Israel visit is a trip through history, faith

www.bethyam.orgNovember 26, 2011 

Having just returned from a congregational mission to Israel and Jordan, I can tell you that history is alive and well.

History is an irresistible aroma in the air for the traveler to this sacred land. Israel is a living, breathing society. It is safe and it is an amazing society because it percolates with the dynamism of a modern society as much as it proudly embraces its ancient past.

Any pilgrim will discover the vestiges of ancient civilizations and be drawn into the perennial conflict about who owns the truth of history in every holy site. History is an ongoing struggle waged through artifacts of archeological research.

Take the story of Herod, for example. He was the king of Judea in Roman times who built the palace at Masada, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, Caesarea in the north of Israel and the list goes on of places during his reign, giving us the archaeological remnants of Jewish history in the Roman period of the first century. We also cannot ignore the impact of the Romans as well as succeeding rulers who conquered Judea such as the Byzantine Christian civilization, the Arab-Islamic conquests, the Christian Crusaders, the Mameluks and the Ottoman Empire. All become layers of history living on top of each other. Ideas about religion came from these civilizations. Yes, there was destruction and cruelty. There were also inspiring cultural and architectural achievements of their times that remain and remind us of the glory that each of these ruling powers bequeathed to the landscape of Israel today.

This is why it is so difficult to agree on anyone's version of history in this land. In fact, Israel is a land where no one can be neutral about history. Everyone has a bias about why events turned out the way they did and what were the causes.

I do not claim to be neutral either. What I see is history living and breathing before my very eyes. History is not in dust-covered books on a shelf in a library. It is a drama which plays itself out each day on the city streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beer Sheva and so forth. History reminds us that the Jewish presence in the land of Israel goes back to at least 1700 BCE in Abraham's times.

Yes there are Palestinian families and communities that are also grounded in the land for centuries as well. They have a view of history that is different than the Jewish perspective. This is a land where not only do people with conflicting narratives have to learn how to live together, but that the narratives themselves have to contend with each other as well.

It is not just about the Muslim Arabs and Israelis. Let us remember the Christian communities that have inhabited the land for centuries. Just enter one of the holiest shrines in Christendom -- the Church of the Holy Sepulcher -- in the Christian quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. It was established by Helena the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine who converted to Christianity and declared the Roman Empire to be Christian in 335 CE. The actual church contains various chapels inside it, one of which is said to be the place where Jesus was laid down from the crucifix.

Today this church contains a microcosm of differing narratives in a Christian context because several denominations and their clergy operate the church. The Armenians, Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Egyptian Coptics all own part of the church, and each has its own narrative about each order's role and right to ownership of this holy site. Just imagine the debates and the competition between the groups and their clergy who live and work there each day.

Interestingly enough, an Arab Muslim family has held the keys to the church for centuries, which they lock each night and open up in the morning. See, there is hope for religious cooperation!

People who have visited Israel before understand that while there may be differing agendas toward interpreting history in the land of Israel, most will agree that being in the land and seeing the historic monuments and holy sites opens a completely new understanding of the Bible. These holy books are not only a series of books to teach us the moral lessons that our clergy preach on each week. The Bible represents the history of the Israelite civilization from 1700 BCE to the beginning of the Common Era.

Christians tell me all the time that when they visit Israel they understand Jewish history in the Biblical period and then the period of late antiquity including the times of Jesus of Nazareth. Now they can better grasp the meaning of Jesus' life and the Jewish culture he grew up in. This kind of knowledge, they explain to me, makes them more knowledgeable and faithful Christians.

History may be volatile just as the Middle East is politically speaking. Yet, I want to emphasize that the spiritual quality of Israel blends with the ancient world. History will always beckon us to visit this land and to explore it. Israel invites us to stretch our imagination along with expanding our knowledge of the multiple civilizations which inhabited this land.

Israeli and Arab tour guides will give the tourist on the ground analysis, and they will give us their specific plans for peace. Even the cab drivers will offer their plans for peace. People should see all sides of the political issues in Israel today. But at the same time no one, whether they are fist time or returning visitors to Israel, can resist the pull of history that draws everyone into the gates of Jerusalem.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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