Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Friendship journey to Israel - Apr. 19, 2012

Although this is only the third day of our study tour it feels as though we have been here a week or longer.

The day before I left Modi'in one of Michael and Nechama's dogs chowed down on my CPAP mask - part of the apparatus I wear that helps me breathe while I'm sleeping. The Nemals were terribly apologetic, but I wasn't too bothered by it. The dogs were just being dogs, and I figured that I could get another one overnighted from the US. Worst case I would have to sleep a couple of nights more or less sitting up in a chair. But Michael and Nechama made several phone calls and thought that we could find a replacement in Modì 'in. First, they took me to the Israeli national health facility that they use. Frankly, it was amazing. It is bright, shiny, brand new, and everything is up to date. Their primary doctor, dentist, and pharmacy are in a single building. Of course, taxes pay for it, but Israelis don't pay anything out of pocket for health care. The Nemals told me of a friend who had moved there from the Netherlands. He needed a lung transplant, but because he was 63, he could not get on the transplant waiting list in Holland. However, in Israel he was given a new lung. Anyway, the people at the national health pharmacy were very nice but did not have a replacement. Then we went to an organization called Yad Sarah (Sarah's Hand) that provides free medical equipment to those who cannot afford it. They were also extremely nice but did not have one. Finally, the next day Nechama drove me to Tel Aviv (30 mins or less), and I got a replacement there. Unless my insurance in the US reimburses me, it will be the most expensive souvenir I buy on this trip!

After our scenic tour of lovely downtown Tel Aviv, Nechama took me back to Modi'in to get the "sherut" (shared taxi) that would take me to Jerusalem. After I checked into the hotel I came back down to the lobby to check email, and I ran into Rabbi Miller, Donald and Ronne Hess and other members of our group.

At 6.30 we all walked from the hotel just a couple of blocks to a spot just across the street from the walls of the old city. Our guide, Julian Resnick, is a South African Jew by birth, who "made aliyah" in 1976. Julian left South Africa on July 3, the day that Israeli commandos freed the airliner that had been hijacked by terrorists and forced down in Entebbe. The only Israeli soldier killed on that mission was Yoni Netanyahi, the current prime minister's brother and (I'm proud to say) an alumnus of Harvard. Julian told us that as the airplane he was on lifted off, the pilot spoke to the passengers, urging them not to be concerned. Julian looked out the window and saw that his plane was being accompanied by Israeli fighter jets. It turns out that Libya's dictator, Qaddafi, had ordered that a plane en route to Israel be shot down in retaliation for the Entebbe raid, and Julian's plane was the one marked for destruction. Julian gave us a quick but thorough orientation to Jerusalem and then we went to dinner.

The next morning we were up early for a talk by Rabbi Daniel Gordis (American by birth but an Israeli for many years). I have to tell you that my own thoughts and feelings about Israel have evolved a great deal. After my first trip here in 1985 I came back very pro-Palestinian. Every subsequent trip has made me less pro-Palestinian. I like to say that I am pro-justice, and that is true, but the Palestinians (as former Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban said) "never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity". There are no simple solutions or simple answers to anything here, however if there were a simple solution, this would be it: If the Palestinians would engage in the kind of non-violent resistance that Dr. King and Gandhi practiced, they would have their own state in a matter of months or sooner. But unfortunately, that is not what is happening.

Anyway, Rabbi Gordis made the most persuasive case for Israel that I have ever heard. He rehearsed the history that led up to Israel's founding and said that Jews should not fully trust anyone who says that they will take care of them. During the Holocaust, the entire world, with only a few minor exceptions, turned its back on the Jews. Gordis said that Israel is a guarantee that that will never happen again. Gordis' talk was particularly effective because this is the week of Yom HaShoah - the day that Jews remember the Holocaust.

After Gordis' talk we began our tour with a visit to the southern steps of the Temple platform. The Temple platform was built by Herod the Great in the years before the birth of Jesus. It was a part of Jordan until the 1967 war, and the excavations have been going on for years. This was the first time that I have been able to go there. We continued around the southwest corner of the platform to the most famous spot in Jerusalem - the Western Wall of the Temple platform where Jews have prayed since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. All of us took a moment to go there and say our own prayers.

Then we visited the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt of Olives and the adjacent Church of All Nations. I said a few words about the garden and the Last Supper and had one of the other Christians on the trip read Mark's account of Jesus' prayer in the garden. I also introduced the next location we were going to - the Via Dolorosa.

Everyone who has visited Jerusalem, especially every western Christian, is quite shocked by the noise, bustle, dirt, and commercialism that lines the Via Dolorosa, but do we really think it was any different 2000 years ago when a relatively obscure Palestinian peasant named Jesus of Nazareth was tried on charges of treason by the Roman governor Pilate and given his cross to take out to the place of execution? I imagine that most people went about their business as Jesus walked the way of the cross. And it is still the same today...

At the end of the Via Dolorosa is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We stopped by the Ethiopian chapel on the roof of the church and I gave people a brief orientation to it, explaining that the correct name is the Church of the Anastasis or Resurrection, that the original church was built by the Emperor Constantine's mother Helen in the 4th c., and that the church we see today was built by the Crusaders after they destroyed Helen's church in the 11th c. I also cautioned people that the church would not conform to our western and North American ideas of holiness. Like most of Jerusalem, it is noisy, dirty, and crowded. It is also a witness to Christian disunity. It is controlled by Greek and Russian Orthodox, the Armenian Church, Ethiopian and Egyptian Copts, and the Roman Catholic Church, and frequently these various groups disagree, sometimes violently. They cannot even agree who will maintain the church, so the key of the church is held by one Muslim family but another Muslim family is responsible for opening and closing the church.

The only time that the Anastasis or Holy Sepulchre feels holy is early in the morning, especially on Sunday. Even though there are many competing Christian groups who worship at different altars, I enjoy hearing the different melodies and languages in which they sing God's praises.

Enough for now... more soon...