Every step you take in Israel is on contested land. It’s hard to find a town, a road, a park that wasn’t at the center of some battle, some international incident, something blood-fresh in the minds of survivors and the stories carried by their children and grandchildren.
That was certainly true as we left for Jerusalem, driving northward out of the Negev into the Jordan Valley, via a dip in the Dead Sea, and into the West Bank. At least, that’s what it’s called internationally. Many Israelis use two different names for the territory — Judea and Samaria, provinces of long-dead Jewish kingdoms. In a single week in 1967, the land and the millions of Arabs who called it home came under Israeli control after a stunning victory no one was prepared for.
And thus began almost five decades of terrible intimacy in mid-air. This is stunning, haunting land — not annexed, not given back to Jordan, not independent — with powerful Jewish stories that Israeli settlers took to almost immediately. Building, giving up, re-building, fleeing, driving out, killing, being killed, living in peace/not-peace, playing out one of the messiest stories in history as the world watches on.
Depending on who you are and how you see things, this story is either a moral blight on the Jewish nation or a natural unfolding of our path, a divine mandate even. Either way, navigating the territory with progressive Jewish values in your heart is like walking on the backs of alligators.
I wasn’t ready to be there, and I didn’t know we would be. Looking at our group’s itinerary before we left, we saw at the stretch between the Negev and Jerusalem. I actually assumed we would go around the long way out of sensitivity to political concerns. If you believe the Israeli presence in whatever-you-want-to-call-it is illegitimate, and a danger to world peace, you’d hardly want to go wheeling through it on a big bus with Israeli plates and a sign in the window that reads “Israel Spiritual Journeys.”
But there we were, crossing a checkpoint alongside a random assortment of Israeli and Palestinian vehicles. Two nice soldiers with big rifles boarded, walked down the aisle, wished us a pleasant journey in native-sounding English. And off we went.
It was confusing. Israeli settlements, surrounded by barbed wire, and Palestinian villages (no barbed wire) drifted by on our left, our right, in random alternation. A Paz gas station, which is a big Israeli chain, then a Palestinian roadside tourist shop. Palestinian farm, Israeli farm. Village with Arabic-only signage, village with Hebrew-only, village with both. Palestinian flag, Israeli flag. All along pristine blacktop with signs pointing to towns and villages, Jewish and Arab, in Hebrew and Arabic, as conventional-looking as could be.
When we read about this place, we read about “sides,” but it felt much more intimate than that. It felt like walking through the living room of a couple in a long, toxic marriage, with hints — a picture here, some flowers there — of happier days. If they ever get divorced, it’s going to take them a long time to figure out who gets what.
Then I Dozed Off
That’s right. I actually slept through much the whatever-you-want-to-call-them. I woke up as we approached Jerusalem and crossed the immense concrete barrier that encloses the city, East and West, Arab and Jewish, in yet another territorial blend always on the verge, for forty-four years now, of condensing out.
We drove through late afternoon traffic, Jews and Arabs on both sides of us, and ended up taking in the vista on Mount Scopus, which has a story all its own — the lone Jewish enclave in East Jerusalem from ’48 to ’67 surrounded by U.N. troops in what was then Jordan, housing a major Jewish university the whole time. Now it looks out over the third of the city that is almost completely Arab, the Temple Mount in the middle, and Jewish West Jerusalem in the distance.
Look for the water heaters on the roofs, one of our leaders tells us. Generally speaking, the black ones belong to Arab homes, the white ones to Jewish homes. How’s that for pregnant imagery?
A blue-eyed Arab sells us a laminated panorama of the view before us and, with practiced sleight of hand, reaches into my wallet as I fumble with unfamiliar bills. Before I understand what’s happened, he’s helped himself to two hundred shekels (about fifty dollars) and moved on to the next customer. I could confront him, but I don’t want to start an international incident, I think to myself, and besides, if he’s desperate enough to steal, he probably needs the money much more than I do.
Back in the bus, we cross the official pre-1967 line, for which thousands gave up life and limb, but you’d have to look that up to know it. Now a shiny new light rail line runs right down the middle, crammed with Jews and Arabs standing shoulder to shoulder. Along the road, an Arab barber shop, a bilingual car dealership, a Jewish hotel. Hijab, kippah, hijab, tourist, kippah, kippah, hijab, jogger.
At this moment, a question from my spiritual director enters my mind.
“So where’s G-d in all of this?” she asks me.
My first, most powerful instinct in the face of all this conflict is to avoid, to turn away. I get anxious and sad. But maybe G-d is in the conflict, right in front of me the whole time, in the midst of all these feelings I’m so uncomfortable with.
Maybe G-d is the knot in my stomach, the one that stays with me the whole time we’re in Jerusalem.