Israel -- A Nation of Contrasts
Israel. The very word evokes passions in people the world over.

It is a place of mystery and history, a place that each year draws millions of travelers, both the faithful and curious.

Recently, it drew a group of pilgrims from The Cathedral an Evansville church who traveled with the Rev. Rick Van Hoose to visit the region and its archaeological sites and shrines. What one discovers, however, amid the crowded urban streets and dusty roads in the rural areas, is that Israel and its people are a nation of contrasts about which Americans harbor many misconceptions.

A tiny country with over 7 million people jammed into just under 8,000 square miles, you could put four and a half countries the size of Israel into the land mass of Indiana. It is densely populated; 14 of its cities have populations over 100,000.

                                                                                                                                                                   Photo by David Coker

A skyline view of the Al Aqsa Mosque (popularly known as "The Dome of the Rock" or  "Temple Mount"). It is located in the al Haram ash-Sharif ("Sacred Noble Sanctuary"), looking east at the Old City of Jerusalem from the nearby grounds of the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu. Looking east over a residential area, parts of the ancient wall surrounding the Old City date back to the Second Temple period during the life of Jesus Christ.

Israel encompasses a unique and diverse geography, extending from the largely desolate Negev desert in the south to snow-capped mountains in the far north. In between are the fertile, reclaimed desert regions of the West Bank and a coastal plain along the beaches of the Mediterranean Sea with modern cities, a huge electrical power plant and the ancient Roman ruins and amphitheater of the port city of Cesearea.

With structures, lands and traditions considered holy by three of the world's major religious faiths, Israel continues to draw an estimated 3 million tourists annually.

While many Americans traveling to Israel may believe the nation is virtually all Jewish, it is actually an urbanized, multiethnic state. Nearly 20 percent of the population is Arabic and an additional 4 percent are considered "unaffiliated" (Christians, other ethnic extractions and residents with dual citizenship).

Approximately 3 percent of the population are Arab Christians such as our tour guide, Jerusalem resident Iyad Comre. That percentage has decreased slightly in recent years with the migration of citizens uncomfortable with the policies and actions of Islamic Arabs and the Palestinian leadership that control portions of the occupied territories in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israel's ethnic minority citizens are allowed to vote in popular elections. While the system of government in the primarily Jewish state can be described as a form of democratic socialism, since 1996 the prime minister has been elected by popular vote and not chosen through the creation of parliamentary coalitions among factions of the conservative Likud and liberal Labor parties, along with other smaller religious parties.

Due to the abbreviated and sensationalized headline news we receive from the Middle East, most Americans probably have the impression that Israel operates much like an armed camp to protect its citizens from suicide bombers and rocket attacks launched from the occupied territories.

However, in all of our travels, one is amazed at how daily life goes on much as it would in nearby European countries. In fact, we saw not one tank, not one Humvee with a mounted machine gun, nor any military jet flying overhead during our tour. At one point we did see a military helicopter landing at an air base.

There were armed guards in the blockhouses at security checkpoints, a 27-foot wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem to the North and barbed wire fences along the borders. But as our tour bus passed from Israel to the occupied territories, little more than a wink and a nod were exchanged between our bus driver and the security personnel. The face of our driver must have been familiar to them the bus makes this trek weekly during tourist season.

Randy Johnson and his wife Sheryl, veteran travelers who have been on similar tours, said this was much different from what they had experienced before. They claimed that as recently as three years ago, security guards would actually board the tour bus, check each person's passport and inspect the luggage compartment for potential contraband or explosives.

The only other conspicuous military display came later when we were in the Jewish quarter inside the wall of the Old City in Jerusalem. On several occasions, young men and women recruits of the Israeli Defense Force could be seen walking in single or double file with their loaded assault weapons slung over their shoulders.

Elsewhere, these young recruits could be seen relaxing in the shade of the few trees in the narrow passageways of the Old City, eating pizza and acting amused at all the attention they were receiving from tourists.

When briefly visiting the shopping areas of Joppa and Ben Yehuda streets of bustling downtown Jerusalem, a police car would occasionally be seen but again, the presence of security personnel was little different from what one would find in a typical American community.

Before leaving for the tour, I looked at several old Bibles and Biblical history books to get a sense of the terrain. I was left with the impression that Israel, outside of the major cities, was little more than barren rock cliffs dotted with caves and occasional tree or ground cover.

How pleasantly surprised we were to see thousands of hectares of farmland in both the northern mountain regions of Galilee and along the main highway that bisects the Jordan River valley.

At one point on the road to Jericho a few miles Northwest of Jerusalem, Rev. Van Hoose said that when he traveled these roads as a younger man, all of the areas surrounding them were desolate desert. During his lifetime, farmers have drilled wells for agricultural irrigation, sparking the transformation of the region into what is now productive farmland.

We saw enormous banana and date palm plantations along both sides of the highway, with smaller plots of vegetable row crops being irrigated in lower parts of the river basin.

We also visited the ancient ruins at Megiddo, the capital city of the north that dates back some 7,000 years and has been destroyed and rebuilt 26 times. There we found a huge melon farm in a valley adjacent to where mountaintop excavations put out a putrid odor. Being the end of the growing season, farmers could be seen crushing old melons in the field they will be turned into the ground before the next growing season. From the top of the mountain, we also saw a small herd of short-horned cattle grazing without fences in a nearby field the only livestock we saw anywhere in the north.

In other instances particularly on the Mount of Olives we saw olive trees, some of which date back over 2,000 years to the time of Christ. It was no surprise that olives were served at practically every meal in the hotel dining rooms.

Throughout our tour, there was little evidence of the global economic recession. While it may be a fact that tourists receive a rather sanitized, truncated view of what life is actually like throughout Israel, with the exception of Jericho a depressing hamlet in the southern reaches of the West Bank virtually everywhere we went, the hotels were full of visitors. The restaurants were busy, the shopping areas were filled with tourists every night and the holy shrines, mosques, churches and archaeological sites were surrounded by dozens of buses carrying tourists from all over the world.

From what we saw, it is evident that despite reports of terrorist bombings, rocket attacks and the potential for a nuclear-armed Iran, Israel in recent years is no worse for the wear and remains a young and hopeful place.

Just as it served as a crossroads of ancient trade routes from Egypt to Mesopotamia to distant lands across the Mediterranean in Biblical antiquity, in recent years it has emerged as perhaps the pre-eminent tourist Mecca throughout the Middle East.

David Coker of Evansville is a freelance writer