Wednesday, June 18, 2014

East Jerusalem Tour

On Monday we toured East Jerusalem and visited the “City of David”. This area has been fought over for centuries. Who lived their first? Who should live there now? Whose land is it? Did King David even exist? These questions have created vicious turmoil between the Palestinians and the Israelis since the “war of independence” or “al-Nakba.” The only difference is that the Israelis emerged with a land to call their own and the Palestinians over sixty years later are still striving for that same goal.

We received a tour of East Jerusalm from the Ir Amim organization. Prior to this tour, I had not seen or visited any Palestinian towns or neighborhoods and I had not seen the barrier firsthand. We drove around and outside my window I saw trash, broken roads, no sidewalks, etc. Who chooses to live this way? The Palestinians in East Jerusalem are either Israelis citizens or residents of Israel. Regardless of their status, they should be provided with the same benefits from the government as those living in West Jerusalem. If the Israelis government does not want the responsibility to provide for their citizens or residents than they should relinquish the territories to a government that will provide the necessities for survival.

Below I attached a picture of the barrier and graffiti on the barrier. The moment I saw the barrier the first question that came to mind was, "Who would want to live next to this? A constant reminder of occupation"

Saturday, June 14, 2014


The other day we visited the holocaust museum here in Jerusalem. Having grown up in Europe, where, from an early age kids are taught about it, I have always been very sensitive to the topic. This museum drove home a few shameful facts:

1. Anti Semitism is very old, and widespread
2. The Nazis modernized antisemitism, and engineered a "final solution" to eliminate jews from the face of the Earth
3. The horrors of the holocaust were experienced by very large parts of the Jewish people. The depth of the trauma is unimaginable
4. After WWII when Jews tried to go back to their homes, or migrate to new places they were denied asylum, help and were persecuted

Even though I disagree with several policies put in place by the state of Israel in regards to its security and foreign policy, I cannot deny the fact that the Jewish people needs a country of its own, one that can provide it with all the protection only a state can afford its people. Hopefully the Palestinians people can achieve that same hope soon.

Jerusalem United or Divided?

Some of the most important discussions in our class have centered around the subject of Jerusalem. Today the city remains divided along ethnic, religious, cultural, national, and class lines even though to the average tourist the city remains open to all. Through conversations with representatives of Ir Amin and Terrestrial Jerusalem our class was exposed to the realities of oppression and seperation that exist in a city where territory remains under occupation in the eyes of the international community as well as its Palestinian residents. Through site visits and an in class lecture we were exposed to the realities of the city as well as different historical perspectives of Jerusalem. In addition we visited neighborhoods recognized as settlements, in relation to international law, and discussed the living conditions and disparities between Israeli and Palestinian neighborhoods of the city. Facing the stark realities of the city today, our group discussed the potential future of the city in which its residents could live a more fulfilling, peaceful, and potentially egalitarian life free from oppression and violence. 

End of Trip Reflections

Today is already the last day of our trip to Israel! I guess it is true that time really does fly by when you're having fun. Reflecting on our time here, I can honestly say that my eyes have been opened. Though I have a much better understanding of Israel and the conflict with Palestine, I am no closer to having a solution. I think this trip has been one of the most enlightening experiences I have had. We've really learned about a plethora of issues, ranging from water governance to U.S. foreign policy to Druze and Bedouin hospitality (and delicious food). I feel like Dr. Ziv did a great job planning a well-rounded, multi-perspective curriculum.

A few of the more recent activities we have had that really stood out to me include talking with Gabe, an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) soldier. This was a spur-of-the-moment meeting that Dr. Ziv planned, and it turned out to be one of my favorites. Gabe is an American Jew who did "Aliyah" (immigration to Israel) and decided to join the IDF after graduating from college in 2012. I was so fascinated by his choice to join the IDF instead of the U.S. military. He justified this choice by describing how Israel needs more help and that by growing up in a Jewish household he feels like his values align well with those engrained in Israel. One thing that I found interesting about our discussion with Gabe was that he wasn't very political and therefore you could have a real, unbiased conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In addition, I asked him how women play a role in the IDF and if they are ever subject to sexism. Since Israel has mandatory military service, which includes women, I wondered if this made any difference. It was fascinating to hear his first-hand experience and realize that he's just a normal, 23-year old American guy who felt very passionately about Israel.

A fun thing that a group of us did last week during our free time was visit the Notre Dame Jerusalem Center (at Dr. Ziv's recommendation). This ritzy church/hotel is a rooftop restaurant just outside the Old City with one of the most beautiful views that I have seen. We ordered some wine and cheese (which is one of their specialties) and watched the sun go down over Jerusalem. It was one of those moments where you just soak everything in, and I'd completely recommend this place for any future Israel trip-goers. Here are some pictures of the breathtaking views and delicious food:

So here's to a great trip with great people who became new friends. I definitely won't forget everything I saw and learned here!

Golan Heights

As part of our trip to the north of Israel, we travelled to the Golan Heights, Israel's border with Syria. Despite the controversial status of the Golan Heights, which was taken by Israel during the war in 1967,  it's clear that negotiations can't really take place right now because of the civil war that is still raging in Syria. While we were there I heard what could very likely have been some shelling or other type of explosion in the distance and also what sounded like small arms fire. The picture above shows the border between Israel and Syria, and just about 35 miles beyond, past the mountains in the distance, lies Damascus. Unfortunately for Syrian civilians the war there shows no signs of ceasing any time soon, and Israel must keep an ever vigilant eye on the border in order to maintain its own security. The situation is very real for Israel, because of possible spillover of violence. And just a few weeks ago, the very same area from which I took this picture was actually hit by some shells from Syria. The Golan Heights are truly beautiful, but the air is tense with the possibility of conflict.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Politicians and the Knesset

Yesterday, our group toured the Knesset and met with two current politicians in the Knesset. The building itself was beautiful - mosaics and paintings filled the walls, and numerous windows let in ample amounts of sunlight.

The first politician we met with, Boaz Toporovsky, is a self-assured member of the centrist Yesh Atid party. Though he is the youngest male member of the Knesset, he certainly picked up on all the traits of a typical politician quickly. With an easy smile, a confident strut, and a jealousy-inspiring capability of circling around questions without giving any controversial answers, he is on his way to success in the political world.

The second member of the Knesset, Sheik Ibrahim Sarsour, is the first non-Zionist speaker we have had so far (to my knowledge.) As a non-Zionist, he believes Israel has no right to any of the land of Israel and that the entire land should belong to the Palestinians. However, his political party, Ra'am-Ta'al, has generously decided to forfeit 75% of what they believe to be Palestinian land in the hope that Israel will allow the rest to be a Palestinian state.

My commentary may sound too harsh, but it was frustrating to hear both sides claim emphatically that their only goal was peace. That is all we've heard from everyone so far - Israel has a right to this whole land, but all I want is peace! Palestine has a right to this whole land, but all I want is peace! Israel is willing to compromise, but Palestine won't because they don't want peace. Palestine will compromise, but Israel won't because they don't want peace. All these conflicting messages have lead me to one conclusion - everyone claims to want peace, but no one is willing to sacrifice for peace. Everyone believes their cause is higher than anyone else's, and therefore is capable of deluding themselves to believe that they cannot be blamed for any of the conflict.

Despite this frustrating realization, the trip to the Knesset was fascinating and enlightening. We even got to see Netanyahu walk by us as we were walking through! He waved, but the majority of us simply gaped in shock at his sudden appearance.
Outside the Knesset Building

Listening in on a vote

Tapestry inside the Knesset

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Day of Walls

Monday was the day of walls. In the morning we viewed the wall separating East Jerusalem from the West Bank. The concrete walls are the physical component of Israel’s security “barrier” which also includes electronic surveillance, intelligence gathering, and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. In the afternoon we walked the ramparts of the 16th century CE walls surrounding the old city. Next we went underground to view the excavated retaining walls and water systems from 8th century BCE. What struck me at the end of the day is that we viewed security systems spanning nearly three millennium - and tall walls are still in use. Nearly every aspect of human society has evolved over the 2700 years of history we saw on Monday, however some things remain unchanged.

Hezekiah's Tunnel to secure the water source to Jerusalem - 8th Century BCE

The Old City Walls - 16th Century CE

The wall separating East Jerusalem and the West Bank - Construction in Progress

Public Service Announcement

One of the most alarming situations one can encounter, in Israel, involves run-ins with a little known indigenous population.  You see them patrolling the market places, scurrying through school yards, running after buses, and in laundry-room sinks.  Of course, this is what it is like encountering a member of the population of feral cats.  These felines are the squirrels of Israel.  Cats are everywhere in this country; an old cat lady’s dream world!

There are feeding stations in parks where cats can go for food and water.  They lounge under benches and lurk in the bushes.  You can also see them playing around and frolicking in general.  Of course, human interaction is inevitable.   These cats are no strangers to strange people.  They pounce at the opportunity to beg for food from humans.  They dart out in front of you while you are walking across a busy street.  Feral cats are a daily occurrence in the land of milk and honey and cats...

Tour guides will tell you not to pet the animals.  After all, they are wild.  As they say in America: “don’t feed the squirrels.”  I am much more inclined to feed a dog than a cat.  Yet I have found myself confronted by a very loud, meowing cat that demanded I give it a french fry, in exchange for safe passage out from a food vendors shop.  But that was fairly tame.  I have almost been scratched by a few that I didn’t notice were under a bench.

The most alarming occurrence for me was one cat that jumped up next to me while I was at an laundry facility, and the door is always open, so all the cats run in there to be in a warm place at night.  Well, this cat jumped on the couch and started meowing, then I looked at it, and it put its head on my arm.  I should have stopped there, but I petted it.  And at that point the cat crawled onto arm and then stretched out so it could put its paws on my chest.  Finally it decided to take a cat nap on my lap…and I took a pic before it fell asleep.  

Northern Israel Trip - Druze Lunch and Mount Arbel Hike

This last weekend we toured North Israel to see a different part of the country and to also learn more about other minority groups in Israel.  Following a day in the Negev Desert learning about the Bedouin population’s culture, we had a three-day trip to multiple sites in the north. 

We learned about the Druze culture and enjoyed a lunch of traditional foods.  Historically most closely related to Islam, throughout history Druze believers have blended into varying religions and societies in hopes of avoiding religious persecution.  There are multiple Druze communities in Israel and groups are found in many places around the world.  Divided into secular and religious, the secrets of the religion’s beliefs are known only to those who are the religious (more devout leaders in the religion).  

Traditional Druze Hospitality Lunch
Today,  multiple units of Druze currently serve in the Israeli army.  Druze communities located in the Golan Heights cross the border and trade on a regular basis within Syria.  Some of these groups still identify with the Syrian government, as before the 1967 Six Day War this area fell under Syrian control.  Many Druze communities within Syria fight alongside the Assad regime instead of the rebel forces, as Druze historically are usually very loyal to the government’s they live under. 

Israel - Syrian Border (Golan Heights)
Farmland along the border

During our trip to Northern Israel we also hiked down the side of Mount Arbel.  Below is a fortress from the time of King Herod built into the side of the cliff.  It served as protection for the Jewish community who resisted his rule in the area.  Focused on fighting those hiding in the fortress, King Herod devised a pulley system that served as an elevator to lower soldiers in baskets to breach the fortress walls.

View from the hike

Looking up at the fortress

Fortress in the cliff

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Our First Day in Northern Israel

            Today was my favorite day in Israel so far – this even in spite of the long drive north and the motion headaches I get from driving! We began by touring the old town of Acre, or Akko to the Israelis. One of the two port cities in Israel during the first century, Acre was built along the edges of the Mediterranean in northern Israel. Though the city is still alive and inhabited today, unlike Jaffa, an ancient palace of the crusaders remains meters below the surface. Though the top levels of the palace were destroyed long ago, the basement level was forgotten and built upon. Therefore, when archaeologists discovered the tunnels that wind between these underground rooms, the ancient basement was almost completely intact.
Outside of the Underground City

Aside from its rich history from the time of the Templars and Crusaders, Acre also contains a bustling market place selling things from fresh octopus to honey-soaked donut holes. Humus Said, one of the debated locations for “Best Humus in Israel,” is located within the market.

Octopus at the Market

After enjoying a walk along the walls of the city, we traveled to Rosh Hanikra, a cave-like formation along the Lebanese border. The area was formed by the acid that is created when water meets limestone. When this acid drips between the limestone it creates vertical cracks. As the ocean exudes the same force, only from the side, tunnel-like formations are formed. Though a tunnel was built in this area for a train to travel between Israel and Lebanon, it was destroyed when Israel became a state in the “Night of the Bridges” operation.
Rosh Hanikra

Rosh Hanikra

Finally, we made our way to our hotel, located in Nahariya. With a coarse sand beach only a few blocks away, a gorgeous backyard, and even a living room area with a chess set and bookshelf, it is the nicest hotel I have ever been in. After enjoying some time on the beach, I decided to turn in early to write this blog. My day was made even better as, when I was almost back to the hotel, a tiny kitten popped out of the bushes at attempted to play with me. It followed me all the way back to the hotel, and I had a hard time getting it to stay out doors while I went in.

Beach time at Nahariya

Our hotel's backyard


So far, northern Israel is perfect.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Jerusalem: the Old City tour

It was day six of our amazing journey through Israel, when we explored the Old City of Jerusalem. The tour began on Temple Mount where we learned about the two ancient temples that have since been destroyed, along with the recent Dome of the Rock that resides on top of the mount. 

Dome of the Rock

When we first arrived on Temple Mount, Amir discussed the significance of the courtyard that now holds a beret of broken Corinthian columns. This area had special significance to Christianity since this was where Jesus entered into Jerusalem for the first time. He was obviously outraged at the behavior being exhibited in the holy city that he pushed over the “sinners” tables in disgust. Just one of many religious stories that took place on the Temple Mount. Over the years this location has become sacred to all of the monotheistic religions. The Muslims are now in control of this area and I must say they take excellent care in preserving this holy site. It remains a place of worship to many Muslims living in and around Jerusalem, along with many Muslims from all over the world, travelling to this scared spot. There was a sense of peace and social cohesion throughout. After experiencing such a magnificent site, I expected all the other holy sites throughout the Old City to be on par.

As we walked the Via Dolorosa and observed the fourteen Stations of the Cross on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, I expected to be overwhelmed with emotion due to my Catholic upbringing. 

Instead, I was gravely disappointed at the chaotic atmosphere of the street and church. I expected the church to be more sacred, but instead there were hundreds of people walking around, pushing to get to the different areas, virtually mayhem. The direct opposite of what I wanted to see in the holiest spot for Christians. After studying and living in Rome which was surrounded by grand Cathedrals, I guess I just expected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be equal if not more prestigious than Saint Peters Cathedral. 
This is the site of the crucifixion?

The location of the crucifixion and the burial site of Jesus are two pivotal moments in Christianity, it is just a shame at how it is being displayed. All in all, I am not a Catholic because of the preservation of churches. Regardless of how disappointed I was at the Christian sites in the Old City, it is important to see and experience all the religions and understand the differences and similarities amongst Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in order to create and increase religious tolerance. Ignorance derives from a lack of education. 

Day 8

Day 8

Today we toured a Bedouin museum, had a hospitality lunch, and bought some really cool woven fabrics in the Negev then hiked in the mountains near Mount Hertzel.  It was really cool, the trail was along an ancient farming terrace and there was still stuff growing like olive trees, dates, figs, berry trees, mustard seed, and the type of cactus you can eat in large quantity or turn into liquor.  We also got to go into an ancient cave that was dug out to provide water for the lower tiers of farming.  Construction was at least 1,000 years ago.  The idea was to excavate a cave deep enough into the hillside so that water seeping through the ground could get collected and funneled into a holding pool.  This was at the entrance which had a dug-in cistern.  It looked like construction techniques similar to the walls at the temple mount in Jerusalem, with stones built into the face of the cave/hillside, steps leading down into the water so you could fill up water even in the dry season, and created a retention area so large that you could stack multiple pick-up trucks in the cistern.  It wasn't allowed to walk into it today, but was very intriguing to see.  

The engineering concept here is gravity.  Each terrace was built onto the hillside by means of an ancient retention wall.  This created a stable foundation for soil to be placed behind the wall, against the hill, and leveled for farming. These tiers of walls were also built at the cave entrances where the cisterns were.  Once the pool at the mouth of the cave was filled with water, they opened a gate and drained it to the lower levels of the terrace.  It would pour onto the crops at one level and excess water would flow into irrigation channels cut into the terrace walls.  Each was about 4 inches wide.  The external irrigation had a smooth, shallow rounding to it.  The main viaduct out of the cave had a very rectangular look.  There were small slits inside of this rectangle to allow surrounding water to be funneled out of the cave.  It was an amazing feat of ancient engineering.  The terrace farming had ceased in the 1940’s, so the water doesn’t really get used today for farming, but it all still worked; as evident by our group pouring water into the channels and it flowing to lower levels. 

The best part was being able to conceptualize the whole system in relatively quick fashion with easy use of the imagination.  There were these roots coming in from the upper levels into the ceiling of the cave in search of water.  This created cracks for rain water to flow too.  The ancient engineers came into the cave and expanded it, allowing for more water to be brought into the cave.  The water flowed over these rocks and into a viaduct cut into the mouth of the cave.  This was about 3 feet wide and 5 feet tall with that rectangular channel in the center.  This poured out the mouth of the cave into a cistern built into one of the retention walls.  This created water on demand for farmers using the lower levels of the terrace.  And you instantaneously understood all of this by standing in the cave and seeing the water dripping and flowing into the channel.