Susan was born in Boston as an Irish Catholic but converted to Judaism, and currently lives in a suburb outside of Tel Aviv. She is owner and founder of a PR agency promoting Israeli high tech companies in Australia, US, UK and in Europe. Having completed the first semester of an online MFA program, she also has a BA in English Literature from Vassar College. Her home includes husband, son, daughter, and an arthritic black lab. This is her first published work.
The Promised Land
We took a guided tour of West Bank to christen my husband's new BMW motorcycle.
This was a secret wish of mine, since from as early as I can remember towns like Jericho and Bethlehem had a magic hold on me. I was curious to see if these places really existed, and if they looked the way I imagined them from reading the Bible.
Even though I lived in Israel 16 years, and West Bank was only 20 miles away, I had only seen it on the 8:00 news when there were was political unrest. Because of drive-by shootings, and stone throwing, my husband, Ron, like most Israelis, thought it was too dangerous to visit.
He got his courage up when we heard about a motorcycle tour with no political agenda and no affiliated special interest groups. We would be one of dozens of motorcycles, well protected with helmets and padded jackets.
Our tour was organized by a university professor and revered historian who specialized in the Hellenistic age and the rebellion of the Maccabees. Leaving from a suburb of Tel Aviv, our one- day tour was to include visits to sites of ancient battles ending with a candle lighting ceremony for the second night of Chanukah.
Like any outing in Israel, it was customary to bring generous helpings of food. It was the height of the avocado season, and we had homemade salsa and some tortillas, so we were in luck. With roll up sandwiches, a bag full of nectarines, and some bananas, I put the finishing touches on our picnic, while Ron waited impatiently, pointing at his watch.
We raced to the point where we would merge with the rest of the tour. After just ten minutes waiting at a huge gas station with a restaurant and a convenience store, I glanced over my shoulder to see as many as 50 motorcycles of all shapes and sizes winding along the road approaching slowly. There were other BMW's, Suzukis, and Harleys, as well as scooters used for pizza delivery.
We accelerated, and the chain broke easily to accommodate us, just as if we were in a line dance at a Greek wedding. We reached the border and clustered together in large bunches, quietly waiting for instructions.
I panicked because I hadn't brought any form of identification. But to my surprise no one was checking us or asking questions. I was grateful for this, because it would have taken forever for each of us to remove our helmets and pass inspection. It also occurred to me that the Israeli border guards were not concerned with people crossing the “Green line” into the West Bank; they were more concerned about people coming in.
A soldier waved us in and we entered one after the other, in formation. As I looked in front of me all I saw was a long string of motorcycles reaching out to the horizon. We appeared like beads of a black necklace being slowly draped along the road.
As we left the border behind us, the four lane highway with street lights changed into a narrow paved road with no shoulders. We wound our way through a rocky canyon with ridges carved out to form thin ribbons of green. We passed a donkey pulling an old wooden cart bringing produce to the border to sell. I smiled to myself recognizing the scene from a yellowed photograph in my Bible.
As we rose over the top of the hills we saw green fields refreshed by recent rains. Unlike the smooth brown surface of fields plowed by machinery, there were large rocks and boulders scattered randomly around the field. Orange and blue plastic bags appeared as polka dots on the fields, sailing up in the air and moving back and forth with the breeze. Around the corner we saw the source, a deep ravine filled with loose garbage left unattended.
We passed through the center of a small village with cement one story buildings on both sides, sectioned off into small stores. The walls were gray, raw and unpainted. They could have been made last week or sometime during the last century. Since it was Friday, the Muslim Sabbath, several stores were closed with large green metal doors covering the entrance. All the signs were in Arabic only. Just one large store had a huge red sign with white letters, "Supermarket".
However, on both sides of the street, one thing was the same.
There were rows and rows of men and boys of all shapes and sizes staring at us. There were older men in gray slacks and black jackets caring plastic bags with oranges, young boys in knit sweaters pushing and shoving each other and laughing, middle aged men standing with their arms crossed against their chest.
They looked different than the Israeli Arabs that waited on us in the grocery store, or shopped in the malls in our home town. They had darker skin, and wore clothing that appeared to be handed down from brother to brother. They all looked related. I don't know if it was the same hair color, a dark brown close to black, or the dark eyes, or the sharply contoured faces with strong features, but for some reason if you saw their picture in a magazine, you would know they were Palestinians.
As curious as I was about them, they appeared equally fascinated with us. Most of the younger boys pointed their mobile phones or video cameras in our direction. They were staring at our images on screens of their devices checking to make sure we were in focus.
I chose a face that looked sympathetic, and stared intently at him through my sunglasses and wind guard. He kept stealing glances at me while walking carefully through the stones that lined the side of the road. I carefully removed my hand – normally glued to the handle behind my seat – in terror of falling off, and began to wave slowly transforming the open hand gesture to a “thumbs up” sign.
He seemed shocked that there was a human being behind the mask. The smooth face broke into a full grin with dozens of small wrinkles around shiny eyes, and a wide smile around a set of white teeth. He answered with his own thumbs up and I felt a warm human connection.
I went from man to boy to man, not giving up until I received a thumbs up from each one. I looked to see if any of the other passengers were waving, but their hands were idle at their side. Perhaps years of propaganda, and years of service in the Israeli army, instilled in them a feeling of apathy, or perhaps they were convinced a friendly gesture was hopeless and would never be returned.
When we arrived at our first stop, on a mountain top, we were not prepared for the natural beauty of the place. It was one of those rare spots where no camera or even a video camera can do it justice. The landscape fell far below and above us in various shades of green and brown with massive peaks and valleys. The sun dipped in and out of the clouds, casting dark shadows across the surface.
There was a crowd forming near an overlook with a camera and microphone. Our guide announced that we had a special guest who was a well known political figure and a gifted speaker. It was clear from the speed and ease of his delivery, the guest speaker had done this dozens of times before. He began by explaining that three borders of Israel could be seen from the point at which we now stood: Mount Hermon to the North, the Mediterranean Sea to the west and Jordon to the east. He claimed that foreign ministers were shocked when he always explained that the land of Israel was really this small.
He described how the ancient Hebrews, after escaping Egypt, left Mt.Zion, wandering through the desert until they arrived at this very hilltop. In my mind, I saw Moses walking over the edge of the mountain followed by men in flowing robes and flocks of sheep gaping in awe at all the land that would be given to his descendants.
Our guide pointed to the mountaintop to our right, where an archaeologist discovered an altar that was used for sacrificial offerings from 2000 BC by Abraham, Issac, and then Joshua. After the archaeologist did DNA testing of artifacts to verify the dates, he underwent a spiritual transformation and became a believer in the Bible.
Right below us there was the location of Joseph's tomb that has been venerated throughout the ages by Jews, Samaritans, Christians and Muslims. However, he told us sadly that at the beginning of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000, just after the tomb was handed over to the Palestinian Authority, it was looted and razed. Now, he said, taking on a tragic tone, Jewish worshippers are only allowed to enter the site after dark.
This speech was going in an entirely different direction than I had expected. I was waiting for the lection about the Hellenistic Age and the Maccabbees.
"A full 18 percent of the territory of Israel is in the West Bank," he reported enthusiastically, "And I am proud to say that even though in 1948 no Jews had lived in the territories, today there are over 300,000, and because of all this open space we can fit a total of 3,000,000 Jews here!"
This statement surprised me. How did he come up with this figure? Why would he want to ruin such a beautiful place with 3,000,000 of anyone or anything? Where would that many Jews come from?
The tone had changed. Our fellow riders began to pay attention to their vibrating cell phone and break away from the crowd for private conversations. Clusters of riders, some with cigarettes in one hand and the helmet in the other formed along the path. After a while, there were fewer people listening than not. I moved closer to the speaker, curious where his lecture would end.
He held a Bible in his hands and quoted,
"And the Lord said to Moses. Say to the people of Israel, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you and you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it"– Numbers 33:50
"Sad, this land was given to us yet only 10 percent of the Israeli population has ever been here. You are welcome to come back and visit anytime you want, and next time you can stay for the weekend and bring your friends."
I was stunned. There was no applause or recognition that the speech had ended, the speaker had lost his audience long ago. I joined the others grumbling to each other climbing the hill towards a table that was set with light refreshments.
One bald man dressed in a riding jacket with a bright red matching stripe walked by Ron's side and commented, "This land is gorgeous, but it is not ours. It is seductive to think we could possess the sites where our forefathers worshipped. However, through all the translations and thousands of years that have passed, you can't prove the exact location of any of these sites."
My memories of Sunday school made me defend the speaker's faith, "I remember when I was a child how fascinated I was with the Ark of the Covenant, that something touched by the Creator could be placed in a box and carried around on long poles. The Lord was something we could see and feel, and he dictated in every detail how to till the fields, harvest the wheat, slaughter the cattle. But times have changed. The literal interpretation of the Bible seems unreasonable and outdated."
Ron shook his head in disagreement, "I don't think any of this business has to do with religious belief, it's about money and the politics. It's about the army getting more budget, and the government caving in to the settlers to stay in power", our red striped friend nodded in agreement.
After a quick cup of coffee and packaged cakes, we mounted our motorcycles and proceeded to our next stop. We took a turn up a mountaintop, and went down a road that I recognized as the way to Jerusalem.
As we crossed back over to the Israeli side, there was a small booths used for inspection where a solider stopped Ron, "What kind of tour is this?" "A motorcycle tour", he answered, which I suppose should have been obvious. However, that answer was enough to cross over without any questions.
Now on the Israeli side, we wound through the countryside, green and hilly filled with small private vegetable gardens. There was the pungent odor of burning goat excrement, and rows of goats descending from the hill tops. Women in long flowing skirts escorted them to simple metal shacks for milking. As we rose up the hill the guide ordered us to stop our motorcycles and dismount to climb up a hill for the next lecture.
The road was narrow and steep, and with difficulty we found room for our motorcycles on both sides leaving enough room for cars to pass. On the right hand side rose the cement wall that separated the Palestinian Authority from Israel to prevent suicide bombings. It improved security but also made an ugly scar through pastoral landscapes running up and down the hillsides in between Arab villages.
As my eyes looked straight up to the barbed wire above, I was shocked to see the face of a small girl 8 years old or so, smiling down at me. Her face was full, and her hair was dark and long. She said "Shalom" in a thick Arabic accent, and I said Shalom back. Another girl's head popped up with long hair, possibly a sister or friend, and we also exchanged greetings.
It was odd to me, because I assumed that wall was just as tall on the other side and could not fathom how these little girls managed to reach the top. Perhaps there was a ladder? Could it be that this wall was on a hill, and on the other side it was only four feet tall?
As we made our way to the top of this hill, the separating wall was now behind and below us. We saw on the horizon a panoramic view of a hilly sandy desert. This place wasn't a national park but an empty, unmarked lot. The landscape was the perfect background for a historic lecture, with smooth light brown hills, rolling gently like a series of shoulders delicately exposed to the sun.
Tall and distinguished with a trimmed gray beard, the guide paced back in forth with the rhythm of his words, almost in a trace, remembering every detail from memory.
"Antiochus IV captured Jerusalem and removed the sacred objects from the temple, slaughtering many Jews in the process. He desecrated the Temple by sacrificing an unclean animal on the altar in the Holy of Holies. He forbade both circumcision and possession of Jewish scriptures on pain of death. Matthias and his three sons begin a military campaign against Antiochus, and the first battled happened right here."
As he began with the details of the battle, I looked behind me and saw a group of riders photographing the wall. A long haired man commented to me while his shutter was clicking away, "And we think we are OK? Look how we managed to fence them in." I looked the direction he was shooting and saw below us that the separation wall with all its zigzagging had formed an odd shaped shoebox, making the Palestinian village appear if it was stuck in the middle walled up on all sides.
Over the sound of the lecture and the mumbling of the crowds, there was a muffled voice through a megaphone requesting us to move our motorcycles. Four men that looked more like boys in beige uniforms with protective gear on their bodies parted the crowd and approached the lecturer. The commander asked our guide how he managed to bring this group without prior approval from the military.
"The only battle that interests me is the skirmish between the Maccabees and the Greeks that took place on this very field ", he said with conviction. The commander was convinced of his sincerity, and chose not to detain him for questioning but he asked him to have us move our motorcycles to avoid damage from rock throwers.
Our lecturer begged for another five minutes so he could finish. He wanted time to explain how the Maccabees succeeded in winning the battle, took possession of the temple and performed the rededication to make it holy again. But Ron and I, like most of the riders, didn't stay for the end.
We ran to our bikes just as the rocks began to fly over with more and more intensity, from drizzle to a downpour. Within minutes, the rocks turned into green glass from broken bottles. I looked up to see if there were still little faces looking down on us. Not a soul. I began to wonder whether the girls tipped off the rock throwers? What made them choose to pelt us with rocks and glass?
In our helmets and protective gear we could have been anyone from anywhere. However in their minds they probably didn't care, we were just more of the same; religious, secular, right wing, left wing; it didn't matter as long as we were Israeli.
What shocked me more was how calmly we accepted the attack. Aside from moving quickly to spare our motorcycles from dents or scratches, none of us complained or seemed surprised by the rocks and glass thrown in our direction. Perhaps we were used to things being launched at us: Scud missiles from Iraq, Katusha rockets from Lebanon, and Kassam rockets from Gaza. Thankfully, no one was hurt, there was no damage, and we moved on. It was just another day.
Our procession broke up as each motorcycle, started up its engine and headed home. Ron and I stopped for a cappuccino at our favorite roadside café. I was still fascinated by the landscape and the history I was eager to see more. "What do you think about going back there in a car with the kids?", I asked.
"Not a chance," he said.
I realized this may be my first and last tour of the West Bank. I won't be back until our swords are beaten into plowshares, we learn war no more, or the messiah comes; mostly likely not anytime soon.