Mom, you will be happy to know that I am no longer allowed into Syria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudia Arabia (even before I wasn’t allowed to take a Saudian Arabian Air flight because it had an 18 hour layover in Riyadh and as a solo female traveler, no male was able to provide “permission” for me to enter…), Sudan, Yemen, and a few other countries you would cringe at the thought of me visiting… Well, I can’t go until I get a new passport. The only reason: because I went to Israel and got my passport stamped.
Upon crossing the land border with Egypt, the entire content of all of my bags was emptied out and thoroughly searched. Nearly every surface was swabbed for explosives. And this was before about 10 solid minutes of questioning from immigration officials about my family background and my past, present, and future travel plans. Definitely the most intense border crossing I have ever witnessed. But in the end I got through and was allowed entry. And to leave the country: the security checks in the Tel-Aviv airport were just as bad. I had three different people question me about my past travel, specifically in Jordan, Dubai, Malaysia, and Egypt. And two of them didn’t think I looked enough like my seven year old passport picture, so I had to show my drivers’ license, credit cards, and got quizzed on random travel dates that were stamped in my passport… In all it took over 75 minutes to get through security checks at the airport, and that was without waiting in lines. Craziness…
In Jerusalem I did all of the typical Old City stuff. Temple Mount where according to Jews, God gathered dust to create Adam and according Muslims, Mohammad ascended to heaven. (Which by the way, you are not allowed to bring any Bibles into – there was quite a collection at the security check point. My gummy bears were perfectly acceptable, but any Christian paraphernalia was outlawed and confiscated), Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was crucified, room of the Last Supper, and my personal favorite the Western (wailing) Wall. People really do come very close to banging their heads against the stone wall, in their sorrow over the first two temples being destroyed and in their faith that a third temple will one day be rebuilt. I also took a trip to the West Bank to go to Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity (where Jesus was born) was obviously the main attraction. They also made a church celebrating Mary’s lactation (??). Apparently they made a church for everything…
Side note: being in Jerusalem for Shabbat was quite an inconvenience for those of us who forget and didn’t buy enough water and snacks. At about 4pm on Friday literally everything not located in the Muslim section shuts down. Public transportation, stores, restaurants, markets, etc. all close up shop until after sunset on Saturday. There is no traffic and very few people (most likely tourists) are out and about. Its a really eerie feeling.
In Israel the most interesting thing I did was to take a political tour of Jerusalem (nerd alert I know). The Palestinian guide spent several hours explaining the Palestinian side of the conflict with Israel, which quite honestly I had no knowledge of. He took us to a refugee camp where we could see the stark contrast between their living conditions and that of the next door Jewish colony (colony is their term for neighborhood). An interesting difference he pointed out was that you can distinguish a Palestinian house by the black water tank on the top of the house used when Israel cuts off their water supply, while the Jewish houses don’t have that necessity. The most astonishing part of the tour was the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, only a ten minute walk from central Jerusalem. From the Palestinian viewpoint, Jewish settlers have come in and forcibly evicted families who had been in these homes for generations. Basically it boils down to a land dispute: the Jews believe the property is theirs because it belonged to Jews in the 19th century, though the Palestinians say that their claims are unsupported. The UN and the United States side with the Palestinians, and yet the Jewish settlers remain in the homes. The Palestinians claim that the Jewish settlers are targeting this area to gain a Jewish demographic majority in East Jerusalem. Though I am certainly no expert on either subject; the checkpoints (which look and feel like international borders, which in reality sometimes separate Palestinian side from Palestinian side – essentially just creating a big traffic nuisance), the unreasonable residential restrictions, and the infrastructure projects that are built in the middle of Palestinian neighborhoods to break them apart strongly remind me of the apartheid laws in South Africa. And I know that it sounds like I am some kind of left-winged activist, but it is pretty hard to see the occupation and draw so many parallels to what I saw in South Africa, in which the white minority rule obviously came crashing down in time. The tour was definitely an eye opening experience.
Yad Vashem is a very thorough museum chronicling the Jewish suffering during the Holocaust. The stories that the survivors told about their time in concentration camps were literally bone-chilling. The most disturbing video clip I saw was of a Polish-Jewish women who had managed to survive life in a concentration camp and returned to her home. A new family had moved into the vacant house and their greeting to her was “why are you still alive?”.
On a more emotionally pleasant day, I traveled south in Israel. I hiked up the snake path in Masada to a fort and some beautiful views of the Dead Sea. Ein Gedi is an oasis in the desert with waterfalls and greenery. Then came the Dead Sea. I had already been on the Jordanian side, so some of the novelty of floating in gelatin-like water had worn off. But I still did the typical float in the water and cover your skin in the mud (which by the way is sold for exorbitant prices in expensive cosmetic stores). You can see how much the sea is receding because of lower rainfall levels in the surrounding watershed.