Yesterday evening we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport. The flight from JFK was long and not all that comfortable. It was my first opportunity to fly on a Boeing 747 (Delta A/L) — I had toured a proto-type 747 when I was 11 years old and then never again set foot in one until this trip. Except for cramming more people into a somewhat larger space, the experience of flying one wasn’t much different from any other larger jet. It was quite a contrast to the Embraer 50-pax liner we took from CLE to JFK, however!
The flight was filled with children and many, many Orthodox Jewish men in their tallits and long black coats. More than enough of them to complete a minyun so, at least twice during the flight, the back of the plain was filled with men in black hats, or wearing phylactories, draped in prayer shawls, praying fervently. There was something fascinating and reassuring about it. One observation about them (and their families) — they don’t take instruction very well. I’ve never been on a flight in which the passengers paid so little attention to flight attendants’ requests. Even at the end of the flight when Israeli law requires all passengers to be seated during the last 30-min before landing, and the pilot has to circle in Israeli airspace until the cabin crew reports that that is the case. We heard numerous announcements saying, “You are delaying our landing! Please be seated!”
Ben Gurion Airport is very modern and very very large. In fact, it’s massive and monumental! It makes a huge statement: “We’re here. We’re in charge. We’re staying.” Passport control at Ben Gurion, on the other hand, adds a footnote: “We’re in charge, but we’re not very organized.” I’ve been through immigration checks in many countries (mostly Europe and the Americas) and never have I been in such a chaotic mess! Israeli customs folk could take lessons from the Disney folks in how to get people lined up and processed. And a second footnote: “We’re in charge, but we’re not pleasant.” We had prepared ourselves to answer questions like, “Where are you staying? What are you doing? What areas of the country will you be visiting?” The surly young man in the booth didn’t even say “Hello” or “Welcome to Israel” — he may have asked, “Is this your first trip here?” — at least that’s the question I thought I heard and which I answered. Otherwise he just peered at our passports, peered at us with an unfriendly look, handed us a visa slip, and shooed us away.
Baggage claim was like any large airport — no correct signage indicating which of several carousels would have our luggage, lots of people getting in each others’ ways, adults shouting at children, spouses arguing over whose bag is whose. You’ve been there in airports all over the world.
Customs. What customs? Not an official in sight checking bags. A few uniformed women sitting down and chatting, ignoring the passengers shuffling through into the outer world. First impression: Young women in army uniforms carrying Uzis. Not many of them, but enough to make an impression. A third footnote: “We’re in charge and we’re armed.”
We were met by Mark Stanger, a priest from the Diocese of California who is assisting with our pilgrimage group, and shown to our bus. A large, air conditioned conveyance. After giving those who needed it a last chance at the restrooms, we started off on the hour long drive to Jerusalem over modern highways. Looking out the windows at the traffic, the construction, the buildings in the airport environs, we could have been anywhere in the American southwest. I felt right “at home” as if I was back in southern California. And shortly, as if I were traveling through the southern Nevada desert.
Halfway to Jerusalem is a new city – Modi’in – a massive planned community of concrete and stone. Not the prettiest of cities. A realization here, confirmed when we get to Jerusalem: this is not a country of private, single-family homes. This is a country of multifamily structures: apartment blocks, high-rises, etc.
One drives from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in along a new highway which is bounded, part of the way, by concrete walls, chain link fences, and barbed wire. This is the stretch through the West Bank, the occupied Palestinian territory. Access is limited to Israeli citizens whose cars have yellow license plates; Palestinians have green license plates and cannot enter this highway; access points are barricaded. On the hills: Palestinian villages — buildings in not as good condition as the Israeli buildings in Tel Aviv or Modi’in (nor even as good as the illegal, barricaded, barbed-wired, armed-gated Jewish “settlements” one also passes in this territory); on their roofs, black water tanks because (unlike Israel proper) the occupied territory does not get regular, 24-hour water service (the illegal Jewish settlements have white water tanks on their roofs).
We arrived in Jerusalem after sundown and were ushered quickly into the Cathedral Close and the dining room at St. George’s Pilgrim Guest House. A dinner of hummus, babaganoush, chicken and rice, pita, hummus, olives, figs, all the sorts of things you would expect: delicious! Then a short meeting with Iyad Qumri, our principal guide, and then to bed — our room is a virtual suite, although we may be moved from it to another room today (our second in country) — this room is at some remove from the Cathedral gardens and, another group leaving today, the rooms overlooking the gardens will be freed up and we may be relocated to them.
So — a very new experience in a very ancient land. A sense of history and prayerfulness, mixed with modern conveniences, armed soldiers, surly public servants, and attentive hosts. Wide open desert marred by concrete barricades and barbed wire. Jesus walked these lands. He still does in the person of peoples sharing a history and separated by generations of unnecessary enmity.
Photos of our arrival are on Facebook: