It’s Friday, time yet again for another posting of Interesting Jewish Stories & Facts. Today we jump aboard my time machine and travel back to Israel. The story below is from my archives. I thought it worth posting here, given the events playing out in the Middle East at the moment. Israel is the only true democracy in the region and what I experienced during a trip to Israel several years ago speaks volumes about both the messy nature of a working democracy and why such a system is worth defending.
A poignant, melancholy Hebrew tune filled the tour bus as I neared Jerusalem, the spiritual focus of a 15-day trip to Israel that had begun a week earlier in the bustling, modern city of Tel Aviv.
My 29 traveling companions, all but two members of Congregation Etz Chaim in the Land of Cotton, grew silent, anticipating our first glimpse of the ancient city that remains at the heart of three of the world's major religions.
For a week in late June and early July we had sprinted across the northern half of this tiny nation — it's about the size of New Jersey — traveling along a highway paralleling the pristine shore of the Mediterranean Sea, first to Haifa, with stops along the way at the ages-old port cities of Caesarea and Acre, then further north to the Lebanese border.
We turned east into the upper Galilee before plunging into the Hula Valley, zig-zagging our way through the agricultural heartland of the nation — useless swamps only three generations earlier — and the Golan Heights further to the east. We stopped to catch our breath for a few days in Tiberias, the beautiful and historically-rich city that nestles softly along the Sea of Galilee.
Soon enough we were back on the road, heading south through the Judean Desert, a parched, other-worldly landscape of monochromatic beige. We made a hard right turn toward Jericho — yes, that Jericho, the one where the walls came tumbling down — and began our final ascent over the Judean Hills.
And then we were in darkness, hurtling through a tunnel at the base of Mt. Scopus on the northeastern boundary of Jerusalem, a widening span of white at the tunnel's end quickly giving way to an ever expanding cityscape of sun-baked structures — domes and spires, steeples and minarets.
The music we were listening to, Yerushalayim Shel Zahav (Jerusalem of Gold), a hugely popular ode to the beauty of this place, seemed made for the moment. The iconic scene was breathtaking, even transcendent. But we were quickly brought back to earth by more mundane events — hardcore politics.
Protesters opposed to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to pull out of the Gaza Strip the following August were out in force this day, blocking intersections across the city. Only minutes after stopping at an overlook on Mt. Scopus to say a traditional prayer of thanksgiving, the Shehecheyanu, we became part of the day's drama — if only for a moment — when a dozen or so soldiers began tussling with protesters in front of our bus, forcing them off the street. Eventually, about 175 protesters across the country were arrested. A month earlier, during a similar demonstration, about 400 people were detained. This interplay of things spiritual and political continued for the next several days.
Early the following morning, I awoke to shouting. Glancing out my window at the Sheraton Jerusalem on King George Street, I saw several men behind cordons that blocked the area to traffic. An hour later I stepped off an elevator into a lobby teeming with security guards putting the final touches on a massive security barrier. I later learned that a national economic summit was underway at the hotel and one of the speakers that evening was Prime Minister Sharon. As many in our group headed for our tour bus, we spotted Binyamin Netanyahu, the former Prime Minister (and now, Prime Minister, yet again), being whisked into a waiting freight elevator by a couple of unsmiling government agents.
That evening, after a full day of touring, including the site where it's believed King David established the original city of Jerusalem, our group returned to a frenetic scene of security guards, city police, fully-armed soldiers and a lone, hovering helicopter.
We escaped the area an hour later, heading toward Norman's, a kosher steak and burger joint in the German Colony, a small village of trendy shops, boutiques, restaurants and private residences. Every intersection we crossed had at least a dozen soldiers, the largest concentration of troops centered around Liberty Bell Park. On our way back to the hotel several hours later the numbers had doubled. Curious, I asked a security guard in front of the Dan Panorama Hotel, across from the park, if he knew the reason for all the added security.
"You know Gay," he said in broken English. I nodded that I understood. "You know Heredim," he added, using the Hebrew word for members of the ultra-orthodox Jewish community. "Soldiers keep them apart."
I had heard that the fourth annual Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade was to be held this day, but had no idea that it would require such security. It was only when I read in the Jerusalem Post the following day that a haredi youngster stabbed two people in the parade of 5,000 marchers that I understood the increased troop and police presence, especially around Liberty Bell Park where a gay pride rally and festival were held.
I also read in the Post that Sharon had, in fact, shown up at the economic conference at the Sheraton the evening before and spent a great deal of time blasting opponents of his disengagement plan, including Netanyahu, his finance minister and political nemesis.
Politics is a constant in Jerusalem and across Israel, but the transcendent nature of the land can't be overshadowed for long. During a walking tour that took our group along the cobblestone plazas and alleyways of the old city of Jerusalem, church bells — we were only a hundred yards or so from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the holiest sites in Christendom — began ringing. Within minutes, the hiss and squawk of a loudspeaker atop a nearby mosque gave way to the ancient chant of the muezzin calling the Muslim faithful to prayer. And a few minutes later, far in the distance, we could spot the Western Wall where Jews gathered for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service.
Bruce, our stoic, funny, thoroughly informed guide, broke into a huge smile. Gesturing with animated delight to the sights and sounds that surrounded us, he struggled for just the right words to capture the truth of the moment. He managed only one short phrase. But it was just about perfect. "Only in Israel."