Israel is the only place in the world where a priest, a rabbi and an imam can get onto a bus and it’s not the beginning of a joke. It’s the only nation where women have served side-by-side with men in the military since its inception. And it’s the only country in the world that is greener now than when it was granted statehood.
Israel, Jerusalem in particular, is a holy place for all three religions of the Book. For Jews, it has been holy since King David established it as the capital of the Kingdom of Israel and his son, Solomon, built the First Temple there. For Christians, it has been holy since Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected there. For Muslims, it has been holy since Muhammad made his Night Journey on a winged steed to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and, from there, ascended to heaven.
Many visitors to Jerusalem are overcome by the amount of holiness contained within the 0.9 square kilometers of the Old City walls. This affliction, an intense religious psychosis, is commonly called the Jerusalem Syndrome. It causes some people to believe they are historical religious figures, others to walk through the desert barefoot
and wrapped in their hotel bed sheet, and others, still, to set fire to things (look up Denis Michael Rohan for more information). Tour guides are warned to be on the lookout for individuals suddenly wanting to split from the group or sporadically shouting out Bible verses, and are told to contact the appropriate authorities should they spot a potential sufferer.
Yet, I couldn't find the holy in Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s because I’m not religious, or perhaps it’s because the bazaar has taken over the city. I didn’t even realize that I was following the path of Jesus’ last, cross-bearing walk on Via Dolorosa, until I noticed a street sign halfway down. It appeared to me as just another narrow street of merchants selling olive wood sculptures and colorful scarves. At Jesus’ final resting place, I still didn’t feel anything. I joined a long line of tourists, not sure what we were lining up for, but hoping that it would touch me. After almost an hour, I was finally granted access into a tiny room with an altar and space for three people to kneel. I can pray in my crazy hippie way, thanking the sun and sending out
rays of love, but I can’t pray on my knees. I would feel like an imposter. And I already felt disrespectful to the pious Christians kneeling next to me. I awkwardly tripped over their feet and ducked out of there. I needed space to think, to try to connect to a religious spirit. But, I couldn’t find it.
Israel is the first place in the Middle East that I could have been born in. It’s remarkably diverse, as Jews from all over the world, of all different skin tones and hair colors, have reclaimed Israel as their homeland. I’m marked as a tourist not for my blue eyes, but rather for the 70L pack attached to my back. Tourists are common though too, so I blend in completely. To me, what sticks out the most in Israel are the teen soldiers, shouldering massive automatic rifles.
In contrast to the grim-faced soldiers standing guard on every Lebanese corner, the Israeli soldiers exude the light-hearted confidence of youth. Both girls and boys are drafted at 18 and they walk around town as if their earth-colored outfits grant them exclusive membership into the cool club. They sling their Israeli-made
Tavors nonchalantly over their shoulders like daypacks. Kids push them aside like toys should one stand in their way. In fact, plastic versions of assault rifles are sold in many market stalls. Since the days of the Bible, Jews have been like a David fighting against a myriad of Goliaths, so I guess it’s only appropriate to train them young.
While I’m not in favor of guns, or war, or disagreement in general, I have to say that I’ve warmed to the idea of compulsory service in the Israeli army – three years for men; two for women. Up to this point, every Israeli I’ve spoken to has cited it as a positive experience – one that helped them grow up and learn who they are and what they’re made of. Most don’t want to serve, but they do, without complaint or trying to run. They’ve been running their entire history. Now it’s time to stand up for their country. It helps that the Israeli military is full of respect. Sure, newbies have to warm the toilet seats, but superiors lead their troops into battle, they don’t command them from a position of safety. In the Israeli army, everyone
is an equal.
After their service, many Israeli’s travel the world. I think it’s for this reason that Israel has more hippies per capita than any other nation of the world (I made that up, but as far as I can tell, it’s true). Every year, the government plants two trees for every dreadlocked, baggy-garbed Israeli citizen (and for the curly-haired, bespectacled ones too). You can find green everywhere, even in the desert. They are a nation of do-it- yourselfers, free spirits who emanate love and acceptance – except when you approach the issue of the Palestinian Territories. But that’s another story for another day.
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