A Visit To The Holy Land
In June, Connection Magazine editor, Jon Hanna spent seven full days traveling throughout Israel, including some areas with Arab populations.
What is travel in Israel like today, almost 2 years since the Palestinian attacks began? Is it our responsibility to help the Jews?
||"While visiting the Arab section of Old Jerusalem, I noticed crowds of people, also including Jews and tourists, shopping side by side." Joh Hanna, editor
by Editor Jon Hanna
JERUSALEM-According to the Holy Bible, the Jews are a sign of God's faithfulness to the rest of the world. In fact, the restoration of Israel in 1948, after almost 1900 years, is one of todays greatest fulfillment's of God's promises. So, when I was invited to join a press tour to Israel as a guest of the Ministry of Tourism, I eagerly accepted the opportunity. Amos 9:14, "And I will turn the captivity of my people Israel, and they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them."
Last month, three of us representing the Christian Newspaper Association toured many places throughout Israel and were able to see what CNN rarely, if ever, reveals.
In the Old Testament of the Bible, God established two major covenants and today in the world both are under great attack. One is the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. The other is God's covenant to the Jewish people. A covenant is the highest level of commitment and promise which reveals the greatest levels of faithfulness and blessing. If evil can destroy our concept of God ordained covenant, then God's promises to the world would be almost impossible to conceive. If the Jews can be utterly destroyed, then God is proved a liar or unfaithful.
As a person with an Arab name (Hanna) I encountered very extreme security checks at JFK Airport before boarding EL AL for my flight into Israel. Although I received my surname from my stepfather, the Lebanese affiliation was enough to have me singled out. My bags were checked for explosive powder and chemical residue. I watched as they appeared to check every piece of my clothing with dozens of cloth swatches which were then scanned by a detection device. My luggage was later sent to another unit to be x-rayed. This process initially made me feel safe but after three hours I felt violated.
Later, I was singled out with about six other passengers to be personally escorted into a special room where our shoes were removed and scanned. Then, there were only three of the seven (myself included) who were taken into another room to be patted down. Given a choice, I'd choose intense security rather than no security. After we received this treatment we were personally escorted to the plane by several security agents. Apparently, the folks in Tel Aviv were expecting me because I received a special escort, which bypassed their regular lines of security, and gained immediate access into the country. The same special escort would happen when I left the country 7 days later.
The First 24 Hours
||"It seemed that everywhere we went there were armed Israeli soldiers showing up, sometimes by the bus load." Editor, Jon Hanna (wearing black shirt). This photo was taken at Yad Bishem, Holocaust Memorial.
A swim in the Mediterranean on a beautiful Tel Aviv beach was relaxing, yet noticing a few closed restaurants, evidence of decreased tourism, was disheartening.
At 8:00 am we were greeted by our tour guide with the news that a Palestinian homicide bomber had targeted a public bus just minutes earlier. The result was 17 Jews killed and another 34 were injured.
In spite of this news our scheduled itinerary went on uninterrupted.
A visit to Old Jaffa, the site where Jonah boarded a boat going the opposite direction of Nineveh, preceded our visit to Independence Hall where Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, proclaimed the state of Israel in 1948. To me, this is a holy site and surprisingly touched my heart and stirred my faith more than most of the other Holy Land sites I would see. Acts 1:6 reveals that even the first century disciples of Jesus wondered at what time Jesus would restore the kingdom to Israel. By God's grace, those of us alive today have seen the expected restoration of Israel, which is still a work in progress.
A visit to Nazareth, the childhood town of Jesus, and the Village of Cana rounded out the first day.
After a stop on the Jordan River, famous for Baptisms, we proceeded to Kibbutz Ginosar where the recently restored 'Jesus boat' is now on display. A Kibbutz is a community of people who live together, work together and share all finances with one another much like the book of Acts says many first century Christians did. Israel is dotted with many of these Jewish communes.
We traveled all around the Sea of Galilee which included a visit to the ancient Jewish fishing village, Capernaum. We were able to visit the ruins of the Synagogue where Jesus once taught. In fact, most of Jesus' miracles were performed at Capernaum.
The Mount of Beatitudes is the site of the Sermon on the Mount and a naturally formed amphitheater is easy to see here. We took turns reading the famous sermon that Jesus gave there. It was an awe inspiring visit to say the least.
Later we drove through the Golan Heights, where 40 ancient Jewish settlements with synagogues were recently discovered, and then we capped off the day with a hot, mineral springs bath at the ancient Roman baths now known as Hamet Gader.
A morning drive to Caesarea started the days journey. Here we visited the rebuilt ruins of the ancient Roman Theater where Paul shared his faith with Agrippa, who was almost persuaded by Paul to become a Christian. We also viewed the area where Herods Palace once stood, as well as the nearby remains of his personal horse track.
On our way to Yad Vishem we stopped at Abu Gosh, the Arab village where David once rested the Ark of the Covenant on its return to Jerusalem. We ate Middle Eastern hamburgers at the Elvis Inn where the American icon is idolized. Although many in this village are Muslims, they do not agree with Yasser Arafat, nor do they submit to him.
A visit to Yad Vishem, the National Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust was heart wrenching and painful for me. Of the 6 million Jews killed by Hitler, 1.5 million were children.
Hitler collected many of these Jewish children from orphanages for the purpose of extinguishing those considered unproductive to the German Society, which flies in the face of the fact that between 1901 and 1933, 11 of the 37 German Nobel Prize winners were Jewish.
The testimony of a German eyewitness describes the murder of Jews: "A family of eight kissed each other and said goodbye as they waited for a signal from an SS man with whip in hand. They made no plea for mercy. An old woman was holding a year old child in her arms, singing and tickling him. He laughed with pleasure. The parents watched with tears in their eyes. They were led to a large trench that already had hundreds of people filling it. An SS man sat on the edge of the trench. A submachine gun was on his knee as he smoked a cigarette."
Later we visited Ein Karem, the birthplace of John the Baptist, where a street festival for book writers was taking place.
Crowds gathered to hear live musicians and singers, as street performers entertained children. It was nice to see the crowd and all of the happy smiles.
We finished the day by celebrating a Sabbath dinner at a private home. This was a very spiritual and touching event. Afterwards, because our guests couldn't drive during the Sabbath, we enjoyed a lengthy but safe midnight stroll through Jerusalem back to our hotel, arriving at 2:00 am.
Today, a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem included a visit to the Tower of David and the Via Dolorosa (Stations of the Cross). Afterward, we visited the Arab shops. Being the Sabbath all Jewish stores were closed. I spoke with an Arab storeowner who was seemingly sympathetic to the Jew's problem of terrorism, he himself a victim of a down economy which was once supported by tourism. Describing his opposition to terrorism, he said, "You are not suppose to cut off the arm that feeds you."
We had the afternoon at leisure.
The morning news revealed that a Jewish couple was killed last night by a Palestinian gunman. To make the matter worse, the woman was 9 months pregnant.
We started the day with a very scenic drive through the Judean Hills to the Dead Sea region which is the lowest place on earth. A visit to Kibbutz Almog included the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls and afterwards we went on to Qumran, which are the ruins of an ancient Essens settlement in whose nearby caves the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
From there we proceeded to Masada, the ruins of King Herods mountaintop fortress and last stronghold of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 73 a.d.. The temperature was the highest in 60 years on the day of our visit, a whopping 122 degrees. We were the only people crazy enough to be on the mountain. We continued to supply our evaporating bodies with a steady supply of bottled water as we struggled through the heat to enjoy the expansive views of the desert and mountainess terrain which included the Dead Sea. For you movie buffs, Masada is the place which has been made more famous by the movie featuring Peter O'Toole.
We completed the day floating and relaxing in the Dead Sea at Ein Bokek, a world famous health and tourism resort. Ohhh yeahhh!
Today we drove through the Negev Desert to Tel Beersheba, the ancient city where Abraham once dwelt. Here at the recently excavated site I found a pottery shard, which was confirmed to be almost 4,000 years old.
After driving back to Jerusalem we visited the Garden Tomb outside of the Damascus Gate. Here, it is believed by Protestants to be the site of Jesus crucifixion (Golgotha) and burial. The director reported that they normally get 2,000 visitors per day at this time of year. However, today there were only 30 visitors by closing time.
The Garden Tomb is located in an Arab neighborhood and this was a rare occasion where our driver dropped us off and only returned when our guide radioed for him at the end of our visit.
Today we did a tour of the main historical and religious sites for Judaism in the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Western Wall and Western Wall Tunnels. Recently excavated tunnel areas have unearthed portions of the original street between the home of the high priest, Caiaphas and where the governor, Pontius Pilate received Jesus. A portion of the original street where Jesus carried His cross is also still in place. It is places like this that produced wonderment in me regarding Jesus' ministry of 2000 years ago.
The Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus was arrested contains olive trees which have been certified to be over 2,000 years old. Somehow, just knowing that these living trees were there during His time of great sorrow also helped to make the connection to the past.
By the end of the day a Palestinian homicide bomber had attacked 3 Jewish teens. One died.
I purposely didn't mention all of the fine dining and five star hotels we stayed at so that the focus would be Israel. The very rich history and variety of terrain make it an interesting and exciting place to visit, to say the least. However, the spiritual significance of this Holy Place makes Israel a must see for every Christian who can make the pilgrimage. Remember this: It's safer to be a Jew in Israel than to ride in a car in America. In fact, as of press time, the Palestinians haven't killed any tourists. Tourists are not their target.
As Christians, we need to stand with Israel. We need to pray for the Jews. God has promised that whoever blesses the nation of Abraham (Israel), will be blessed by God. (Genesis 12:3)