A field trip through Kibbutzim, deep fried fish, a battle zone and a few drops of merriment.

On our last full day as a united team, the group – led by the extremely capably Ephraim – ventured off on an expedition to visit a famous kibbutz and experience what like must have been like for the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine.

Before we experienced the kibbutzim, we travelled up a long windy road to the top of the Naphtali plateau where we visited the Belvoir Crusader castle. The Hospitaller fortress, built in the late 12th Century, overlooks the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. After the battle of the Horns of Hattin, Saladin’s forces besieged Belvoir where the Hospitallers managed to hold out for a year and a half. Saladin was impressed by the tenacity of the defenders and upon the castle’s surrender, he allowed the Crusaders to leave unmolested back to their homelands.

Looking over the moat towards the ruins of Belvoir.

The castle, which is magnificent in its size and strategic position high above the Jordan River valley, is incredible and a must visit place for anyone venturing to Israel. After the quick visit, we then made our way to the first kibbutz where we would learn about the early Jewish migrants and their quest for a homeland.

Simon overlooking the Jordan River Valley from a rampart on Belvoir.

Unfortunately, for the early Jewish migrants, Palestine wasn’t quite up to having a Jewish presence when European Jewish migrants began to show up in the Ottoman occupied territories. Numerous instances of Bedouin raids, sabotage and crop destruction forced Jewish migrants into collective communities, not only for protection, but also for financial security; independently a Jewish family could not afford the land, but in groups the potential financial power increased. Thus, the Kibbutz became an early form of self-sufficient outpost designed to feed and protect its inhabitants as they clawed their way towards the hope of a new future.

Gareth and Peter playing soldiers on an old Bren Carrier at Gesher Kibbutz.

It was with a hope of a new future that Palestinian born members of the Jewish youth movement, HaNo’ar HaOved, established Kibbutz Gesher in 1939. The new Kibbutz was purchased with help from Edmond de Rothschild and Jewish migrants from Northern Europe soon made the place home. The Kibbutz was established right on the banks of the Jordan River and controlled access from Palestine into Jordanian territory. Because of its position, it was strategically a very important site in terms of commerce and access.

In 1948, after declaring independence, the State of Israel was attacked by the surrounding Arab countries. Kibbutz Gesher came under heavy fire from the Jordanian Arab Legion who used armoured vehicles and light aircraft to try and destroy the defenders. The attack was eventually repelled with the Legion’s forces suffering heavy losses. Despite suffering minimal casualties, the Kibbutz was destroyed during the hostilities and was eventually relocated 1km down the road and a museum that documents the history of the area was established.

Bridge blown up by the members of the Gesher Kibbutz during the War of Independence.

While visiting the Kibbutz, we were given permission to access the militarised zone separating Israel from Jordan. Here we got to see for ourselves the bridges that had been blown up by the defenders of the Kibbutz to prevent the invasion of the Arab League. Not too far from where we stood, was a Jordanian observation post and we could see, much to our amusement, the Jordanian soldiers watching us through their binoculars!

Soldiers from Jordan keeping an eye on us as we entered the militarised zone between Israel and Jordan.

Following our visit to Old Gesher, we then went to En Gev Kibbutz, a fishing kibbutz that also acts as a holiday resort. This hard working community sits on the tranquil shores on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. Here we were treated to a lunch of deep fried Galilean and Mediterranean fish. The experience of eating deep fried whole fish was somewhat sensational. Those not used to fish in general found the process rather nauseous and stuck with the chicken offerings, while those keen pescetarians among us, delighted in second and third offerings of the delightful fish platters.

The meal before tucking in at En Gev Kibbutz.

Finishing the meal at En Gev Kibbutz!








From there we took a winding ride up the Golan Heights to Mt Bental. From our position on the mountain, we overlooked Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. This spectacular vantage point also serves as a military post in times of conflict and we were able to wander around the tunnels and trenches that protect the soldiers during hostilities. Back on the surface, as one looked into Syria, we were able to see the Syrian towns of Khan Arnabah and Al Qunaytirah.

Khan Arnabah, Syria.

Al Qunaytirah, Syria

Both these towns were subject to severe fighting in 2014 between forces loyal to the Assad government, the Nusra Front and ISIS. The towns and area now resemble little more than ghostly landscapes with no visible life and the shells of buildings dotted around the landscape. It really was startling to see the juxtaposition of Syria on one side and the developed agriculture of Israel bordering it.

The observation and defence positions on Mt Bental.

This mountain also gave us clear views across to Mt Hermon and also across the Valley of Tears where the Israeli Defense Force fought off over 1,000 Syrian armoured vehicles (tanks and APCs) with only 175 Centurion tanks. This massive battle was a part of the Yom Kippur War, an event that occurred when the Syrian and Egyptian armies attacked Israel on its most holy day, the Day of Atonement. The battle saw the Israeli tank forces win the battle after four destructive days that saw their forces reduced to only 15 serviceable tanks run by a skeleton crew of injured men. Ultimately, the Yom Kippur war saw over 2,000 Israelis dead and some 7,000 injured in a battle to preserve their state.

Looking toward Mt Hermon from Mt Bental, the Valley of tears separating the mountains.

After bearing witness to the sites of one of Israel’s most remarkable pyrrhic victories, we finished the day at the Golan Heights Winery. The winery, Israel’s 3rd largest producer of wines, has vineyards scattered throughout the region at various altitudes and microclimates that enable it to produce a range of delicious red and white wines. We were treated to a quick tour and a tasting by a fantastic gentleman who related ground-breaking and technologically innovative growing techniques that have enabled the Golan Heights Winery to put Israeli wines on the world map.

Some of the women waiting expectantly for their wine!

After the tour, some of us purchased some of the lovely beverages for the road which – given the two hour drive back to Jerusalem – made for some interesting toilet stops. Regardless, the trip was extremely enjoyable and I felt privileged to have been able to see so much of the Israeli cultural and military history in such a short space of time.

An image of the Golan Heights Winery – wine tanks that are temperature controlled by computer for optimal conditions.


Hypersalinity and the Desert Fortress

Just as many people incorrectly assume that indigenous populations of people still run around in flaxen skirts, so I have found that many people also assume that the Middle East is a hot place. Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell Israel this and the mercury was sitting at a belligerent 16 degrees Celsius as our tour bus pulled up to the Dead Sea. With an overcast sky and scattered rain dotting the distance, our arrival at the saltiest mecca on the planet left much to be desired.

Disembarking the tour bus, we found ourselves at the equivalent of a beachside resort. Unfortunately, this beachside resort had seen better days, but I guess that with our visit coinciding with the middle of winter, the owners weren’t too fussed with ensuring that the resort looked spic and span. Regardless of the ratty looking facilities, we Antipodeans made full use of the amenities and after some hasty changing and some pics with some local women (“We gonna post these pics on the net so that our divorced husbands can see we don’t care”), quickly found ourselves immersed – well something to that effect – in the waters of the Dead Sea.

Now the Dead Sea’s mineral content is literally one third of its composition, making it one of the most hypersaline lakes in the world. This environment is also extremely hostile to all forms of life and consequently, only some ridiculously tough bacteria and a whole bunch of tourists make their homes within its waters. The lake itself has been drying up at an alarming rate but that hasn’t seemed to put a dampener on any of its therapeutic properties with many thousands testifying to the uniquely skin enriching qualities of the water and mud. As the New Zealand contingent rushed past the nervous looking Korean tourists and lifeguards towards the warm waters of the sea, most would have thought that we were attempting to escape the soaring heat of an Israeli summer. Yet the temperature, or lack-there-of, was no deterrent to our hardy group, and soon virtually the whole contingent was floating across the surface of the oily sheen.

Enjoying a ‘borrowed’ beer in the Dead Sea.

After approximately an hour of frolicking in the water, an experience that included an attempt to body surf (the storms around the lake had kicked of some small waves), and the obligatory mud soak, we found our time at the Dead Sea had come to an end. For me, this could not have come sooner as I had inadvertently splashed myself in the eyes with the toxic waters of the Dead Sea. Now to say that this was an uncomfortable experience would be a euphemism in its most insincere form. The truth is – with no hint of hyperbole – that getting splashed in the eyes with Dead Sea water is akin to rubbing a mixture of salt granules, lemon juice and tabasco sauce in one’s eyes with a toothbrush. Needless to say, with my eyes burning, I quickly made a frantic exit up the beach, lurching zombie-like through the shallow waters over the sharp but slippery salt rocks that festooned the bottom of the lake. I then immersed my head under one of the handy shower heads close to the shore to rid my eyes of the pure evil that had engulfed them.

Layered with mud and a dab at the Dead Sea

After an experience resembling the fate of Lot’s wife, it was a with some relief that I found myself back on the bus and able to skol down large amounts of glorious water. Soon after, the clouds literally parted and the floods that had closed the road to Masada subsided. My historical nerd, as you can imagine, was at this point doing exuberant cartwheels and the long drive down the Dead Sea seemed to occur in an instant. Suddenly, looming out of the cliffs on the western side of the sea, appeared a natural citadel which could only be the fabled desert fortress.

Masada, the unique heritage site, was built by Herod the Great sometime around mid-30 BCE on a previous but rudimentary fortification. The structure is built at the top of a large cliff-top plateau that only has one access point, making the refuge impossible to attack by any normal means. Josephus, the turn-coat Jewish-Roman historian, stated that Herod built Masada to provide shelter in times of revolt. Herod needed to worry about this on two fronts. Firstly, Herod had conquered the original Jewish monarchs, the Hasmoneans, and the Roman senate subsequently installed him on the Judean Throne. Thus, as a vassal of the Roman Empire it is hardly surprising that the Jewish people were not exactly enamoured with their puppet king. Secondly, Herod had made an enemy out of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and she made no secret of the fact that she wanted control of Judea.

Looking down from Masada, the Roman camps and siege walls are clearly visible almost 2000 years later.

Outside of the reasons for its creation, what stands out is the sheer scale of the fortress. While ruins remain where once palaces (yes, multiple), administration buildings, storehouses and barracks stood, little imagination is required to envisage how splendid the site must have been in its heyday. Ensuring that the population in Masada was watered, Herod had an entire valley damned in the surrounding mountains and also had an ingenious drainage system on the mountain created to fill a number of gigantic cisterns. These cisterns would have been able to keep the population on Masada watered for up to ten years.

Overlooking some of the facilities at Masada.

Yet despite all its ingenuity, the seemingly unconquerable Masada was not only defeated, but was crushed by the Romans in 73-74 CE. The fortress had fallen from Roman hands sometime early in the First Roman-Jewish Revolt when the Sicarii, an extremely militant offshoot of the anti-Roman Jewish Zealots, overran the Roman garrison on the mountain. Over the next few years, around 1,000 Jewish insurgents and refugees found asylum at Masada. When the Romans began to mop up the last pockets of Jewish resistance in the 70s, Masada was laid siege by a force of 15,000 Romans who at first were unable to breach the extensive defences of the fortress.

The siege and attack of the impenetrable fortress by the Romans is something that can only be understood with the naked eye. Standing at the top of the citadel, the remains of the Roman camps and siege wall are still evident almost two millennia after the final assault. The height and complexity of Masada made any direct assault suicide and so the Roman siege general, Lucius Flavius Silva, ordered an earthen ramp built against the western wall of the mountain. This 114-metre-high ramp enabled a siege tower with a battering ram to eventually breech Masada’s walls and allow the Roman army access onto the Plateau.

The guard rail covers the breach in the walls where the Roman army broke through.

Here, legend states, the Roman army was not faced by the Jewish rebels, but by mass suicide. Josephus writes that instead of falling victim to the tyranny of the Romans, the Jewish rebels drew lots and killed every last man, woman and child in the fortress. Not to be outdone by the lack of battle, the Roman army then sacked the settlement, setting fire to the buildings and pillaging what they could find.

Regardless of the narrative and the historical debate that surrounds its authenticity, Masada truly must be seen to be believed. It’s size and the scale of the Roman siege remains are astounding. So it was with some disappointment that our time at Masada came to an end and we were ushered down the mountain inside the massive cable car. At the time, I felt like I had only just begun to explore the incredible site and there is still a massive desire to return and appreciate the historical place and all it can reveal. Till then, I’ll have to rely on my photographs and overly active imagination.

Israeli Flag flying over the entrance to Masada.


The Camel Jockey, Baptism and some Dead Scrolls

In the interests of self-preservation in the face of youthful children, I have (and I hang my head in shame) neglected to complete the last few entries of my blog. The intensity of the last few days of my journey in Israel left me with little time to spare and I was the proverbial chicken with its head lopped off. Then my sudden return to Aotearoa coincided with an overabundance of man flu which saw what little time I had devoted to not looking useless in front of my students.

Now, with some time to spare, I will attempt to reconstruct the last few days of the trip and provide some more insight into the incredible land of Israel.

The final Saturday of our time in Jerusalem was welcomed by a flurry of ice, snow and the usual crazy driving of the local populace. In New Zealand, cold and wet roads generally send cyclists and scooters/motorbikes into their garages for warmth and safety. Yet in Jerusalem, it seemed to provide added impetus to the road craft of two wheeled vehicles as they fought frenetically for street position amongst the steel cages dotted along the roads. It still amazes me that in our time in Israel, we only saw two significant accidents, though many cars did bear the scars of the fight for transit primacy.

We started off the day with a wish and a prayer, our tour guide – the remarkably knowledgeable Amir – informed us that the highway south to Masada was awash with flash flooding and closed. For some of us on the trip, this was akin to a punch in the guts. Masada is something that occupies any history of the Jewish struggle and as a qualified history nerd, to miss out on the physical experience of the place was distressing to say the least. Yet, not to be outdone, Amir improvised and instead of taking us to the controversial site of Jewish resistance, he directed the tour to a stop at sea level where we were accosted by a local lad charging 20 shekels for a brief camel ride.

You are now standing at sea level!

Now a camel is a most peculiar animal, something of a cross between a cat’s disdain for humanity and a teenager’s ability to speedily follow instructions. Somewhere within all that mirth and animosity resides an animal that moves only slightly less haphazardly than the sinking Titanic. Being ushered by a young man to mount the beast, I quickly found that fitted jeans are not made with the intention of ever having to ‘throw a leg over’ what is essentially a 500kg lump of dumb. Thus, much to my handler’s delight, I quickly proved that the camel was actually more intelligent than myself as I hammered my shin into the thick wooden edge of the saddle. Ten seconds later – after an extended use of sentence enhancers – I was perched precariously upon the great ship of the desert. Hanging on for dear life, my hands clawed for purchase as the camel slowly, and awkwardly, unfolded itself (in every sense of the word) into a standing position and proceeded to walk me in a two metre circle. Following the circle and a moment of ‘full control,’ the camel’s owner hastened the camel back into a sitting position – by hissing at it like a snake and looking at the camel like he just might punch it – and the incredible unfolding process repeated itself in reverse.

Eat your heart out Lawrence of Arabia.

Once free of the dromedarian curiosity, the group boarded a tour bus where we began our descent from sea level to the Dead Sea. Once we had arrived at the literal bottom of terra firma (some 400 metres below sea level), we turned north and headed towards some rather unexceptional military zones and a large tourist building.

Gotta love a uniform!

Here we discovered ourselves at the fabled site of the prophet Elijah’s ascension into heaven, the crossing point of the Israelite migration into Judea, and also the traditional site of John’s baptism of Jesus. The place, Qasr el Yahud or Al-Maghtas – depending on whether you are Jewish or Arab – sits right on the border between Israel and Jordan and until recently, has been completely inaccessible because historically, both Israel and Jordan played a huge game of tiddly-winks with landmines around the region. Now opened to the public, this historic place reveals a shallow and tremendously boring little creek that had been stained brown by the overnight rains. Needless to say, despite the historical contexts, the Jordan River is easily one of the least impressive things visible in Israel. However, I did make good use of my time at the river by dipping some Christian bling into the murky waters for my daughters, and I also got a cheeky photograph with two IDF soldiers who were happy to mug for pics.

Looking over the Jordan River to the Jordan country.

After some quick pics down at the water, with some of the more adventurous members of the group getting their feet wet, we drove out of the militarised zone, back towards a largely stark looking set of cliffs and a large tourist hot spot. Here we found ourselves at Qumran, the now famous discovery site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls were discovered amidst the chasms and crags of the Judaean Desert in 1948 by a couple of Bedouin herders who, having lost an animal, began to throw rocks into caves in the hope of scaring the lost animal out. One of the caves they threw rocks into startled the herders who expected to either hear the echoes of stone bouncing off stone or, at the very least, the cries of a stone struck goat who had deserted its flock. Instead they heard the distinctive sound of pottery breaking. Overcoming their fear of the dark and jinns (potentially evil spirits thought to dwell in caves), the herders discovered a bunch of ancient canisters containing rolled parchment with inscriptions.

A facsimile of one of the more complete Dead Sea Scrolls.

To cut a long historical story short, the discovery of the parchment led to the exploration and discovery of eleven caves that divulged over 800 scrolls of varying importance and significance. Within the scrolls are fragments of all the Old Testament books except Esther, and the oldest surviving text of the book of Isaiah. Surprisingly, there is also a copper scroll reputed to reveal 64 locations where treasure from the Jewish temple were spirited away for safe keeping. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time, nor enough knowledge of ancient Hebrew to successfully undertake a treasure hunt, and as such, I will not be retiring or purchasing a Harley Davidson anytime soon.

A Cave which contained scrolls and was probably a great place to chill and pray back in the day.

Putting aside thoughts of buried treasure, Qumran exposes tourists to the monastic style of life that the community – called the Essenes – must have lived by. Isolated from civilisation, the community would have spent the majority of its days engaged in the religious and communal life designed to prepare the Sons of Light, as the Essenes called themselves (who doesn’t like a superhero name?), for the final battle against the Sons of Darkness (obviously the Sith). However, sheltered and isolated as they were, the Sons of Light could not withstand the might of the Roman Legions and the site was abandoned sometime around 68CE. It is thought that the Essenes hid their writings in the caves above their community buildings rather than let them fall into the hands of the dastardly Romans.

Remnants of the Essenes’ community dwellings.

After a good deal of time spent getting trigger happy with our cameras at Qumran, it was time to make some choices. Amir sternly informed us that the road south to Masada was still closed, so we planned to visit the Dead Sea slightly earlier than expected and see if the road opened up later in the afternoon. So, with the dust of one of the earliest Judeo Monastic cultures on our feet, we headed east towards the liquid salt-fest where we were assured of a fantastic time.


The Nazi Hunter and a Trip to Bethlehem.

By and large, there is always an adventurous sentiment attached to the concept of someone hunting Nazis; the lone character, working against shadow figures to try and bring a sense of purpose and truth to the world. Yet, after meeting Efraim Zuroff, the real notion of enforcing justice and retribution is about as adventurous and romantic as getting hit in the face with last week’s used underwear.

Chris Harris, the New Zealand Yad Vashem lead Educator and Efraim Zuroff, Nazi Hunter.

Zuroff works for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the centre made famous by its namesake who is responsible for the capture and trials of some of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust. Despite his height and imposing stature, Zuroff comes across as extremely personable, his sense of humour and his ability to weave stories easily capture one’s attention and ingratiates him to whoever is in his company.

Now, 60 odd years after the defeat of Nazism, justice seekers like Zuroff are facing a harder and harder quest for justice as former instigators and collaborators of the Jewish genocide pass away with age.

One of the first obstacles in Zuroff’s attempts to force prosecution of former Nazi’s are the attempts of the Nazis themselves to convince people that their trails are a waste of time and that they’re not capable of facing prosecution.

Zuroff, in his time with us, explained that when faced with potential prosecution, Nazis suddenly become extremely aged and incoherent, and their legal teams claim that they are unfit to stand trial. A classic example of this is the SS medical orderly Hubert Zafke who has consistently avoided trial for his role at Auschwitz. Despite being physically capable before his attempted trial, the minute that his defense team became aware of the charges against him, he suddenly required full time care and the use of a wheel chair. He also managed to develop dementia.

So then, with it becoming increasingly more difficult to imprison or bring former Nazis to trial, why is it so important for men like Zuroff to continue his campaigns to find these criminals? To answer the question, Zuroff got straight to the point. The passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and the fact that they have alluded punishment does not change the nature of their crimes. In this vein, Zuroff reiterated the notion that time and age cannot create innocence. Many of these criminals, who at the time of the Holocaust were often at their physical peak, ambivalently executed many people who are as old, if not older, than they are as they face prosecution. Just as they gave their victims no justice, so justice should hold them accountable.

Perhaps most importantly, nations around the world owe it to both the victims, the survivors, and the ancestors of the Holocaust to pursue and hold accountable those people who perpetrated the largest systematic destruction of any group in history.

So how does Zuroff ‘catch’ Nazis? Smiling, the man himself said that finding them in the first place was often the hardest thing. Many Nazis, not caught in the original Allied advance, often slipped through Europe under assumed identities which they maintained, often right up until their capture. Many also fled to South America where they were often protected by the countries that they had fled to. Some criminals like Erich Priebke and Dino Šakić, made no attempt to hide their identities and their openness lead to their day in court. Other criminals like the infamous Adolf Eichmann, escaped to Argentina where they engaged in civilian life under new identities. In these cases, extensive work by the Israeli government, Simon Wiesenthal, and other intelligence services managed to identify and then work towards extradition and prosecution.

When a suspected Nazi is found, nowadays often through tip-offs (these people are still, even now, bragging about what they did), it is the job of Zuroff to build a case against them. This is a tedious and extensive process as the teams have to prove that they have accurately identified the criminal. Once done, Zuroff then lobbies the local governments to prosecute the criminals. This is because the Wiesenthal Center has no power to prosecute criminals and must rely on the goodwill of individual states to accept and then instigate the criminal proceedings against the former Nazis.

Unfortunately, not all countries work alongside the Nazi hunters, New Zealand being a prime example. In 1990, the Wiesenthal Center sent the government a list of 46 war criminals that were thought to be living in New Zealand. On that list was an Auckland man presumed to have been a member of the Lithuanian Police Battalion which contributed to the liquidation of some 165,000 Jewish Lithuanians. Unfortunately, the New Zealand Bolger government threw out the list of names claiming that the Wiesenthal Center had provided insufficient evidence.

Yet, despite the roadblocks that the Center has faced, it has been successful in bringing multiple high profile murderer to justice as well as many other lower level conspirators who all aided in the Holocaust. Now that the surviving body of Nazis are reaching the literal end of their shelf life, the Center has grown its goals in an aim to foster tolerance and understanding through community, education and social action.


Following our morning with the Nazi Hunter, we had what was essentially our first afternoon off. This gave a group of us the opportunity to venture into the Palestinian West Bank and visit the birth place of Jesus. Bethlehem is slap bang in the middle of the Palestinian zone of control and is one of the areas enclosed in the Israeli built wall. Bethlehem is both a zone in which Christians and Muslims live alongside each other and where tourism is one of the city’s biggest money earners. Historically, within the Muslim Jewish conflict, Bethlehem has been a melting pot of terrorism with many suicide bombers leaving the city to blow themselves up while riding buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the Second Intifada.

Nowadays, Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority who enforce law and civic control through the area. However, Israel intelligence monitors the situation in Bethlehem very carefully and often Israeli military or policing units will enter Bethlehem to combat any rising threats.

To enter Bethlehem, our bus travelled out of Jerusalem and through a military checkpoint. This was pretty plain sailing for a bunch of Kiwi’s and nothing like what the Palestinians have to go through. The Palestinians, when entering and exiting the West Bank, must go through extremely vigorous security checks with metal detectors, bag searches, and extensive questioning. The Israeli Defense Forces who operate the check points do so from behind bomb proof glass and are very cold and efficient and do not tolerate any larrikinism.

Catholic Chapel in Shepherds’ Field

Once through into Bethlehem, we had a long drive through the narrow streets of Bethlehem to the Shepherds’ Field. This field is reportedly the place where a posse of shepherds were told by the angels that the Messiah had been born. This Catholic site consists of a beautiful little chapel, a cave church and the remnants of a former monastery. There is much controversy as to whether or not this is the actual field where the shepherds received their visitation as – with all things in the Holy Land – the different Christian denominations all have their own version of events and specific sites.

As with many of the religious areas in Israel, each church/chapel is a combination of stunning beauty and garish trinketry. The stunning architecture and art of the main chapel is juxtaposed by the cave just below it. In the cave, a fully equipped chapel accommodates little nativity pieces scattered around the various holes in the walls that look as if a bunch of five-year-old interior designers had been let loose after visiting the two dollar Christian megastore. Nevertheless, it was interesting to look around the cave in which, for several millennia, shepherds used to farm their goats and sheep.

Two dollar shop merchandise in the Shepherds’ Cave Chapel.

Entrance to the Milk Grotto.

Following the Shepherds’ Field, our tour guide then took the gaggle of New Zealand educators to the Milk Grotto. Now as a Catholic and a Christian, I will confess to being completely ignorant of the place. The traditional mythology of the grotto follows: After the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph found refuge in the cave in which the modern grotto resides. One day, in a boom of exuberant light and glory that left Darth Vaders’ big entrance somewhat lacking (Gloria in excelsis Deo), an angel told Joseph to hightail it off to Egypt. Being a man of action, Joseph insisted that they leave straight away. Unfortunately, Mary was in the middle of instigating her own ‘free the breast’ campaign with the young Jesus and her let-down occurred before the young messiah could latch properly. In the ensuing explosion of breast milk, the now lactate enriched rocks in the grotto suddenly turned milky white. Now I’m no geologist and cannot attest to the miraculous convergence of mammary excretion and sandstone, but word on the street is that powdered forms of the rock can help couples to conceive. So being one who loves to test a theory, I purchased a small packet of the powdered rock for experimental purposes. So if anyone out there wants a bit of divine help to conceive, I have some ancient Marian boob juice for your procreational requirements.

Mary before the lactate explosion.

Leaving what could arguably be the best kept secret in the world of aphrodisiacs, we found ourselves at the much vaunted Church of the Nativity. Similar to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the church is built slap bang over the place of importance, in this case the point on which it is thought that Jesus was born. On arriving at the rather monolithic church – stone blockwork with not much decoration – you are instantly shocked by the size of the entrance door. Standing perhaps even lower than five feet in height, the door forces you to bend right over to enter the church. Our tour guide said that it was designed to force pilgrims to bow on entry to show reverence. However, the tour guide behind us said that the door was built so small to prohibit the entry of camels and horses into the building. Now I’m not going to get into any arguments, but I certainly know which version I like better.

The monolithic Church of the Nativity, with the main entrance in the lower right of the pic.

As with the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity’s grandiosity is severely negated by the extensive renovations occurring throughout the complex. Masses of scaffolding limit views and hide much of the intricate art and architectural features. However, that does little to prohibit the hoardes of varying Christian traditions who all have altars here and who all parade through the structure.

Cave of the Nativity where Jesus’ birth is reputed to have occurred.

Some highlights of the Church, include the cave underneath the central altar. This area has areas marked out that display the‘actual’ birth place of Jesus. A long low cavern, blackened through two millennia of candle and oil fumes, houses dozens of stunning paintings and icons of Jesus’ life. Also impressive is the main altar run by the Orthodox Church. Here, lining the isles, are a collection of some of the most exquisite iconography in the Christian world, many images of which are copied extensively. Finally, on exiting the Church, one can find an incredible wooden sculpture of St George slaying a dragon which was gifted to the Church in 1926 by a Christian family.  As for the significance of the statue, it makes as much sense to me as green tea ice-cream, but in this land of contrasts, well hey, everything goes.

Image retrived from,

St George

Finally, having finished with the Nativity, we ventured home via the West Bank Barrier. This was an impromptu stop that was primarily the result of several shrieking women and a complaint bus driver; the goal, find a real life Banksy. Viewing the wall, one can understand both the Israeli and the Palestinian views. But rather than get political at this lengthy stage, I will limit my thoughts to the wall itself. Along the wall are stories sponsored by the Palestinian Youth Media House that describe the Palestinian Struggle against the Israeli State. The stories are often provocative and heart wrenching, but as with all things Palestinian/Jewish, only tell one side of the story. All along the wall are smatterings of heavy graffiti and fully legitimate street art. Here, below the Israeli observation towers, the stories of struggle are played out and the history of Palestine is sketched in paint. Some of the images are not only provocative, but intrinsically beautiful and speak of liberation, oppression and armed conflict. Unfortunately, the wall we ran along never revealed any works of Banksy, but did reveal the famous image of Leila Khaled, the face of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s (PFLP) movement. Khaled is most well known for being the first female involved in one successful hijacking of a plane and another unsuccessful attempt that ended with the death of her accomplice.

Leila Khaled, the best known Palestinian terrorist and Political campaigner (possibly after Yasser Arafat?).

In all, the day was long, tiring, but unforgettable. To delve through ideas of justice, nationalism, self-determination and religion was unforgettable, painful, but also stunningly human. It was a day of contrasting extremes that I shall not forget.


Surviving Extermination

Throughout Europe in the 1940s, the complete annihilation of European Jewry was one of the foremost goals of any of the German occupied states. To minimise the Holocaust and claim that the planned murder and execution of the Jews was completely a Nazi responsibility is nothing short of a lie. The Holocaust was supported not just by the Nazis, but by local body governments, by everyday peoples, by housewives and even children. The indoctrinated hatred of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe was rife and many people, legitimised by the Nazi government, harassed and murdered Jews. The most infamous death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, or Auschwitz Camp II, received Jews from Upper Silesia, Slovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Italy, all of which would not have been possible without the explicit help of everyday citizens within those cities.

Once in Auschwitz, just as it was in any of the other death camps, death was inevitable. In the original documents that J.A. Topf und Söhne (J.A. Topf and Sons was the construction company responsible for the crematoriums at Birkenau) provided to the German Command, is the statement that the furnaces they designed would effectively cremate 4,756 corpses per day.

Yet within the vast figure, of almost 6,000,000 executions, there were people who managed to escape the German killing apparatus. Eventually these people, often a long time after the fact, began to tell their stories. Yesterday I had the privilege to meet three of these people and listen to their harrowing tales.

Daniel Gold (Lithuania).

Daniel was born in Šiauliai, Lithuania in 1937. In 1941, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and the Jews of Šiauliai were enclosed in a ghetto. Two years later, the German Aktions were carried out and people not strong enough to work were taken away and liquidated, this included all the old as well as the children. Amazingly, Daniel managed to hide in a potato cellar with his cousins during the Aktion. Daniel spoke about the fear that he experienced that day. The tiny space that they were hiding in was so cramped that David, who was six at the time, and his cousins had to stand, pressed into each other in silence throughout the day. They could hear the drunk Lithuanian soldiers clearing the properties around them: furniture breaking, dogs barking, crying mothers and their children, gun shots, soldiers singing and celebrating their successes. Trapped in silence, with little air, the children who were unable to leave were forced to defecate where they stood.

Hidden away for the next year within the ghetto, Daniel managed to escape alongside his two cousins and his aunt and uncle, two days before the ghetto was fully liquidated. Hiding with a Lithuanian family, Daniel survived the Holocaust and was eventually reunited with his father who was liberated from Dachau by the US 7th Army. His mother did not survive.

Yehudit Kleinman (Italy)

Yehudit was an Italian Jew living with her mother and grandmother when one night, her mother received a phone call that left her ashen. Without telling Yehudit what was happening, her mother packed several suitcases and then took Yehudit, alongside her grandmother to the local civic offices. Once there, Yehudit – who had still not been told anything – described the oppressive nature of the room. German officers stood around a man seated at a desk who was writing down information. There was a very real sense of fear and panic in the room, but people were for some reason, following the orders they were given. When Yehudit and her family arrived at the desk, she was very surprised to see her Christian neighbour standing alongside the man at the desk. Suddenly, the desk clerk looked at Yehudit and asked her who she wanted to go with, pointing at both her mother and the neighbour. Yehudit was only 6.

Yehudit looked first at her mother and was confronted with a fear and look that she could never forget. Her mother’s face was grim and determined, ashen and deathly, hostile and unwelcoming. In a split second decision, Yehudit somehow knew that her mother was no longer an option and signalled that she wanted to go with her neighbour. Immediately German soldiers forcibly removed Yehudit’s mother and grandmother from the room while holding back the six year old. Amid the cries and panic, Yehudit was pulled in by her neighbour. Without even an embrace or a goodbye, Yehudit found herself without her family. She would never see her mother, or her grandmother, again.

Dropped off at a Catholic convent, Yehudit pretended to be a Christian and once the war was over, was found by a Jewish organisation who relocated her to an orphanage in Israel.

Rena Quint (Poland)

As a three and a half year old girl in Poland, Rena was one of the first people to encounter the Nazi ghettoisation of the Jews in 1939. Originally from a family who owned a nice house in Piotrkow, the forced settlement of the Jews in her area meant severe crowding with very little food, medicine, and heating. With entire families forced into single rooms, typhus soon became rampant. Within these conditions, the families were held together by the women as many men were forced into the labour camps.

Just before she turned six, she experienced her first German Aktion. Sometime after midnight, German troops rounded up the families and herded them through the streets, whipping the women and children like they were animals. They were then crammed into the local synagogue with 2,000 other people and Rena can remember the sounds of shooting and crying in the streets around her. Anyone who couldn’t fit into the room was taken out into the Radomsk forest where they were forced to dig the ditches that ultimately became their graves. While in the synagogue, Rena noticed a man, Rena wasn’t sure if it was an uncle, motioning for her to run out the door. Despite the fear that was engulfing her, Rena ran out the door with the man. She doesn’t know how she ran, or whether her mother pushed her, but that was the last time she saw her mother, brothers and her extended family. They were taken to Treblinka and the gas chambers where their bodies were piled into open pits and burnt. To this day, she still wonders what her mother was thinking as ran out the door.

The man she had run out with eventually took her to her father, but what was he to do with her? Girls were useless. So her father cut her hair short and dressed her in boys clothing. He changed her name from Fredgia to Froyim and told her that she was to say that she was ten and could work. She then spent the next while working in the class factory as a boy until she was taken to Burgen-Belsen where, sitting amongst a pile of copses, she was liberated by the British in 1945.

During the Holocaust, all of Rena’s family were killed by the Germans. Remarkably, she eventually found herself in the USA with a loving family who renamed her Rena.

Daniel, Yehudit and Rena

In all, these survivors were the lucky ones. In many areas of Europe, no Jews survived the atrocities that befell their people. Yet in spite of all the horrors that Daniel, Yehudit and Rena faced, there remains within them a beautiful expression of humanism. While I am positive that many survivors succumbed to the evils they lived through, these three people exhibited a remarkable sense of peace that belied their journeys. Humour coupled with pessimism, and a journey defined by hope was evident in all of their stories, but by far the greatest light that shined from these people was their successes. Ultimately, Yehudit – whom I spent the afternoon with – found her ultimate success in revenge. The ability to marry and have children became symbolic of her victory over the Nazis who tried to destroy all the Jewish children. In this way, every Jewish child born became symbolic of the Nazi failure and the hope of a new Jewish nation.


Dealing with the Holocaust

Felix Nussbaum, “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card”, 1943

Dealing with the Holocaust has always been a numbers game for myself as someone who loves history. But the problem with numbers are that they hide the grave realities of the people who made up those vast figures. When one speaks in millions, the individual, the personal story, the private grief and anguish gets lost in the figures. So it has been the goal of Yad Vashem to delve past the numbers and reveal the people behind the numbers.

Over the past few days, we have been taken on a personal journey into the lives of the Jewish people, the people destined for liquidation, whose choices were ultimately choiceless. On this journey, we have read poems, diaries and literature, all of which reveal the people and their struggles as the faced the inevitable – death under the Nazi apparatus.

Needless to say, it has been a struggle. How did an almost entire group of people seemingly go willingly towards death and the deaths of their families? Where was the fight, where was the resistance, where was the resolve to try and avoid death? The brutal tragedy of the Holocaust is that there was no room to fight. Survival often depends on our ability to compromise, and for a people whose deaths were ultimately unavoidable, compromise existed through a variety of facets alien to us today. But for the Jewish people caught deep within the folds of the Third Reich’s industrialised executions, constant compromise was all they had.

However, deep within these actions and the fingers that clawed at life, the Jewish people still found humanity within their plight. To defy a regime with violence often only ended in the senseless murder of families and neighbourhoods. To defy a regime with life was a revenge that was far more fulfilling. In this fashion, many Jewish people chose to confront their impending doom through a concerted effort to remain human, to remain Jewish.

It is within this quiet confrontation that we are able to witness the real beauty and humanism of a people who were in an environment where death fast became a normalised part of life. A diary, prayers throughout the day, a smuggled instrument, a poetry reading, a comforting embrace all became avenues through which the doomed Jewish nation managed to hold onto their humanity and resist – even for brief moments – the dehumanisation that was afforded by the Nazis.

Through reading the literature and viewing the art, we are gifted the voices of those who were silenced in crowded, blackened rooms where every breath betrayed life. Here within the words of the living, we encounter the victim and we shrug off the narrative provided to us through the Nazi administration. By viewing the literature, we pay homage to the memory of not just the artist or author, but the people and populations that they represented. We ensure that those condemned and left voiceless can be heard and understood.

Night – Elie Wiesel (September 30, 1928 – July 2, 2016)*

The beloved objects that we had carried with us from place to place were left behind in the wagon and, with them, finally, our illusions.

Every few yards, there stood an SS man, his machine gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the throng.

An SS came toward us wielding a club. He commanded:

“Men to the left! Women to the right!”

Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight simple, short words. Yet that was the moment when I left my mother. There was no time to think, and I already felt my father’s hand press against mine: we were alone. In a fraction of a second I could see my mother, my sisters, move to the right. Tzipora was holding Mother’s hand. I saw them walking farther and farther away; Mother was stroking my sister’s blond hair, as if to protect her. And I walked on with my father, with the men. I didn’t know that this was the moment in time and the place where I was leaving my mother and Tzipora forever.

I kept walking,

my father holding my hand.

* Elie Wiesel survived the Holocaust having been interred in both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz while his father died in Buchenwald. He is the author of 57 books.


Independence, Fighting Fit and Peanut Butter

The start of our day began with a trip to Tel Aviv where we visited Independence Hall, the place where the State of Israel was declared back on May 14, 1948. The sight of the announcement occurred in the house of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff who had converted his own house into an art gallery after his wife’s death. Eventually the gallery was renovated and served as the Tel Aviv museum until 1971.

A sculpture of Dizengoff outside his former house.

However, in 1948, the museum was to serve a more important purpose. The Jewish people were in the middle of a bitter civil war with the Arab peoples of Palestine who had laid siege to Jerusalem, and the British Mandate was set to expire the following day. Unable to declare independence from their spiritual capital, the Jewish leadership decided to use the Tel Aviv Museum on account of its ability to also act as a safe house in the event of a bombing. Invitations were sent out to important members of the public asking them to show up at 3:30pm the following day and to keep the meeting secret. Nevertheless, the next day crowds camped out in front of the museum and welcomed the leaders as they entered the building.

At 4:00pm, David Ben-Gurion began to recite the scroll of the Establishment of the State and approximately sixteen minutes later he asked Rabbi Fishman to say a traditional Jewish blessing. 25 members of the Moetzet HaAm (the Provisional State Council) signed the document – 12 members could not as they were trapped in Jerusalem. Once the members of the Moetzet HaAm had signed the document, the anthem Hatikvah played, following which Ben-Gurion announced to the world, “The State of Israel is established! This meeting is adjourned!” This then turned what was essentially a civil war into a war of independence as the neighbouring Arab nations of Trans-Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all declared war against the new Israeli state.

David Ben-Gurion’s Place Marker and microphone (centre) in Declaration Hall.

Ignoring the political, military and social consequences of the signing, the site of the declaration is still a huge part of Israeli pride. Within the museum, the room in which the scroll was signed still remains in its original state (after being recreated by David Gafni, the man who had originally set up the hall). Around that walls are reproductions and originals of the art works that stood in the room as the declaration scroll was signed, including works by Marc Chagall and other Jewish painters. Finally, above the main table and sandwiched between two banners that would become the Israeli flag is a massive portrait of Theodor Herzl, the man who dreamed the Israeli state into being.

Declaration Hall within the Independence Museum, the place where the State of Israel came into being.

Following our time at Independence Hall our next port of call was the stunning Palmach Museum. The Palmach – established in 1941 – was the attack wing of the Hagana, the armed force dedicated to the defence of the Jewish communities prior to the establishment of the State of Israel.

The Palmach was made out of youthful conscripts, both male and female in their late teens and early twenties. These recruits received vigorous training to prepare them for the armed conflict and sabotage missions that they would be exposed to. Early on in their creation, weapons and equipment were in short supply and units might only share one pistol or a rifle between them. This changed when the British Army recruited the Hagana to help them in their defence against the German forces under Rommel in North Africa. Suddenly, the Palmach had weapons and equipment at their disposal and used this to effectively train the youthful soldiers.

However, after Rommel’s defeat in May 1942, the British no longer needed the support of the Palmach and Hagana and requested their equipment back. Unsurprisingly, the British equipment wasn’t exactly forthcoming. The loss of British support also meant that the Palmach could no longer support itself and it faced the threat of disbandment. This was remedied by Yitzhak Tabenkin, the head of the Kibbutz Union (a kibbutz was a communal farm in British Palestine), who helped to keep the Pulmach alive by assigning platoons to the various kibbutzim. The Pulmach then worked a monthly schedule that involved 8 training days, 14 work days farming the kibbutz, followed by seven days off.

The Pulmach continued to exist and engaged in operations against both the British – in an attempt to force them out of Palestine – and the Arabs, in both a defensive and offensive capacity, oftentimes against civilian populations. The museum attempts to recreate the experiences of a Pulmach platoon from its inception during World War II through to the Pulmach’s assimilation into the Israeli Defense Forces in 1948 and the end of the Israeli War of Independence. As an experimental museum there are no normal displays or photographs. Instead groups are led on a journey that is seen through the eyes of the individual soldiers during the existence of the Pulmach. This journey includes watching battle scenes and listening to the stories of the soldiers as they experience both triumph and tragedy.

Members of the Israeli Defense Forces strutting their stuff in Tel Aviv. The Pulmach and Hagana were the forerunners of these modern units.

The actual museum is run by the Israeli Defense Forces and we were guided through our tour by two young female soldiers. Unsurprisingly, the extreme nationalism evident in the museum failed to mention some of the more questionable actions of the Pulmach, especially incidents in which they deliberately attacked Arab residential zones with the sole purpose of destroying them. Atrocities aside, the museum was a fantastic experience and really brought to life the fears and desires of a blossoming Israeli nation.

Following a visit to the Pulmach Museum, we then took a quick ride out to the city of Jaffa. To cut a long story short, we used the opportunity to frolic ankle deep in the Mediterranean and eat a vast quantity of caramel and peanut gelato. It seems that the residents here have a particular fondness for peanut butter flavour and it can be found in just about any snack, including chips, and I for one, cannot complain!

Standing ankle deep in the Mediterranean. The locals thought we were nuts, we thought the water was warm!


In the Footsteps of JC.

A walk in Jesus’ footsteps but with the advantage of not having to walk through all those damnable hills and valleys? Count me in! What better way to see the primary sites of Jesus’ early life and ministry than to get on a vivid orange bus and travel north from Jerusalem through Nazareth, past Magdala, and then stop off at Capernaum and go boating on the Sea of Galilee…

Showing the ancient Egyptians how it’s done at Tel Magiddo.

The exploration of Jesus’ footsteps began with a trip north from Jerusalem to Tel Megiddo, one of the most valuable archaeological sites in the world. A tel is basically a hill created by consequent layers of civilisation placed one on top of another over an extended period of time. The tel of Megiddo is a massive example of one of these, rising 60 metres above the plain of the Jezreel Valley and comprising of an area of 15 acres. The Tel itself dates back to the seventh millennia BCE (the early Neolithic period) and hosted the Canaanites, Egyptians, Israelites and Persians before finally fading from history sometime around the 3rd Century BCE.

What made the city so valuable was its tactical location. Located at a major strategic point on the Via Maris – the main trading route that travelled from Egypt northwards along the Mediterranean coast before turning east and heading into the modern day areas of Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Basically, whoever controlled Megiddo controlled the trade route and the wealth of the region. It is little wonder then, that the town itself was primarily a military base and the remains of many stables testify to the large chariot armies that must have emanated from the city during times of hostility.

The excavations at Megiddo revealing the temple area from the Early Bronze Age.

One of the more amazing aspects to Megiddo is the city’s water supply. Originally water was taken from a spring outside the hill of the city, but sometime in its ancient past, the ruler of the city had a vertical shaft dug 36 metres straight down within the city walls. The vertical shaft then had a connecting horizontal shaft dug 70 metres through solid stone to meet up with the spring and channel water into the city. The spring itself was then covered over and hidden, allowing the city a permanent water supply during periods of siege. One can only imagine the amounts of hard labour, presumably slave based, that worked to create this massive irrigation system.

Looking down the main water shaft at Megiddo.

In more modern biblical history, Megiddo is foretold in the Revelation of John as the place of the final battle between good and evil. The actual Hebrew name Har Megiddo was corrupted by the Greek translation of the bible and, with the dropping of the ‘H’ and the addition of an ‘E’ or two, became the more recognised word, Armageddon. So the end of days will be apparently be fought here within the Jezreel Valley out in front of Tel Megiddo.

Following our encounter with Tel Megiddo, we modernised a bit (going from 300BCE to 3BCE) and travelled to the Palestinian city of Nazareth. Nazareth stood in stark contrast to the Jewish quarters we had previously seen. Narrow streets and a lack of civic maintenance really had a few of us questioning just how the Israeli state allocated funds within its territories. Nevertheless, we made our entrance into the hilltop community and walked towards the Basilica of the Annunciation. As someone who has previously struggled with Marian theology, and who has only really begun to explore it in the last few years, I was questioning how I would feel or respond spiritually to the place. The basilica itself is believed to have been built over the place in which Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bear the son of God. The structure which stands above Mary’s home is a stunning example of architecture. Designed by a Jewish architect for the Roman Catholics and built by Muslims, it really is a testament to the diverse cultures that exist within the region. This cultural theme is then further emphasised by the numerous mosaics and images of Mary that adorn both the basilica and its grounds. These images, gifted by Catholic communities around the globe, depict Mary in the cultural traditions of that region. From African, to Chinese, to Russian, the art works and depictions are stunningly beautiful. One image hard to miss is the American depiction of Mary. This picture is three dimensional and created from glass, bronze and aluminium. Our tour guide told us that the image is composed of materials from the Apollo Missions, but I found nothing to support that so will take that information with a grain of salt. Interestingly, the site was spiritually uplifting and really prompted a questioning of the role and importance of Mary within the Catholic faith. This is certainly an area that I will continue to explore.

The Basilica of the Annunciation, the place where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel.

Following the experience at the Basilica of the Annunciation, we headed off to the Church of St Joseph, a structure little more than a hundred metres from the Basilica of the Annunciation. This church is built on the remains of a Jewish home dating back to the time of Christ and while there is no evidence to support the notion that it is the home that Jesus was raised in, it is interesting to see the ritual bath, storage areas and beautiful church that surrounds it.

The church which sits above the presumed home of Jesus and his father Joseph.

At this point we were hurried back to our bus and experienced the joys of the underdeveloped Nazarene street system. Facing a traffic jam of moderate – but extremely slow – proportions, we were astounded as drivers took liberties around the bus, around each other, and around the foot path. Not to be deterred, our bus driver pulled a U-turn in the middle of the traffic jam and proceeded to another one where regular horn use, dramatic gesturing and enthusiastic posturing from locals was the order of the day.

After escaping the hustle of Nazareth, we headed off to lunch at Magdala. Magdala is a small town on the shores of Galilee and is most famous for its connection with Mary Magdalene, the female disciple from Jesus’ posse. Mary in the Gospels is famous for having seven demons exorcised, but there was no demonology to be seen as we settled into the local restaurant for lunch. Here we were introduced to the local experience of service. While Mary was faced with demons, we were faced with staff who made every effort to serve us well, but with language and cultural barriers and a limited amount of time in our pocket, the experience was one of the most confusing I have ever had. With most of us looking awkwardly at each other – and the odd sideways glance – we ate a relatively sumptuous meal; unless you ordered steak. Meat in Israel must be kosher, which means bloodless and salted, in other words, killed beyond belief.

From lunch, we then travelled north up to the town commonly associated with Jesus’ early life and ministry, Capernaum. Capernaum was a small Jewish town on the northern shore of Lake Galilee. It was from this small town that Jesus is reported to have recruited the fisherman Simon, better known as Peter, the apostle on whom Jesus’ new church was founded upon. It is also the place where Jesus performed twelve miracles including the healing of Simon-Peter’s mother. The town is now just a series of ruins, but central to the city are the rebuilt remains of a white Jewish synagogue. This building is actually built upon the original synagogue contained within the city and is likely the synagogue that Jesus drew massive crowds to as he preached. The New Testament acknowledges that sometimes the crowd was so big that Jesus needed to speakoutside the synagogue and archaeological evidence has revealed a massive courtyard on the western side of the temple. It is assumed that this is the area in which Jesus delivered his message to the gathered crowds.

The White Synagogue in Capernaum, residing over the remains of the original Synagogue dated to the time of Jesus.

Once finished with Capernaum, we headed off to Ginosar where we boarded the slightly infamous Jesus boats. These boats are large vessels that take tourists on trips around Galilee to see sights such as Tiberius, Capernaum, the Mount of the Beatitudes and the area where Jesus performed the miracle of the fish and the loaves. Hilariously, the boat ride began with the raising of the New Zealand flag and the singing of the New Zealand national anthem – beginning with the Te Reo. From there, the boat began to crank out happy clapper church songs, with a bias towards Hillsong styled Christian hymns. At this point, the boat’s First Mate headed out onto the deck and promptly initiated a call to arms which resembled a local folk dance. Never one to miss an embarrassing opportunity, I dived into the local dance and proceeded to get my white boy dance moves into gear. Fortunately, my impression of a dying flamingo did not jeopardise the ability of the boat to sail, and nor did it promote feelings of sea sickness in the observant passengers. Following what is probably the worst example of communal dancing ever witnessed in both the Eastern and Western Worlds, the boat returned to shore and released us for the long ride back to Jerusalem.

The Jesus Boat on the Sea of Galilee at sunset.


Shabbat and the Old City

On Friday morning I woke and trotted off to the gym. Little did I know, but being the day of Shabbat, Israel tends to run on a different time, and despite my enthusiasm, I was too early for the gym and was forced to go for another run around the city. If I knew how much walking I would have to do further in the day, I might have foregone the running option.

Leaving our hotel, we – the New Zealand group of educators – were introduced to our guide for the day. Our guide, Amir is an archaeologist from the Hebrew University with a plethora of knowledge and dad jokes that he spreads throughout his commentaries with great gusto (Why do archaeologists need counselling? Because their lives are in ruins.).

It was Amir’s job to oversee us for the next two days and introduce us to the historical side of Israel. First up was a trip to the Old City, past the Lions and Golden Gates, through to our entrance, the stunningly named Dung Gate. On the way past the Golden Gate, we got our first look across the Kidron Valley (Valley of Jehosafat) to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Next to these significant Christian landmarks is sited the oldest Jewish cemetery on Earth. Jewish tradition states that in the Final Judgement, the people buried here will be the first raised to new life, effectively giving them all a front row seat to the dawning of the New Jerusalem.

Looking out from the Old City to the Mount of Olives and the oldest Jewish cemetery.

From the Dung Gate, we side stepped the numerous Hasidic Jews begging for coin, and entered into the Ophel Archaeological Park. The park itself sits south and south-west of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and is a live site, meaning that parts of it are still being explored. So far the site has managed to unearth the remnants of the Temple Mount, dating back to the period of the Second Temple, 530BCE – 70CE.

The place is incredible and the depth of the digging to reveal the ancient stones is extensive. Here, with some imagination (helped in part by a range of videos, sketches, and photographs), one can imagine how the city must have looked and felt around the time of Jesus. One of the more special aspects of the park are the steps that reach towards the Al-Asqa Mosque. These steps are the original steps that Jewish people walked upon when taking sacrifices up to the temple. They are also the place where Jesus himself would have walked during his time in Jerusalem. Indeed, so significant are these ruins that Neil Armstrong, while touring the Park in 2007, said to his tour guide, “I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.”

The original stairs of the temple during the Second Temple Period, the same stairs that Jesus would have used.

Viewing the Al-Asqa Mosque from the archaeological park.

From the park, we walked up and around to the most spiritual place for modern Judaism, the Wailing Wall. This part of the exposed brick work of the original Temple Mount is the last link that the Jewish People have to the Great Temple which housed their Holy of Holies. Here, thousands of Jews and Christians gather to pray and seek intercession from God. On the day we visited, the Muslims were having their big prayer services up at the Al-Asqa Mosque and there were riot police wandering around in a heightened state of tension. Apparently, the Muslims can sometimes get a bit worked up and begin throw stones off the Temple Mount down onto the Jewish people praying below. At that point, the riot police have to run up a causeway into the Muslim zone of control to contain the violence. It is a job that is fraught with danger and the Israeli authorities do not take any chances. Just as the call to prayer began to ring out, our tour guide and armed guard decided that for safety reasons, they would escort us out of there and into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.

Israeli riot police prepare for any outcomes at the Wailing Wall.

Getting spiritual at the Wailing Wall.

To cut a long story short, we then spent the afternoon wandering through the stalls, ancient streets and building of the Old City, learning about how the city may have looked and functioned two centuries ago. After a proper tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where I finally got to learn what all the rooms I had previously visited were), my mate Pete and I ambled back to the city and through the markets to pick up some snacks. Now if you haven’t had the privilege of visiting a Middle Eastern market, then you should put it on your bucket list.

The entrance to the markets – insanity at its finest, a treat not to be missed!

The markets are action packed avenues of every imaginable nut, candy, piece of clothing, and odds and ends. Muslim, Christian, Jew, and tourist all jostle and bump as they navigate the throngs to argue with the store owners and try to secure the best dollar for their products.

The process of securing the best price for their product is an art in itself. Store owners go through a range of emotions in their attempts to sell produce. Initially they are extremely positive, insisting that their *name of produce* is the best in all of Jerusalem. On naming a low price, they then look almost insulted, before reminding you that they need to feed their families and that they couldn’t possibly part with their item for that price. A brief exchange then follows with the shopkeeper parrying away lower prices while thrusting pricier options under your nose. While this is all going on, there are arms waving, dramatic posturing and gesturing, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and emphatic points of order. From a social perspective, it is literally something that requires an overdub of David Attenborough…

“And here we have the Armenian store keeper attempting to sell a Christian Cross to an unsuspecting American tourist. Note how the Armenian assumes a lower stance than the tourist, a cleaver trick designed to make the tourist think that they have the upper hand; meanwhile, the store keeper knows that they have forty other identical blessed-by-the-Pope rosary beads and that with the tourist reaching for their wallet, a sale is guaranteed.”

Following the markets, we rushed back to the hotel just in time to ensure we were ready for the Shabbat.

In the Jewish faith, the new day starts at Dusk in the early evening, and the celebration of Shabbat begins in earnest when three stars become visible in the night sky. Once dressed, the group headed out onto the nearly empty streets – Jews are forbidden from creative work during Shabbat and driving is included in this – and walked to the local synagogue. Here I was treated to what can best be described as organised chaos. The actual service follows a very strict schedule, but it is what goes on around that schedule that is the fun part of participating in a Jewish service. Men wander around, shaking hands and making plans on the sly. People bob up and down to the rhythm of the Hebrew prayers giving the congregation the impression of a slow motion mosh pit. Men eagerly sing jaunty tunes while the odd man ad-libs with clapping and scat and children run around like there is nothing going on.

Showing off my colour coordinated ensemble for the service at the synagogue. Note how the kippah more than hides my bald patch!

At the conclusion of the service, there is a lot of catching up between men and women (who sit separately from the men during the service), before everyone rushes off to dinner. Now meals over the Shabbat period have to be all pre-prepared as people are not allowed to work. So when we got to the hotel, we sat down for a series of Jewish prayers and blessings before we got stuck into the richness of the Jewish religious foods. Must haves here are the gefilte fish and the chopped chicken liver. I won’t go into detail here, but these two food are completely in the realms of the love or hate relationship. I for one had no problem with them, but I am firmly of the belief that if it breathes, then it is edible. Unfortunately, the gag reflexes of some of my colleagues indicated that my approval of the Jewish customary foods was not shared by all. Yet, after a long and tiresome day, with a few beers to wash down the pulped fish and chicken livers, I went to bed suitably full and happy.





Antisemitism, A Very Quick Trip Through Time.

For the Jewish people throughout history, violence, oppression and mistreatment has painted their historical narrative. The past few days our eyes have been opened by some of the most well respected lecturers in Jewish cultural and literary history who have come in to educate to us.

Nuremberg Chronicle (1493) Illustration of Blood Libel of Simon of Trent

Historically, the Jewish diaspora into Europe and throughout Asia created small pockets or enclaves of Jewish settlements alongside Christian and Muslim communities. These small pockets were characterised by communities of people that largely stood out from the local populations. This was because the Jewish faith and customs singled Jewish people out as different – they ate differently according to kosher laws, they practiced Judaism and their lingua franca was distinct, with the development of Yiddish sometime around the 9th or 10th centuries.

Obviously, when you stand out in stark contrast to the rest of a red-necked, partially inbred society where it was fair game to marry your cousins, eyes are going to be raised. It wasn’t long before the Jewish communities found themselves at the start of a long period of ostracism within the greater society. Moreover, this ostracism was only aided by institutions such as the Catholic Church. St Augustine himself promoted the mistreatment of Jews but encouraged people to refrain from killing them. Indeed, the early church encouraged the humiliation of the Jews so that they might convert to Christianity and embrace Jesus.

Some of the forms of humiliation and ostracism these communities faced ranged from the forced ghettoisation of the communities through to legal measures being put in place to ensure that the Jewish people were kept separate (or safe, or both – see Pope Paul IV). Some of these legal measures included bans on Jewish people from owning land, inter-marrying, or working in professions primarily held by the locals of an area. Ironically, banned from agricultural work the Jewish community were forced into mercantilism, tax collection and money lending to survive. This is turn led to many of the superstitions and generalisations that have negatively affected the community over the last millennium.

At a more sinister level, superstitions surrounding the Jewish religious observances began to be raised. In Europe especially, the insidious myth known as the ‘blood libel’ resulted in pogroms against the Jewish communities. Blood libel was the belief that Jewish communities would capture and kill Christian children and use their blood in religious ceremonies, particularly during the Jewish celebration of Passover. Retaliation for suspected blood libel was harsh and more often than not, without trail. Throughout the middle ages and beyond, hundreds – if not thousands – of Jewish people were routinely beaten, lynched, hanged or burnt to death as a direct result of this fear and hatred.

Following these dark periods of time, the next significant change for the Jewish peoples occurred in the industrial revolution. Suddenly, with increased urbanisation, Jewish merchants found that their businesses started to prosper. With a cultural tradition of being multi-lingual, self-sufficient and well-traveled (through constant relocation to more favourable conditions), Jews found themselves becoming upwardly mobile within the developing middle classes. Yet, by the time of the early 20th Century, despite their contributions to science, music and literature, Jewish people were still subjected to ridicule, sanctioned humiliation, and persecution.

Advertisement for antisemitc propaganda exhibition, Munich, 1937.

This persecution changed when the Nazi Party came to power in 1933. The major change instigated by the Germans was the concept of the Jewish peoples as a distinct ethnicity. This new way of thinking had serious repercussions. No longer able to ‘fix’ their evil ways and convert to Christianity, Jewish people were tainted by the inescapable nature of their own blood. This dramatically changed the way Nazi propaganda addressed the stereotypical Jew. Now the Jews began to be portrayed as a parasite among the population and that any marriage to a Jew could only result in the poisoning of the German master race.

German Anti-Semitic cartoon, Der Stürmer, 28 September 1944: Vermin – Life is not worth living, when one does not resist the parasite. Never satisfied as it creeps about. We must and will win.

It was these prejudices that the Nazi party preyed upon, exaxerbated, and used to implement the Final Solution, the state sanctioned and systematic execution of the Jewish peoples throughout Europe and Asia.