The Mideast's Land of Paradox

War, peace, and cab rides in the Holy Land


JERUSALEM—"But isn't it dangerous?" several people asked me when I told them I was about to make my first trip to Israel, for a week. Yet during my stay in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, I felt safer than in most American cities. Life feels normal. Once in a while, there are the small reminders that it's not. At the entrance to Tel Aviv's Opera Tower shopping mall, security guards search the bags of people coming in.

The Israelis I spoke to were mainly preoccupied, like people anywhere else, with things other than politics. Even the Iranian president's virulent anti-Israel rhetoric and the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran does not seem to be a cause of major worry. Yet many of them, in the back of their minds, are aware that their country is one of the epicenters of global conflict.

"So," said one cabby in Tel Aviv, "you see Israel all the time in the news, and now you finally decided to come and see for yourself what it's really like, yes?"

Of course, a weeklong vacation in two Israeli cities, mainly spent doing the usual tourist things, does not exactly qualify one to come to any conclusions. But even in a few days, this country makes a powerful impression.

In Jerusalem and in other places that are popular spots for excursions—Jaffa, Cesarea, Acre —one is vividly reminded of this land's extraordinary history, from Roman conquest and Jewish resistance to the ravages inflicted by both Christians and Muslims as they vied for possession of the Holy Land. Historic ironies abound. Today, a virulent strain of religious intolerance in general and anti-Semitism in particular infects far too much of the Muslim world, to such a degree that some claim these traits are endemic to Islam.

Yet listen to any local tour guide talk about the history of Jerusalem, and it becomes overwhelmingly clear that historically in this region, Christians were far more intolerant toward Muslims and Jews than Muslims were to Christians and Jews.

In today's Jerusalem, the three great religions seem, at least on the face of it, to coexist in peace. An Orthodox Jew can be seen walking peacefully through the Old City's Muslim quarter. The golden dome of the Mosque of Omar can be seen above the Western Wall that is probably Judaism's most sacred site; and Christian churches of many denominations are only a few steps away. Priests, monks, and nuns mix freely with Hasidic Jews and Muslims in traditional garb.

In the Old City, the sense of religious reverence coexists oddly with a sometimes jarring commercialism of endless vendors and stores peddling religious and other souvenirs. The Via Dolorosa, Jesus' road to Calvary, features a souvenir shop with the quaint name "The Christ Prison Shop."

And yet, in the age of faith, Jerusalem's heritage as the holy city of three religions often became a cause of war and great suffering for the city's inhabitants; today, it's the source of busy and peaceful trade that contributes to local prosperity. There's something to be said for crass commercialism after all.

Like the impression of safety, the impression of peaceful coexistence can be deceptive. The Muslim suburbs of Jerusalem, which is surrounded by a patchwork quilt of Jewish and Arab villages, are generally regarded as places where Jews do not venture. And yet in Jerusalem, one realizes that separating the Jews and the Arabs would be truly a hopeless task.

The cabdriver who drove my parents and me from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv and then volunteered to give us a free tour of Jerusalem, a man in his 40s named Itzik, said that he had few hopes for real peace in his lifetime. Yet he also spoke sympathetically of the Arabs and the Palestinians, the majority of whom, he strongly believed, want nothing more than to work and raise their children in peace. Unfortunately, he added, it takes only one crazy man to ruin everything.

While we took pictures of the city's panoramic view from the Mount of Olives, Itzik chatted with a young Arab man who was selling postcards, picture books, and camel rides to tourists visiting the spot. Business had picked up again, the young man told him. Normal life and hints of a war zone under the surface; a peaceful diversity and conflict with no end in sight; profound faith and crass commercialism. In the end, the strongest impression I had was of a place of paradox.