It was bound to happen sooner or later. In this part of the world it’s unavoidable. You’re at someone’s house or at a cafe. You start out talking about your summer trip to Budapest, the latest pair of shoes you bought in Tel Aviv at a steal of a price, and then, BAM! you find yourself embroiled in a heated discussion about politics, religion.
What happened to the cruise down the Danube River and the Italian leather shoes you ask? They got buried under ancient controversies of ancient peoples. Israel’s small, the size of California’s San Bernardino County. My focus is the Galilee–the size of the City of Los Angeles–it stretches from Yizrael Valley in the south to the Lebanese border in the north, from the Mediterranean coast in the west to the sources of the Jordan river in the east. Yet there are so many religions here, splinter groups, factions, denominations, special-interest, you’d think Galilee is the size of China.
Here history runs deep. It’s not to take away from American history, 1776, the Civil War, the wagons heading West, settling Native Americans in reservations, Route 66 — yet it pales in comparison to what’s happening, and has happened in Galilee. Here they talk in millennia and centuries, not decades. It’s not Who’s Your Mama, but Who’s your Father’s Father’s Father’s Father. You can’t kick a rock around here without tripping over a ruin, fragments of scripture, a marble column. Every hill, outcrop, ravine, valley, mountain, rift, river, stream, creek, wadi, has a name whose origin is prehistoric, biblical. Jews call one settlement by one name, the Moslems by another and they both claim the high road. Throw in the Christians (not to the lions, please), with all their splinter groups (Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Protestants, Assyrians, Armenians, to name a few) and you’ve gone one wild Hannuka, Christmas, Ramadan party.
What does Galilee mean? It depends who you ask. To Christians it’s where Jesus performed miracles, practiced his ministry. To Moslems, it’s where they’ve lived for centuries, where they drove away the Crusader armies. To religious and observant Jews, it’s the battle of Devorah against the armies of Sisra, it’s where the Tribes of Naftali, Dan, and Asher lived, it’s where the scholars and sages in Tiberias studied, it’s the center of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, in Zefat. To secular, urban Jews from Tel-Aviv — a two-hour drive — the Galilee evokes vineyards, hills, valleys, hikes, a week-end destination for yuppies with money to burn at roadside Zimmers (Bed & Breakfast, in German), or skiing down the snowy Mt. Hermon instead of the Swiss Alps. To them it’s also a place of kibbutzim, moshavim (collective farms), industrial parks, and failing towns which had absorbed immigrants in the 50s.
The Druze, who are Arab but draw influences not only from the Three religions but also from Greek philosophy and Hinduism, the Galilee is a sacred place. To the Circassians, fair-skinned and blue-eyed, who were driven from the shores of the Black Sea by the Russians, and who’d become expert horsemen and warriors under the Ottoman empire, and who’d converted from Christianity to Islam, the Galilee is their last refuge from persecution. And I have yet to throw into the mix the Bedouin tribes, the nomads.
We live in Kfar (Village, in Hebrew) Tavor, population 4000, at the foot of Mount Tavor. The Kfar’s Community Center arranges monthly bus tours to neighboring towns and attractions. Recently one such tour was to the Sea of Galilee, the other to Nazareth, in the footsteps of Jesus. The average age of the day-trippers is 75. There are so many walking sticks on board the bus you can build a nice campfire. The loud beeps and whistles from their hearing aids could interfere with military radar or bring down fighter jets. Yet they’re a feisty group, full of zest and quest for life. They embrace us as newcomers; they call me and Pnina “the Israeli-American kids.” The trips are ridiculously cheap ($10), and the guides are volunteers, licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.
The guides on the first tour, Amiram and Yaffa, are a husband and wife team. It’s a second marriage for both of them. He’s religious, spiritual. She’s all business. He wears a kippa, she wears the pants. We’re at the Church of Beatitudes on a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, a church commissioned by Mussolini in the 1930s, completed by the Italian architect Barluzzi, nicknamed the “Holyland architect” under the Franciscan Order from Assisi, Italy. Amiram talks about the Christians’ wishes to link Jesus to King David, to Bethlehem. “Joseph and Mary lived in and around Nazareth. They were forced to move to Bethlehem as part of the Roman census to count its subjects. There Jesus was born.” It’s not long before Amiram begins to meander from one topic to another; he’s a barrel of knowledge. Yaffa cuts him off. “Focus on the fishes and loaves story.” He sighs and continues. “Jesus was born a Jew, died a Jew. Like all Jews, he lived under Roman rule. He challenged the Jewish scholars, announced that he was the Messiah, the King. The Jews turned him in. The Jews had no army, no power, no currency, no form of government. The Romans ruled the land, did away with the troublemaker.”
A month later we’re on another tour, this time to Nazareth. Leslie, a Moroccan-Israeli from Kfar Tavor, a vivacious woman in her 50s, is our guide. Her Hebrew is sprinkled with a French accent. Nazareth, spread over several hilltops, was once a Christian stronghold. But no more. It’s 2/3 Moslem. Every square inch is contested. The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming may have been a funny movie in the 60s, but even here, in Nazareth, the Russians came, secured their Russian Orthodox foothold. Much earlier, Ivan the IV, the Terrible, linked himself to King David, said the Russians are the Chosen People, and Moscow is the Third Rome after the original Rome, and after Byzantium.
After a short break for homemade sandwiches and some coffee from Thermoses, we shuffle to the next point of interest. We’re standing in front of the Church of Annunciation, the place where the Virgin Mary was told she would give birth to Jesus. Ironically, on the ruins of this ancient church, Solel Boneh, Israel’s largest public works contractor, built the new Church in 1965. It’s almost as if Halliburton won the bid to build New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
The Church of Annunciation is a massive structure, breaks the skyline.
Hordes of pilgrims from Nigeria, Korea, the American Bible Belt, Moscow, go past us and into the vast courtyard. In it are mosaics of the Madonna and Child from around the world. Once we’re out, we walk down the hill to the main square. There we run into a Moslem throng, hundreds of men. An Imam, a Moslem priest, is leading the prayers. He’s shouting into the megaphone. Moslems kneel and bow on dozens of carpets. Tourists cringe and rush past him to the Church. This area is known as the Square of Contention. The Moslems want to build a mosque on or near the Church of Annunciation. They claim the remains of Salah Al-Din’s uncle, the warrior who fought off the Crusaders, are buried here. So far this demand has been blocked. With the Church of Annunciation acting as a backdrop, a passage from the Koran is written on a large banner in English and in Arabic. It reads: “Whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted, and in the Hereafter, he will be one of the losers.”
We’re hungry again and we want a distraction from all this religious stuff. We trek through the Moslem market, the butchers, the vendors. Leslie then leads us to a Christian-owned spice shop. It’s a cavern of a structure, high rounded ceiling. Sacks of every imaginable spice are stacked high and deep. The owner, Christian, runs the century-old business. He tells us he no longer grows the herbs in Israel. “We import everything from the Orient, from India.”
The Indians are Coming, the Indians are coming.
We buy German-made chocolate, left over from the Christmas rush. We’re treated to sweet coffee and a short history about the place. Outside, there’s a billboard in Arabic, with Santa Clause standing on a patch of snow. Moslems walk past it without the slightest interest. Jews don’t frequent Lower Nazareth either unless they want to have their cars fixed on the cheap, unless they want a low-cost dentist.
We’re all living side by side but not with each other. Jews read the Hebrew road signs, Arabs read the Arabic, foreigners read the English. There are three languages on bags of potato chips, three languages on milk cartons, three religions at every turn. And here’s the rub. The man (son of God), who preached of brotherly love, brought about such friction after his death (resurrection), that we mortals are still dealing with it today. Or is it all a master plan to see if we can survive together on this “rocky” terrain?
Amiram the guide summed it this way: “Christians number 2+ billion. Their one obligation: Believe. They make it to the Afterlife. With Jews, just 14 million, it’s more complicated. There’s no specific talk of the Afterlife. Our purpose is to do good deeds (mitzvah). What’s the reward? Another mitzvah. Completed mitzvah begets another mitzvah. Judaism is work.”
I don’t know all the details of how Moslems regard the Afterlife, but I heard it has to do with virgins.
I’m thinking of converting.