Bahai News - Visit to the revered land of Jesus' birth
Monday, December 25, 2000
Visit to the revered land of Jesus' birth
By HENRY OWUOR
A popular joke in Israel goes: "In Tel Aviv you play, in Jerusalem you
pray and in Haifa you work".
These are Israel's three main cities. In Tel Aviv, everyone works very
hard and when night falls, the extravagance is there for all to see in
the various sleek cars and modern clubs.
Jerusalem, one of the most famous cities in the world is a giant metropolis
built on numerous hills. It is actually a very modern city with most of
its 600,000 inhabitants going about their lives peacefully as they rub
shoulders with pilgrims attracted by the various historic sites and soldiers
whose duty is to watch over the tense atmosphere that prevails as Palestinian
youths battle Israeli soldiers.
Jerusalem is a city loaded with symbolism, claimed by three main faiths
which all insist on unhindered access and Palestinians who say the city
is their capital in a conflict that has raged since the Jewish nation got
independence in 1948.
Says Mr Emmanuel Nachson, spokesman at the Israeli Foreign Ministry:
"Israel is at a crossroads, in the history of the Jewish people. The two
options are to move quickly and reach a peace agreement with Palestinians,
or embrace war. The heart of the onion is the old city of Jerusalem".
This is an issue that splits most Israelis and means any ruler can fall
depending on the mood prevailing in Jerusalem's Old City where Arabs live.
Currently, the debate is over who should occupy the post of Prime Minister
after the resignation of Mr Ehud Barak. Mr Barak's top opponent, Mr Benjamin
Netanyahu, now says he won't stand in elections due in February unless
the whole Parliament - and not just the premier's post - is contested.
The main issue is the peace process, or the need to live peacefully
with Palestinians. Says Mr Yossi Katz, a member of the Israeli parliament:
"The peace process is a fact because we share the same piece of land with
The conflict involves much more than Jerusalem. It is best epitomised
by the dispute over Temple Mount; or to Arabs, the Al-Aksa Mosque.
The current clashes were sparked off by former Israeli Defence Minister
Ariel Sharon's visit to the prayer site that Jews believe was their first
temple, built by King Solomon in 970 BC. It was destroyed in 586 BC and
rebuilt in 525 BC.
It was not until 691 AD that an Arab, Abdel Malik ibn Marwan, built
the Dome of the Rock mosque at the site. The Dome was built on top of the
Jewish temple. Muslims believe Prophet Mohamed rose to heaven from the
top of the mosque.
Currently, Israel controls the whole of Jerusalem, which it describes
as its "eternal capital". The area around the Temple Mount is so sensitive
that police handle everything with a "silk glove".
This unsettled nature of Jerusalem can be seen even in the main chamber
of the Israeli Parliament, or Knesset. Here, the city is portrayed as an
apple with a piece missing, depicting the long-running conflict that the
Jewish nation thought had ended with its victory in the Six Day War in
1967 that saw it reunify Jerusalem.
The main problem is in the southeast part of the city where there is
a very big Jewish population that is being attacked, not by residents of
the area, but by groups that Israeli authorities claim are armed by Mr
Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority.
The Jewish neighbourhood of Gilo has come under shelling from nearby
Bejallah. What one sees on TV or in pictures published in newspapers are
groups of youths hurling stones but what is not visible are gunmen who
constantly exchange fire with Israeli troops.
Israelis say Gilo has always been a Jewish area, even from biblical
times, and there is no way its residents will pull out. This is a common
statement in the area where anything can be explained by a quote from the
Though very tiny, Israel has many geographical features. It has two
seas, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. It has two deserts, the Negev
and Judea, and one major river, the Jordan, that supplies the country
with drinking water. The main language is Hebrew.
However, the one fact that places the country in world focus is its
link to Jesus Christ, the man Christians believe was the Son of God sent
to save mankind from its sins. Millions of pilgrims pour into this land
to see the various sites preserved over the years and served by a
magnificent road network.
In the Valley of Galilee for instance, a place where one can find some
of the biggest banana plantations in the world, lie many famous sites
linked to Jesus.
One such site is the Capernaum, the place next to the Sea of Galilee
where it is believed Jesus lived at the home of his faithful disciple
Simon Peter. Capernaum currently boasts a modern church on top of the
ruins of Simon Peter's home.
In this town, a copy of Jesus' famous "Sermon on the Mount" sells like
hot cakes. Such sites are scattered around the country, with Nazareth -
Jesus' hometown in the north where a modern church exists at the site where
the angel appeared to Mary, Jesus' mother - one of the main beneficiaries.
The ruins of the house of Joseph (Jesus' guardian) still exist. On top
of them stands a modern church run by Franciscan missionaries. Souvenir
shops in the town do roaring business.
But the bad news is that at this time Bethlehem, Jesus' birthplace,
is out of bounds to anyone who cares about his safety as it lies within
areas affected by the Palestinian uprising.
Haifa, the third largest city in Israel, can be said to be secular as
it boasts only Mount Carmel, which features in the Bible. The city is built
on top of the mountain and is served by an underground train that climbs
to the very top.
Haifa hosts the headquarters of the Bahai faith. It is generally a
workman's town. The most outstanding feature is the beautiful Bahai Temple
with its one-kilometre-long garden that rises to the top of the mountain.
However, apart from the religious fervour and the tension between
Palestinians and Jews, Israel is a safe place. The only reminder that it
is a security-conscious country is the many soldiers who stride along its
streets, guns at their sides.
But most of the soldiers are simply busy on their mobiles. Israel has
a rare system where soldiers can leave their bases with guns. Such troops
are highly revered and cars can be seen stopping for them to cross roads
at any spot, even if pedestrians are not allowed.
As one of the guides said, "we may appear European but we are not a
rich country". The fact, however, is that Israel is a rich country with
over $31 billion in exports by a population of just six million. Its
economic growth rate is among the highest in the world, at six per cent
in most of the 90s and into the new millennium.
Since riches and brawn go together, Israel has got so far so fast -
given that it only got independence in 1948 - due to many factors. One
of these is its special relationship with the United States of America
and the talent that many of its people have. Many had been successful
businessmen, engineers and professors, even before Germany's Adolf Hitler
started the Second World War.
Amid Hitler's massacre, Jews felt they needed to flee but had no
guarantee of entry in any country, including the United States. As such,
many had no option but to turn to the only land they knew as their
homeland. Others who were not directly affected by the Holocaust also came
to Israel from other countries.
The result is that Israel is a major cultural melting pot, with people
who lived in over 60 countries crammed together. Among them are Ethiopian
Jews, or Falashas, who however find that life isn't as rosy as they expected
in a state dominated by European and American culture, far removed from
the village life they were used to in their mountain villages in Ethiopia.
But still, most Falasha are settling in well. Many can be seen in army
and police uniforms and at various shopping malls.
©Copyright 2000, Nation Newspapers Limited
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