28 May 2004
Jerusalem is only 44 miles from Amman, less than the distance from Denver to Colorado Springs. The natural border between Israel and Jordan, the Jordan River, is an easily fordable waterway gently flowing through a quiet, lush green plain.
It would be nice to think that one could easily walk across a quaint little footbridge to visit the Holy Land, but in reality, getting into and out of Israel is a pain.
“What are you doing in Israel? What were you doing in Jordan? At which hotel will you be staying?” So begins the questioning by the Israeli border guards. On the Jordanian frontier these are mostly spectacled young women with hair pulled back, wearing black and gray uniforms. “I came to visit the Christian holy sites,” I told them. “Which ones?” they asked, “Can you name some of them?”
Asking them not to stamp one’s passport draws a look above the glasses. The reason one should make this request is that, outside of Jordan and Egypt, no other Arab country will let a foreigner enter if they have an Israeli stamp in their passport. The Israelis know this and they even have little cards they put in your passport that they stamp instead of marking an actual page in your blue booklet. But still the woman looked up at me when I made my request. “What Arab countries do you want to visit? Why do you want to go to them?” By contrast, the Jordanians are quite warm to those both entering and leaving their jurisdiction. “Welcome to Jordan!” they say, though oddly during both entry and exit.
Once past customs and immigration, I caught a taxi from the border to Bet Shean, the nearest town in the area. From there it was a two-hour bus ride south to Jerusalem. On this particular day the bus was full of young Israeli soldiers, both male and female. All wore olive drab fatigues. All were in their late teens. All had either an American-made M-16 rifle or an M4 carbine. This makes sense, as the United States funds 100% of Israel’s military procurement budget. What was odd was to see these kids with guns listening to Britney Spears and Linkin Park on their portable CD players, and to watch them licking ice cream cones and Popsicles at a desolate desert rest stop an hour north of our destination. Military service is mandatory, so I’m sure most of them would rather be somewhere else. “Be safe,” I said to the kid next to me when we parted. “I’ll sure try,” he said with a somewhat desperate smile that left me feeling a bit sad.
Outside of Texas, Israel is perhaps the most armed place in the world. I saw soldiers everywhere—the historic sites, the bus stations, the shopping malls—packing heat. I saw young men and women in civilian clothes, perhaps part of some undercover unit, carrying assault rifles and Glocks. It was strange to see an attractive young woman in a tight-fitting tank top with a shopping bag of clothes slung over one shoulder and an MP5 over the other.
At the hotel, a uniformed man checked the trunk of the taxi for a bomb and the front door security guard checked me for the same. At the entrance to a downtown restaurant that evening, a bouncer with a goatee, tight muscle shirt, and earpiece screened me with a metal-detecting wand.
In contrast to Amman, Damascus, and Baghdad—the other Middle Eastern capitals I’ve visited—Jerusalem looks like a European city. Its majority inhabitants, with the exception of the lately-arrived Ethiopian Jews, are white. Arabs live in Jerusalem, too, but mostly in the eastern part of the city. The ones in the affluent western part are seen mostly in subservient roles such as waiters, bellman, and cab drivers. At the checkpoint separating Jerusalem from Bethlehem (inside the Palestinian National Authority), those with an Arab look are questioned, searched, and made to wait in line for very long periods of time by stern-faced soldiers wearing olive drab uniforms with the sleeves rolled up, helmets, sunglasses, and carrying assault rifles. A huge concrete wall surrounds this suburban Biblical town, rendering it effectively a ghetto. Even Christian Arabs are often denied entry into the economic hub of Jerusalem. Consequently they are unable to earn a living. As in Iraq, this type of treatment breeds resentment.
In the crowded souk (“marketplace”) in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, amidst the bootleg DVDs, metal and glass narghile pipes, and bushels of unsalted almonds and cashews, I spied a T-shirt for sale that read, “Don’t Worry America—Israel is Behind You.” The T-shirt featured a Markava tank with its gun tube oriented toward the viewer.
Late on my last night in town, I went over to the magnificent King David Hotel. Bombed in 1946 by a young Menachem Begin and his Irgun freedom fighter / terrorist associates when it was the headquarters for the British occupational authority, the hotel today is truly beautiful. Ironically, a portrait of an older, Prime Minister Begin, is on display in a showroom on the ground floor. Through the pleasantly refined lobby with its high ceiling, marble floor, and leather couches I went. A sign informed me that the dinner honoring Mort Zuckerman, the publisher of U.S. News and World Reports, would begin promptly at 8:00 p.m. Moving on, past glass doors and outside to a large terrace restaurant, I looked down on a lovely garden. Soft lights illuminated a dark green lawn, fringed by innumerable pink flowers. Palm trees and fir trees surrounded a tempting swimming pool shimmering a chlorine blue. Two flags, both clean and crisp, rippled out at equal heights in the breeze. One bore the Star of David, the other the red, white, and blue—a stirring tribute to the strong bond between our two countries.