Travails in the Holy Land

Luke Foster, Columbia University ’15

Israel is both a real place, where real people eat and sleep and worry about their kids, and a land of ancient mythos. My ancestors haven’t been saying “Next year in Jerusalem” for centuries, but I am a believer in the hypostatic union. I ought to have the capacity to imaginatively enter into the paradox of a place both radically secular and sacred, both eternal and temporal. But encountering so intensely, beautifully, tragically real a place as Israel has a way of pushing the boundaries of the imagination.


On May 25th, 2014, in New York, I boarded an El Al flight bound for Tel Aviv and embarked on my Israel adventure with fifteen other Ivy League students. The trip was run by the American Jewish Committee and involved an amazing slew of speakers and sights. We stayed on the Tel Aviv waterfront and climbed a high-powered hedge fund’s skyscraper; we strolled an Israeli Arab art museum in the Galilee; we sat in the synagogue of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, and touched the stones that heard Jesus preach; we drove up into the Golan Heights and peered over into war-torn Syria; we heard from the chief Palestinian negotiator in Ramallah, the largest city in the West Bank; we walked the tunnels under the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and prayed at the Western Wall; we attended a liberal Shabbat dinner and sang a Zulu choral piece; we swam in the Dead Sea and plastered ourselves in the exfoliating minerals of the mud.


The trip did much to stamp an impression of a land that is astoundingly beautiful, yet full of sorrow, onto my heart. I won’t try to muster a coherent narrative arc of that week—much less can I write up a systematic articulation of my ideas on Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East—but I will note some of the strongest impressions it left me with.


I remember the surreality and frustration and hopes-raised-then-dashed of being stuck at the mercy of/in the care of a man on Tel Aviv beach after my iPhone and wallet were stolen. The most supercilious (and second) kidnapper I’ve met, he constantly called himself “Jaffar the Arab” and said to me and my tripmate, “You’re my brothers, you’re my brothers.” Though he wouldn’t let us leave him—till 4 in the morning—he took us to a local convenience store, tried to buy us cigarettes, and settled for soda instead when we said we didn’t smoke. I found myself, bizarrely, walking the streets of Jaffa, sipping Brazilian Guaraná, plotting how to escape, wondering if he was armed.


I remember the dignity and sorrow etched into the faces of the elders of Umm al-Fahm. The photo gallery commemorated the fact that, though they have lived in Israeli territory for three generations, for these Arabs whose families have dwelt in Galilee for centuries, Israeli Independence Day is still “Al-Naqba,” “The Catastrophe.”


I remember the mangled shreds of steel stacked behind a police station in Sderot, an Israeli town on the border with Gaza that has been bombarded by rockets for 14 years. A rocket launched in the Gaza strip takes 15 seconds to make an impact here—just long enough to dive to safety if you hear the warning siren and react quickly enough. But it’s not long enough if you’re a mother caring for multiple children—most of the rocket casualties have been children.


I remember walking the shadowy corridors of Yad Vashem, Jerusalem’s memorial museum to the Holocaust. It is a long tunnel through a mountainside, arranged so that you begin with an exhibit titled, “The World That Was“—portraying glimpses into Central European Jewish life before the Nazi rise to power—walk through a harrowing series of sketches of the increments of inhumanity the Nazis achieved on their way to the Final Solution, and end by stepping out, blinking, to a sunny panorama of modern Jerusalem. The museum was absorbing and heart-rending from start to finish, of course, but two moments made me cry. The one was seeing a 1930s clip of a children’s choir singing “Hatikvah,” the Zionist cry of hope for a homeland (and modern Israel’s national anthem). The other was hearing an aged survivor tell his story—as a boy in Lithuania during Operation Barbarossa, he remembered being trapped in a pit to be gunned down, along with the other men from his synagogue. His grandfather’s voice rose, clear over the screams and the shots: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.” It was the Shema, the prayer given in Deuteronomy as the fundamental fiber of Israel’s identity—a reminder of God’s eternal justice beyond all the barbarities of man.


I remember walking the hallowed halls of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built on the site of Jesus’ Crucifixion and burial, and hearing the prayers of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Egyptian Coptic priests there. They, along with their Greek Orthodox and Catholic brethren, have maintained a community of faith in the heart of the Old City there for centuries—despite the persecution their beleaguered churches have suffered at the hands of Islam since the Conquest.


Speaking of persecution: I remember sitting for half an hour chatting with an Arab Catholic shopkeeper in the Christian Quarter of the Old City on my way back from Mass at the Holy Sepulcher. I’d just bought an icon of St. George slaying the dragon from him, and we got to talking. He showed me his collection of model cars, and he reminisced sorrowfully about his neighbors who have left for Europe or America. “Everyone who could has left,” he said. “Ever since we didn’t join in the [2002] Intifada, the Muslims have targeted us as well as the Jews.” He commissioned me to tell the West to stand uncompromisingly against Islamist terror, and he asked me to remember him in prayer. I promised.


I venture to systematize a few larger-scale ideas that spending six days in the Holy Land provoked:


  • I feel an instinctive revulsion when I hear Israel compared to Apartheid South Africa. I think, most of all, it’s deeply unfair to the degradation that black South Africans suffered during the lies and cruelty and folly of the Afrikaner regime. It’s still egregiously unfair to parallel the security fence that controls crossing from certain areas of the West Bank into Jerusalem to the racist pass law system and the Bantustans. But there are a few real parallels—an internecine conflict in a small piece of land, with Western settler populations creating a security state because they feel under existential threat. In both conflicts, the end of the Cold War brought enough breathing room that peace became thinkable. But, in South Africa, when a leader arose on one side willing to make peace, a counterpart arose to meet him. We forget, sometimes, that Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize with F.W. De Klerk. In Israel, at roughly the same time as South Africa was holding historic majority rule elections, Yitzhak Rabin stood up boldly to propose peace with the Palestinians. But he was met only by the petty and bloody-minded Yasser Arafat—and one of his own people shot him down.


  • Mark Lilla, in the most memorable of my Spring 2014 classes, said repeatedly that a pressing sense of the fragility of all peaceful and decent order was fundamental to the Right’s thought. Vico, and Locke, and Burke, and many others teach that civilization itself is an inheritance not to be taken for granted. I realize more and more that, for all my aristocratic sensibilities, I do have a deeply bourgeois impulse to furiously protect peace and prosperity. Heroism is a dangerous luxury of the few. I think it’s a lesson taught me by seeing Mozambique rise from the utter devastation of Communist rule and civil war. On the whole, it’s probably a healthy sense of urgency that moves me to fight for people in need. But that bourgeois love of order can also get the Right into all sorts of trouble. An extreme version of it becomes paranoia and produces nativism and xenophobia (“Those nasty outsiders threaten our ancestors’ precious social order!”). It can also produce reactionary/elitist sentiments too, a sort of un-apostolic impulse to let the world burn while we who are in the know, in Lewis’ “Inner Ring,” insulate ourselves from the folly and suffering and poverty of the unwashed modern masses. And, in a place like Israel, it can produce an intractable unwillingness to take the leap of trusting an ancient foe.


  • Above all: It is really, really hard to believe in the Incarnation. Christmas cards make it seem rosy. The Nicene Creed makes it seem routine: I believe in Jesus Christ, “who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Reading Chesterton’s Everlasting Man two years ago made the blazing glory and upside-down wonder of the God of the Universe being born as a baby all the richer intellectually for me. But it was when I walked Jesus’ Via Dolorosa where he carried the Cross from his sentencing to Calvary, and when I looked out from the Mount of Olives over his route into Jerusalem, and when I touched the stones of the Temple that he doomed, that a bit more of the Mystery sunk in: He really did walk the dust of this Earth. He sweated, wept, and bled. The Lord of all did that for me, and for thee. Do I really believe it? Dare I?


It was from that same Mount of Olives that the prophet Ezekiel looked out over the graves, and asked “Shall these dry bones live?” I do believe, sometimes against hope, that there is hope for humanity, and hope for Israel, and that the fates of each are mysteriously intertwined.