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  • Writer's picturePeter Antonucci

Israel

Wednesday | September 20, 2016


We sailed into Haifa this morning at around 7:00 AM and were greeted by the Israeli Navy. And they weren’t just fooling around. These were 8 heavily armed soldiers checking us out.

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When we left the ship, we had to pass through Israeli security, which is reputed to be among the most strict in the world. Today, however, although everyone else on the ship was required to pass their bags through a scanner, somehow my suitcase and large briefcase were not subjected to that. Instead, I simply walked around the machine and into the terminal.


My guide, Rafi, was there at the appointed spot as soon as we walked out of the terminal. He is a senior Israeli guide, who bears resemblance to Dustin Hoffman. He has twice escorted Bill and Hillary Clinton, so one must assume that he is among the most esteemed guides.


We drove through Haifa, which is a non-biblical city, the third largest in Israel.

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Rafi explained that Israel has 9 million citizens of which 6 million are Jews, 2 ½ million million are Muslim, and 500,000 are Christian. In the northern part of the country, the Arabs are most densely congregated.


All of the road signs, and in fact all the signs in Israel, are posted in three languages. That is because Israel has three official languages–Hebrew, Arabic, and English. Rafi commented that Arabic is not currently taught in schools, and that is unfortunate because of the lack of communicative ability between the Arabs and Jews. Most Arabs speak Arabic, Hebrew and some English.


When I pointed out that there were thousands of abandoned colored plastic bags along the highways for miles, Rafi explained that the Arabs do not take care of nature as well as the Jews.


There are trees along the highways, but certainly not large forests. Rafi explained that the Ottoman Empire followed the model of the Romans, cutting down the trees as punishment to the inhabitants of the country. This was done so the man who had olive trees or vineyards would not be able to sell his olive oil or wine.


Our first stop was Nazareth, a city that houses 110,000 people, all of whom are Arab, and most of whom are Moslem. Perhaps this explains the crossing out of the word Christ, though it doesn’t explain why the sign is displayed in September.

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Nazareth is the largest Arab city in all of Israel. One quarter of all the Arabs in Israel live in Nazareth. Israel did not develop Nazareth after it gained independence in 1948 because the Israeli government was hoping that the Arabs would leave. But now, 70 years later, the Arabs are still here and Nazareth is clearly a second-class city.

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There’s no infrastructure, no sidewalks, and not very good sanitary conditions.

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We had a fascinating conversation about the Druse. There are about 100,000 of them in Israel and their loyalty is to the place in which they live, not to a particular country. The Druse movement was established in 1054 A.D. in Egypt when they left the Muslim religion. They are inbred, and any member of the Druze religion loses his property and his rights by marrying a non-Druze. In addition, the men are required to shave their heads and grow mustaches and are prohibited from drinking or smoking. But interestingly, they allow each individual to choose whether to be observant, and they recognize equal rights for men and women.


Our first stop was the Church of the Annunciation, the sacred place where the angel Gabriel, in the sixth month of the year, told Mary she was pregnant with the baby Jesus. (I am not going to report on the writings of the Old Testament or the New Testament in this blog. It is presumed that the educated reader has at least a passing familiarity with the history and principles of the Bible.)

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Rafi explained how in early Catholicism, the people were not allowed access to the written word. Instead, the story of Jesus and Christianity was told in pictures such as the postings of the 14 stations of the cross in every church. In addition, the mass was said in Latin, so the people had to rely on the priests to explain it to them. And I was surprised to learn that people did not have Bibles in their homes until the last century.


It was St. Helena who established Christianity. As Constantine’s mother, she was stricken by the tension between the Jews and the Muslims. She decided that there should be a single religion and, for some reason, she followed Jesus Christ. She decided Christianity would be the prominent religion in the world. She was the one who built the churches in Nazareth, and kept Jesus’s memory and teachings alive. It is possible that without her, all the teachings of Jesus in his life would’ve died with him.


The outside of this church was built in 1968, but the other parts were built during the Crusades at around 1100. The original part of the church, however, referred to as the Old Chamber, was built in the fifth century.

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Outside, there were several other religious buildings from the time.

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This tower sits atop the building that house Joseph’s carpentry workshop.

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During our drives throughout the day, we learned several things that I did not know about Israel. For example, there is talk of forming two Israels, with Tel Aviv as the secular capital and Jerusalem the capital of the right wing religious section.

We also discussed the fact that there are four “most religious” cities in Israel. The first is Safed, where the Kabbala movement calls home. The second is Tiberius, known for the most religious aspect of Talmudic study. The third is Jerusalem, and the fourth is Hebron.


As we drove South towards Jerusalem today we were on a beautiful superhighway. At one point, we saw dignitaries on the side of the road. That is because the grand opening of the highway is actually this afternoon.

Our next stop was Cana, the famous place where Jesus performed his first miracle. He was 12 years old, and attending a wedding, when he changed water into wine. This is where that occurred.

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The majority of northern Israel has adequate amounts of water and thus can sustain an agricultural environment. Southern Israel, however, is a desert with very few trees (a desert, of course, being defined as an area of land that receives less than one cup of water per year.) In northern Israel, there is an abundance of mangoes, avocados, and bananas.

The bananas are all covered with large tarps that maintain a relative amount of consistency in the heat and humidity to which the different trees are exposed.

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Then, bright blue plastic bags are placed over the fruit because insects are allergic to blue. Blue is used in different clothing people wear to repel insects.

We then drove along the border of Jordan, Syria and Israel in the area of the Golan Heights.

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I had always believed this was a heavily militarized area, but we saw barely a trace of the military while we were here. Rafi explained that most of the surveillance is done through the air, as opposed to having troops on the ground. That made me wonder why we don’t have the same surveillance on our southern border with Mexico, as opposed to “building a wall” there.


The next town was Magdal. Almost all of the towns in Israel take their name from some biblical reference. As I guessed, Magdal is derivative of Mary Magdalene, the woman whose feet Jesus washed at this very place.

We climbed the hill and reached the Mount of Beatitudes.


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This is the site where Jesus Christ delivered his Sermon on the Mount, as memorialized in Matthew, Chapters 5, 6 and 7. (If I am not mistaken, this is also where he issued the Lord’s Prayer.) The reason historians are fairly confident this is the site is because it forms a large natural amphitheater and the Bible recalls that there were tens of thousands of people there to listen to him.

Just down the road we came into Tabgha. This is the town where Jesus performed the miracles of the fish and loaves.

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(All of these towns are relatively close to each other, which is not a surprise because they did not have air conditioned Mercedes-Benzes to drive around back then.)

This was the Church of Making Bread.

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Outside, we pause to look at a baptismal font that was constructed during the Byzantine era.


Immediately inside the walls, we found olive presses, Also from the Byzantine era.


The church itself is being remodeled because some orthodox Jews set it on fire last year in an act of religious terrorism.

Inside the church, the floor tiles date to the 5th-century.

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This is the original altar.

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The next stop on the road was Capernaum. Capernaum is the single most mentioned city in the entire new Testament.

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Jesus spent the majority of his childhood in this area. This is the synagogue outside which Jesus told the beggars to disperse, and where Jesus prayed.

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Parts of the town, which are built all around the synagogue, are still visible today.

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We also found an ancient temple that was facing in the wrong direction for a synagogue, but then this relic was found depicting the holy arc mounted on wheels, so that it could be moved to face the east.

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St. Peter also was born and raised here.

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This is also the part of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus told Simon to cast his nets (on the right side of the boat) and catch an abundance of fish.

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Hopefully, Simon had a better boat than this.

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As we continued to drive, we passed over the Jordan River, which is really more like a creek these days. We stopped at a place in the Jordan River where it is alleged that St. John the Baptist baptized Jesus.



In reality, that spot is further up the river by about 3 km, but there’s not enough water there now to allow people to go in and get baptized. On the other hand, this site, they call the baptism part of the Jordan River, is quite touristy. People rent white robes and go into water to get baptized, right behind this railing.

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We stopped for lunch in a kibbutz.


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I enjoyed some St. Peter fish shawarma.

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While Rafi ate the whole fish!

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A kibbutz is a self-contained village that is one half industrial, predominately agricultural, and one half residential. I always thought that a kibbutz was a place people went to visit and serve others, like a form of hostel. But that is not the case. People actually live there for years, if not their whole lives. For example, Rafi was raised on a kibbutz and his family lived there until he moved away to university.

Rafi attended New York University, where he majored in psychology. He then achieved a Masters degrees in History and Tourism before attaining his PhD in Psychology. So Rafi is a full fledged doctor of science!


We then drove quite a ways down the West Bank. There, we saw the Bedouins on their camels and sheep.

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As a nomadic tribe, they live in very primitive shacks, mostly made of sticks and rags, off the sides of the roads.


We saw a dozen soldiers pulling this tank along the road.

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All of the soldiers were in full military fatigue uniform and carried submachineguns.


As we went through one of the little towns, we saw what had to be the largest collection of lawn ornaments for sale anywhere in the world. I wish I had been able to take a picture.

Next up was the city of Jericho. Israelis are not allowed in here and will be arrested if they’re caught. Our guide and driver had special permits, so in we went.

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It is easy to see why Jericho became so prominent in the biblical times, and why it was the first City in the world.

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There is a natural spring in the middle of the city and because of that, there was an abundance of trees and lush growth in what is otherwise the middle of the desert.

Jericho is the oldest planned city in the world, dating back 10,000 years.

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Moreover, it is located 1,300 feet below sea level, the lowest dry point on the planet.

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There was not much to see in Jericho.

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The roads were all dusty and the town was a series of repair shops and bars.

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Apparently, it gets wild and crazy every night. When it is full of Muslims, Jews and Catholics are definitely not welcome here. America gave one large gift to the city of Jericho– a decent sized jail. Also down the road from the jail is the school. And interestingly enough, directly in front of the school is an amusement park.

We did see tons of dates hanging from the trees.

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After a while, they got bagged, so as to keep the birds away.

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As we continued to drive, I started to drift in and out of sleep because I got up early and was totally exhausted. Sooner or later we came to the Dead Sea, water that is more salinated than any place else in the world.

We saw Palestinian villages and Bedouin shelters along the road and they were very primitive.

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We also saw Israeli settlements, and they were indeed more like cities than settlements.

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Then we came to certain checkpoints that indicated we were going back into Israel, from the West Bank.


Finally, after driving about 90 minutes, we arrived in Jerusalem. It looks amazing and we can’t wait to explore it tomorrow.

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Jerusalem is built on four hills. Driving into Jerusalem, we drove through Mea Shearin, a neighborhood where the most orthodox Jews live.

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Rafi informed us that if we drove through the neighborhood during the Sabbath– Friday night or Saturday – we would literally be stoned because they would throw rocks at us for operating a motor vehicle during the Sabbath.

We finally arrived at our hotel, the David Citadel of Jerusalem. It was a nice enough hotel, made even better once they fixed the air conditioning in our room. The promised view of the Old City was a side view from the balcony. But most importantly, we had high speed Internet for the first time in months and were able to turn on our cloud to upload and download all kinds of things.

For dinner, we took a short walk to Notre Dame, a former monastery in Jerusalem.

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When the pope came here a dozen years ago, he did not want to patronize an Israeli or a Palestinian hotel. So he stayed at this monastery. After the visit, they converted the fifth floor to a beautiful restaurant with a terrific view of the city.


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