories Israeli citizens. Instead, Israeli Jews are moving in large numbers (close to half a million currently) into government subsidized West Bank settlements, where they live in walled compounds protected by machine-gun-toting Israeli army soliders.



A crush on Abraham

Steve and I haven’t been big hostel patrons. The idea of sharing a dorm room with 4 or 6 or more young revelers has never appealed to us. But in recent years we’ve become aware that many hostels offer private rooms, many with private bathrooms. I’ve also noticed they’re showing up more often in the search engines I use such as TripAdvisor and and in guidebooks like Lonely Planet. One such source made me aware of the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. The enthusiastic reviews of it, coupled with the high cost of hotel rooms in Israel, prompted me to book a private room for 6 nights there.

Not much to look at, but it's working for us.
When we checked in Thursday night, exhausted from our long day and high-adrenaline arrival, my first impression of our third-floor room was that it was plain, but serviceable. Since then, my admiration for the place has been growing daily. The location is excellent. A 20-minute stroll down a lively pedestrian street takes us to the Old City. Our room is not only clean and quiet, but the lighting is excellent, and the simple furnishings and room layout have made it easy for us to get organized (two things I can’t say about every hotel.) Breakfast is included in an Abraham stay, and again, it’s not a vast and varied spread, but what’s available is all good: excellent granola and cornflakes, hard-boiled eggs, decent cheese and yogurt, and a wondrously efficient Swiss espresso machine that makes excellent cappucinos. This you consume in the huge common room — part refectory, part lounge, part bar (where flights of local beers and daily mixed drink specials fuel the lively interaction.
Breakfast at the Abraham
One of the most likable things (to us, at least) is the range of ages in evidence — traveling 20-somethings mingling with young families and a handful of retirees ranging from early to almost geriatric. Last Friday night maybe 100 of us guests (many Jewish but some not) shared a traditional communal shabbat dinner that was delicious.

When I got up early Sunday morning to blog, I went down to the common room. It was empty, except for a guy who was setting up the breakfast. Although the Swiss Jura was still warming up, he invited me to help myself to hot water and instant coffee. We chatted a bit, and I learned he was the visionary behind the Abraham. He had opened it four years ago, and it was such a huge success, he would be opening a second one in Tel Aviv in about two months.

The founder of the Abraham
I told him that the thing I most admired, besides the jolly, homey atmosphere, was how efficient the hostel is at dispensing touristic information. Large maps given away at the front desk answer just about every question I can imagine: where are nearby restaurants? pharmacies? bars? How can you get from the Abraham to Ben Gurion Airport? More extraordinary is the Abraham Travel Center in the lobby, which offers an assortment of tours that sounded so interesting I booked several online in advance.

We’ve now devoted the last four days to them. Friday we spent pretty much the whole day touring the Old City and the pilgrimage sites that dot the nearby Mt. of Olives: the churches commemorating the spots where Jesus is believed to have ascended to heaven, and the Virgin Mary may be buried…

The place that folks believe is Mary's grave
…the Garden of Gethsemene (where Jesus was arrested before being tried and crucified)…
The Garden of Gethsemene is so beautiful. Lonely Planet says scientists have established that some of the trees are 2000 years old. (And who knew the roses were so lovely?)
…the Jewish cemetery (largest in the world) where everyone reportedly is buried with their feet facing the temple wall (so they can pop right up and follow the Messiah into the temple, when he shows up and goes through the so-called Golden Gate.)
Some of the Jewish graves facing the temple (and the golden Dome of the Rock.) The stones on the graves are a sign of veneration.

My feelings about being here in Jerusalem changed noticeably throughout that day. I was raised a Catholic; taught by nuns throughout primary and secondary school. In a sense, I spent part of my childhood in the Holy Land (in my head). Later, in adulthood, I came to understand that all the stories I grew up with were situated in modern Israel, a real place. But it wasn’t until our flight from Amman was descending over Israel (9 days ago) that I realized how mythological the Holy Land felt to me. Shortly, I would be walking in the same streets where I’d envisioned Jesus walking, when I was a child. It seemed as weird as an imminent arrival at Mordor International Airport or the King’s Landing Hyatt.

When I got my first good look last Friday at the Dome of the Rock (revered by Muslims as one of the holiest places on earth because the Prophet ascended to heaven there) or the Western (aka Wailing) Wall (revered by Jews because of its proximity to where the second temple once stood), I felt that jolt that accompanies seeing a really famous sight for the first time with one’s own eyes. But those ancient olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemene affected me differently; they made the mythological garden in my mind melt away, and they took its place. All this has nothing to do with faith; I suspect that a lot of people, both believers and infidels, might react the same way.

It’s a progressive experience. A dozen or so mythic Christian sites have now transformed into real ones for me, and there are more to come. I’m starting to feel jaded. And we still haven’t been inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where the crucifixion and resurrection are believed to have occurred.) We’ll do that tomorrow. In the last three days, we shifted our attention away from the Bible and to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (first) and some of Israel’s most famous natural wonders (second). Those deserve posts of their own.



Goodbye Pinky, hello Jerusalem

When I was researching car rentals for Jerusalem, I read that most of the big agencies (Hertz, Eurocar, etc.) don’t want renters to go into the West Bank. This was disappointing. That huge, roughly oval chunk of territory is the focus of so much of the tension that coils around Israel today we wanted to drive through it (plus the path from Nazareth to Jerusalem runs almost due south, down the eastern border). Fortunately, one of my guidebooks extolled an Israeli company, Eldan, that permitted it, and sure enough, when we got our little Fiat (which we soon affectionately dubbed “Pinky”) in Tel Aviv and asked the super-helpful (Israeli) manager which route he recommended between the two cities, he said the best way was to take Highway 90 south along the Jordan River. We asked him if we would have anything to be scared of, should we go that way, and he said not at all; he drove it himself all the time. So when we left Nazareth Thursday afternoon, that’s where we headed.

We didn’t leave until almost 2:45 p.m. because we had such an amazing time in Nazareth — so amazing I’ll have to save it to write about on the plane home. But folks said it was a two-hour drive, and we didn’t actually have to return the car until 9 a.m. on Friday, so we felt relaxed, and the road condition — well-surfaced and with only no traffic — did nothing to disturb our jolly mood. The road blocks and walls and barriers that separate the Palestinian Authority territory from that of Israel are infamous, but the one on the 90 south of Beit She’An was trivial — less imposing than a California ag-inspection stop and not even manned (except by an automated camera). Then we were driving through lovely, almost deserted rolling hills that grew increasingly golden in the late-afternoon sun.

We admired the green band of the river valley and made good time, passing turn-offs for Jericho and then the Dead Sea. Soon we were climbing west on Highway 1 through the winding turns that lead to greater Jerusalem, and at the checkpoint leading back into Israeli territory, we sneered at how ridiculously easy it was to cross (compared to the one between San Diego and Tijuana). We had hit some traffic leaving Nazareth and in Afula, but we felt certain we would reach our hostel in the city (where we planned to drop off our suitcases before turning the car in) well before dark.

Things got ugly when we were getting close to the turn-off onto Highway 60, which looked like it would take us quite close to the hostel. Traffic clotted and we crept and then barely crawled along, but the rush-hour traffic of Jerusalem is notorious, and we figured we were getting a taste of it. Finally we could see the on-ramp up ahead. At the intersection just before it, however, a glowering policeman was forcing everyone to turn away from it. We speculated there must be a terrible accident. I was tracking our progress on Google Maps on my phone, and I figured if we made our way north, we could get on the 60 at the next entrance up. Again the traffic was nightmarish, but after an eternity, we seemed to be approaching a bus station or other transportation complex; the barely moving lanes of cars stretched ahead of us as far as we could see. Then off to our left in the distance we spotted a crush of people. Demonstrators! It was a political demonstration, precisely the sort of thing you’re supposed to avoid in political hotspots. Yet we were stuck! Amused, we watched the driver in front of us urge his car over a curb so he could get on the 60 going north (away from downtown). It seemed a fairly outrageous move. But as we inched forward into where he had been and then sat… and sat… and sat, unmoving, it began to seem more sensible. Ahead in the distance, we could make out more people running toward the demonstration. I yelled at Steve to go over the curb and follow our fellow driver. “This thing won’t make it,” he snarled. “Try it,” I urged, and he did. He was right; the rear wheels didn’t want to climb up over the curb. But when I got out and pushed, Pinky rocked forward, and we were free.

The adventure didn’t exactly end there. Steve was quite dashing, executing a tricky illegal move to actually get us on the highway, and then I (and Google maps) did some heavy-duty navigation to thread our way to the hotel through the incredible spaghetti-tangle of Jerusalem thoroughfares. We made some wrong moves but finally limped up to the Abraham Hostel around 7.

We were too whipped to try to return Pinky then, but instead parked her near the hotel for 25 shekels (about $4.50). Friday morning we rose early to drop her off at the Eldan parking lot, which looked like it would be about 5 minutes away. Once again we were thwarted — this time by a massive bike race which just happened to close the streets around the shopping center containing Eldan’s parking garage. But we parked and strolled to the walls of the Old City and waited for the cyclists to clear out. We found no attendant in the garage (where we’d been promised that one would await us), but we parked Pinky and left the keys in her. (You have to input a code to start any rental car, so we figured probably no one would steal her.)

As soon as we got back to the hotel, I checked the news to see what the demonstration had been all about. Certainly this was the sort of disturbance that would fill the front pages of any US city. All I found was a brief story indicating that it hadn’t been angry Palestinians, but rather Ethiopians protesting police abuse (shades of Ferguson et al!)

Since then, we’ve had two days (Friday and Saturday) so crammed with mind-boggling sights and information that a) I frequently felt my brain was going to explode and b) I did not have one minute to write. I got up at 5:15 to work on this, but now we have to run to breakfast. After that, we’re spending the day driving to one of the tensest cities in all of Israel, Hebron. This time we’ll be on a bus, with a group and a driver. With luck this time the ride will be unremarkable.

On the (Israeli) road

Monday morning, we picked up our rental car, an adorable little mauve Fiat 500, from the Eldan car rental agency in Tel Aviv, and I have to say, our interaction with the young manager there was the nicest experience I’ve ever had picking up any rental car anywhere. We sat at his desk, and he not only filled out the paperwork with us but also counseled us on everything from avoiding tolls to the best way to drive from Nazareth to Jerusalem. This took some time, as did getting shuttled to the parking garage where the car was, as did Steve getting checked out on the unconventional controls. By the time we actually hit the road, it was almost 10.

We needed the rental car to get to all the places we want to go in the north of Israel, starting with Caesarea, on the coast about 50 minutes north of Tel Aviv.

The archeological complex contains the ruins of the seaside palaces and associated amenities (chariot racetrack, theater, baths, sewage system etc.) begun by King Herod in 22 BC. Pontius Pilot later lived in it for a while, followed by centuries in which it was grabbed by successive waves of Arabs and Crusaders. Because of our late start, we only had about an hour on the grounds, a shame, and then we had to barrel on to Haifa (Israel’s third largest city and a kind of far distant cousin, in feel, to San Francisco). There we had an appointment to meet with several professors at the Technion (often described as Israel’s MIT), followed by a campus tour guided by two adorable mechanical engineering undergrads.

The driving was a distinctly mixed bag. Every road we’ve been on so far has been in good to excellent shape, and the drivers, while aggressive, don’t seem to be entirely insane. But Google Earth on my phone failed us miserably for guidance, and 90% of the signage uses the Hebrew alphabet, so we had some bad moments, navigationally. (“These are the worst-designed roads I have EVER seen ANYWHERE in the world!” Steve roared, at one point.)

I’m hoping we’ll get accustomed to them. We have a lot more ground to cover.



We’re not in Babel, Toto

My main goal in visiting Israel was to better comprehend the people who inhabit this oh-so-influential piece of real estate (with all its ramifications for the rest of the world). And for a few minutes after our arrival Saturday night, things seemed promising. We and the other passengers from our Royal Jordanian flight from Amman breezed through immigration (negating all my worst fears about thorough Israeli screening procedures). The airport ATM efficiently popped out some shekels, and we jumped into a clean looking taxi at the front of the taxi queue. The driver was a fat, jolly guy who promised to be talkative. But the first thing he asked us as he accelerated away from the terminal was to repeat the address that we had given him. He asked again. And again, seeming only with great difficulty to finally grasp that we were saying “Gordon Street” (a major thoroughfare in Tel Aviv’s beach area). It finally seemed to click, and he asked where we were from, but then lapsed into silence, listening to the radio. A few minutes later, thinking of the recent terrible quake in Asia, I asked him if Israel ever got bad earthquakes. And once again, it took some doing for him to understand my question; to simply grasp the words.

He was born in Israel, we learned, and as such is a native Hebrew speaker. But what surprised us most our first full day here (Sunday), is how much of a comprehension gap seems to derive from that language. As a language, it’s unique — the only one in human history that has almost gone extinct and then come back, to be spoke by millions. By the late 1800s it hadn’t been used for everyday activities for thousands of years, instead being employed exclusively for prayer and study. But the early Zionists worked to revive it as part of their quest to reclaim this ancient Jewish home. When Jews flooded into Palestine fleeing the Nazi terrors and then eager to create a modern Jewish state, they spoke dozens of languages. They needed one to unite them. So Hebrew it became, and along with it, its own baffling alphabet.

Of course lots of countries use a non-Roman alphabet, but in our experience, more of them supplement the signage in major cities with romanized versions of the text (if not outright English translations) than they seem to do in Tel Aviv. One exception has been the street signs, which aren’t bad. (They’re in Hebrew, English, and Arabic.)

Another are the warnings not to climb up the (inviting) electric polls. You see them everywhere.

But then you see signs like this one next to city bicycles available for rent:

Would any non-Hebrew speaker have a clue how to access them? (Everything on the screen was in the Hebrew alphabet only.) Some restaurant receipts also are presented only in Hebrew to the bafflement of tourists.

We’ve been told that all Israeli children also study English in primary school (starting in the sixth grade, one person told us.) But clearly, whatever they learn leaves a number of folks (like our taxi driver) pretty uncomfortable with easy conversation.

On the other hand, we had a stimulating and interesting 3-hour meeting and lunch with a group of extremely bright and successful CAD software experts. They all spoke good to excellent English and seemed to understand every word we said. When we walked (for hours and hours) through Tel Aviv’s beach area and a couple of historic districts, at least 2 or 3 friendly passers by asked us if we needed help (as we studied our maps).

So I’m confident we’ll find our way here, over the next 10 days. We may just have to strain a bit at times to make sure we understand