Monday, April 16, 2007

Praying Over Spilt Milk

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day. It goes without saying that this is an important day here in Israel. It is a day for introspection and remembrance, the radios play particularly depressing music all day long, and at 10am sirens all across the country begin to wail for two minutes' silence during which the entire country grinds to a halt. What better day than this to visit Yad Vashem, the country's Holocaust museum and repository for Holocaust documents and the many survivors' accounts. The thorough exhibition is full of information, objects from the war and interviews of survivors. It's undeniably moving and the volume of evidence on display makes deniers sound as stupid as creationists and intelligent designers.

Over the past few days I've been visiting a few sights in the Occupied Territories. Again, there are innumerable places with links to the Bible and Jesus' life. The most obvious of these is the site of the Nativity in Bethlehem where there is a sizable church and a host of various other churches and monasteries around (though funnily enough, I've been reading that archaeologists believe that Jesus was born in a different Bethlehem to the north of Israel, though the churches are not keen on promoting the idea as not only will they look really stupid, but there will be no basis for the numerous miracles ascribed to the area). One of the odder sites related to the Holy Family is the so-called Milk Grotto which is visited by hundreds of pilgrims every day. When the family were fleeing to Egypt after the birth of Jesus to escape Herod's slaughter it is said that they spent a night in this cave and that whilst nursing her newborn a drop of milk spilt from Mary's mammaries thereby making the site holy. Aside from the silliness of the milk story the legend seems rather unbelievable to me as the cave is only about 100m away from the alleged site of the Nativity, so Mary and Joseph really hadn't managed to flee very far before having to get a rest. There is also the cave in which Jesus supposedly spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil. It sounds very ascetic and esoteric in the Bible, but when you get there you realise that he was less than an hour's walk away from Jericho (and in plain sight) where he could easily pop down to buy some fags and have a drink whenever he wanted. It seems that the legends in the Bible are better not investigated too closely lest they lose their sheen.

It is impossible to visit he Palestinian Territories without being aware of the political situation. Every town has at least one refugee camp, although at first glance they are indistinguishable from the rest of the town because they have become permanent settlements in their own right (not a state of affairs the Palestinians want though). Generally though the place seems relatively ordered and clean when compared with surrounding Arab countries (with the exception of Lebanon). But the one aspect you can't ignore when travelling in Palestine is the security situation, embodied by the giant, looming separation wall. The Israelis may call it a fence but a fence it certainly isn't. The Palestinians call it the Apartheid Wall (much closer to the truth as the wall keeps the communities apart) and cover their side with protest posters and graffiti (see picture). Apart from being a huge eyesore, the wall makes transport within the Palestinian Territories very difficult, requiring travellers to change buses at least once or even twice if wanting to travel anywhere from Jerusalem (the eastern half of which is Arab), and crossing it can take upwards of an hour. In places the course of the wall is nothing but a blatant land-grab. The tomb of Rachel is within the municipal boundary of Bethlehem, just off the main road to Jerusalem, but the Israelis built a narrow spur on their wall - just wide enough for a car - jutting over 500m into Palestinian territory to surround the tomb which is holy for them. It didn't remind of anything so much as the game Hungry Hippos, with holy land instead of marbles. The Israeli police also conduct frequent mobile checks and checkpoints within the West Bank and generally make life a little less easy for the Palestinians. (I was hitching a ride with some locals into Jericho when made a minor traffic infringement - turning before the designated markings on the highway - and were pulled over and detained for an hour and fined over $200 when a simple telling-off would have been far more appropriate.)

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