As I planned this trip to Israel, some well-meaning acquaintances, hearing of my plans and knowing little else about me, asked: “Are you Jewish?”
This is an interesting question in terms of what it implies about who is likely to be interested in visiting Israel and who is not. So here’s the real question: Do you have to be Jewish to appreciate Israel?
The answer to this question is: No, of course not. And I have come up with my top three reasons why. They aren’t in order and don’t work well together thematically, but here they are:
1) Connect with many centuries of human history
There is so much that is here in Israel – from the Western Wall to the Dome of the Rock to the Church of the Nativity to the (Roman ruins) -- that is intimately connected not just to the history (meaning the events and the chronology) but the ideas that have shaped humanity, or more specifically that have shaped all of the ideas and history that we identify as Western. This region has either given birth to or played a major role in shaping all three of the major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). And because of that alone, Israel, as no other part of the world, has changed the course of human history.
More than perhaps any other location on earth, Israel (and I mean not just Jerusalem, though it is especially true of Jerusalem) is a place to come to connect with the history, the people, the ideas, and the perspectives that have shaped the way each of us who lives today thinks, lives our lives, makes our own tiny contribution to human history. To understand the shape of the West, I think that we all should understand a bit about Abraham, a bit about Moses, a bit about Christ, a bit about Mohammed, and a bit about the civilizations that have come before and since. I can’t think of a better place to do that.
My guess is that many people who visit Israel, and some people who call it home, visit only the sites that are connected with their own religion. (As I planned this trip, one travel agent asked me, “Do you want to visit the Jewish sites or the Christian sites?” Umm… do I have to choose one or the other? And aren’t we missing something here, like maybe Islam? It's kinda been in the news lately...)
Not to get all Baha’i a bout it, but isn’t it more interesting to use the opportunity of a stay in Israel or a visit to Jerusalem to think about each of the three major religions? To consider their similarities and differences, their separate and joint contributions (both good and bad) and the ways in which their messages and missions have been interpreted and misinterpreted through the millennia? Even if you only subscribe to the beliefs of one religion, it seems to be possible and desirable to appreciate the contributions of the others.
2) It is just plain beautiful here
OK, so say you don’t really care about Moses, David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, Jesus or Mohammed. You don’t know the difference between the First Temple and the Second Coming. Walking the Stations of the Cross has no meaning to you unless the bus stops there. And you are still wondering who this Al Aksa guy is and why everyone is talking about him. You should come to Israel anyhow, because it is really beautiful here. Let’s start with its miles of coast along the Mediterranean. As I write this it is early morning. I am sitting on a cliff about 200 feet above some of the clearest blue water and softest sand I have ever encountered. A swimmer floats peacefully in the sea, letting its gentle waves push him back to shore to start his day. And all up and down the coast of Israel, people are doing the same. (In this the Israeli coast reminds me of southern California, plus clearer, more Caribbean-like water and minus the feeling that you are the only person on the beach who does not have the numbers of your colorist, Pilates trainer, and more than one plastic surgeon on speed dial.)
Add to the beaches the lonely beauty of the Negev desert, the verdant Galilee and Golan, and the insane geology of the Dead Sea (which along with Old Faithful and Devil’s Rock persuade me that Mother Nature does in fact have a sense of humor). Whether your thing is ecotourism and getting out in the wild to live in it or driving by it all from the comfort of your air conditioned motor coach, I just can’t imagine that you would not find much of Israel breathtaking.
This starting to sound like a cheesy, politically-incorrect tourism slogan -- Israel: It’s not just for Jews anymore -- so let’s move on.
3) The Holocaust
Finally (and somewhat incongruously, given the tone of the rest of this entry) don’t we all have an interest in knowing that Israel, or a place like it, exists? Does one need to possess more than a thimbleful of knowledge about the Holocaust – not to mention all of the persecutions that have taken place over the centuries -- to be glad that there is a place where Jews are guaranteed to be able to live free? Wouldn’t the world be a better place if there were similar guarantees to other groups such as Armenians and Tutsis that have been victims of genocide?
If the course of human history has taught us anything, it is that human beings will occasionally, even frequently, commit unspeakable acts of violence and horror against one another. Witness nations will stand by and find reasons to remain uninvolved, or to limit their involvement. If this is true, then having places that are firmly committed to the freedom of persecuted groups and to fostering their well-being and cultures may be the only means of providing true safety.
So I’ll end where I began: Can only Jews appreciate Israel? No, of course not.