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Thoughts From the Holy Land

November 11, 2011

What is it that leads us human beings to congregate in our millions in a dusty city in order to walk seven times around a rock? To stand before an ancient wall in another dusty city in black attire nodding, chanting and weeping? To prostrate ourselves in a yet another city and kiss a silver star?

If faith were somehow erased from our DNA, would we find other reasons to indulge in what some might view as acts of collective delusion? Would we still kill, oppress and discriminate against  each other if we did not have the intangible catalyst of an exclusive relationship with a God three major religions claim to share?

And how does that God view us as we follow our communal rituals to the letter of an ancient scripture, yet on a daily basis commit acts and omissions  in blatant contradiction of the basic teachings around which the rituals have been constructed?

Were we incapable of faith, would we still have evolved value systems that resembled those imposed by great world religions? Thou shalt not kill? Thou shalt not steal? Thou shalt not bear false witness? Thou shalt not cover thy neighbour’s house?

And in a world without faith, would we have found other pretexts to kill, steal, lie and conquer to the same extent as we have managed in the name of God?

To the first questions I don’t have an answer. To the last, I would say that humanity needs no pretext to do bad things. Whether our acts are in the name of religion, tribe, factions of countries, we don’t need faith in a God to destroy each other and ourselves in the process. Nor do we need belief in Satan, Shaitan, the Devil to spur us on. We do bad things because that’s the way we are. Capable of good and evil. Divinely created or creatures of Darwin or Dawkins, I know not.

Those were my thoughts on visiting what the faithful call the Holy Land for the first time. I could have said “on visiting Israel”, but the state of Israel is a minute slice of the continuum  represented by the walls, rocks, altars, churches, synagogues, mosques, symbols and trinkets that abound in the territory Israelis and Palestinians call their its own.

In one sense you could view Israel as a side show. All the suffering that created it and the pain that its existence causes its own people and its neighbours is just the latest event in three thousand years of blood and turmoil.

Were the lives of the Canaanites, the twelve tribes, the followers of the Macabees, the exiles in Egypt and Babylon, the subjects of Herod, Augustus, Vespasian, Hadrian, Justinian, the early Caliphs, the crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans and the British any better than those of the Jews, Muslims and Christians who rub uneasy shoulders today?

Side show or not, we can’t travel back in time to examine that question. The reality of today is all we have to deal with.  

My trip to Israel was brief. To Bethlehem in modern Palestine even briefer. My wife and I made two day trips from Haifa, where our cruise liner was docked for three days. I never expected to come to any startling conclusions in what I saw as an opportunity to witness places and phenomena I had read about for decades. Nor do I claim any fresh insight that might change anybody else’s perception. What follows is just a set of personal impressions on a path trodden on by millions before me for much of recorded history.

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