Thoughts (and pictures) from a small rocky country

The first thing that strikes you about Israel when you get off the plane is how green everything is. Taking the bus from Ben Gurion Airport to the place where we were staying, I vividly remember staring out the window in stunned fascination at the never-ending war between the green of the city and the brown and grey of the sand and rock in which, somehow, the Israelis had figured out ways to plant trees and shrubs. It's the same story no matter where you go in Israel- wherever the Jews have settled the land, there is greenery.

I have never seen anything like it, in any country I have visited- and I have visited many. I have been to Egypt, and there too you see greenery surrounded by desert- but you have to understand that the greenery exists because almost the entirety of Egypt is concentrated in a very narrow band around the Nile River. If you were to look at satellite imagery of Egypt, you would see almost no green whatsoever beyond that river.

In Israel, by contrast, there is green everywhere. Even in the midst of barren rock and desert, there is green. When I went into the Negev and saw lush greenery and children's playgrounds and open water in the midst of the wilderness that Moses and the Twelve Tribes of Israel wandered in for forty years, tears came to my eyes at the simple beauty that surrounded me.

It might sound weird to get emotional about gardens and playgrounds- until you've actually seen the magnificent desolation of the Negev, and you've felt the awesome heat of the Dead Sea. Believe me, when you've seen and felt the withering heat of the Sun like that, you gain a whole new appreciation for a simple garden.

You can see exactly what I'm talking about from
satellite imagery of Israel- there is
life even in the
most unexpected places here. (Source: Wikipedia)
Passing through Tel Aviv- the pictures do get better from here, I promise

Going to the waterfront of Tel Aviv at sunset- the name literally means "Hill of Spring", and it's not hard to see why
You will find orchards like this in many kibbutzim in Israel- even ones that grow in what used to be the swamp of the Galilee region

I tend to be quite sceptical about claims of miracles- even Biblical ones. It is from that sceptical, though God-fearing, point of view that I tell you this: Israel is, without question, a land of miracles. You see it everywhere you go in this country. From the Old City of Jerusalem, to the ancient port of Acre, to kibbutzim like Deganiya and Ein Gedi and Rosh Ha'Nikra and Sdot Yam and beyond, the Israelites have created a land of beauty and grace in the midst of some of the most brutally unforgiving territory in the world.

If that is not miraculous, I don't know what is.

The outskirts of the ruins of Caesarea, built by King Herod

The modern port city of Haifa- an exceedingly pleasant place- and the ancient city of Acre far in the north.

In order to understand Israel, you have to visit at least one kibbutz while you are there. Unless you do so, you will never be able to grasp the soul and passion of these odd people that we know today as modern Israelites. It is one of the very, very few voluntary communal organisations in the entire world that actually does what it aims to do: work for the common good.

I'm not saying that the kibbutz or moshav concept has eliminated the profit motive or human greed, because it plainly has not. Gan Shmuel kibbutz, for instance, is the majority owner of Gan Shmuel Foods, a factory that produces various mass-marketed and tailor-made fruit and vegetable juice products, and has prospered just as the factory has prospered. Sdot Yam kibbutz is home to a very pleasant guest resort literally under a hundred feet from the waters of the Mediterranean, and the town itself is home to a factory that produces some of the most highly sought-after artificial tile and kitchen counter-top fittings (in the form of Caesarstone) in the entire world. In fact, most of the kibbutzes in Israel have to a greater or lesser extent adopted a form of free-market capitalism- with uniquely Israeli characteristics.

I guess the best way to put it is this: in Israel, people look out for each other because if they don't, no one else will. You need to borrow a lawnmower? No problem, just walk over to your neighbour in the kibbutz and ask him. The unspoken expectation is that you will return that mower in the same condition that you got it, in timely fashion. If you use that mower to your personal advantage during that time, that's fine- but you damn well return it the same way you found it.

In other words, a kibbutz is a very high-trust society*- provided you have earned that trust by conforming to Israeli norms. Anyone who does not conform to these norms is viewed, quite rightly in my opinion, as an outsider and therefore suspect.

Dairy farm on a kibbutz that I visited. By the way, if you think dairy farming is fun, you've never been around a cow. They're very stupid, very smelly, and generally very unpleasant- yet they produce great milk and meat. The Big Fella Upstairs has an interesting sense of humour.

It is difficult to think of any other nation on Earth where the people live in such close proximity to millions of enemies who would nominally like nothing better than to destroy them. Take a look at the picture below. It was taken less than two hundred metres below the border with Lebanon.

The view over the cliffs of Rosh Ha'Nikra. The border with Lebanon is literally right above my head.
Travelling through the eastern part of the country, through the West Bank- which you have to travel through, pretty much, if you want to get from the Sea of Galilee to Jericho, Jerusalem, and beyond- you will pass by the River Jordan. That river is less than three metres wide in quite a lot of places. The hills that surround the river are covered by nothing much more than fields and farms and open brushland. It would not- and does not- take very much for a small group of determined Musloids to sneak over that border and into Israel and wreak havoc.

In fact, that is exactly what happened- to the point where Israel's army started making incursions into Jordanian territory. The Jordanians, understandably, got rather annoyed with this. To which Israel responded: "do something about these fellaheen that keep sneaking over our border!".

Amazingly, the Jordanians did "do something"- they effectively fought a not-quite-civil-war between their own people and the Jordanian Army to suppress the more hardcore factions on the Jordanian side. This is because the Jordanian leadership, for all of its faults, recognises something that most Arabs have not the wit nor wisdom to comprehend: having Israel as a friend, even if one at arm's length, is far better than having Israel as a foe.

Or take a look at this picture below. This was taken on the hills above the Sea of Galilee. Directly north of where I was standing were the Golan Heights- and the border with Syria. At the foot of those hills is the kibbutz of Ein Gev, where some of the most intense battles were fought during the War of Independence against the Syrian Army. It was there that a unique Israeli invention called the Davidka ("Little David") was tested, with unexpected and spectacular results. It was there that a legendary stand was made against foreign invaders on Israeli soil.

And it is there that Israel has a difficult, contested, and porous border with a regime in Syria that would like nothing better than to destroy this little country of miracles.

That is but a small taste of what Israel faces. Every. Single. Day. And they face it without malice or despair or fear. They face it as a fact of life. Truly, the Israelis are a remarkable people.

The view from Porras, near Tiberias, above the Sea of Galilee. Look at this picture, and then tell me that Israel is not a God-blessed land.

The site where St. John the Baptist bathed the Lord Christ, at the River Jordan. I didn't dip into the waters- I'm still just a heathen, and it just wouldn't have been right somehow to do so frivolously.

The road to Calvary is something that should have the same significance for Christians as the Hajj has for Muslims. I can't even begin to do that journey justice in words. It's impossible to adequately describe what I felt as I walked the same steps that Christ did while carrying His cross to the hill of Golgotha.

It was, in a word, overwhelming.

In order to understand why, you have to understand what the Lord was going through on the day that He was crucified.

His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane was not really from fear of what would happen to Him- it was because He understood that the very people He had loved and cherished and tried to lead into salvation would soon turn their backs upon Him.

He was sentenced by a representative of the world's most powerful empire for political reasons- and even then, Pontius Pilate tried desperately to save Christ from death and appease the Pharisees by having Him whipped instead. Except that He wasn't just whipped- He was scourged. The very flesh from His back was torn apart by the whip, inducing massive trauma, shock, and blood loss.

After suffering all of that, He still had to carry a heavy wooden cross for nearly 600 metres up to the hill of Golgotha. Without assistance from his tormentors, of any kind. He stumbled and fell three times along the way- the very fact that He did not die on the road to Calvary itself speaks of superhuman effort and devotion. Along the way, He comforted His mother, the Holy Virgin Mary, and His converts. He was helped along the way by Simon of Cyrene and others, but for the most part, He bore the burden alone- knowing full well that every single step bore him closer to a horrifically painful death.

Just how horrifically painful that death is, requires some elaboration. Crucifixion is perhaps the third or fourth most awful way to die- right after immolation and drowning, maybe just above execution by the blood eagle. And unlike that last one, which may be a fictional form of execution, crucifixion was definitely used by the Romans to kill those they didn't like.

When you understand what crucifixion involves, and how horrible it is as a way to die, then you may have a slightly better appreciation of just why it is that Christians regard the final sacrifice of Christ as the bedrock of their entire faith. Without the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, the entire construct of Christianity completely falls apart.

So perhaps you understand now what I mean when I say that it is extraordinarily difficult to describe what I felt in words when I entered the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

I touched the rock upon which His body was washed when He was taken down from the Cross.

I saw the paintings of the Lord's side being pierced by the Roman soldier Longinus- and I understood, at last, just why (Armenian) Christian tradition holds that Longinus converted to Christianity and became a martyr for his faith.

I saw the Tomb of Christ, built where His body lay after his death before being moved to the final resting place.

I touched the rock at the peak of Golgotha, buried today under an altar where the faithful come to see where the Lord died in the name of all Mankind.

To say that I was moved by all of this would be an understatement for the ages.

I have understood, intellectually, for a long time now that Christianity provides the closest and most accurate understanding of God's Truth that Man can perceive. I did not understand, emotionally, what that meant until I walked the Road to Calvary, and saw firsthand just why it is that Christ's sacrifice and resurrection are such powerful articles of rational faith- and yes, there is no contradiction whatsoever in that phrase.

A picture showing the Via Dolorosa- the Road to Calvary- in its modern form. It has been altered over the centuries, by the way, due to "political issues".

The altar directly underneath the peak of Golgotha in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Even in the most unlikely places, it is possible to find life in this country. Below is a picture taken at Qumran National Park- also known as the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. I can't really do justice to the awesome heat of the area- it's the lowest inhabited point on Earth, lower even than Death Valley, and the combination of unbelievable heat and extreme desertification make the area incredibly hostile to life- yet somehow, life thrives there. There is a spring near Qumran known as David's Spring, which we visited and bathed in for a bit- and it's a stunningly beautiful place.

That is indeed the Dead Sea in the distance. I did in fact wallow around in the Dead Sea- it's an odd experience, actually. We visited it on a very hot day, the water temperature was forty degrees Celsius (seriously), and you don't "swim" in the Dead Sea- not if you know what's good for you. Instead, you just sort of "float"- sit your ass down like you're on the can, and let extremely high salt content of the water do the rest. It's literally impossible for the human body to sink (without assistance) in that water- which is some 30% salt- but it is quite possible to burn out your eyes and stomach lining.

It's a very nasty place in many ways- and yet astonishingly beautiful even so. The Israelis have done a phenomenal job turning it into a tourist attraction, not least because Mt. Masada, which is a site of immense spiritual and historical importance to the Israelites, is very close to the shores of the Dead Sea.

That blue smudge waaaaay over in the background is the Dead Sea. The green stuff in between? Mineral harvesting, fig trees, date palms, and banana plantations. The Israelis are that good at figuring this stuff out.

Masada summarises the character of Israel probably better than anything else I saw there. It is there that the First Jewish-Roman War was fought with the greatest drama. The fortress of Masada is an astonishing place- built, like so many other of the greatest Jewish historical sites, by King Herod, at the top of a mountain more than 400 metres above the shores of the Dead Sea. To get there- at least, the way we got there- you have to go up a winding switchback trail up one side of the mountain called the Snake Trail.

Most people would take an hour or more to get up that trail. We did it in 35 minutes. I'm not saying it was pleasant- I badgered, bullied, and/or carried several people up that trail when they ran out of steam two-third of the way up- but it's an achievement even so.

At the top of that mountain, you can see the fortifications that the Jews of Bar Giora's time setup after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. You can see the breaching point that the soldiers of General Lucius Flavius Silva created to get into the last stronghold of Judea.

And, as the historian Josephus documents, of the nearly 1,000 defenders who were left at Masada when the Romans broke through, almost all of them committed suicide**.

There is no better example of the spirit and will of the Israelites than this mountain-fortress. They would rather die by their own hands than retreat from this land- their land. They love this country because it is, indeed, theirs- given to them by God, beautified by their hands, more important to them than anything else.

In a very real sense, Masada is Israel.

Remains of one of the eight (!!!!!) forts that the Romans built when they besieged Masada, for three years, following the Sack of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple.

Sunrise over the Dead Sea, and Masada

"Magnificent desolation". That is what Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin called the surface of the Moon. (I mistakenly thought it was Lawrence of Arabia- my bad.) That is also a very good description of the Negev Desert as well, by the way.

There is something wonderful about the desert. Most people hate the idea of scrambling about in a rocky, barren wasteland under the murderous heat of the Sun, where life seems to have abandoned the rock and the wind to their own designs.

But if you know how to listen to it, the desert has some of the most hauntingly beautiful melodies you will ever hear.

Just walk up to the top of a dune or cliff in the desert, and listen in silence. One of two things will happen. Either you will find the entire exercise pointless and you'll want to get out of the awful heat into shade and air conditioning and where the hell did that water bottle go and why are we still here...

Or you will hear the beauty of the desert calling out to your very soul, as I did.

There is danger and death in the desert. If you disrespect it for even a moment, it will kill you. But if you know how and where to look, there is simple joy and wonder to be found in this most unlikely of places.

And there is life here too- life in the most unlikely of places, life under the burning Sun and brilliant blue sky, life that exists perfectly adapted to what most people think of as Hell on Earth.

All you have to do is find it.

The landscape of the Negev- the wilderness of the Israelites, and one of the sternest tests of the will of Man that God has ever created.

*More to come on that idea shortly.

**There is some debate as to whether that actually happened.


Popular Posts