When I was first dating my wife, my future father-in-law said a very strange thing to me. As we were talking one evening, he asked me,

“When are you going back?”

“Back where?”

“To Israel?”

“I’ve never been”

“Oh, I thought all Jewish people went to Israel?”

“Well, I haven’t….yet.”

So 29 years later, I finally made it to Israel. I have wanted to go there for a very long time, but my wife was concerned about the safety of being over there. And I did have tickets for a work meeting I was to attend, but the trip was cancelled the day before I was to leave.

So I need to make a trip and decide to go to Israel. I was there only three and a half days, not enough to see much, I created a very small list of places I had to see. As a result, I stayed in the Jerusalem area.

Let me say at the outset, that it was a thrill to be there and I cannot wait to go back. It is a place that has that kind of effect on a person.  I’ve heard that said before, but I did not understand it until now.

I must say that Israel is a very strange place. Here you have a significant amount of the religious history of the “Western World” packed into one place. It is mind boggling to contemplate that three of the world’s great religions converge in this one area. The other thing that makes it strange is that you have all these people, about 7,235,985 (CIA Factbook) living together in this small place, but living very separately. In Jerusalem, you have Jews, Arabs, Christians and others in this tightly packed area, acting as though the other does not exist, but having to deal with each other anyway. Even among Jews, you have very obvious difference in religious observance noted mainly in dress, but also in actions.

It is generally a happy place, but it is sad as well. It is sad to see the walls that have been erected by the Israelis surrounding the Arabs areas. It makes the place look like a prison camp, in many respects.  I understand the motivation behind them, but it is still disheartening to see them.  One can hope that someday, there will be no need of the walls and they will be removed.

All the people I met, Jews and Arabs, were wonderful.  People are generally nice, but can be somewhat pushy. Maybe this is just a trait of people in all large, crowed cities.  I would not recommend driving there (I didn’t). They drive crazy in Jerusalem. And the traffic is massive and, particularly around the Old City area, a nightmare.  But frankly, there are many places in the world I would never drive.

Security

I felt very safe there. Even during my trip to Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian West Bank area, I was never very concerned about my safety. In Jerusalem, there are soldiers and police everywhere with rifles and machine guns and you must do through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed to go into most large public places like a shopping a mall.  And most places have a guard in front with one of those metal detecting wands.

At my hotel, there were security guards, mostly young women, with very large guns strapped to their sides. In fact, a great majority of the security people are women.

At the airport, the security is very different, as you may have read about.  They don’t make you take off your shoes and belts, take naked pictures of you or grope you. Yes, there is a metal detector and an x-ray machine for your bags, but the big difference is that the Israelis talk to you several times before you get on an airplane. In other words, you are profiled. They ask you questions about why you are in Israel, who you visited, who you know, and if someone gave you anything to carry on the plane. This method works for them. There is the famous story about the pregnant Irish young women who was carrying a bomb in her bags and didn’t know it. Turned out she has a Palestinian boyfriend who promised to meet her in Amman, Jordan to marry her if she would take a package to a friend. The Israeli security found this out by talking to her, not taking naked pictures of her through an x-ray machine. And a tragedy was averted.

I had a taxi driver for the few days I was there who was born in East Jerusalem. His family had been there for 1000 years, he said. He is, since the 1967 six day war recognized somewhat as an Israeli citizen, though he carried an Israeli ID card, but a Jordanian passport since Jordan controlled the East Jerusalem until that war. He is free to move about the entire state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories because of this, but is still hassled all the time. He was able to take me to Bethlehem, which an Israeli taxi driver cannot. Full Israeli citizens are prohibited by law from entering the Palestinian areas. And US citizens are very welcome except it is harder to get into the Gaza area than the West Bank. And it was very easy to get back from West Bank, but I did have to go through a checkpoint like everyone else. But as soon as I showed by passport, I was let back into Israel with no problem after the metal detector and x-ray machine.

In part 2, I will describe the sites I visited and the impression those sites had on me.