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Israel: A State of Change

By Alison Buckholtz
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 5, 1998; Page E01

   


We were the stragglers, three women too tired to be enthusiastic at the end of a long hike in Nahal Yehudiya, the Edenic nature reserve located in Israel's much-disputed Golan Heights, near the Syrian border. The rest of the group had already weaved to the top; as we grew closer, their urgent shouts echoed down the precipice. "Hornets' nest!" they called, gesticulating toward the two-foot-wide ledge we were about to venture onto. Hundreds of hornets swarmed like an angry aura, furious at the hikers who had already disturbed them and ready to attack anyone else who dared venture through their home.

We froze. How is it possible to move forward when you know you're going to be stung? But how is it possible to stand on a two-foot-wide ledge in the middle of the Golan -- indefinitely?

We approached the ledge slowly, very carefully, with our heads down and our stride steady. The hornets escorted us from the path with all the graciousness of an offended host. None of us was stung. And later, safe in our hostel, we laughed about the awful symbolism, the stuck-or-stung situation that too often characterizes that diplomatic hike called the Middle East peace process. And quietly, we each wondered: Next time we visited the Golan, would it be Syrian hornets daring us to pass through their territory?

Tourists in Israel face a dilemma unlike those who wander other parts of the world. No one gazes down at the Grand Canyon, or up at the Eiffel Tower or into the Taj Mahal, and wonders if those sites will be under the same country's authority, with the same accessibility, in the near future. But those who head toward the Promised Land are continually reminded that the political reality of the country makes its attractions even more breathtaking -- because the sites have been taken, traded and captured back so many times throughout history. And because their future control remains so uncertain.

As the state of Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it is working through a series of difficult questions about its domestic, regional and international future. As its visitors brush off their passports and embark on a variety of 50th-anniversary trips and tours, they, too, are forced to ask questions that could puzzle even a political science professor.

Visitors to Israel in the state's early history explored a completely different country than tourists today. Geographically, demographically and culturally, Israel has morphed into a land its founders would hardly recognize. Changes in geographical boundaries are the most obvious, because in 50 years there have been nearly a half-dozen wars.

Tour guides are fond of saying that the state of Israel is the size of New Jersey. But when the United Nations partitioned Palestine in 1947 to create Israel, it was closer to the size of a slightly bulging Newark. Since the War of Independence that immediately followed the partition and expanded Israeli territory, the Sinai peninsula was won from Egypt in 1967 and returned in 1982; the Golan was captured from Syrian control in 1967; and the West Bank (Jordanian) and the Gaza Strip (Egyptian) were also seized in the 1967 war. Both are now in the process of being transferred to the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the peace process. The simmering battle for East Jerusalem and portions of the Old City (which were captured from Jordan in 1967) is now fought by Florida millionaire Irving Moskowitz, who buys Arab properties in those areas for Jewish schools and religious neighborhoods.

Few sojourners, whether toting canvas backpacks or the latest Louis Vuitton, are accidental tourists to Israel. From the first spies sent by Moses into the land of Canaan until today, tourists have craned their necks, scribbled notes and even engaged in a little creative dissembling to experience the land that promises nothing less than an adventure of biblical proportions.

Matthew Simon, senior rabbi at B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, has been to Israel more than 100 times since 1956, when he lived in Jerusalem as a one-year student at Hebrew University. "I arrived 10 days after war with Egypt broke out, and all classes were canceled. Americans were supposed to go home, but I never received my letter from the consulate, so I was totally free. I got a detailed map of the city and walked every block of Jerusalem," he said.

But it was a different Jerusalem then; a wall divided the city's Jewish side from its Jordanian side (which included the Old City), and Jordanian legionnaires patrolled the wall, rifles at the ready. At night Simon went to Fink's Bar, the journalists' haunt, to hear stories about the "other" Jerusalem, which only they were permitted to cross into. "Israel was a totally different country then, but I've experienced a new country each time I've visited," Simon said. "National boundaries are porous. Nothing stands forever."

And Israel has the monuments to prove it. Visitors to Israel during its 50th-anniversary year will find official activities scheduled around the country's military victories, with only a sprinkling of cultural fairs, performances and parades. Even Israelis, almost immune to scandal, have been surprised by the degree to which those responsible for creating a memorable anniversary have failed to create something of interest to them, much less to tourists. The 50th-anniversary committee, a government-appointed body, was in disarray almost from its inception, and it proposed its own disintegration in February after months of paralysis due to changes in leadership, budget uncertainties and political infighting.

Israel's 50th anniversary began on Nov. 29, 1997, with commemorations of the United Nations' vote to create a Jewish state in what was then British-controlled Palestine (Nov. 29, 1947). The largest events take place beginning in this month with reunions of veterans of the War of Independence, and continue with state ceremonies for Holocaust Remembrance Day (April 23), Memorial Day (April 29) and Independence Day (April 30). Family-friendly events include the World Bible Quiz (April 30), Judaica exhibitions at the Israel Museum (April-August) and the Jerusalem Convention Center (May 3-7), the Israel Festival (May 24-June 13) and the Jubilee Exhibition (opening Aug. 3).

If you were hoping for an especially meaningful trip to Israel this year, there's no cause for disappointment. The Old City, Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, the Dead Sea, the Galilee region and Bethlehem haven't gone anywhere. But Bethlehem was transfered to the Palestinian Authority in 1995 -- in the reverse logic that all too often characterizes Isreali affairs, returning visitors may as a result find it easier rather than harder to visit areas previously too tense to tour.

Palestinian Authority control has made it simpler for the Rev. Charles Miller, a dean at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Tex., to lead pilgrimages to Bethlehem's Christian sites. But the political situation has restricted his access to other areas, especially the extremely volatile West Bank town of Hebron. He remains hopeful about future visits, though: "I fully expect to go back to Hebron and to many other places now effectively off limits once the peace process becomes something real and honest."

Outside the West Bank, travel is much freer. There are many sites that illustrate Israel's fluid boundaries -- and, often more interestingly, how those boundaries came to be. If you're coming to commemorate the founding of the state, the Ayalon Institute, just outside of Jerusalem, is an especially fitting stop. James Bond could have learned a thing or two from this pre-state site, a fake kibbutz that served as cover for an underground munitions factory. After touring the kibbutz buildings, visitors descend what was then the secret staircase for a visual display of pre-1948 war strategy and how Israel won the War of Independence.

For a graphic illustration of the cost of enlarging Israel's boundaries after 1948, don't miss Ammunition Hill, the stirring memorial to one of the battles to reclaim East Jerusalem in 1967. This site, at which you can walk the trenches dug by soldiers and read letters written home from young men at war, is a poignant reminder of the cost of unifying the city.

When you head back into West Jerusalem, clear an afternoon to walk atop the walls of the Old City -- which of course you could not do until 1967 -- for a perspective on the "city that is compact together" (Psalms 122). The Old City's four quarters -- Muslim, Christian, Armenian and Jewish -- are the oldest still-functioning borders in the country, though these borders are completely porous. Like the pre-1967 Jordanian soldiers who patrolled from on high, climbing up to the ramparts (reached by a ramp at Damascus Gate) gives you a God's-eye view of the overlapping quarters and the history, character, people and architecture of each.

Danny Siegel, a Rockville poet and lecturer who has been coming to Israel since 1959, remembers the days the ramparts walk, much less a visit to the Western Wall -- the holiest site in Judaism -- was inconceivable. Before 1967, when the Wall was off-limits to Jews, Siegel "visited" the Wall by climbing up to the roof of the Notre Dame convent, half a mile away, to peer down on the Jordanian-controlled area.

But now that Siegel has the freedom to pray at the Wall, he rarely goes. "It is very much soured by the shenanigans and the violence," he said, referring to the sometimes-vicious conflicts between ultra-religious Jews and Jews whose style of observance is less rigid. These intransigent emotional boundaries among Jews have driven Siegel from Israel's most traditional tourist attractions. "There's still a lot of lyricism in the country as it changes, but it's human moments and landscapes," rather than sites, he said.

Tourists aren't the only ones who date experiences in Israel from the time access to certain areas was lifted. "In the 1950s and 60s, this was such a small country you couldn't walk a kilometer without hitting a border," said native-born Jerusalemite Zvia Greenfield. "We would sooner dream of going to the moon than going to the Wall. It was so close to us, but it was a myth. Everything has changed since then, and we go to the Wall so often now that it's hard to remember that period."

For non-Jews, whose entry into and travel within pre-1967 Jerusalem was less restricted than Jews', complications arose from logistical issues relating to which country was administering which area. The Rev. Miller visited the Western Wall in 1964 by entering Jordanian-controlled Jerusalem through Jordan itself.

But getting into Jordan was another matter entirely. His tortuous but politically necessary route took him through Greece, Egypt, Lebanon and finally into Jordan and Jerusalem. He then entered Israeli-controlled Jerusalem through the Mandelbaum Gate, at that time the only passage between the two Jerusalems. "It would have been simpler to travel directly," he concedes, "but I made it." The Western Wall itself matched his expectations, except that the area was completely empty because of the no-Jew policy. For anyone who has wiggled through the crowds at the Western Wall plaza, the thought of an empty Wall really does imply a different era altogether.

Many Israelis look back on the decades of change with concern for the process by which transfers of sites and large areas of land have taken place. "When the Sinai was in Israeli hands, Israel developed large, successful agricultural settlements, in addition to the popular tourist spots everyone thinks of," said Prof. Amiram Gonen, author of the just-published "Israel: Yesterday and Today" (MacMillan).

But after the 1982 peace agreement with Egypt, these settlements were bulldozed before the Sinai was handed back. "This practice of destroying whole regions erases the Israeli landscape, and it erases Jewish history," Gonen said. "It's just as easy for tourists to go to the desert resorts in Sinai as it was before. All you need is a passport. But it's surreal to watch the country's landscape dissolve before your eyes."

Many of the decisions behind setting -- and changing -- Israel's borders have been made in Tel Aviv, Israel's diplomatic capital. Especially appropriate during this anniversary year is a visit to the Haganah Museum in Tel Aviv, with exhibits relating to early Jewish settlement and the underground defense organizations that evolved into the Israeli army. And while you're in the area, stop by Independence Hall, the simple, elegant building in which the state of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948.

But the 50th anniversary isn't just about borders. As with everything in Israel, even the most seemingly innocuous events have religious or political implications, and usually both. The Hebrew Bible exhorts Jews to observe the sabbatical year -- every seventh year -- as a time of renewal for the land and the people. The seventh cycle of sabbatical years culminates every 50th year, known as the Jubilee year. The state of Israel started counting in 1948, and politicians and rabbis have been arguing for several months about how closely to heed the Bible's instructions for the Jubilee year, which include granting broad amnesty to prisoners, leaving farmland fallow, nullifying property ownership and forgiving debts, among many other things.

The Jubilee tradition, at its core both religious and political, addresses cycles of change and corrective measures a society can implement to remake itself. Israel has been in a continual cycle of change since its founding, and the 50th year reintroduces long-standing questions about the country's present and its future. These questions are most often manifested in uncertainty about Israel's boundaries -- all kinds of boundaries.

Touring a land that won't hold still, geographically, culturally or spiritually, is an opportunity to witness a country that continually rethinks its relationship to its people, its neighbors and the world. And as Israel's feelings about its own borders change, its visitors' thoughts about Israel evolve as well.

"Pre-1967 Israel had an air of innocence," Miller said. "That has gone, not only for Israelis but for the rest of the world. The atmosphere of the country now is so deeply divided that it no longer seems to have a real soul."

But many visitors to Israel still return year after year, for the Western Wall, the blazing sun or, now, the significance of the Jubilee.

"Jubilee is a code word for freedom," Simon, from B'nai Israel Congregation, said. "I always remind kids to go look at Uncle Tom's Cabin on Old Georgetown Road, so they know we have a symbol of freedom in our neighborhood. Israel is a country whose people carry the memory of slavery in Egypt, and the country has meant freedom for Jews around the world. But it took me 50 years to grow up. It looks like it's going to take Israel a while, too."

In keeping with the anniversary-that-wasnít theme, few travel agencies are offering tours to Israel geared toward the stateís 50th anniversary. There are some interesting approaches out there, though: Ayelet Tours (518-437-0691) has created a musical tour of Israel for the anniversary, and the American Jewish Congress has a comprehensive trip planned specifically in honor of the Jubilee (1-800-221-4694, Ext. 50). For families who need more flexibility than a package tour will allow, itís best to hire a licensed guide in Israel. One native-English-speaking guide with a seemingly limitless knowledge of Israeli history and an endless supply of fascinating historical anecdotes is Daniel Barnett, reached at 011-972-2-999-2355.

Alison Buckholtz last wrote for Travel about Bethlehem.

For 2 Villages, Another Sort Of Milestone

Not everyone calls Israel's 50th anniversary the Jubilee, and not everyone calls the state's establishment cause for celebration. Many Arab citizens of Israel refer to the country's founding as the Big Disaster (Al-Naqba), remembering not only the humiliation of the Arab armies during the War of Independence but Israel's subsequent confiscation of Arab land that had been in some families for generations.

Residents of two Arab Christian villages in the north of Israel have turned Independence Day (April 30) into a yearly holiday of their own. In 1948, the Israeli army evacuated the lush, ancient villages of Iqrit and Biram, citing security concerns and guaranteeing the villagers safe passage back to their homes in two weeks.

Fifty years later, they're still waiting.

Israel's Supreme Court ruled in 1951 that the residents could return to their villages, but the Israeli army razed all area homes on Christmas Eve of that year. It left standing only the church, the graveyard and historic Roman ruins. The second generation of villagers has been raised in nearby towns, but they still refer to themselves as residents of Iqrit or Biram. They return to marry each other in the church, bury each other in the graveyard and, en masse, to commemorate their loss every Independence Day.

A majority of Israeli Jews support the residents' right to reestablish their villages, and Israel's Minister of Justice just submitted his own proposal that would allow the residents to return to their homes. But most Israelis know the story of Iqrit and Biram only anecdotally; few visit the area, which is on the road to Safed, one of Israel's four holy cities. Tourists will find a region frozen in time, with blossoming orchards, wild grape arbors and almond trees swaying in the mountain breeze. The high elevation makes for stunning views and lends itself to memorable day-long hikes and picnics. Standing in the midst of the silence, amid the echoes of what once was, many are convinced that this, too, is one of Israel's holy places.

-- Alison Buckholtz


   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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