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Navigating busy, growing Israel

By John Dunbar

Editor’s Note: John Dunbar of Oxford is exploring Israel with a group of about 40 Episcopalians from Austin, Texas and Mississippi. His wife, Marty, is also on the trip.

ISRAEL —The Sea of Galilee, below sea level, is surrounded by hills, many with meadows of mustard this time of year, and fields of stone.

Go over a hill, to the next valley, and you might find a substantially different temperature and humidity zone, with a different soil. Or, you might drive uphill thru a pine forest, crest, and drive down into a desert.

Israeli vintners cultivate cabernet in the Golan Heights, land seized from Syria during the Six-Day War. Around the Sea of Galilee farmers grow bananas in irrigated, moca-brown soil from which the stones have been bulldozed and piled. Near Jerusalem they grow cherries and 20 miles away near the Dead Sea farmers grow mangoes.

For perspective, on our side of the world, we grow cherries in Montana and bananas and mangoes in Central America

Our Israeli guide reminded us that Lake Michigan is larger than the combined area of two Israels.

We drove to the Mount of Beatitudes, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. On the way, we passed an early kibbutz.

An old Jordanian tank was parked beside the highway there, a trophy from the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab nations.  According to our guide, when the 1948 war began, Israel had no organized military and few weapons. Its citizens saw no chance of defeating the Arabs and continuing as an independent nation.

Our Israeli guide believes his existence is a miracle; that his people over the ages have survived certain annihilation repeatedly.

Many of the Christian sites we visit around the Sea of Galilee and elsewhere in Israel have been preserved by the Catholic Church, and typically the traditional location of the Biblical event has been preserved, but not the original conditions.    

For example, at the Mount of Beatitudes, there was a paved lot where many buses were parked, next to a modern Catholic Church. The Church has balconies to overlook the Sea. Franciscans who live there in a monastery manage the grounds.

Crowds of Christian pilgrims strolled the grounds and stopped for a cappuccino. The thick lawns are mowed and carefully hedged. The grounds are landscaped with lemon trees, cedars and grand palms on which green parrots perched. There is an elegant Italianate residence uphill from the Church.

We were told the Church had been built in the 1930’s with money from Mussolini, who had delusions of resurrecting the grandeur of the Roman Empire.

According to our guide, the Catholic Church is the largest private landowner in Israel. There is recurring disagreement, between the Church and some in the Israeli government, over the tax-exempt status of the Church’s numerous properties, yet the Church charges thousands of visitors each year for admission to its holy sites.   

Next we traveled to Nazareth. On the way, we passed the densely populated and traveled area between the Sea of Galilee and Nazareth. Hillsides are covered with apartments. Traffic jammed for miles on four-lined highways, and industrial, office and retail sites are numerous. A nearby Israeli airbase is west of Nazareth.

According to our guide, the population of Israel has increased 10-fold since the nation was founded in 1948, from 800,000 to 8,000,000 today. It is running out of land north of the Negev desert, and even portions of minefields in the Golan have been cleared for small settlements.    

Nazareth is the location of the Basilica of the Annunciation, another Catholic church. Christians believe the Basilica is built on the site of Mary’s home, that in Nazareth the angel Gabriel told Mary she would be the mother of the Messiah and that Nazareth was a childhood home of Jesus.

The Basilica is the most recent Christian church at this site. It was dedicated in 1969. There was at least one Byzantine Christian church, by the 7th Century AD. The Crusaders in the early 12th expanded it.  An earthquake destroyed that expanded church in 1170. Moslem control of the area limited Christian access to and reconstruction of the site for centuries thereafter.

Many Biblical sites in Israel have been destroyed or damaged by earthquakes.  Archeological excavations of the buried past continue at sites we visited, such as Caesarea Philippi, now called Banias, Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and Old Jerusalem.

Nazareth has not only the Basilica and its Christian importance.  It also is one of the largest Arab communities in Israel.

At the end of our visit to the Basilica, the singing of the Moslem call to worship began near us in Arabic over a public address system. The call is known as the “adhan.”  The Sunni adhan translated into English is:

Allah is the greatest

I attest that there is no god but Allah

I attest that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah

Come to prayer

Come to salvation

Allah is the greatest

There is no god but Allah

As we stood outside the Basilica, a pair of F-16 fighter jets streaked by, out flying the screeching roar of their engines above, while the amplified singing of the adhan continued nearby below.

John Dunbar is an attorney in Oxford with Dunbar.