The Holy Land: That Obscure Object of Desire

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by Laura Pelzmann

As we land in Tel Aviv, the urge to get off the plane increases rapidly. In front of us is the Holy Land, place of legends shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, where so many of the founding myths of Middle Eastern and European culture began.

With a group of fellow students, I wait at the bottom of the stairs before getting onto the bus that would take us to immigration. That is our first mistake: never stand still on an airfield. In a matter of seconds, a guard approaches. “Why linger on the airfield? What is the purpose of your trip to Israel,” he asks solemnly. After the first round of questions, we are escorted to the immigration office where we are further questioned. Our passports are collected, and the sense of uneasiness grows. The wait feels like hours. Our local guide, a Danish journalist we called in for support, eventually succeeds in explaining to the authorities who we are: students, who do not plan to engage in any suspicious political activities. Eventually, they let us go, and still shaken, we set off for Jerusalem.

We arrived around 4:00 a.m. and immediately began the impromptu search for our hostel among an endless web of alley ways of the old town. The tranquility of the city during the night differs greatly from the lively muss that takes place in the daytime. Merchants sell everything from fruits and vegetables to phone covers and electronic devices, while locals and tourists alike attempt to push their way through the masses. Boys drag little wagons with fresh goods, and from time to time, men will try to rise to the impossible task of driving small tractors through the narrow pathways.

The liveliness is strangely contagious and soon the lingering feeling of discomfort from the airport evaporates, giving way to an irresistible desire to explore the city. We see orthodox Jews dressed in black and white, Muslim women in colorful scarves, armed soldiers who look our age (twentysomethings), as well as tourists, who appear to have made failed attempts to fit in with local fashion. The intense, even restless, yet still peaceful meddle of people, in both Israel and Palestine surprises me. What I can see, hear and feel stands in harsh contrast to what I have previously read about the region.

The impressions of this journey through Israel and Palestine are many and lasting. After numerous conversations about the well-known conflict with locals, I begin to understand the varied perspectives of this region. We talk to Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Freedom Fighters, to Jews partaking the occupation and businessmen that cross the checkpoints twice per day. Each story is different.

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As I stand before the wall that separates Palestine from Israel, I am suddenly reminded of Berlin and memories from history classes about the Second World War. In some sections, the separation barrier between Israel and the West Bank is a concrete wall up to eight meters high, appearing rather similar to its Western counterpart. But there is little time for reflection. We stroll on and pass through one of the checkpoints and end up on the other side of the wall. In Hebron, we meet a Palestinian who is living under Israeli occupation in sector H2. The contrast with moments earlier, when we were surrounded by patrolling soldiers, is stark. Here we are, in a Palestinian’s backyard, sipping a refreshing glass of lemonade in the afternoon sun. Sitting back and enjoying a relaxed conversation about life under military control, again, I am amazed.

This polarity doesn’t leave us. Traveling through both Israeli and Palestinian cities, we meet extremist activists, religious fanatics as well as ordinary students and families. The all have one thing in common: they are ready to share their perspectives and invite us to discuss not only politics, but also culture and religion. At times, we may find it difficult to muster the tolerance to accept their views, but it is always fascinating to listen to them.

The utter confusion of positive and negative experiences during these days provides a lot of food for thought, and I leave with my head full of ideas and memories to process. Strangely, I depart with feelings of uncertainty about whether I actually liked being in the Holy Land. But I am sure about one thing: I want to return.

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