“While its neighbors enjoy their Arab Spring,” writes Correspondent Paul Lewis, “Israel seems to have left the Middle East altogether to become a province of Florida or Monte Carlo.
“Like South Africa, it no longer belongs to the rest of its region–roads are too good, telephones too efficient, buildings too imposing. It describes itself as ‘a modern, industrial country.’ This is not Egypt or Jordan. A visitor’s perception that turmoil has suddenly engulfed the Middle East simply vanishes on entering Israel.
“Jerusalem is crammed with tourists. Even Latin American Jews jet over these days to Bar/Bat Mitvah their kids before the Wailing Wall. New hotels are sprouting everywhere: a Waldorf Astoria here, a David’s Crown there, a Herod’s Palace beyond, although the venerable old King David still lords it over them all with its marble ‘carpet’ signed by famous guests Presidents Ford and Carter, Kissinger, Chirac, and Maggie Thatcher. The city’s new shopping paradise, The Mamilla Mall, which links the Old City to modern West Jerusalem, boasts the trendiest Fifth Avenue stores–Gap, Nike, Adidas, to say nothing of Apple, Cartier, and H.Stern.
“The narrow, store-lined streets of the old Walled City are as choked as ever. As are the Holy Places. Hoards of Russian pilgrims cross themselves backwards outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher before dropping to their knees to kiss its floor-stones.
“Inside, church wardens fight back the crowds to clear a passage for rival priesthoods to perform their ceremonies–Greeks and Georgians, Copts and Maronites, with the poor old Ethiopian priests camping out on the roof.
“Meanwhile a rotting ladder has been standing against a church wall for over 100 years because the warring priests cannot agree which sect should remove it.
“These days, tour busses also besiege the often overlooked ‘alternative’ crucifixion site known as the Garden Tomb. Here Britain’s famous General Gordon (later to die in the siege of Khartoum), infuriated that Protestant clergy were excluded from the strife-riven Holy Sepulcher church, claimed to have found the true site of Golgotha, where Jesus died and was briefly buried.
“His case is quite compelling. And in step with Jerusalem’s fiercely sectarian spirit, the site is even staffed exclusively by retired Church of England vicars.
“There are other tensions, too. Consumer advocates are urging a boycott of cottage cheese, yogurt, and milk products because Israel’s grasping Kibbutzim and Moshavim (collective farms) have used their political muscle to bloc imports and force up prices. More sinister, the clout of ultra-Orthodox Jewry is increasing to the detriment of women.
“A couple of years ago, entrance to King David’s Tomb (it’s probably someone else’s) was suddenly segregated. Now high barriers separate men and women praying at the Western Wall (where no one actually wails) forcing mommies and grandmas to climb onto rickety chairs to witness their Bar Mitveh’ed sons and grandsons read the Law for the first time. Photos are also fast disappearing of Israel’s heroic early days when holy rabbis and secular women fought shoulder to shoulder in unisex British uniforms against Arab attacks.
“One of the best things to do in Jerusalem is to view the excavations of the ancient city walls constructed by Herod’s masons. We got in for a late viewing after 10 p.m. and, despite Arab protests that the excavations are a secret plot to rebuild the Temple where their mosques now stand, this is clearly a site worth digging. Denied access to much of the Western Wall, Orthodox Jewish ladies have taken to praying by a wall probably much closer to the High Priest’s Holy of Holies, but underneath it.
“Kosher food (no meat and milk together) is pretty much ubiquitous in restaurants and hotels and causes little inconvenience beyond making black coffee compulsory after meals. But it’s bad news for the city’s many Italian restaurants, which must choose between serving grated cheese but no meat, or the reverse. And for cheeseburger fans.
“Tel Aviv resembles a little Miami, with high rise buildings skirting its fine Mediterranean beaches and spacious boardwalk. But few visitors know that a few blocks inland lie avenues of perfect 1930 Bauhaus buildings run up by German immigrants and which constitute another of Israel’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
“Meanwhile, efforts to create an Israeli artists’ colony in the sturdy Crusader citadel of Jaffa, a three-mile walk away along the front, are failing, amid shuttered galleries and empty studios. What about inviting Palestinian artists to join?
“King Herod, famous for building the Jerusalem Jesus knew, notably the platform on which the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock stand, had a terminal case of builder’s itch. He constructed the mountain-top fortress-palace of Masada overlooking the Dead Sea with all its health-giving mud as well as the great port city of Caesarea a few miles north of Tel Aviv. Masada was a site of the Jewish guerilla war against the Romans in the second century AD, ultimately captured by the Roman Army when they built a ramp to its walls. Its Jewish defenders numbering nearly 1,000 committed mass suicide rather than surrendering.
“What remains of Caesarea has been developed into an excellent tourist site, with ancient hippodrome and theater. But not as excellent as the great Crusader fortress at Acre, or Akko, as the Israelis call it, with its knights’ halls and stout stone walls slowly being excavated. But the town’s council is run by an Arab majority, which, despite its Christian past, doesn’t care about the tourist trade. So much of the fort remains chocked with the rubbish of centuries and inaccessible to visitors.
“Moses inherited a land flowing with ‘milk and honey.’ But today the cows are invisible, kept indoors to protect them from the sun, while much of the land is covered with grapes. Israel’s wines are excellent. What is lacking is water, with the Jordan River now wholly diverted to the country’s cities.
“As a result the Dead Sea, no longer fed by the Jordan’s waters, is falling by three feet a year. This makes it even saltier and floating becomes easier. It also uncovers more of its revolting, slimy mud that Israelis believe is a cure for everything, though washing the stuff off just wastes more fresh water. Another consequence is that all the sea-side bathing and mud wallowing resorts put up twenty years ago are a hot, half mile walk from the salty water’s edge. An ecological disaster is in the making.”