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Ancient Cities; Modern Ruins


© St. Petersburg Times

When we first announced our plans for a two-week trip to Israel, friends' reactions ranged from "With your kids?" to "We'll be praying for you and your safe return!"

A week before we left, our 21-month-old son Elijah broke his right arm and came down with a stomach virus. Simone, our 6-year-old daughter, got strep throat three days before departure. A day later, I caught Elijah's virus. I began to wonder if all this constituted an omen.

Maybe it would be better to wait for a time when hostilities between Arabs and Israelis had lessened. Our connections in Israel, however, told us otherwise. And having lived there ourselves 20 years ago, we were acutely aware of the vast difference between perceived terrorism and actual occurrences.

Packing stomach remedies, antibiotics and a small blow dryer (in case the arm cast got wet), off we went. Airport security was tight; agents for our Delta flight to Rome and our Alitalia connection to Israel repeatedly questioned us regarding our luggage and the purpose of our visit, and there were searches of carry-on baggage. When we landed at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, passengers were asked not to photograph the airport, and armed military personnel were present.

Then the visit began and we were so steeped in Israel's culture, history and natural beauty, security issues became irrelevant. Also, two days into the trip the stomach afflictions had subsided, Simone's throat was fine, and Elijah had quit pleading "Take off! Take off!" every night as he looked at his cast.

Possession of Jerusalem, the so-called City of Gold, is at the heart of the Israel crisis. And yet the city is so unusual, so absorbing and inviting, that any political dilemmas require the typical tourist to actually stop to think about them.

Only once did a reminder of security issues surface. We were approaching the Western Wall of the Second Temple, the most holy location for Jews, and an Israeli military guard asked us if we had any "ammunition." We smiled, said no, and were waved through a metal detector.

The municipality -- divided into the modern section and the walled-in, biblical city -- boasts more than a dozen renowned museums and is the spiritual center for Jews, Christians and Moslems. From the Biblical Zoo to the Garden of Gethsemane to the L.A. Mayer Museum of Islamic Art, the city is so crammed with sights and shopping that we found that even after seven days, we could have used another week.

Yet the sights in East Jerusalem, and the Arab market inthe old city of Jerusalem, appeared to be empty of other tourists.

From the heart of the new city we drove our rental car around the circumference of Jerusalem for picture-postcard views. This route took us through several small Arab towns and through East Jerusalem. We did not sense any dangers or hostility.

The contrary was true. Atop the Mount of Olives we met an elderly Arab named Ahmed and his family. As my daughter and I rode his camel for 10 shekels (about $3), I remembered an almost identical scene on this hillside exactly 20 years before. As I stared into Ahmed's sincere and familiar brown eyes, it seemed, for a moment, that I might have actually met him here in the late 1970s.

One thing, however, had changed. Twenty years ago I stood on that hilltop with hundreds of other tourists. This time my family was alone. We stood there for 30 minutes, and no one else came.

It was a similar experience when we entered the Jaffe Gate into Jerusalem's Old City. We had stood in that spot two decades before, unable to see through the throngs of tourists, donkey carts and vendors that jammed the marketplace. Now, down that archway leading into the souk (market), all was quiet. Few tourists passed.

We couldn't help but wonder if the state-of-siege illusion was really affecting travelers' decisions regarding where to go in the country -- much less visit Israel in the first place.

Tourism from the United States is certainly down, from about 500,000 people in 1995 to 460,000 last year, according to Yehuda Shen, Israel's deputy commissioner of tourism for the United States.

The beginning of 1997 has also been disappointing, probably resulting from a series of terrorist bombings in Tel Aviv that, since February 1996, have killed 66 persons. Another 15 persons wre killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem in late July. However, as is usually the case, the terrorists in that instance struck in a place that tourists are unlikely to visit, a marketplace.

But, speaking from his office in New York earlier this year, Shen maintained that Western media have exaggerated the uncertainty over Israel's new government and terrorism operations.

"Peace is inevitable in Israel," Shen said. "But it won't happen overnight."

By 1998, he predicted, Israel's only tourism problem will be overbooking.

That certainly wasn't a problem for us. Leaving Jerusalem we headed south, driving many miles through the West Bank. Granted, we did not stop at Jericho, Bethlehem or Hebron -- cities that do pose greater security risks, historically the sites of riots.

Instead, we proceeded, with ears popping, to the Dead Sea -- about 1,300 feet below sea level. The lunar-like landscape is breathtaking, and my only thoughts while floating in the world's saltiest body of water concerned the extraordinary beauty of the region.

When I looked east, to the mountains of Jordan, I contemplated their serene radiance. In this region we also toured the Ein Gedi Nature Preserve, the Ahava Factory (producing hair and skin preparations constituted from Dead Sea water and minerals extracted from Dead Sea mud), and spent hours at the archaeological wonder, Massada.

Now busy with tourists, the mountaintop settlement of Massada is the site of a mass-suicide by about 1,000 Jewish inhabitants, almost 2,000 years ago . They chose to kill themselves rather than be raped and murdered by oncoming Romans.

We continued north, along Hwy. 90 as it follows Israel's border with Jordan. Triple rows of barbed wire were strung within just feet of the highway, at some points. The scene induced some melancholy in me, but not fear.

Our next stop was Kibbutz Kinneret, an 80-year-old collective farm (the second-oldest in the country) at the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee. We had lived here for a year, two decades before, working in exchange for the experience of communal life.

An overnight stay on a kibbutz (kee-BOOTZ) is a must on any Israel itinerary. Many have guests houses, hotels and camping facilities. Meals may be included, as well as tours of the kibbutz itself. Kibbutzim (the plural) began as farming communes at the beginning of this century and became central to the economic, self-sustaining success of the new state of Israel in 1948.

Members of the kibbutz gave according to their abilities and took according to their needs. Almost all kibbutzim were driven by agriculture. Members shared a few cars, a central telephone and central television -- even at kibbutzim with more than 500 members.

In the past 20 years, there have been major changes at Kinneret: All families now have their own telephones and televisions. Members are given allowances based on age and may buy whatever they wish or may save the money for large purchases such as cars or overseas travel. The community dining room now charges members to eat. Uniform clothing is no more.

Farming is still important, but Kinneret now has a successful plastics factory, and many other kibbutzim have also ventured into industries as varied as software development and animation production studios. So many members have chosen to work in the city -- although their salaries are turned over to the kibbutz -- that Kinneret now hires 200 workers from the outside.

Still, the feeling of teamwork, of neighborhood, is pervasive. People do not lock their doors: Crime is unheard-of. I had no qualms about allowing my 6-year-old daughter to play, unsupervised, at night, at the kibbutz's playground.

Our travels throughout the northern part of Israel included many other landmarks, such as the splendid tri-level port city of Haifa, the Gamla waterfalls, the 4,000-year-old Dolmen graves, the ancient Jewish mystics' city and artist colony at Sefat, the Arabic Druze village at Daleyat el Carmel. They are all in areas considered safe and all were crowded with tourists.

While all these sights were splendid, few Americans would consider viewing them, apparently for fear of terrorism or perhaps street battles. Certainly, Israel has been subjected to unparalleled violence in its short history. Security is paramount, with civilians joining the Israeli military and police in providing a safe environment. There are check points on the highways, a highly visible military presence, metal detectors everywhere.

While we were aware of the precautions, during our trip we never felt hostility. If you go

How to get there: From the United States, you can fly direct to Israel on El Al (Israel's international airline; call 800 223-6700) and on Tower Air (800 348-6937). Or you can fly any number of carriers to Europe and then connect via Alitalia, Swiss Air, Air France and others.

More Information: Call the Israel Government Tourist Office in New York (212 499-5600 or 499-4660) or the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C. (202 364-5500). For further information on the kibbutz hotels, in Tel Aviv call (03) 524-6161.

Traveling in Israel with young children: Even infants need a passport; allow 6-8 weeks from application to delivery.

Pack prudently: a few toys, a few changes of clothes, but remember, it's cumbersome enough holding small children, so minimize the luggage taken. Diapers, formula, medication all can be purchased in mainstream locations but will cost at least twice the price back home. Bring a fever-reducer, cold remedy, anti-diarrhetic, adhesive bandages, moist towelettes, a thermometer, insect repellant and sunscreen.

The umbrella fold-up stroller is a must for toddlers 2 years or younger.

In general, when traveling overseas, consult your doctor or the U.S. State Department (202 647-5225) for any special medical precautions for your destination.

Travel by example: If you complain about the different food, the rainy weather, the long hike, the strange language, or the lumpy hotel bed, so will your children. Make the best of things, and be patient.

Originally published August 10, 1997

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