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Questions on the way to Israel

West Bank and Gaza, November 9, 2009

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I really didn't plan my first trip to Israel and Palestine to coincide with the publication of National Geographic's special issue on The Holy Land —honest, I didn't. But when I saw it sitting on the shelf at the airport bookstore yesterday morning as I made my way to my departure gate at Portland International Airport, I couldn't help but think it was some sort of sign. I picked up a copy and headed to Gate D7 to try to get in a short nap after a restless night of last-minute laundry and packing.

(Note: Procrastinating with such things is —contrary to popular opinion — an ideal, not only maximizing the freshness of the apparel, but more importantly, when asked at check-in whether your luggage has been out of your control since packing, you can more assuredly respond in the negative.)

After boarding the plane and taking off, I spent the majority of the five-hour flight to New York's JFK airport trying to sleep, and trying not to think of all the things I'd forgotten to pack. I failed at both. I considered starting my blog, as I'd been commanded to do by the Web Team before leaving headquarters. Then, in a wave of inspiration, I considered not doing it and, finding comfort in that option, continued my quest for rest.

After a sleepless flight and a six-hour layover in JFK, I began to really ponder the adventure I was taking. Where was I going and in what light should I consider that place? Was I going to "the Holy Land," or a site of significant humanitarian need where Mercy Corps was offering assistance? Was I going to a place of the utmost historical and religious relevance for billions, or one of seemingly endless frustration and heartbreak? How could I contribute the most value to our offices, programs and partners, while also being completely indulgent in the experience?

In answering these questions, I remembered my cab ride to the airport that morning. The driver knocked on my door at 4:17 a.m. and greeted me, "Radio Cab." He was a man of about 60 years who walked slowly and with labor. He had hearing aids and his hair indicated that he was nearing the end of a long shift. He casually asked where I was headed and I responded, "To Israel, for work."

The rest of the ride felt like a classroom to me, only it was exciting and only cost 20 bucks. The driver, whose name was Paul, shared his understanding of the regional context, his personal and religious views, and deep compassion and respect for "all those Palestinians using non-violence to engage with Israelis and with the world." He spoke with an utter lack of judgment, from a perspective of faith and with unbridled optimism. His example, I thought, would be the point from which I would begin to respond to my own questions.

As I boarded the 767 at JFK that would, God willing, carry me to Tel Aviv, I looked around at my flight companions. Many were Christian Americans traveling in smallish groups, eager to see the land where Jesus walked and preached. There were other tourists and some Israelis returning home. I counted three Palestinians. I tried to divine the purposes of the Israelis and Palestinians in New York, imagining that they were visiting family, or on important business trips. One man, reading from a Bible, excitedly told a listener about the works of Dorcas of Jaffa, and the beauty of the ancient city on the Mediterranean. I wondered if I would be able to see Jaffa. I wondered if I would sense the mystique of the Old City. Would I be able to pray in Al Aqsa? When I was much younger, I knew an Israeli girl named Moriah. I remembered thinking that everything about her was beautiful. If I met her in Israel, would I think the same?

Thanks to a charming row-mate from Russia, I arrived in Tel Aviv after what seemed like far less than 11 hours, and with still no rest, whatsoever. Standing in the lines at passport control — rather, teetering in my haze of fatigue in the lines at passport control — I realized I hadn't settled on my explanation for my visit.

Too much or too little information offered can be a red flag here. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but I knew that the wrong response, or a poorly-timed blink could result in a three-hour interrogation and search. My nerves began to build, starting in my stomach then swirling to my head. I pursed my lips tightly as I watched the woman ahead of me being escorted to the interrogation area. I tried to approach the booth casually, rehearsing my blurb in my head one last time.

Though I knew exactly what I'd be asked, I was caught off-guard when I finally heard, "What's the reason for your visit to Israel?"