Israel- Land of Conflicts; Egypt- Land of Antiquities

Winter 2020

We’d been to Israel half a dozen times when Shir Shalom Synagogue of Woodstock, Vermont organized a trip.  I hoped that we could get some behind-the-scenes insight.  Egypt was on our bucket list, so we extended the trip to travel there.

In Israel, there is not much mixing of Arabs and Jews. Lack of personal knowledge leads to mistrust and fear. So does misinformation; an army instructor told us she taught history to new inductees.  She quantified Israeli AND Arab war casualties. Her superiors told her that she should only state the Israeli casualties.  When we visited the archaeology site of the original City of David, we had a panoramic view of the Arab village of Silwan across the valley.  Although there were many signs at the site, there was no sign about the Arab village, nor did our guide mention it. 

We support the Arava Institute in Israel, a graduate environmental school that brings together Arabs, Jews, and others for education and dialogue.  There are more than 1,000 alumni. We learned that there are other organizations bringing Jews and Arabs together.  “Roots” brings Palestinians and Jewish settlers in occupied territories together.  Sindyanna is a cooperative of Jewish and Arab women who cultivate, process and market olive based products.  We’ve started gifting their “Extra Peaceful Olive Oil”.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 15% of the population in Israel.  Because of a deal with Israel’s first Prime Minister, they don’t serve in the army, a source of tension between them and secular Israelis, about 60% of the population. Orthodox control state religion, including who is considered a Jew. 

I thought that only Orthodox Judaism is practiced in Israel, but I was wrong.  We attended Kehillat Kol Haneshima, a beautiful reform synagogue. There are more than 60 reform synagogues.  Non-orthodox weddings in Israel are not recognized, but there was more pluralism than I expected.

We met with Anat Hoffman, attorney and founder of Women of the Wall movement.  Women were not able to approach the Western Wall holy site because zealots in charge of religion wouldn’t permit it.  After years of protesting, there is now a women’s area, although women still will be arrested if they try to bring a Torah- a holy book.

Israel Religious Action Committee, “IRAC” aims to defend equality, social justice and religious pluralism in Israel, with some impressive wins to show for it. My impression after hearing about the IRAC successes is that the legal system in Israel is vibrant and robust.

Israel is booming right now.  The country is loaded with tourists. Bus after bus stacked up in traffic on winding old city roads.  Waze was developed in Israel, but it’s not much help with traffic there.  Hotels were packed with visitors.  Many Christian pilgrims come to see the Holy Land.  Perhaps because terrorism is everywhere now, people are not afraid to come.

We stayed two nights in Haifa, the best port in Israel.  Israel has given Jordan part of the harbor as its’ own Mediterranean port.  The port has a dedicated rail line across Israel to Jordan. It’s clear that Israel values this relationship.

We had a compelling presentation from a James Bond type, a retired spy handler representing Alma, an Israeli security think tank.  While homemade rockets from Gaza make news, the bigger threat is the alignment of Iran with Syria.  This allows Iran to move its rockets closer to Israel. That makes targeting more accurate, since rockets have less distance to travel.  The James Bond guy was close mouthed about counteractive steps Israel is taking. If the talk was designed to impress that Israel lives in a tough neighborhood and needs continuing American military aid, it succeeded.

Travel to Egypt from Tel Aviv was easy, if you knew about it. There is a three time- per- week flight from Tel Aviv to Cairo on Air Sinai (part of Egypt Air).  In the magazine in the plane seat pocket “where we fly” map, Tel Aviv was not listed.  I guess they don’t want to offend Arabs. 

Egypt is a different world, with 100 million people living in an area about the size of Texas.  But that is incorrect; 22 million live in one city, Cairo, and the rest of the population live in a band a few miles on either side of the Nile River, running south to north.  Cairo is smoggy and dirty with horrendous traffic, but filled with life. 

Tourism is off since the Arab Spring in 2011.   We were concerned about safety before we came, but were encouraged to walk where directed and felt perfectly safe by ourselves. The Pyramids are right near Cairo. We stayed at Marriott Mena House, a hotel dating from the 1860’s at the foot of the Sphynx and Pyramids.   Egyptians in the hotels where we stayed were well trained and helpful. 

We flew to Luxor, about 300 miles away.  Nearby are the Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens, Karnak and Luxor temples.  Outside of that strip of Nile irrigated land, the desert is as dry and lifeless a place as I’ve ever seen.  Mummies buried were preserved because of that dryness. The details, expansiveness and preservation of the 3,500-4,000 year old temples is hard to believe. The quality and depth of the antiquities in Egypt overwhelms.  

Downsides of a visit:

Everyone expects “baksheesh”, a tip, except in hotels.  The country needs jobs and as a result, the two of us had 3 staffers; a guide, driver, and trip coordinator. Airport staff are not well trained.  On our departure, something in my suitcase set off the scanner.  The man (they are almost all men) did not get up from his chair but turned the screen to me to figure out what set it off.  After I sorted through everything the man finally relented when Nancy started to get upset.

Egypt could get back on the USA tour map.  Better courtesy training for the airport staff would be on the list.  Improved cleanliness of restrooms at tourist sites would be another.

The antiquities are already there.

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