“Do you believe this?”
My family went to Israel. It was a great trip. I mean great like fun, and great like eye-opening, and great like broad in scope, and great like significant. We drove the width and breadth of Israel, from the Negev Desert to the Syrian border, from the Jordan River to Tel Aviv, and we saw the land laced with its enmeshed-estranged legacies of monotheism, each hellbent on establishing its primacy and singularity.
A lot of the trip went like this: here’s an old thing. Here’s what Jesus did here. Do you believe this is where it happened?
“This” being the crucifixion and death of Jesus, the tomb of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, the Last Supper, the place where Jesus fell the first time, the place where Jesus fell the second time, the house of Peter, the house of Simon the tanner where Peter had the vision on the roof, the place Veronica wiped Jesus’s face, the birth of Jesus, the alcove which once held the manger of Jesus, the mountain on which Satan tempted Jesus, the mountain on the side of which Jesus preached the Beatitudes.
“We don’t know it 100%,” our guide, Good News, said, “but we believe because we are Christians.”
We’d mutter and wonder.
“Do you believe it was right here?”
“I don’t know. Sure.”
“I don’t know if it happened here. Maybe not exactly here.”
“But you think it happened here probably, right? Nearby?”
“I don’t know.”
“Most people believe it was here.”
“Is there proof?”
“Of course not.”
“There’s a Jesus fish carved in the stone so we know it’s true.”
“But that’s amazing.”
“So what if I’m not sure it was here?”
“We’re in the right city, at least.”
“Do you think he was crucified at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Garden Tomb?”
“They’re less than a mile from each other.”
“I couldn’t see the skull face in the cliff at the Garden Tomb.”
“So maybe it was Holy Sepulchre.”
“But who says the hill had to look like a skull? It could have just been a place where skulls were.”
“The tomb at the Garden Tomb is sketch.”
“But there’s a winepress, so.”
“We don’t know if we know where he was crucified, dead, and buried.”
“Does it matter?”
“I wish I knew.”
I learned that the Holy Land buzzes with heat and tension. In Jerusalem especially there were guns and temples and mosques and churches and soldiers and trinkets and hummus and calls to prayer and calls for peace and violence on Fridays before Shabbat and very little pork. There were t-shirts that said “Peace” in Hebrew and Arabic and t-shirts that said “Uzi does it.” Whatever you come to find, you’ll find. Peace and violence are close together. They share t-shirt racks.
It was nice to see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. I knew Bethlehem was in the West Bank, but I didn’t know what that meant: it meant we entered Area A, Palestinian territory in which Jews are forbidden.
On the way to the church, we drove along the wall separating Palestine and Israel. Trash and tear gas canisters rolled on the ground. Graffiti, excellent graffiti, was on the wall, as far as you could see: gray wall, tan earth, blue sky, but colorful graffiti. We passed the Walled Off Hotel. We saw the Banksy pieces and talked about like them like you’d talk about Monet pieces in a museum.
We were on a path in front of the wall, looking at a white spray painted spot. That spot was where Pope Francis stopped to pray for peace. That spot was below a camera with a machine gun affixed to it. Palestinians throw rocks at the wall and the guard tower, but if they do anything more, the soldier in the tower can play the camera like a video game and shoot.
Next to the spot, across a dirt path, was a playground and a crowd of kids in blue t-shirts doing crafts for summer camp, under the camera with the gun.
“I don’t care what you think. That’s evil.”
And then we went to a shop and had coffee with Good News’s friend, who sold us an icon and lots of olive wood rosaries, and then we saw the Church of the Nativity, and then we went to Shepherd’s Restaurant, across from the field where the angels told the good news to the shepherds (“Do you believe it was there?”) and after washing down a long lunch with lemonade infused with so much mint leaves it was green, a water pipe appeared. I hadn’t smoked hookah in four years. Good News told his friends who own the restaurant to put the tobacco in a hollowed-out apple to make it last longer.
“They treat me like a king here,” he said, showing us the green apple.
Before we entered the Garden of Gethsemane that afternoon, we could see eight ancient olive trees hulking in the gated-off garden, the only living witnesses to Jesus’ agony the night he way betrayed—why don’t we make a bigger stink of that, that those trees were there when he was there.
Just across the street from the holy garden and the basilica, in view of the gate through which the Lord definitely entered on Palm Sunday, a man was pulled over for trying to sneak his car down a street Israeli police have blocked off. The street had been blocked because later that day, thousands of Orthodox Jews would gather to pray at the grave of a prominent rabbi who’d been dead a year. The cops were directing traffic and showing off their guns to discourage violence. But this man who tried to get around the barriers, he was forced out of his car. While a vendor tried to sell my dad and me a white lace scarf, the police forced the offender out of his vehicle and slammed him against the hood and pinned him and cuffed him. Some people watched, but not many. Tourists watched and I wondered what they believed about what they were seeing. We saw that happen, saw them force him into the car, and then we went into the basilica and saw how peaceful the garden was. Everywhere, pockets of American Christians huddled in shady corners and sang worship songs that had gone tacky and read the account of Jesus at Gethsemane. It was quaint and lovely and smacked of truth in a city that was small but not quaint and ancient but not settled.
I think my family was taken by the olive trees. ‘Cause Jerusalem is built up and dense. Its spiritual sites are enshrined in limestone and gold and oil. But not the olive trees. What is anyone going to do to an olive tree. Those gnarled things, and the ground beneath them, might be the only stuff from then that’s here now. The Bible stuff and the present-day stuff is an assault on the senses and the spirit because of what it all demands of you. It all wants you to pick a side and lock in an answer and decide what you believe, and it’s too much to take in. But violence in the city or not, an olive tree is an olive tree. So what’s realer, tree or gun?