We visited the Mount of Beatitudes, watched Israeli F-15s and 16s fly in formation over Jerusalem, contemplated Jesus agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, saw one place where David hid from Saul, went to an Independence Day concert, spoke with Israeli soldiers, swam in the Dead Sea, peered into Syria from an old Israeli fort on the Golan, and stuffed ourselves with all manner of delicacies morning, noon, and night. Oh, and the weather was perfect.
It was a fantastic trip. Nothing I write here can do justice to all that we saw and experienced, and I can only post a few of the photos. Speaking of which I took 461 photos in 7 days of touring, more than on any other trip. Thank heavens for digital photography.
The photo shows a n Israeli town in the country's north (I'd be glad if Tom could identify this town). It's a good illustration of how crowded Israel actually is. With a land area of some 21,000km² and some 7,100,000 inhabitants it has a population density in excess of 300 per km², one of the highest in the world. If you take into account that the wedge-shaped Negev desert in the south is but very sparsely populated, then you realize that life in the center and north of Israel must be very crowded indeed - especially the center. Few people realize how precarious Israels strategic position is, with its core population and main industries sharing a narrow sliver of land barely 13-15 kilometers wide (!) between the Mediterranean and the West Bank. To say that there is no strategic depth is the Mother of all Euphemisms. People elsewhere who are irritated by Israels constant clinging to its settlements in the West Bank and its reluctance to give that area wholly to the PA would do well to ponder Israels vulnerable situation, surrounded as it has been now for sixty years by untrustworthy neighbors.
Tom's account offers an interesting mix of Jewish/Christian history, fair impressions of the geography and encounters with a variety of Israeli citizens. Of particular interest to me were some remarks about Pontius Pilate and the Fort of Masada:
We'll start with this; for almost 2,000 years the doubters said that Pontius Pilate was a myth, a legend invented by Christians. There being no records in the Roman archive referring to him, Christians could only defend themselves by referring to scripture. Then, in 1961, a block of limestone was uncovered in Caesarea that referred to him, and was dated to the 1st century A.D. Once again, the scriptures were confirmed. Known as the "Pilate Stone", the original is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This controversy, which now belongs to the past, reminds me of the bigger controversy regarding Jesus' very existence. Mind you, I personally do not count myself to the doubters, but it would be nice if some similar artifact could be found. As for now, the "unbelievers", ha ha, essentially have had to make do with what is called the Testimonium Flavianum, an exerpt from an historic work (Antiquities of the Jews) by the famous Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who lived in the first century, and participated in the great Jewish revolt which started A.D. 66.
As for the Fort of Masada, if you ever wondered where the word "zealot" comes from, Tom has the story:
The mountaintop fort of Masada is not part of biblical history, but is such an important part of Jewish and Israelite history that no trip to Israel is complete without a visit. Overlooking the Dead Sea, it was the "last stand" of a Jewish group known as the Zealots after Rome destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and ended the existence of Israel until modern times. Long story short, the Zealots held out against a Roman siege for three years. Finally, when the Romans broke through and entered the fortress city, they found no one alive but two women and five children. Why were the rest all dead? The Roman seize machines hadn't killed that many.
The answer is that the Jews knew that rape, torture, and slavery awaited them if taken alive. But Jewish law forbade suicide. They way they got around it was the each man killed his family, then the men killed each other, until they were down to twelve. These then drew lots, with the loser killing his fellows, and finally falling on his sword, so that only he violated the law.
The story of Masada is not part of the Talmud, and was largely forgotten by Jews until the 1920s. That we know of it at all is only due to the writings of Flavius Josephus, who accompanied the Romans during their seige. Because of the situation of modern Israel, it is therefore natural that they look to Masada as Americans look at The Alamo; "never again". Indeed, all or some Israeli soldiers take their oath atop Masada and repeat the oath "Masada shall not fall again."
As an afterthought I might add that I thought I had read somewhere that only the tankers (troops in the armoured brigades) take their oath at Masada. Maybe someone can clarify this issue for us?
Tom apparently had ample occasion to see the IDF and meet with some of its members, see the picca (more here). The IDF is worth a post of its own. Suffice to say that it currently numbers some 168,000 active personnel. The basic operational unit of the land forces is the brigade, and not the division - possibly precisely because divisions prove to be too unwieldy units in the (very) limited landspace that is Israel's. There's five regular brigades, namely the Golani Brigade (Northern Command), the Paratroopers Brigade (Central Command), the Nahal Brigade (Central Command), the Kfir Brigade (Central Command) and the Givati Brigade (Southern Command). Especially the name Golani Brigade may ring a bell, it is one of Israels oldest fighting units with a hard-earned reputation for tenacious fighting and a tremendous esprit de corps. With close to 1,000 aircraft, the Israeli Air Force is the strongest in the Middle East. Linke here. Finally there's the Israeli Navy, a very fine branch which the Israelis themselves modestly call the Sea Corps.
One last note. Of course this and the previous post are quite gushing stories about Israel which can - will - be considered biased. That being true, we have never closed our eyes however for the darker side of Israeli policy throughout its existence. The Israeli-Arab conflict is not entirely a black and white story. Moshe Dayan himself, the legendary Israeli Defence Minister, openly regretted the expulsion of many Arabs from their villages during the early years - even if Arabs had provoked the conflicts themselves. There are black spots such as the gunning of the USS Liberty by the Israeli Air Force during the Six Day War. Then there's the regular stories about Israeli spies in the US. But taking it all together, one cannot but admire the brave stance this small nation has made throughout the past six decades, succeeding in establishing a strong, democratic and prosperous state in an area which was formerly arid and barren, facing not only agressive, uncompromising neighbours but also an increasingly hostile world opinion which, deceived as it is by the MSM, is always ready to believe the worst. In the words of Filip Dewinter, strongman of the Vlaams Belang, Israel "is the vanguard of the West in a feudal Middle East", and for that only this country deserves our unflinching support.