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.