ISRAEL means many things to many people: the holiest place on Earth; a source of constant political, religious and military strife; a site of unspeakable brutality; a popular tourist destination; an ancient country; a new country; a land whose very existence is decreed by God Himself; a land whose very existence is blasphemous. In August of this year, I traveled to Israel, in the days between the suicide bombing perpetrating in broad daylight in bustling Jerusalem neighborhoods. On my return, I submitted this report to Jinx magazine.
After spending three days in Amsterdam on an unrelated matter, I stumbled into Schiphol Airport for an early-morning flight to Tel Aviv. A glance at the headline of that morning's International Herald Tribune informed me that back home the Dow Jones Average had plummeted more than 247 points the previous day. This was disturbing news, not because I own a single share of blue-chip stock, but because a picture was forming in my clouded brain of the World Financial Markets collapsing around me while I was stranded in the Middle East. Something about that picture frightened me.
Jinx magazine sent me to the Holy Land to report on the political, religious, and military issues that lately have manifested themselves in periodic outbursts of terrorism in the region. Because these issues have proven too much for some of the best political, religious and military minds of the past few thousand years, I tried to frame my assignment in simpler terms, namely, could a Jewish guy from New York still sit poolside at the King David Hotel and sip a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer's day without being superplexed off the diving board into the deep end by a member of Hamas or one of the ultra-orthodox Haredim?
After what seemed like a forty year Exodus through the Sinai, but which upon later reflection was actually a two hour wait at the customs department of Ben Gurion Airport, I decided to put off investigative journalism for a couple of days, and headed straight to Kibbutz Nahsholim on the Mediterranean Sea. The warm breezes and friendly smiles of my fellow Chosen People gave my brain some respite from the beating it had taken earlier in the week. I should have known that my own inner peace, like the periods of peace in Israel, would be short-lived. That night, I was horrified to to witness what seemed like hundreds of adolescent kibbutzniks engaged in a perfectly synchronized and intricately choreographed dance routine performed to the tune of Hanson's "MMMbop" and Aqua's "Barbie Girl." This was indeed a strange, strange sight, and one that I don't care to revisit lone enough to properly analyze.
I returned to my room, still unsure of what I was looking for and what I might discover. The next morning, I would drive to Jerusalem, and I dozed off wondering if I would find a Semitic version of Gary, Indiana, or Eden itself. Later that night, I was roused from sleep with word of a Palestinian Katyusha missile attack in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona.
An hour later, I was speeding northward to survey the damage, when I found myself driving past a huge expanse of land in the ancient city of Megiddo, the only city on Earth, according to the Book of Revelation, which had already received a taste of what Armageddon will be like. I couldn't help but think of the Book of Zachariah, Chapter Twelve, Verse eleven: "On that day the weeping in Jerusalem will be great, like the weeping of Hadad Rimmon in the plain of Migiddo."
Today, the plain of Megiddo is surrounded on all sides by littered highway and commercial billboards, distracting somewhat from its biblical stature. The plain itself, however, is impressive; of suitable scale for the Final Battle between Good and Evil. Perhaps someday, the plain will be surrounded by bleachers and luxury boxes, maybe even covered by a golden dome. Who will sponsor the Event? What network will carry it, and how much will God want for the rights? What if it's a blowout by half-time? But my attempt at media-savvy humor could not prevent a chill from violently shaking my entire body as I imagined what the plain of Megiddo must have been like before. Before smartasses like me, and before the United Stated and the United Nations started playing God in the Middle East. Thankfully, the extent of the damage in Kiryat Shmona was not too bad. The next day, I arrived in Jerusalem.
My first stop was in Mahane Yehuda, the city's main fruit and vegetable market, where two weeks earlier 15 people had died and over 170 people had been injured in a bombing. Things, to me, seemed pretty much back to normal, but I really wasn't sure what to be looking for. There was no fear on the faces of the merchants. None of the shoppers were looking suspiciously. I took off my bookbag and put it on the ground, then strolled seven or eight paces away, expecting to get gun tackled by the bomb squad any second. Nothing. I picked up my bag, bought an orange and continued on.
As I strolled, I noticed some graffiti on a wall at a busy street corner. My Hebrew isn't great, but the six-foot high words, scrawled in red, looked political and inflammatory. I asked someone about it. "Yes," he said, "some children have been wounded at this corner. Almost killed!" Finally, I thought. The meaning of this graffiti, I was sure, held some truth about what was going on in the hearts and minds of Jerusalem's troubled citizens. I asked the guy what it meant. "Look both ways before you cross the street." I cursed the translator under my breath as I walked on, narrowly avoiding getting mowed by a bus.
Later that day, I entered the Old City of Jerusalem through the Jaffa Gate, where Arabs sell bread, third-rate electronics and souvenir t-shirts to Americans and Germans at heavily inflated prices. I walked over to the Wailing Wall, the holiest place in the world for Jews. I had to pass through a metal detector to get there. A few weeks earlier, on Tisha Be'av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar (the day on which, among other catastrophes, both Temples were destroyed), there had been a mild skirmish here between orthodox and conservative Jews concerning the appropriateness of women praying at the Wall. But I didn't notice anything amiss that day. I thought about the countless Jewish prayers begging God to bring peace to Jerusalem, but I couldn't muster the cynicism I felt was necessary to draw a connection between those prayers and the hundreds of Hasidic Jews fervently reciting them at the Wall, which surprised me.
I re-entered the Old City, this time through the Zion gate, which opens directly into the Arab Quarter, where Arabs sell bread and third-rate electronics (but, as far as I could see, no t-shirts) to other Arabs, at much more reasonable rates. During my five minute stay in the Arab Quarter, I felt like a complete outsider, but it wasn't hard to enjoy the feeling. Because for the first time, I felt like I was really in Jerusalem, in a holy city. Then an Arab kid on a bike called me a motherfucker, and I got the hell out of there, still clueless.
That evening, I visited the Mall of Jerusalem, the biggest mall in Israel, and I had to pass through a metal detector to get in there, too. It was pretty much a normal mall, bustling on a Saturday night. It was easy to imagine that I was in a mall in any suburban American town, except all the mall rats were Jewish (which I suppose is true in some American malls too). The Mall of Jerusalem, like the Old City of Jerusalem, is accessible only by entering one of a handful off Gates, each with its own name and its own atmosphere. And the two cities within the City both are home to merchants selling crap at very high prices. One city was constructed thousands of years ago, one was constructed a few years ago. I assumed these facts had to add up to something, but what? My time and patience were running low. I began to dread the physical and, much worse, psychological beatdown I was sure to receive from the Jinx higher-ups upon my return to the Office, as ignorant of what makes Jerusalem tick as I was before my trip.
On my last afternoon in Jerusalem, I sat at an outdoor table on Ben Yehuda Street, the busiest section of the city, and tried to take it all in. I had developed a feeling of general uneasiness during the course of my visit, not because I ever felt in physical danger, but because my sense of time and place had gotten all screwed up. I mean, why is there a highway going through the actual, physical point on the globe where God most viciously unleashed His fury in Biblical times? And is Jerusalem one of the holiest cities in the world for three religions, or is it a tourist/death trap where one minute your eating what I think is kosher Kentucky Fried Chicken and the next you're dodging a torrent of nails that has just exploded from someone's suicide bomb? I don't know the answer, but I'm pretty sure the answer is not that it's both. Maybe someday the answer will be revealed to us, and if it is, it will be revealed by an authority much greater than I or even Madeleine Albright. In any event, I just couldn't seem to get a handle on the city, except during fleeting glimpses of extreme natural and architectural beauty, or in the faces of certain Arabs and Jews.
So I sat eating a mediocre falafel and sippin Dunkin' Donuts Coffee Coolatta. Like so many other combinations that exist in Israel, the two unfortunately just don't go well together. My mission was over, and I had failed miserably.
Exactly ten days later, the table I was sitting at, along with many other things, blew up during a weekday afternoon suicide bombing that killed the three bombers and three teenage girls, among others, and injured over 200 people.
On the plane back to New York, I had asked myself the question, Is Israel still a safe place to visit? My answer then, Yes. My answer today, I guess, is still, Yes, unless you happen to be around when a bomb detonates.
I think the only thing I learned for sure is that strange and sometimes horrible things happen when ancient cities, ancient books, ancient people and ancient beliefs come face to face with the products and services of 1997.
A few days after I got home, I watched in utter disbelief as the New York Jets won their season-opening football game by a score of 41 to 3…
Repent! for the Day of Judgement is at Hand.