In which we hike, dunk, and float

28 Aug

“Have you ever been questioned for five hours?! It’s a human rights violation!”

Our bus driver, Yair, listened calmly as the last passenger he collected complained vehemently about his encounter with Israeli security at the airport. We were leaving Jerusalem on a combination Masada, En Gedi, and Dead Sea tour.

“Five hours—just because of my name! It’s racial profiling!” railed the young man from Morocco.

I sat a few rows back wondering if this kid actually knew what a human rights violation was. Or if he knew why the Israeli security was so tight.

If he thought the four Israelis who were shot and killed by a Palestinian at a Tel Aviv cafe just a month earlier were human rights violations.

What about the countless lives saved on the Jerusalem light rail a week earlier because the same Israeli security who questioned him at the airport stopped a Palestinian man from boarding the train with a bag full of pipe bombs. Were those people’s lives worth five hours of his time?

“Well…” said Yair, “We say…if it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…it might be a duck. So we have to check it out.”*

Yair went on to explain that he had, actually, been detained by airport security (in England, of all places!) for more than five hours and was nearly sent back home. “But if they don’t question me—if they don’t search my bags, I am upset. I think, ‘These people are not doing their jobs!’”.

I shared Yair’s sentiment. On our flight out of Tel Aviv, my carry-on was selected to be hand checked. I waited in one line, then another. Security opened my backpack and ran a wand through all the pockets to detect traces of explosives. Three Irish businessmen on my flight were behind me and complained at the long wait and inconvenience. An American (also on my flight) rolled his eyes in my direction. “What a process.”

“Well…,” I said, “if it was up to me, they could hand-inspect everyone’s bags on this flight. I’d rather wait in line than not make it to Charles de Gaulle.”

The inspectors were polite and everyone in my line made their flights with time to spare.

I appreciated the security. About an hour before our New York to Tel Aviv flight landed, the pilot announced, “When we enter Israeli air space, their law requires passengers return to their seats until landing.” The flight attendants propped open the lavatory doors and you couldn’t so much as adjust your seat belt without a Delta representative hollering across the cabin, “Sir, SIR, you MUST remain in your seat, or we’ll have to turn this plane around.”**

But our Moroccan was mollified not at all by Yair’s tales of commiseration. In fact, he seemed to insinuate that extensive security questioning was the cause of attacks against Israel (because it made people angry) rather than the effect.

Mercifully, about 4:30 am, (this was a sunrise Masada tour) Yair pulled into the parking lot of a respectable mountain (only the most respectable have parking lots) and we turned our attention to climbing said mountain before the sun rose and it became too hot to ride an escalator, let alone scale a mountain.

Masada is a plateau which Herod covered with palaces, water systems, and defenses in the first century before Christ. But the fortress is best known as the Jews’ last stand against the Romans.

In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and crushed a Jewish rebellion. The last rebels, about 960 men, women, and children, fled to this mountain—Herod’s palaces long deserted–and prepared for a siege. The cliffs were 1,400 feet high, but over the course of a year, the Romans built a massive earthen ramp—a steep road straight up the mountain.

When the Romans finally breached the walls, there was a deathly silence. The rebels—all but three–had killed one another rather than be enslaved by their enemies.

Liz and I started up in the dark at a good clip, passing groups left and right. We were sure we’d have the mountaintop sunrise all to ourselves. After an hour of strenuous, sweaty (even in the dark!) climbing, we burst through the wall. We were not met with silence. There were hundreds of people already up there!

Eighty kids in matching t-shirts, soldiers in training, Orthodox Jews having services, and a handful of tourists taking sunrise selfies had beat us. We appreciated the sunrise, and  trotted back down—appreciating the sunrise less with every step. We were soaked by the time we got to the van.


Maybe they spent the night.

Maybe they spent the night.

Intense cell phone training. Probably on how to safely play Pokemon Go on a mountain.

Intense cell phone training. Probably on how to safely play Pokemon Go on a mountain.



Then it was back to politics. I overheard the Moroccan bellyaching to another bloke on our tour about Israel and its human-rights-violating airport security.

“Oh, yeah, man. I totally agree with you. It’s rubbish,” he said. I wondered why they hadn’t chosen to begin their middle eastern tour in, say, Iran, or if they could explain why Joe Vacationer relaxes by the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv instead of Syria.

En route to the next stop, En Gedi, the Moroccan and the girl sitting next to him continued to pester Yair with leading questions: “How long has your family been in this country?” “Is Israel going to invade Gaza again?”

He answered politely, though they clearly weren’t interested in anything he said. At one point, he said, “Look, the Palestinians had a chance to sign for their country at the same time as we did. And they didn’t. Because they wanted it all.”

Palestinian leaders have had the opportunity to agree to negotiations that would have given them their own state. Not just in 1948, but also more recently. I know some would argue that the terms were not favorable enough, etc. etc., but I think Yair was right. They want it all. They want Israel gone.

Rick Steves is fond of saying, “In this region, one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

But when leaders reject multiple offers of what they claim to want, and still call for and perpetuate violence against Israeli civilians, they’re not freedom fighters. They’re terrorists.

And who can blame a nation for not negotiating with terrorists?^

“I have Arab friends—friends from Jericho. We work together a long time,” said Yair. “We love each other. We want peace.” He pointed to cars in the parking lot—Israeli and Palestinian license plates side by side. “And that is what they call apartheid,” he said.

It’s easy to see the Palestinians’ frustration. I’m hopeful that the majority of them want peace and stability. But there’s always a segment of people who benefit from chaos and terror. If the majority—those who want peace—could somehow overshadow the culture of violence, there might be hope. But electing a terrorist organization as a government seems highly counterproductive.

“Don’t you think the problem is the Israeli settlements in the West Bank?” asked the Moroccan’s friend.

“Some say, ‘Stop building settlements, then the violence will end!’ But when the settlements stop, negotiations stop.” Yair answered, “The Palestinians worry about losing their territory. So they negotiate. There was violence before the settlements, there will be if we remove them.” “What is the solution?” he mused. “If a very courageous leader from Israel, and a very courageous leader from Palestine were determined to make peace, they might do it.”

“But they would have to be prepared to be killed. Because that’s what happens to all leaders who try to negotiate. Assassinated.”

When we reached En Gedi, it was a welcome relief, an oasis of springs in the Judean Desert. We hiked a short way into the nature reserve and aimed for the first waterfall we saw. After the heat of Masada and tense tour bus politics, the cool water was magnificent.


The park was nearly deserted and the rest of our group quickly bypassed our waterfall for bigger ones, higher up. We dunked our heads and soaked our blistered feet. David hid from Saul in En Gedi, and surely he must have remembered it when he wrote Psalm 107:  “He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs.”


Ibex chillin’

Animals like En Gedi! Here we have a hare.

Animals like En Gedi! Here we have a hare.

Our last stop was the Dead Sea—the lowest point on Earth with a salt concentration so high it’s impossible to drown. We bounced on top of the water like beach balls. Two men sat like statues on a bench–black from the mud—slowly baking in the sun.


Muddy men chillin’

It was truly a Dead Sea—in a body of water that size, you might expect some docks, cabins, boat traffic. But there was nothing.

The Dead Sea is gradually evaporating—there’s a plan in place and an agreement between Israel and Jordan to stop it, but scientists are scared to start. It’s such a unique ecosystem, no one knows what will happen if they start messing with it.

So for now, we tried to do our part by not splashing any water out of the sea (haha) and returning all the mud to its original location.


I’d know more about Masada, except we used the very informative pamphlet to stage this photo and it got all wet.


*A friend who lives in Turkey told me her friend (an American) recently visited Israel from Turkey. She was…wait for it…also questioned at the airport for five hours. (The delay so incensed her that she abandoned her sightseeing plans and joined Hamas. No. She answered all their questions, and went on to have a rather pleasant stay.)

**This happened. Nothing like Delta to make you feel like family. Specifically like a ten-year-old kid on a road trip with your parents.

^The idea that terrorism is not a legitimate means to an end seems difficult for some people, like these Portland university students. Ummm…scary…

I asked our Shabbat hosts, recent immigrants from America, about their political views  when they lived in the U.S. “Definitely liberal,” they said.
“Has that changed since you’ve moved to Israel?” I asked.
“Oh, no. Not at all.”
I asked if they were concerned that the left in American is moving away from supporting Israel.
“Well, we don’t think it’s necessarily the U.S. President’s job to be the biggest supporter of Israel. I mean, he doesn’t control the budget, so we think Obama has been really good for Israel. The budget comes from Congress, which is Republican, so Israel is still getting the support it needs from America.”
Liz and I looked at each other. It was like we were in an Ami Horowitz film.

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Posted by on August 28, 2016 in Uncategorized


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