FROM JERUSALEM, January 22, 2018 - Jerusalem is a very unique city for historical, geopolitical and spiritual reasons—and it is situated in one of the most unique countries in the world. What can we learn from the experience of the citizens of Jerusalem and Israel? Quite a bit. Here’s a list of interesting things I learned and observed from a Vancouver / Canadian / Christian perspective about Jerusalem and Israel over this past two-week period. This first blog post covers “Context” and “Business.”
1. Jerusalem and Israel are rarely out of the international news spotlight. Donald Trump recently made the controversial announcement that he would move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence visited Israel this week. A large banner in downtown Jerusalem read, “God Bless President Trump for Supporting Jerusalem (City of David).”
2. The international community views Jerusalem as disputed or occupied territory, with boundaries yet to be finalized, and thus there are no embassies which would provide some perceived legitimization. The ones there were there all moved out in 1980. So, the US decision to move back is a great endorsement for Israel—but an aggravation (even a “slap in the face” say some Arab leaders) for the Arab countries in the Middle East.
3. Apart from these geopolitical aspects, Jerusalem garners ongoing international attention as it is widely considered the spiritual capital of the world, revered by Christians, Muslims and Jews. Jerusalem has the well-known “Old City” with separate Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian “quarters.” Of course, the Jewish Quarter is well-known for its “Western Wall” and scenes of the throngs at prayer.
4. Religious history oozes from the pores of Jerusalem. It is the site of the “City of David” (visible in ruins), the first and second temples and vast stretches of the wall from the Old City. For Christians, there are the various places mentioned in the Bible such as the place of the skull, (Golgotha), the Mount of Olives and the Garden of the Tomb. There are churches which claim to be the likely spot of key events, such as the Last Supper.
5. Israel is Immersed in history. It is a strategic piece of land, a crossroads from Europe to Asia to Africa. Armies have fought over this small tract of land for centuries, whether Alexander the Great, the Crusaders or the Jews and Arabs in the modern context. The battle traditionally has not been about the resources of the territory—it has none. Instead, the battles have been about strategic positioning in the past, as the country was a gateway to Africa and Asia. In our contemporary context, the Jews and Arabs are both fighting for a homeland.
6. The country has either been at war or getting ready for war since its very existence in 1948. Its creation was proclaimed by David Ben-Gurion and that led to the immediate attack by Arab neighbours and the “War of Independence.” The country was birthed out of the so-called British Mandate of Palestine and has fought over its borders and boundaries ever since. In its present state, the military is a big part of Israeli life. Bomb shelters in North America may be associated with the 1950s Cold War, but in Israel they are an every-day reality. Citizens and institutions, such as schools, work towards installing bomb shelters. Israelis know that when the sirens sound that they have 15 seconds to (Usain) bolt into a shelter.
7. The very creation of Israel is a “miracle,” whether or not someone is religious. The country did not exist for about two thousand years with a piece of land, but only lived on through its diaspora. In 1947, the UN proposed the partition of Palestine into two states – one for the Jews and the other for the Arabs, with an internationally controlled area around Jerusalem. The Zionists (proponents of the State of Israel), desperate to enable Jewish immigration, accepted the offer. The Arabs rejected it as they opposed any Jewish rule in Palestine. Tensions peaked on November 29, 1947 following the UN General Assembly’s vote in favor of dividing Palestine into two states. On May 15, 1948, Israel officially declared statehood. The very next day, the nascent Jewish state was invaded by the armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.
8. For decades Israel has existed in a very dangerous neighbourhood, surrounded by foes who not only want to do it harm but obliterate it—and they deny its very existence. Hence, a highly-trained and innovative military is very important to Israel’s survival. For example, with respect to innovation the army has developed the so-called “Iron Dome” which allows the army to intercept and destroy missiles.
9. As a nation under continual siege and isolated on the international stage, Israel appreciates friends. The spectre of isolation runs deep among Israelis. They are surrounded on all sides by enemies and to some extent within their borders. It is a geographically small country. Our tour guide implored us numerous times to be “ambassadors” for Israel. A border guard blew kisses at our tour bus. People welcome tourists, who with each visit vote with their time, wallets and prioritization in favour of Israel. It’s appreciated.
10. Israelis are apparently not only good fighters and can defend their territory in the army—but also in the caffeine wars. Starbucks is an international caffeine juggernaut that is accustomed to squashing foes like Lilliputians in the face of a giant. There are no Starbucks outlets in Israel. They came, they saw, they got conquered. Starbucks has successfully opened branches in 72 countries around the world, but Israel is the only one where it went in, opened up shop, and left with its tail between its legs – never to return. One national chain is “Aroma” which a few people proudly told me actually serves good coffee.
11. Starbucks’ brief experiment with Israeli stores lasted just two years, from 2001 to 2003. In Israel, Italian cafe offerings like espresso and macchiato coexist with strong, flavorful Turkish coffee made simply by brewing coffee grinds in hot water and letting them settle into mud at the bottom of the cup. I had such a cup at Aroma Café, one of the best drip coffees I’ve had, with a blackish crèma on top. Another interesting point is that there is not a culture of coffee to go. Rather than walk with their coffee in a paper cup, Israelis, especially Tel Aviv residents, are notorious for sitting down with their ceramic espresso cup and talking for hours.
12. As mentioned, there are no physical resources. Everywhere in the world the desert is expanding; Israel is the only place where it is shrinking. Israel is making the desert bloom, with the help of “kibbutzim.” A “kibbutz” (no relation to “kibbitz,” although the word has Jewish origins) is a type of settlement that is unique to Israel. It is a collective community (not a “coop” as we have in Canada), traditionally based on agriculture. There are over 270 kibbitzum in Israel and they have diversified greatly. Some are privatized. I ate at the hotel of one kibbutz and in the cafeteria of another. The kibbitzum are adapting and continue to be an important contributor to the economy and a symbol of rolling out a carpet of greenery in the desert.