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Sunday, September 13, 1998
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The best guide to Israel is the Bible, and through its pages the whole drama of the origin and history of Israel is enacted in front of
your eyes, writes
Anil Sarwal
They want peace, but are ready for war

IThe Baha’i shrine in the Persian GardensSRAEL begins as soon as you decide to board the plane. Every passenger is thoroughly questioned at the check-in counter, though by a team of young, pretty and glamorous Israeli females. Each piece of baggage is minutely examined. The insecurity that Israel faces, and the determination to live through the adversity and survive, it all comes through vividly in your very first encounter with the Israelis.

As the aeroplane prepares to land at the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, once again the Israeli character comes to the fore. Excited to be home, the Israelis are seen gathering their bundles together, ready to dash down the aisle. No red-blooded Israeli sits and waits just because an air hostess has told him to. As the plane touches the native land, the feelings of nationalism burst forth in the form of shouts of joy and widespread applause.

The best guide to Israel is the Bible. Read through the pages of your Bible and the whole drama of origin and history of Israel is enacted in front of your eyes.

Some 3200 years B.C., it was called Canaan, then the land of Israel (Eretz Yisra’el), and finally Israel. History began for Israel when in around 1250 B.C., Moses led the descendants of Abraham after the Exodus from Egypt, and they were welded into a powerful Hebrew nation under David and Solomon. The ‘nation’ received Torah ("the Law") on Mount Sinai.

From time to time, Assyrians, Babylonians and Romans conquered the land and drove the Jews into exile but the Jewish nation persisted. Undoubtedly, it required a great faith for a Jew — whether prospering in a tolerant state elsewhere, suffering repression under a hostile government or surviving as an oppressed minority in his own God-given country — to believe that mass return to an independent homeland was more than a mystical dream. Throughout their ordeal, the believing Jews prayed daily: "Gather our dispersions from among the nations, assemble outcasts from the ends of the earth, conduct us unto Zion and unto Jerusalem, the residence of the holy temple, with everlasting joy."

The memory of Jewish nationhood and over a thousand years of self-rule finally crystalised into the state of Israel by renewed efforts of Theodore Herzl on May 15, 1948. This is the only instance in the history of mankind when a small nation, crushed and scattered, succeeded in re-establishing itself as a sovereign realm. Today, when the Jew dream is a veritable reality, Israel is a combination of the very ancient and the ultra modern, of idealism and pragmatism. An intensive nationalism tempered by a cosmopolitan outlook pervades the country.

The agricultural skills of Israel are now world famous. The Israelis have virtually made the deserts to bloom. Collective cultivation on Kibbutzes, irrigation schemes and reclamation of desert land have resulted in local cultivation and harvesting of a number of fruits and vegetables. Interesting to the tourists are the sprinklers and rubber pipes that dot the whole cultivated land and gardens. These are computer-controlled and release water in limited quantities as per the actual need.

Citrus fruits are the main exports and wine-making is an extensive industry. However, the popular foods among the tourists are felafel and houmous. Both of these are of Middle Eastern origin and constitute a kind of pocket bread either filled or eaten with various vegetables, salads, pickles, beans and sauces. So popular is felafel that the PLO once complained to the UN that Israelis had stolen the Palestinian dish!

As in agriculture, so in industry. In diamond cutting, Israel comes next only to Belgium. Other industries are textiles, electronics, machinery, processed foods and chemicals. The valley of Jordan and the Dead Sea yield rock salt, sulfur and potash. Solar energy also seems to be a major concern in Israel because the skyline of whole Israel is speckled with solar heaters and other equipments.

Today, out of population of some 4 million, it is estimated that 85 per cent are Jews who have come home after 2000 years from various nations including India, Russia, Ethiopia, Europe and America. Besides the Jews, 12 per cent Israelis are Moslems and 20 per cent Christians. The remaining are Druze. However, behind the Jewish faces lies a common heritage: The Jewish family tradition and the Jewish way of life. In the words of Abbakovner, a well-known Jewish author; "A tree may be alone in the field, a man alone in the world, but no Jew is alone on his holy days."

Tel Aviv is Israel’s largest city. Newness gives the city its vitality, though lack of planning is evident. Entertainment is available here in plenty, as is good food. People-watching, especially on the newly constructed promenade along the entire length of the Mediterranean sea front, is the main past time here.

The highlight of sightseeing in Tel Aviv is the Diaspora museum on the campus of Tel Aviv University. It is here that the 2,500 year-old Jewish history and culture as well as the present day beliefs dramatically come alive through an audio-visual show. It becomes abundantly clear that the land of Israel, the blessing of its soil embraced the Jew wherever he dwelt. The Torah, the Holy Book of the Jews, is the tree of life to them and they hold on to its laws tenaciously. The Jews have practised circumcision in joy and in peril through out generations. The Arc of Covenant is the symbol of the state of Israel.

It is the only country in the world which observes the Biblical precept: "Six days shalt though labour and do all thy work; but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord." The Sabbath begins on Friday after sunset and is observed till Saturday night. Lighting fires, smoking, drinking, and cooking food are forbidden. Stores and bus services shut down in most of the country, and even many restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment remain closed. Saturday is, therefore, the official holiday throughout Israel, and all Jews remain at home to observe the Sabbath.

Like in India, the Jewish family is closely knit. The education of children is given the topmost importance. A great stress is also laid on honouring one’s parents and showing deference to the old.

However, unlike here, the 13-year-olds are told that thence onwards they are responsible for their own deeds. Further, working for the community is as sacred as studying the Torah for the Jews. The community always constituted the basic unit even for the Jewish self-government in Diaspora (dispersal).

The Torah and its commandments embrace man’s total life experience. Faith in one God and the sanctity of human life are the supreme values of the Jewish life. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the synagogue represented the Jewish community. For the Jewish priest, the Rabbi, very strict injunctions have been laid not to suppress his peoples’ voice. Rabbi Israel Slanter’s words in this regard are memorable, who said: "A Rabbi whose community does not disagree with him is not really a Rabbi, and a Rabbi who fears his community is not really a man."

The continuity of the Jewish culture is anchored in the continuity of the Hebrew language. "Not by might, nor by power, but my Spirit", says the Lord of hosts in the Torah. How else can it be explained? In the year 1933m Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and his accomplices murdered six million Jews. Among them were one-and-a half million children. In the ghettos, the victims fought desperately for their lives while the world stood in silence. However, everything for which the Jews sacrificed their lives such as Sabbath, circumcision and study of the Torah helped to ensure their survival.Enjoying a snack at a fast food shop in Haifa

The Jewish press has been the ideological arsenal of all national and social movements in the world. Even in exile, the Jews studied their newspapers as they contemplated the pages of Talmud. It has been the basic quality of the Jewish nation "to remember the past, to live the present, and to trust the future." But, all along, whether waiting for the Promised Messiah or making the peace pacts, the popular Jewish refrain seems to be: "Wherever I go, I am going to Israel."

Apart from being the only Jewish state in the world, Israel is considered as the Holy Land by the Christians, the Moslems and the Bahais. From the New Testament, we learn that Israel is the birthplace of Jesus Christ and it is in the area around the Sea of Galilee that He taught His gospel. The church where the miracle of the fish and the loaves took place, the pools where Jesus was baptised, the Mount of Beptitudes where Christ gave Sermon on the Mount — all are there for the sensitive visitor to see and relate to.

In Old Jerusalem, a walk along the Via Dolorosa — theWay of the Cross — is a must, though it is a dangerous area to visit these days because of the religious tensions between the Arabs and the Jews.

It is believed to be the path followed by Jesus while carrying the Cross from the place of His trial to the site of his execution. It begins at the Lion’s gate and winds through the Church of Holy Sepulchre (or the Church of Resurrection) venerated by most Christians as the site of death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Its stations commemorate the various incidents that took place on the way.

In this area is, also, the holy Moslem shrine, the Dome of Rock, from where, one night, on the wings of Angel Gabriel, Prophet Mohammad is supposed to have ascended to heaven, met God face-to-face, received His Commandments and returned home. In close proximity is the western wall, earlier known as the Wailing Wall, where for centuries Jews have prayed for the fulfilment of all their wishes.

The wall is, truly, a symbol of past and future redemption. The Jews write their prayers on pieces of paper, and, covering their heads with small round caps which fit the centre of the scalp, insert these in the huge pieces of stones that the wall is made of. Strange it is that in spite of the close proximity of the holiest of the holy of shrines of the world’s major religions in Jerusalem, in an area of no more than one square kilometre, the leaders and believers cannot reconcile their differences.

In Israel, the city unravelled in its beauty, is Haifa. It is a beautiful combination of mountain and sea. It spreads up and across the wooded slopes of Mount Carmel — the Vineyard of the Lord — and finally spills down to the finely sandy Mediterranean beaches. It is probably the country’s greenest and cleanest city.

The most spectacular landmarks in Haifa, and the neighbouring towns of Acre and Bahji, are undoubtedly the holy places associated with the Bahai faith — Much like the Bahai House of Worship in New Delhi, which is popularly known as the Lotus Temple.

The Bahai teachings emphasise the unity of God, unity of religions and unity of mankind; and therefore hold a great appeal for the common man. No wonder the 1992 Yearbook of the Encyclopaedia Britannica places the faith as the second most global faith in the world after Christianity and the fastest growing religion. Apart from the Bahais who come on pilgrimage to the shrines of the twin-prophets of the Bahais Faith, Bab (literally "the gate") and Baha’u’llah (literally the ‘Glory of God’), a large number of tourists visit the Bahai gardens, popularly known as thePersian gardens. A Hebrew epigram sums the general atmosphere in the different cities of the country: Jerusalem studies, Tel Aviv dances and Haifa works.

The Dead Sea region is also special interest. Stark desert landscapes, flowing oases, wandering nomads, a taste of history in the ancient city of Jerico greet you on the way to the Dead Sea. In the earthen mountains on this side of the Dead Sea are the caves where the ancient scrolls, now known as the Dead Sea scrolls, were discovered. On its Jordanian side in the mountains is the unknown place where Moses passed away.

In addition to being the lowest spot on the face of the planet earth some 1300 feet below sea level, it is also one of the healthiest spots in the world. You have the choice to effortlessly float on its waters and read your newspaper, bathe in the natural springs in the area, or coat yourself with the therapeutic mud while breathing in the invigorating oxygen rich air. The natural treatment in the Dead Sea largely results from its very low elevation and a bath in the hot sulphur springs in this area is considered beneficial for rheumatic pains.

Israel is in many ways, and almost by definition, a specialist destination, with a premium on religious and cultural holidays. However, to a tourist tired of visiting the holy places, Israel’s thriving fashion industry comes as a welcome distraction. On the streets, you will find Israelis, whether alone or along with their families, going about their business dressed in the most fashionable western apparels. The cinema is popular and nightclubs offer folk music and informal cabarets.The Pilgrims’ Site of Baptism

Interaction is one of the basics of life in Israel. Israelis love to discuss, argue and haggle over everything and with everyone. The country’s multitude of markets offers ample evidence of this national pastime. Jerusalem’s markets are the most famous. The Oriental Bazaar within the walls of the old city is the largest one of its kind in the country. Its stores are lodged in ancient store buildings with typical eastern arches. The shops spill out into the side walks and unto streets. Merchants sit out in the sun playing chess while awaiting the next customer.

Though warm, friendly and generous people, as a nation of soldiers, Israelis are sometimes perceived to be extremely daring, audacious and aggressive. However, the Hebrew word Sabra aptly describes a native Israeli. A Sabra is a kind of prickly pear, and like the fruit of cactus, it is hard and prickly on the surface but soft and sweet on the inside. Get past the tough layer of an Israeli’s character and he will do his best for you. Perhaps, the outer rough layer has something to do with the military training that every Israeli has to undergo.

Strangely, for a war-ridden country, Shalom, which means ‘peace’, is the popular greeting in Israel. When you call out Shalom even to the young soldiers in uniform — both boys and girls — who are seen carrying their guns through out the country, they do not hesitate even for a minute and call back Shalom : Dressed to kill, literally and figuratively, they prove to be quite helpful. The Israeli viewpoint emerges clearly. They desperately want peace, but are fully prepared for war!Back

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