Friday, 4 December 2015

Holy Land: Secular Pilgrimage: Part XI: Two Tombs

world-map israel


This week hasn’t been a good one for me. Why? I got ill, seriously ill. They call it Man Flu. And so there I am laid up in bed instead of enjoying the joys of work. Worse than that though, my elected representatives in Westminster did nothing to improve my mood or indeed anyone else’s by voting on a roughly 2 to 1 ration to bomb another country. So, more innocent civilians will die, more priceless old buildings will be destroyed and more hatred will be built up for future generations.

What made this vote harder for me personally was that many politicians whom I respect and indeed one whom I actually know and hold in high regard voted to bomb. And that made me question why: why do they not see things as I do and why do I see war as such an abominable option most of the time, (very occasionally, I do see it as the best way so I can’t call myself a total pacifist)?

I think that the answer to that lies in travel. They say that travel is a great educator, but what does that actually mean? Well for me, it has educated me somewhat in war. I have never fought in one, nor would I wish to, but I have been to countless war zones and places still scarred by war and one cannot describe just how vile and pointless war is without seeing it. For unlike the soldier or the journalist who see better than anyone the immediate effects, the traveller can see some of the long term scarring, both physical and psychological. What I witnessed in Visegrad in Bosnia, Peja in Kosovo, Hebron in Israel and the desolate plain of Aghdam in Nagorno-Karabagh as well as dozens of other places are why I could never have voted too bomb Syria. It is that simple.


In the greatest political novel ever written, the omnipotent Big Brother ruled with three slogans.

War is Peace

We were told that again repeatedly  by our politicians this week: bombing will make us, (and those being bombed!), safer and more peaceful.

Freedom is Slavery

Straight after the horrific attacks in Paris, governments everywhere beefed up their security with powers which, ironically in Paris, have already been used to arrest climate change protestors. We are enslaved because we are too free apparently. And then finally…

Ignorance is Strength

We have been kept in the dark by our media with their loaded messages based on the personal gain of billionaire proprietors.

Unlike the other two however, this is something that you as an individual can change. How?

Instead of giving in to fear, buy a ticket to somewhere new and open up your eyes. Big Brother may be watching you, but at least you can watch him back.


Which leads me on to this, (sadly very on topic), last posting about a beautiful land scarred by conflict as much as any on earth.

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Flickr album of my 1997 trip

Links to other parts of the travelogue:

Sacred Pilgrimage

Part 1: Tel Aviv

Part 2: Ash Wednesday in Jerusalem

Part 3: Bethlehem with a Baby

Part 4: Exploring the Old City

Part 5: Hebron

Part 6: The Armenian Quarter

Part 7: Up the Mount of Olives

Part 8: Further explorations of Jerusalem

Part 9: The Lord’s Day

Secular Pilgrimage

Part 1: A Bus to Beersheva

Part 2: An Introduction to Kibbutz Living

Part 3: A Pioneering Vision

Part 4: The Silence of the Desert

Part 5: Living for the Moment

Part 6: Tearing down the Wall!

Part 7: Beautiful (?) Beersheva

Part 8: The Volunteers

Part 9: Reminders of Troubled Times

Part 10: The Chicken Kings

Part 11: Two Tombs


It was time to leave. Yankalei and Sara waved to us as the bus pulled out on its trip back to Beersheva. I waved back, wondering if it would be the last time that I would see them alive. Then I sat back and scanned the familiar scenes again, wondering, thinking. Israel had given a lot to think about, on this trip as much as the others; both secular and religious, past and present, personal and political. It is not a pretty country, it is a stressful place, but there is nowhere on earth that I have visited at any rate, that causes one to think about things so much.

In Beersheva we transferred from the bus to the new railway station where we caught a fast train up to Tel Aviv. Compared to a decade before with an arduous bus journey, this was a definite improvement; one hears so much of the problems but some things in Israel are certainly getting better. As the train sped through the countryside on its journey north, I reflected awhile on the trip, this tale of two pilgrimages. On a superficial level it had been successful, job done. I’d made a promise to thank God at the Empty Tomb for bringing us a child and I had done that. I’d also wanted to see Yankalei one more time before that which comes to all men takes one of us away, and I had done that also. But beyond that, how successful had it all been?

If I start with Thao, then one can definitely say, not very. I had wanted to share with her an important piece of my past and to enjoy a family holiday together. On both counts, it had been an abject failure. Whose fault was that; mine, hers or no one’s?

To be fair, things had not gone to plan. The idea was that this would be our first holiday for quite a while. We always have two holidays a year; one together and one apart when she returns to Vietnam and I go backpacking. We’d booked Israel together and then I’d booked to go to Albania in September when she would go home. However, a couple of months before our trip, her gran had died and she’d felt it necessary to fly to Vietnam for the funeral. She had only just returned when we’d flown out to Tel Aviv and she was in no mood for a holiday. Not only was she tired of travel, and still grieving for her grandmother, but she had had – like she always has each time she returns – a massive fallout with her family in Saigon.

Then came the holiday itself. I’d tried to make it as settled as possible by restricting our stay to two bases – Jerusalem and Revivim – and sorting out the hotels in advance. But the hotel in Tel Aviv had been a dump and in Jerusalem Thao had fallen out with Sarra. And then in Revivim too she’d found Sara too pushy and domineering. On top of all that, she’d liked neither the Israelis or the Arabs, finding the former rude and arrogant and the latter sexist and sleazy. Could I criticise her for that? I recall finding Sara too pushy and domineering back on my first visit too and my opinions of the two races were remarkably similar back in 1997 as well. Time and travel are great soothers however.

However, there was also an element of her deciding that she would not enjoy the experience from before she even got on the plane, and she carried that decision through with aplomb. Marriage is based on give and take, putting one’s partner first, yet not once did she consider that, unlike her, I needed a holiday; that this pilgrimage was important to me; that the kibbutz was close to my heart. We were as two strangers and, looking back, it was clear that this trip helped to hammer that final nail into the coffin of our marriage.

On top of that, whilst trying to look at things even-handedly, there was an element of her behaviour that was just plain unreasonable. Sara may be somewhat pushy, but she had invited us all into her home and made us all welcome, yet that was repaid with little effort by Thao to try and fit in and see things from the Israeli perspective. Sara and Yankalei were elderly people who had welcomed her and her young child, yet she made little effort to spend time with them or talk with them, instead preferring to moan about her own issues. Be off with me, I care not, we’re married and that’s ok, but show a bit more respect for your hosts please!

But that is her, what of me? Well, despite the hiccoughs and the difficulties with Thao, I actually really enjoyed the trip. It inspired me beyond measure and it made me think afresh. But why?

The answer to that question is not an easy one for it does not lie in the usual clichés. It was not because of the warmth of the people (Yankalei and Sara aside), the great cuisine, the scenery, the beautiful sunsets… Israel is often a distinctly ugly and nondescript country, a result of being ridiculously overpopulated and, by and large, built in far too much of a hurry. It is dry and barren; her cities (Jerusalem excepted) are generally rather new and soulless with some unbelievably hideous architecture. Even Revivim, which has soul aplenty, is cursed with ugly buildings. And Israel is tense, it is a land full of hatred; faiths and peoples who can’t live side by side, armed teenagers on every bus, cordoned off settlements, a huge concrete barrier to separate the descendants of Isaac from the descendants of Ishmael. No, in so many ways, Israel is horrible, horrible indeed and with no prospects of improving.

But if it is so bad, then why had I returned, (for I knew full well what it was like before I got on the plane)? Yes, I was on a pilgrimage, but religion alone cannot provide the answer. This trip was my fourth and even as I write these words, I yearn to return again. Surely one does not long to go to somewhere that one doesn’t even like?!

The answer is manifold. Religion, of course, does have a role to play. As I said earlier in this account, my faith is important to me and it dictates how I live my day-to-day life. Exhortations such as ‘Love thy enemy as thyself’, ‘Blessed be the peacemakers,’ and ‘ Love one another’ are omnipotent to me; stories such as the Widow’s Mite, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan and, above all, the Passion and the Resurrection move me beyond measure, and all concern Israel. Christ was a Jew from Nazareth and Christianity builds upon the Jewish faith. Those feet in ancient time did walk upon Israel’s mountains green. To visit the places where He preached, He taught, He prayed, He died and He rose again is, in my opinion, a necessity for all Christians. Yes, my faith is definitely a reason to visit the Holy Land, and to return.

But one can look at religion in a variety of ways; as an insider but also as an outsider; as an accepter or as a critical questioner. Yes, I am a Christian, but I have never believed in accepting the faith blindly. It is no coincidence that my son bears the same name as the disciple who questioned, who doubted, who sought some proof, and the Holy Land provides plenty to question, to analyse, to meditate upon. The Empty Tomb is not the only site with competing claims and the approaches of the many different denominations of the Christian Church cause one to confront and re-evaluate matters, for in the Holy Land, where they are literally on top of one another, one cannot ignore them. Is Christ of one nature or two? Is the Orthodox Church or the Roman Catholic Church the One True Church? Is there One True Church? What roles do liturgy, historical veracity, emotions play? Is the hero living within the cloisters of St. George’s Cathedral really a traitor? How can the bloodthirsty Crusades have been inspired by the One who taught us to love our enemies?

And as an Outsider, as well as the competing denominations of Christianity, there are wholly different faith narratives to encounter: The Jews, the Muslims and more. Despite my many trips to the Holy Land, I have never explored the Ba’hai viewpoint, the mysterious faith of the Druze, the mystical Hassidim, and the ancient Samaritans. I have never visited Masada where the Sicarii had their last stand, or the Dead Sea where the Essenes wrote their scrolls, Mt. Tabor, Armageddon, Jericho; I have never even clasped my eyes on Galilee. For the faith traveller, the Holy Land can last a lifetime.

But one does not travel for faith alone, and in many ways it is the other side to the Holy Land that interests me the most. No other country is mentioned so often on the evening news as Israel; there is always something – usually depressing – happening there; a Palestinian suicide bomber detonating himself on a bus, a new settlement being built in the West Bank, a rocket attack killing a civilian, the collapse of yet another peace plan. The Holy Land is a troubled place indeed, yet trying to discover why things are as they are is a complex, often fraught process. I have lived in Israel, read countless books on the subject and half my Politics degree concerned the Israeli-Arab conflicts, and yet even I find it difficult to decipher, difficult to remove the bias in the various commentators. Take for example, what seems to be the most blatant and unjustifiable act by the Israeli state that I had encountered this trip: the cruel division of Hebron into H1 and H2; the systematic favouritism of a handful of fundamentalist settlers over the vast majority, the Arab inhabitants. Surely if one takes out the argument of God-given rights to certain plots of land – and I do take out such views as not even remotely being worth considering, although many in the world do not – then such a strategy is abhorrent and indefensible. But at the same time, there is another dimension to the Hebron situation. Why did the settlers feel the need to establish themselves in Hebron? Was it not because the entire Jewish population of the city, an ancient and legitimate population, unbroken since the time of David, had been wiped out in an unprovoked Arab attack in 1929? If one decries the strategy of the settlers, then is there not also an argument that the Arabs should not be excused for their actions?[1]

And why must a look at contemporary Israel focus solely on the negative as is so often the case? Are there not a lot of positives to examine as well? The longest-established, most successful democracy in the Middle East; the development of a functioning, prosperous new state forged from a population as disparate as any on earth. It’s a little-known fact that after its establishment, Israel accepted far more refugees than the numbers of Palestinians who were displaced, but unlike with those Palestinians, all the Jews were rehoused and integrated into society. As Ben Dror Yemeni, a columnist and himself a Jewish immigrant from the Arab World states:

The Jewish Nakba[2] was worse than the Palestinian Nakba. The only difference is that the Jews did not turn that Nakba into their founding ethos. To the contrary.”[3]

To me though, the aspect of Israel that inspires the most, that is noble and that is a positive example to the world is that secular dream that inspired Yankalei and David Ben Gurion, and is featured on those beautiful banknotes of the 1950s. That is an Israel worth talking about and celebrating, and it is an Israel a world away from the West Bank’s hate-filled settlers and the heart-breaking wall. Here was a dream that said there is room enough for us all here; a dream whose holy duty was not to evict Arabs from Biblical locations but to make useful the wilderness; a dream of forming a new type of society where man and woman are equal and liberated; a dream where the unwanted of the Gentile World, those survivors of the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the Gulags, those evicted by a dozen Arab states, could make a fresh start in the land of their ancestors.

Many lament the defeat of that dream. When I first visited in 1997, nails were being harshly driven into it. Yitzak Rabin, the former soldier and national hero who had made peace with the Arabs, had been gunned down by a right-wing extremist and in the election that followed, the people had democratically ousted the peace-seeking Labour government for Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu, an extremist who supported settlements in the West Bank. It was a double victory for the forces of religion and reaction and one that has been repeatedly consolidated in the intervening years.

And what of that idealism of the kibbutzim? In the 1990s the movement faced a crisis, the books could not be balanced and there was an exodus of the young with some kibbutzim even closing. Now though, through changes such as keeping tabs on dining consumption, greater privatisation and the use of guest workers, the situation has stabilised considerably, but one might ask, at what cost? Is it the soul of the movement or just the onward march of time?

I for one do not believe it is the soul. The kibbutzim are still there and the desert is still being greened. As our train sped through the lush fields north of Beersheva, I recalled reading a short quote that says more about Israel than a thousand miles of concrete barrier:

Anti-desertification efforts, launched intensively after the War of Independence and pursued to the present day, have given Israel a worldwide reputation. Saline soil has been reclaimed by means of leaching. This effort, along with irrigation, using the National Water Carrier, has been so effective that the current Israeli generation thinks of Beer Sheva as situated on the edge, not the middle, of the desert.”[4]

The forests around Galilee and Jerusalem, the draining of the coastal swamps, the greening of the Negev, the continued, successful existence of collective settlements across the land, and an educated, liberated population are Israel’s gifts to the world. They do not excuse her sins it is true, but like those sins, they should not be forgotten.

If one were to visit one tomb whilst in the Holy Land, then it should be the Empty Tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for there lay the most remarkable man that has ever existed. However, if were to have time to see a second, then I suggest making one’s way south, past Beersheva and past Revivim to another kibbutz, Sde Boker. It lies in the very heart of the desert and there, in the land that he founded, next to the kibbutz that he lived on, overlooking the desert that he loved, side-by-side with his wife and equal, lies the tomb of modern Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben Gurion. Christ represents the divine, what all men should aspire towards. As Christ Himself said though, “My kingdom is not of this world”[5] and those who seek to base modern statecraft on faith should always remember that fact. Ben Gurion on the other hand, represents the human; he shows us what we can achieve when we put our minds to it, how we can build a better world here and now. Both visions are crucial to mankind.

Both are to be found in the Holy Land.


[1] Surveys of the descendants of those sixty-seven Jews murdered in 1929 show that they are divided between supporting and condemning the actions of Levinger’s settlers.

[2] Nakba: literally, ‘catastrophe’ (Arabic). The word used to describe the displacement of Palestinians in 1948.

[3] Dror Yemini, Ben (May 16, 2009). ‘The Jewish Nakba: Expulsions, Massacres and Forced Conversions’ (in Hebrew). Maariv.

[4] Naftali Greenwood (1998) ‘The Redeemers of the Land’.

[5] John 18:36

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