Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Israel, Day One

One of the great pleasures of teaching at international schools is field trips. Most teachers cringe when they hear those words--field trips. The words conjure up thoughts of 24 hour work-days spent keeping track of students, their various medications, itineraries, and the general liability of it all.

Ooof. Most schools have stopped doing them, it's just too much to manage.

Of course it's not that it's a walk in the park, managing a field trip overseas. However, when you are staying at the Marriott in Qatar, it somehow coalesces into something infinitely more palatable. Or so said my wife, as she spent some of her daily stipend dining at Dean & Deluca this past February as her students wandered around the mall during their five day trip to Doha.

As Social Studies department members, Erin and I have the responsibility, and the pleasure of organizing trips for our Model United Nations club. MUN, for those who don't know, is a club for future politicians, lawyers, debaters, and schmoozer lobbyists. Every school goes to a conference, wherein they take on the role of any number of countries, representing the viewpoints of said country in debates on various committees. The kids who are involved love it. They dress up, prepare resolutions, network, debate, and form alliances to further the position of whatever country they are representing.

In February, I took a delegation of 14 students from Turkey to the Israel MUN conference.

Our "delegation?"


That's right. Iran. In Israel. Represented by Muslim Turks (who were the only Muslims at the conference, besides a small contingent of Palestinians.)


We do this on purpose though, it pushes our students to ramp up their debate skills. And, to be honest, our school is so liberal, it is quite a stretch for them to represent Iran.

Though the conference itself is great fun, and an excellent model of student-oriented leadership opportunities, arguably the best part is the two to three days of "culture" tours we always include before the conference starts. Because, really, you aren't going to go all the way to Israel without checking out the sights, are you!?!

We had two and a half days before the conference started, and along with a local tour guide, and a bus, we loaded up the itinerary for my delegation of debaters. After checking in at our sea-side hotel next to the Mediterranean Sea, and just North of Tel Aviv (private rooms for the Chaperones, of course), we headed out to Jerusalem.

We started our tour at Mt. Olives, the worlds' most expensive cemetery. It pays to be here, (and to be Jewish), because when the Messiah arrives, he will scoop up all the souls from their graves, and lead them through the gates across the valley, and on through the Eastern Gates up to the Western Wall and up to Heaven for their resurrection. At least, that's how I understand it. No wonder Israel wrestled it back from Jordan during the six day war. The messiah is probably going to skip anyone staying at the Intercontinental Hotel that was built their while Jordan held control of the land.

From the Mount of Olives we moved down, into Jerusalem, splitting into the required male and female groups to visit the Western (Wailing) Wall. Not much crying going on when we visited, but, then again, I think that mostly comes from the female section--and possibly most of the crying comes from the fact that their part of the wall is probably a tenth the size of the dude's portion. It seemed crowded, while over on the MAN'S wall, we had plenty of room to stretch out and touch as much wall as we wanted. Besides the gender inequality, there is this little bit of controversy over the wall between the Jews and the Muslims. Each claim it as sacred. And each side says the other only considers it sacred to piss off the other side. Like the Mount of Olives, Israel gained access to the wall in the six day war of 1967, and judging by how much they love these bricks, it seems unlikely that they will give it back. Apparently, Obama has suggested that we might at least fly the flag of the United Nations, not of Israel, over this hotly contested piece of real estate. But, the Israeli-special operations units touring around in the square seemed to send the signal that this is quite unlikely. Apart from the controversy, it was stunning to see the devotion of the Jewish people to this wall which they consider to be the last remaining vestige of the original temple of God himself. It is a nice wall.

After all the excitement of touring the wall, we rounded up the womenfolk, and went to grab some eats. Arabic style. The Arabic Quarter of Jerusalem has the best food, hands down. My guide said to me, "Do we go to the fancy, clean place, with the okay food? Or, do we go the gritty place which will cost 8 dollars each, and has the world's best houmous and falafel.?"


My students are lovely, but they are prissy. They live a life of chauffeurs, maids, malls, and five star hotels. They DO NOT eat at greasy Arab houmous joints. But, what the hell--it's my field trip, and it's my job to open their eyes. We had the most amazing meal of fried, blended, and spiced chick peas I have ever head in my life; and I spent most of the meal asking my students..."are you not going to finish that? Here, give it to me." They did like the fresh pomegranate juice, but that's because that is a very Turkish drink. It's funny to me--America's flavor lies in its variety, and so goes our tongues. But everywhere else, be it Ecuador, Italy, or Turkey--regionalism dominates the palate. Taste is found in nuances, not the noise of a totally different flavor. And if you dare to vary too far from the accepted norm, don't look for your food to find any acceptance. This loyalty to flavor is strange to me, but at the same time, I can appreciate it. Maybe we're too concerned in America with creating the latest Mango-Salmon-Almond-Encrusted-Balsmic-Tofu-Mandarin-Gorgonzola salad, and a simple plate of well made falafel, sans sauce, crust, or remoulade would be better?

Regardless, with lunch finished, it was time for more controversial religious monuments. This time, Christian. We wove our way through the Arab Quarter, occasionally running into Stations of The Cross...the actual ones, along with alleys full of Abercrombie and Fitch shorts and sweats, Chinese-made plastic Tupperware, DVD shops, and head-scarf outlets. Finally, we arrived at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is one complicated place. It's owned in part, by no less than four different denominations...but forget about it if you are Anglican or Protestant (though you can still go visit, you just don't get stock). Here no less than the rocks Jesus was crucified on, the spot where he was anointed and the shroud of Turin was placed over him, and then, (as if that wasn't enough) the cave where he was buried, and then rose. Maybe.

Religious scholars on all sides have debated the validity of all of this, to say nothing of the atheists. But, whatever your viewpoint, the passion and raw belief of the visitors for which this is a pilgrimage of life-changing dimensions, was in all respects perhaps more powerful to behold than the sites themselves. There was kissing of rocks, crossing of foreheads to shoulders, burning of candles, mumbling of prayers in a cacophony of languages, and tears tears tears. These pilgrims belief was raw, intense, and profound. It very much captivated me, and my students, who, are mostly Islam-a-atheists who won't admit as much.

Speaking of which, we must move on to our final stop, at least, for my kids who could call to mind an Islamic prayer or two. The Dome of the Rock, a Mosque, is one of the most holy sites in Islam, built on top of one of the Holiest Sites in Judaism, and on Friday (the Holy Day) you gotta be Muslim to get in and check out the place where Mohammad ascended to heaven. Israeli storm-troopers and an Arabic bounder prevented about half of my group of Turkish Muslim students from entering. They didn't have their ID cards on them, identifying them as Muslim, and they couldn't remember any prayers to prove it. On top of that, my girls had to cover their heads up--something antithetical to how they are raised in their homes. In all, it was a very awkward experience for our little secular group; but again, my students who went in were struck by the reverence that the Muslims had for this place.

If nothing else, visiting all of these places solidified, for all of us, the need--and the complications of, finding peace in this contested land. The purported goal of our MUN conference in Israel was to pave roads towards that peace in the future generations of this region's leaders; but our trip to Jerusalem may have done more for that than three days of debate within the politically correct walls and corridors of the American School. Perhaps some of our leaders should consider a walk through the streets of Jerusalem before pontificating in the halls of their governments?

Full slide show of my trip, here:

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