Israel Is Real

This summer, Claremont McKenna College Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Gary Gilbert, organized a nine day whirlwind student trip to two of Israel’s largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and I was fortunate enough to go. It was designed to complement two other programs he led this summer that I didn't attend, including an intensive seminar version of his course “Jerusalem: The Holy City” and a three week volunteer opportunity at an archeological dig in the Israeli city of Akko. In total, eight 5C students (and one Johns Hopkins student) participated, including six from CMC, as well as one each from Pomona and Scripps. The trip was immensely rewarding and eye-opening, in no small part due to the unique itinerary put together by Professor Gilbert.

The trip started off smooth enough, thanks in part to my DVD of “The Edge” (Hannibal and Jack Donaghy fight a bear after it kills Michael from Lost), but many hours of security screening and airplane food would lay ahead.  After more than a full day of traveling, we finally flew over the Mediterranean. Through the window, we spotted the islands of Sardinia and Rhodes, as well as this Greek City.

After landing and loading onto the bus in Tel Aviv, we sped inland towards Jerusalem.  As we crested and the city appeared below us for the first time, our Bus Driver started playing this song, and the resulting ambiance made quite an impression on me.  This moment sticks out in my mind as one of my favorite from the trip.

Over the next eight days, we visited many of the sights that make Israel famous, including the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall, the fortress at Masada, the Dead Sea, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and many more.  All of the sites were great, to be sure, but we also had the opportunity to meet with a number of fascinating leaders and activists over the course of the trip, thanks in large part to Professor Gilbert's tremendous effort to build a unique, thought-provoking program.  We met with Ethan Bronner, the New York Times correspondant in Jerusalem, Knesset Member Zeev Bielski, the influential professor and author Dr. Bernard Sabella, and Mohammed, a soft-spoken Palestinian man, whose house is under threat of seizure by the Israeli government in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah, along with many others.

In addition to the trinkets and bobbles I accrued in the bazaars of the Old City and on the streets of Jaffa (including my favorite new TNC accessory, keep an eye out for it), I brought home with me a few things that make the trip stand out in my mind.

Two Israeli Defense Force members asked for a picture

First, my experiences with the people who we met along the way. These included the two Israeli Defense Force infantrymen who stopped me in the Jewish quarter of the Old City and asked me to take their picture while they took a break from patrol, the teenager in the Muslim Quarter who jokingly offered one of the girls in our group “one million camel” to “sleep in my house.”  In particular, I am thankful for Ellie, our Uruguayan-Israeli bus driver who was always quick with a joke and a bottle of water and Toby, our fiery-spirited tour guide who offered a counter-point to every criticism of Israeli policy we heard and hauled us all over the country at double speed despite being at least six months pregnant.

Second, I will miss the food, which was simultaneously familiar and exotic. Of course the highly anticipated humus, pita, and shawarma were fantastic, but other dishes were far more interesting.  For example, an Israeli "salad" is not quite the same thing one might order at the local Red Lobster. Rather than individual plates of lettuce and dressing, the Israeli salads we were served featured several, sometimes more than a dozen, small plates of various sauces, spreads, dips, and mixed vegetables spread across the middle of the table including garlic hummus, pickles, diced beets, pickled cabbage, and many, many more which I couldn’t identify. We also learned quickly that at every single meal, no matter the restaurant, we could expect to see an ubiquitous light lemonade drink called limonana on the table. Oddly enough though, Italian restaurants seemed to outnumber traditional Middle Eastern institutions. There are european style street cafes and restaurants everywhere.  It seems that Israelis have largely adopted the Western culinary tradition, but have adapted it to reflect their own Middle Eastern surroundings. Case in point: the McFalafal.

Third, thanks in large part to the program built by Professor Gilbert, I think we attained a better understanding of the political conflicts occurring in the region. Reading an article or blurb on the evening news about the Israeli-Palestinian dispute pales in comparison to standing on contested ground and walking through an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem. On about the third day, while driving through Jerusalem, wondering how far we were from the West Bank, territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority rather than the Israeli government. In answer, our tour guide pointed out the window to a fence just a few streets over as if to say "see for yourself."

For the last leg of the trip, we traveled from Israel's ancient capitol of Jerusalem to her modern metropolis of Tel Aviv.  The shift in atmosphere was jarring. If Jerusalem is representative of the past of the tiny nation, the unique history of the land and it's people as well as the conflicts which have shaped it for millennia, Tel Aviv represents it's future as an economic and political powerhouse. We could see the difference as our bus approached the city. Whereas Jerusalem is distinguished by ancient buildings and walls constructed from characteristic beige Jerusalem stone, Tel Aviv features tall skyscrapers of steel and glass. Massive hotels and resorts tower over it's beaches, and modern restaurants and shops line it's streets.

The difference in atmosphere and character of these two cities, the two largest in the country, represents another conflict in a land seemingly rife with them. It is hard to escape the feeling that the Israeli people are caught between a strong desire to hold on to their unique past and a quest to modernize, secularize, and westernize. As Israel continues to develop as a nation, this will surely be a point of contention among its people. Will they maintain their steadfast dedication to the past and the traditions which maintained the Jewish people through centuries of diaspora, or sacrifice some of these long-held principles in the name of peace and development?

At this point, I’ve spent far too much time trying to sound like Anthony Bourdain, so I’ll just say this: Israel is a beautiful place with a rich history filled with colorful personalities (and hummus). It affected me personally more than I would have thought possible, and I am tremendously grateful to Professor Gilbert for giving us the opportunity to experience it. It is a place both timeless and timely, Western and Eastern, similar and different, new and old, even (just one more, I promise) ethereal and concrete. I can say with certainty that I’ll go back someday, if only to spend one more afternoon swimming in the Mediterranean Sea just off the white sand beaches of Tel Aviv.