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Story Telling in Israel and Jordan

October 16-31, 2017

Laura Bridge

LAWAC travelers at Masada overlooking the Dead Sea.

A LAWAC group spent 15 days touring Israel and Jordan, unpeeling the layers of history surrounding the people and places we experienced. One thing that remained consistent throughout the trip was that every place and every person had a story to tell. Each of these stories needed to be contextualized with an understanding of their distinct perspectives.

Our fantastic Israeli guide, Zalman Spivak, helped to share his own story with us to help put things into context, but ultimately it was up to each of our tour participants to listen, observe and process these stories from their own perspectives.

Tel-Aviv – Old and New

We began our first day at the Tel Aviv Municipal Headquarters, and visited the assassination site of Yitzak Rabin – the former two-time Prime Minister of Israel who ultimately lost his life in his quest for peace. At the Municipal Headquarters, we met with Dr. Noga Zivan, the Vice President of the Tel Aviv Foundation. Dr. Zivan spoke to us about the nature of the city of Tel Aviv, a modern, entrepreneurial place that is known as the “non-stop” city. Tel Aviv boasts the highest number of start-ups per capita in the world.

Following that stop, our group visited Save a Child’s Heart, a non-profit organization that helps to provide care to children from developing countries who suffer from cardiovascular conditions that cannot be treated in their home countries. Our group had the opportunity to play with the children that were being cared for at the facility, which included several young children from Zanzibar.

Sunset view from the beaches of Tel Aviv.

After a walking tour of the old port city of Jaffa, we ascended up to The Orchard of Abraham’s Children, a co-existence pre-school in Jaffa. The Orchard was conceived by Ihab Balha, an Arab Israeli, and Ora Balha, a Jewish Israeli, who fell in love, married and wanted to raise their children from a place of love, respect and peace. This simple concept has grown into three schools across Israel where Arab children and Israeli children attend pre-school and are educated side-by-side.

Then the group visited the Taglit Innovation Center, housed at the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange. Among other things, we learned about Israel’s most notable start-up, Mobile Eye, a vision-based driver-assistance system that helps prevent collisions. In the largest acquisition in Israel to date, Intel took over Mobile Eye for $15.3 billion in March of 2017.

To round out the day, and take us further into the future, we visited White-Hat Cyber Security Consultancy Company. We met their Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Sharon Nimirovski. Sharon, with a background in technology, philosophy and “hacking”, painted a horrifying picture of just how vulnerable we all are now that technology plays such a central role in our daily lives. He introduced us to how easy it is for those with bad intentions to financially exploit unknowing victims. He even hacked into one of our emails!

The second day of our trip focused on cityscapes – political, historical and architectural. We began the morning with Michael Snowden, Political Counselor at the US Embassy to Israel. Michael, a dedicated career diplomat, took us through key issues in the US-Israeli relationship and underscored the unpredictability of the political landscape in Israel. We examined a variety of issues, including the location of the US Embassy, the peace process, the Iron Dome, and the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas. Later the group took a guided tour of street art in Tel Aviv with artist and linguist Guy Sharett. Guy took us through hidden allies and brought to life the stories that the street artists were telling on the walls around us.

Our view of Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives.

Jerusalem – Back to the Old City

The next day we visited what is probably the most hotly contested piece of real estate in the world – the Old City of Jerusalem. Taking in the breath-taking view from the Mount of Olives, our guide Zalman gave a brief overview of the history of the walled city from its discovery to present day. Our journey to the Old City included a visit to Gethsemane, the place where Jesus prayed with his disciples the night before the crucifixion. The Church of All Nations is now located here and is a stunning example of the work of architect Antonio Barluzzi, whose work we saw throughout the trip.

Much of the group bravely weathered the heat, the lines, two rowdy bar mitzvahs, and the very-thorough security check-point to visit Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif – one of the most holy sites in the world. The complexity of the holy site is represented through the challenges of accessing the site itself. While the responsibility for the site is formally under an Islamic religious endowment managed by the Jordanian Government, Israel is responsible for managing the security of the entrance to the site. The Western Wall, or the Kotel, itself is yet another battle ground for controversy, this time between the Ultra-Orthodox Israelis, who believe prayer services can only be conducted by men, and those that take a more inclusive approach and would like women to be free to worship there. Everyone in the group took some time to experience the wall and added a chapter to their own stories.

From Judaism’s holiest site, through an intertwined web of Muslim shops, we moved onto Christianity’s two holiest sites at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which includes the crucifixion site and Jesus’s empty tomb. Reflecting another set of intertwined stories are the mix of the six different groups of Christians that lay claim to the Holy Sepulcher although the primary custodians are the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolics and the Roman Catholics. The vibrant mix of cultures and peoples within the Old City – both residents and tourists – was absolutely fascinating. It seems that every group, or possibly every individual, had their own story for how they got there and why they came.

Describing a visit to Vad Yashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – is a futile endeavor. It is an experience beyond words. Yad Vashem, according to those that established it, is a memorial and a name. It is important, emotional and overwhelming.

Scenes from Jerusalem.

After a somber start to the day, the group found some much needed levity at the Machne Yehuda Market – a bustling outdoor market in the heart of Jerusalem where families were meeting and shopping to prepare for the Sabbath. We also prepared for our Shabbat dinner that took place in the home of Shelly and Mitch Wolf – an Israeli American family that made their Aliyah to Israel after retirement. It was a fascinating glimpse into the experience of American Israelis and the group was delighted and not surprised that the thing they missed the most from home was the convenience of shopping at Target!

Next stop was a trip down to the Dead Sea by way of Masada – an ancient fortification built by Herod the Great. After a salty float in the Dead Sea, we rounded out the leisurely day with light show at the Tower of David – a truly magical experience that featured an animated light show outlining all of the different layers and stories of the Old City.

Ramallah – A Different Story

Of course we also wanted to visit the West Bank, to better understand the experience and the stories of the Palestinian people. The simple tasks of just driving to visit a friend, running errands or going to work, raise complex issues of statehood and sovereignty. Many conveniences we take for granted like roads, water, technological infrastructure and electoral participation are part of the daily struggle for people living in the West Bank.

We crossed the check-point without any issues and visited the planned city of Rawabi. Rawabi is the brainchild of developer, Bashar Al Masri and almost fully-funded by Qatar. The sheer-scale of Rawabi is impressive and speaks to the vision of what Palestine could become. Throughout its construction, which includes residential and commercial spaces as well as the biggest amphitheater in the Middle East, developers have faced access issues to both roads and water, but they remain optimistic. The ambitious project, which smelled of fresh sawdust, will be large enough to house 40,000 residents, will have its own schools, a medical center, a vineyard and will be a fully green city. One could not help but be amazed at the scale of the project, but also cautiously optimistic for its success based on the challenges of the region.

Following our visit to Rawabi, we drove to Ramallah to meet with Sam Bahour, a Palestinian American and entrepreneur, to hear his story and experience of moving to Palestine from the US. He talked about his experience, as well as Ramallah’s aspirations to become a tech hub. Next we visited Benyamin Regional Council, an Israeli Settlement in the West Bank, for a quick overview of some key issues for the Israeli’s living there. Our host said that ideology isn’t a core issue for the people living there, but rather that education and economic development dominate the local agenda.

After another heavy day, we rounded out the afternoon at the Psagot Winery and Vineyard located in the West Bank. The vintner talked about the economic opportunities that his business provides for the local work force, including local Arabs. And most importantly the chardonnay was fantastic!

Golan Heights – From Bombs to Birds

The following day, the group packed up and prepared to head north to the Golan Heights.

There are so many political, security and economic issues to focus on when visiting Israel it is easy to miss the natural beauty that the country has to offer, particularly outside the cities. The group went to Mt. Bental, which overlooks the border with Syria. With audible shelling in the distance, we learned about the history of the Israeli/Syrian relationship and the current patrols and security forces on the border. There were conflicting theories of whether or not the shelling was from the actual conflict or from training exercises, but for many on the trip it was a surreal moment to be within the earshot of an actual conflict.

Our guide Zalman giving an overview on the Syrian border.

Following the visit to Mt. Bental, we were welcomed into the home of Ms. Naseba Keesh Smara for a beautiful lunch. Lunch with Naseba was one of the highlights of the trip for many. Her fascinating story illuminated the experience and culture of the Druze, a monolithic, ethnoreligious group with communities in the Golan Heights and throughout the region. Naseba told us her story of overcoming adversity in a male dominated society. Going against all convention in order to provide for her family, Naseba obtained her driver’s license, learned how to swim, became a cosmetic artist, sold house cleaning supplies, created a business bringing tourists to go apple picking and now runs a successful restaurant and lodge on her father’s old apple orchard. Her story was remarkable and demonstrated the resilience of the human spirit.

Later that afternoon, after a quick stop at the Golan Heights Winery, we visited the Agamon Hahula, a nature reserve. On bikes and in golf carts we experienced the natural beauty of the region and saw thousands of migrating cranes come into the valley for the evening on their southern migration.

The next day we met with another inspiring female leader, Lt. Col. (Res.) Sarit Zehavi, who gave us an overview of issues on the Lebanese border from Metulla, a mountain with a panoramic view into Lebanon. Sarit just started her own non-profit organization that focuses on research and analysis of Israel’s security challenges on the northern border. A dramatic, visible presentation that reinforced Sarit’s message was the prominent display of the three flags on the other side of the Lebanese border – the Palestinian Flag, the Lebanese Flag and the flag of Hezbollah. The group was very taken with Sarit’s compelling personal and professional story and walked away with the further understanding that while the ongoing tension with Palestine continues to be a security issue for Israel, the most important and dangerous threat comes from the northern border with Lebanon since the situation is less predictable and could quickly escalate to full violent conflict.

View of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of Beatitudes.

Following the visit to the border, the group had the opportunity to visit Ziv Hospital for yet another up close and personal view of the Syrian conflict. Ziv Hospital, one of the few hospitals that is working to treat victims of the Syrian conflict, is proud to say that they leave politics and religion out of their work and focus on the medical needs of any and all patients. It began opening its doors to Syrians in 2013 and since then has treated over 1000 victims of the conflict. While it was uplifting to see the work they were doing at the hospital and the generosity of spirit that it represented, it was a stark reminder of the high cost of war, particularly one without an end in sight.

We then made our way down to Tzvat, the spiritual and historical home of Kabbalah. There, the group lunched, visited a few galleries and took some much-needed time to shop. Following the visit to Tzvat the group made their way back to the kibbutz to prepare for the next day’s journey to Jordan.

Jordan – All Roads Lead to Petra

Before heading across the border into Jordan, the group made two key stops at Christian holy sites. First was at the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus is believed to have delivered the Sermon on the Mount and thus laid out the central tenets of Christian ethics. The beautiful location that looks out upon the Sea of Galilee and the chapel that sits on the mountain is another visionary installation from Barluzzi. Following Beatitudes, we visited Tabgha, which is traditionally accepted as the place of the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

After crossing into Jordan, we visited Jerash, a key outpost in the Decapolis – the ten major Roman Cities of the East. The ancient Roman city was remarkably well-preserved and boasts Hadrian’s Arch, one of the largest known arches in the Roman Empire. The preservation of Jerash was remarkable with many of the structures and mosaics remaining in excellent condition.

The following day we visited Madaba, which has the oldest known map of the holy land, and in particular Jerusalem. This mosaic map dates back to the 6th century and wasn’t rediscovered until 1884, which is largely why it is still in such excellent condition. We also visited Mt. Nebo, the alleged burial site of Moses with a beautiful view of the Jordan Valley and Dead Sea. From there we headed towards the magical site of Petra!

The city of Petra, or the Rose City, was built in the first century BCE by the Nabateans. The Nabateans were nomadic Arabs that inhabited Arabia and southern parts of the Levant, and who ultimately settled in Petra making it their capital city. The Nabateans were known for their ingenious water collection and management, as well as their sculptural abilities, both of which are notable through the city. Petra remained largely undiscovered by the western world until Swiss traveler, Johan Ludwig Burckhart began to write about it in 1812. In 1985, Petra was designated as a World Heritage Site and in 2007 it was named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The Siq leading to the Treasury; LAWAC members at The Treasury.

For many in the LAWAC group, the visit to Petra was something that they had been looking forward to for years, and it did not disappoint. Some of us embarked on foot and some in horse-drawn buggies, but we all descended into the Siq – a half-mile crack in the Nubian sandstone – that is essentially the main road of Petra. The winding Siq, with its sweeping curves and detailed carvings, transported the group to the Treasury, the crown jewel of Petra.

The Treasury is a towering 140-foot-high structure that is carved into the side of a mountain. It functioned as a tomb and later as a temple. The vision of the Nabateans to create this structure and their ability to execute it is truly remarkable. The Treasury has weathered the ages well, thanks to the protection from the surrounding mountains. After the Treasury, the path opens out onto the more residential side of the Rose City, with the theater, various additional tombs, as well as churches and temples built after the Nabateans.

Each member of the group made it through at their own pace – allowing for the grandeur and the mystique of Petra to settle over them. That evening, we rounded out the day with a beautiful dinner at a Bedouin camp that paid homage to the Bedouins that call Petra their home.

The group enjoying the beauty of Wadi Rum.

On our final day of the trip, we said goodbye to Jordan through the steps and the story of T.E. Lawrence, embarking through the breathtakingly beautiful desert of Wadi Rum. We crossed the border back to Israel and took a quick flight to Tel Aviv for our final closing dinner. It was a chance to sit together one last time, to break bread, or more specifically hummus and pita, and start to create and reflect on our own stories of Israel and Jordan.

Travel with LAWAC

The World Affairs Council Travel Program offers members the chance to learn about the world's cultures and countries by experiencing them first-hand and hearing from guest lecturers familiar with the history, culture, and current conditions in the countries they visit.

We aim to make our tours both informative and enjoyable, by including special access to local experts and political leaders who give private briefings and unique behind-the-scenes insights. Having Council members travel together means that you will have the chance to meet globally-minded people from your area, who can share this experience with you during and after your travels.


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