Israel and its people surprised me in many ways — big and small.
One big surprise is that there are many kinds of Jews. Most Israelis are secular; however, just as we have many types of Christians in the U.S., the practicing Jews in Israel come from many countries and many traditions.
Barry and I got to see a very Orthodox section of Jerusalem. When Danny told me that I needed to wear a dress over my jeans and my long sleeved sweater, I thought he was a bit extreme, but no, here is the sign we saw as we entered Mea She’arim section of Jerusalem.
Women and girls need to wear a “closed blouse with long sleeves, long skirt, no tight-fitting clothes.” The Mea She’arim area, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods, is populated mainly by Haredi Jews, an extremely conservative, anti-secular, isolationist expression of Judaism. They avoid both non-haredi Jews and non-Jews in order to prevent outside contamination of their values and practices.
This banner strung across a Mea She’arim street really shocked me.
The sign announces, “Authentic Jewry always opposed Zionism and the existence of the State of Israel. We pray for the speedy and peacefully total dismantlement of the state of Israel.”
This ultra-orthodox Jewish group believes that the Messiah is the one who will lead his people to the establishment of their own country. The existence of the country of Israel, they feel, delays the arrival of the Messiah.
Many in this area dress – and live – much as they did 100 years ago in small Jewish towns of Central Europe. Life revolves around strict adherence to Jewish law, prayer, and the study of Jewish religious texts. They have absolute reverence for Torah (Judaism’s most important text, composed of the Five Books of Moses, the 613 commandments (mitzvoth) and the Ten Commandments), and they prize religious scholarship.
In order to prevent outside influence and contamination of values and practices, Haredim strive to limit their contact with the outside world.
Then there are the Breslev Hasidim, another example of the diversity within Israel. They use clapping, singing and dancing to develop an intense, joyous relationship with God.
The Breslev Hasidim and the ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews represent a range of Jewish practices you will find among others in Israel.
Another surprise is Israel is a really, really small country.
Today, Israel (including disputed territories) is not much larger than the 5th smallest U.S. state – New Jersey, which is about 7,800 square miles (20,000 square kilometers). The State of Israel covers 8,019 square miles (20,770 sq. km).
Israel used to be bigger – almost twice as big. As a result of the 6-Day War in 1967, Israel gained much territory.
In 1979, as a peace offering, Israel gave up the Sinai Peninsula (about 60,000 km2 – 23,000 sq miles – in area) to Egypt. Despite large oil reserves having been found in the Sinai and the area serving as a big buffer zone, Israel pulled out of the Sinai in several stages ending in 1982.
In an NPR interview, reporter Nicolas Pelham, who writes for The Economist, discusses the Sinai and the Bedouin tribes that control it in his article, “In Sinai: The Uprising of the Bedouin.” The Sinai Peninsula is a very large piece of land, sparsely populated, which has been a conduit for smuggling – including arms smuggling. The Bedouin, a population of about half a million broadly divide into some 20 to 30 tribes in the Sinai, managed to build up its own arsenal of weapons.
Phelham notes the Sinai has “spun out of control [of the central Egyptian government]. When the Mubarak regime fell, its security forces, which had retained Egyptian control, fled.. . . and it’s becoming increasingly a full-scale battle between the Bedouin and the Egyptian government” (from: http://www.npr.org/2012/11/26/165945327/sinai-peninsula-often-ignored-in-coverage-of-egypt).
Recently, I saw the Sinai mentioned in The New Yorker article that tells of Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean-born Swede, who “advocates for Eritrean asylum seekers. She receives many calls from Eritreans in the Sinai, who beg for ransoms as large as forty thousand dollars while their captors pour molten plastic down their backs” (April 21, 2014, p. 79).
So although Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt in a peace agreement, Egypt can’t control the area, and Israel still does not have the promised peace with her neighbors.
Another big surprise is that although I knew Arab and Israeli areas were close, I saw they are actually intertwined even in the capital city of Jerusalem. In the photo below, you can see the wall separating Jerusalem from the area controlled by the Palestinian Authority.
On Maui, what could you do if a few members of one group in Wailuku shelled their neighbors in Kahului? In New York, what if some Brooklyn residents sent bombs into Manhattan? In Illinois, what if Evanston residents were mortaring the north side of Chicago? Or vice versa.
The situation is very, very complicated.
Shelling happened as recently as July-August 2014 when Israel launched a military operation in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip following the June 12, 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas members.
More than 2,200 people died, most of them Gazans – many children– during seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, Palestinian rocket attacks, and ground fighting.
“The stated aim of the Israeli operation was to stop rocket fire from Gaza into Israel . . . Conversely, Hamas’s goal was to bring international pressure to bear to lift Israel’s block of the Gaza Strip, end Israeli’s offensive, release Palestinian prisoners and overcome its political isolation. . . .
On 26 August, an open-ended ceasefire was announced. By that date, the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) reported that Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups had fired 4,564 rockets and mortars from Gaza into Israel, with over 735 intercepted in flight and shot down by Iron Dome [an example of Israel’s great defense technology]. Most Gazan mortar and rocket fire hit open land, more than 280 fell on areas in Gaza, while . . . 224 struck residential areas. The IDF attacked 5,263 targets in Gaza; at least 34 known tunnels were destroyed and two-thirds of Hamas’s 10,000-rocket arsenal was used up or destroyed” (<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_Israel–Gaza_conflict>).
The situation there is not good: not good for the Israelis and not good for the Palestinians.
All houses and apartment buildings that I saw in Israel have bomb shelters!
The wall causes hardships especially for Palestinians, but it provides a barrier between the two sides.
Another indication that Israel is small is that on our way back to Jerusalem from the Golan Heights, Danny’s car was passed by the prime minister’s convoy! Such proximity to national political leaders does not happen on Maui — and probably not where you live either.
The country is so small that Barry and I were able to go by public transportation (a bus and then a train; we did have to run to catch the train!) from Eilat at the very south of Israel to Binyamina, which is between Tel Aviv and Haifa in the north. It took us only about five hours.
On Amtrak in the U.S., it takes longer than that to go from St. Louis, MO to Chicago, IL!
In many other ways, Israel is a surprise. Although pilgrims come from all over the world, the surprise is who they are.
Of course, Jews come to Jerusalem.
Not surprisingly, I felt amazed to be in the actual places of the Bible.
The Magnificat: Song of Mary – “My soul doth magnify the Lord : and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded : the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth : all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me : and holy is his Name. . . .”
Another surprise is in contrast to the ornate Catholic and Protestant churches, I saw that most of the Jewish synagogues are very humble and simple.
Also, I expected military presence in Israel, but my surprise was that it felt okay (although I’m a Quaker). I even felt very safe.
After Israelis graduate from high school, almost all are required to join the army. The exceptions are Arab Israelis (although they can choose to join), kids from the Orthodox Jewish families, and those with significant physical or mental problems.
So we saw soldiers and their rifles almost everywhere we went in Israel. However, we could tell they were professional and well trained. For me, seeing those young Israelis with their rifles was not like the scary experiences of seeing a gun-brandishing guy on the Chicago El or another with an attitude at the Tucson swap meet – those incidences were scary! The Israeli soldiers are defending the existence of Israel – the one place where Jews can live without worry that their government and its citizens may one day choose to destroy them.
Another really big surprise for me – Shabbat, the time for Jewish prayer, rest, and celebration lasts from sundown on Friday until several hours after sunset on Saturday. Shops close, public transportation stops, no one is to work, drive a car, cook, or even press an elevator button! Shabbat affects everyone, religious Jew or not. Some Israelis like Shabbat even if they aren’t religious because it is a time for family and rest. Others just find all the closures as irritating. Shabbat certainly has to be considered. Barry and I tried taking the light electric train one Friday afternoon in Jerusalem. The sun was shining brightly, but the trains had already stopped – at 2:30 p.m.! We were told that the train conductors needed time to get home and prepare for Shabbat. Thankfully, an Arab taxi stopped for us.
Ethiopian cuisine characteristically consists of vegetables and often very spicy meat dishes, usually in the form of wat (also w’et or wot), a thick stew, served atop injera, a large sourdough flatbread, which is about 20 inches in diameter and made out of fermented teff flour. Our lunch was good and spicy — and we were happy to find a place to eat on Saturday during Shabbat.
Although most Israelis are secular, the country has Hebrew, the language of the Bible, as its official language and the government promotes Jewish holidays and practices.
Another surprise – the buildings in Jerusalem are required to be made from Jerusalem stone — which glows golden as the sun sets.
More surprises, big and small, were part of our visit to Israel. But this post is long enough. More will follow.
I hope you will go to Israel and find your own surprises.
Shalom & Aloha, Renée