Immigration officers the world over have a reputation for humourlessness and prickliness and grumpiness, but Israeli border control is often regarded as distilling these qualities to the ultimate degree. My own experience, however, was reasonably straightforward. The only slight glitch was the presence of a Malaysian entry stamp in my passport, about which the Israeli officer questioned me a bit. I completely understand his point of view; Malaysia does not admit Israeli nationals at all and there is a distressing vein of anti-Semitism that is officially permitted and encouraged in Malaysia, so giving a mild grilling to someone who comes and goes freely to hostile territory is hardly unfair. I was awarded an Israeli entry stamp of exceptional clarity in its printing, leaving all subsequent border control officers in no doubt that I’ve come here. My two colleagues on the trip, incidentally, were both Muslim; one was admitted even less problematically than me, but one was held for some sustained questioning.
Travelling in the ‘sherut’ (presumably from the same root as the ubiquitous ‘marshrutka’ in the former Soviet Union) shared minibus taxi from Ben Gurion airport to Jerusalem, despite the darkness, did have its illuminating moments. The landscape of most of Israel and Palestine is a broken one, with rocky hills and steep valleys and this was visible along the main road; while a hospitable place compared to the desert, there is still a harshness to the territory. Israeli modernist architecture is an intriguing response to the land; its rippling, concrete buildings with large open-arched windows built along the hilltops somehow look at home here.
Inadvertently, a couple of fellow passengers provided a bit of insight into the conflict of idealism and pragmatism that is woven into life here. A young man, a convert to Judaism just arrived from Canada and full of religious enthusiasm, was hoping to study at a yeshiva and become an Israeli. He was sat next to another young man, a native-born Israeli, and talked so loudly that one could not help listen. The Canadian explained that he had not made any study arrangements in advance, his former rabbi was in Jerusalem but did not know he was coming, and he had not even made any sleeping arrangements for his first night. The Israeli said calmly but rather bluntly, “You should have come better prepared.” The Canadian was also puzzled by a stop on the way from the airport to Jerusalem. “Where is this place?” he asked the Israeli. “Abu Ghosh. It’s an Arab village.” And yes, it was a modest-looking, tidy place nestling in a valley, and the illuminated minaret of its mosque was the most visible building in the night – well, that and a large number of restaurants with outside signs. The Canadian was obviously puzzled, so the Israeli added, “People often come here from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to go out to eat. A lot of people don’t keep Shabbat or always eat kosher.” The Canadian’s bafflement and disappointment were almost audible, and the conversation drifted to an end. The kindly taxi driver, an older man who spoke with a central European accent, went out of his way figuratively and literally to find a safe place for the Canadian ingenue to stay. There are many kind and hospitable people, and many hustlers and extremists, here. I hope he falls in with the former group; it would be tragic if his faith and innocence were corrupted to ill ends.
The other illumination is one that can be learned by looking at the map, but it does take a visit here to really feel it. The Holy Land is tiny. As my guidebook puts it, Israel is the size of the US state of New Jersey and the West Bank is considerably smaller than that. So much has happened, historically, religiously and in contemporary politics, that the map expands in one’s mind. In strict physical geographical terms, Jerusalem to Ramallah is about as far as Southampton to Winchester.
The end of our journey, for today, was the Azzahra Hotel in East Jerusalem. In coming here we were crossing a line, the old boundary between East and West Jerusalem that from 1949 to 1967 was nearly impenetrable but is now nearly invisible. The old Mandelbaum Gate site is a fairly anonymous spot on a wide road, less prominent than any of Berlin’s old checkpoints. East Jerusalem has a concentration of hotels, from the lavish American Colony to more modest accommodation like the Azzahra, just north of the Herod Gate to the Old City. Despite the lateness of the hour, there was a genuine warmth to our greeting at the hotel. Like many people in conflict-ridden areas (Bosnia and Serbia come to mind in my fairly recent travels, as do the sharply segregated suburbs and city of Detroit), people here seem to treat visitors and new arrivals with a kindness and gentleness that contrasts with the hatred or more often blank indifference with which they treat their neighbours.