Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta


Until eight years ago, Israel, home to the world's three top religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), was a forbidden land for most Indians. But unlike South Africa, Indian passports did not bar entry to the land. Visas were given on separate papers but not endorsed in the passport to obviate objection by Islamic countries. A consular office has been in Bombay since the 1950s.

Indian Jews are still to be found in Cochin, Calicut and Bombay. Several hundred Mizo Jews, part of the 10 lost Jewish tribes, are struggling to get to Israel. The Indian Jewish community in Israel numbers around 30,000, mostly from Bombay. There is a central organisation of Indian Jews in Israel. Its president is Noah Massil, who is also the editor of Maiboli, the Marathi quarterly. The Pushkarnas run a chain of Indian restaurants in Israel.

How does one get to Israel? The cheapest, quickest and most rewarding way to the Holy Land is, as the crow flies -- a direct Royal Jordanian five-hour flight to Amman in Jordan.

The travel to Israel, however, is a nightmare of security checks. The national carrier, El Al, which flies thrice weekly from Delhi, requires passengers to arrive four hours before take-off for a grilling and intense search of baggage and the mind that is both puzzling and annoying. But the Israeli security marshal will tell you it is for your security.

El Al cannot fly over Islamic countries bordering Israel. So it follows a circuitous route over Europe and takes almost double the flying time to Ben Gurion airport. With the creation of the Palestine National Authority in Israel, an interim step to the state of Palestine, the new international airport at Gaza now receives a number of airlines, mostly from Islamic countries.

A one-hour bus ride from Amman will cross the Jordan valley at Allenby bridge over River Jordan into Israel just north of the Dead Sea. The 400-metre-deep and 400m below sea level Dead Sea has magical healing powers. If you arrive, like I did, on a Saturday which is Shabath, and after 2.00 PM, Allenby will be closed. The crossing will have to be by the bridge 60km north, close to the Golan Heights, called Sheikh Hassan. There is one other crossing between these two.

The Jordan valley, that is the portion west of River Jordan was occupied by Israel in the Six Day War in 1967, thereby shifting the 1948 border up to River Jordan and across the Golan Heights in Syria.

The road to the Holy City of Jerusalem climbs from the Dead Sea along a desert dotted with Bedouin camps, Israeli military posts and Arab and Jewish settlements to the 800-metre-high Jerusalem. The two million Jews and Palestinians are perched on arid hills and dry valleys, where the temperature shoots up to 45 degrees Celsius in summer and snows in winter.

The Indian clock has to be put back two-and-a-half hours in summer and three-and-a-half in winter. Four shekels equal one dollar and a shekel is roughly Rs 10. Israel is an expensive country supported politically, morally, financially and diplomatically by America. The US Jewish lobby is the most powerful anywhere in the world. Israel has survived as a nation mainly due to US military and financial backing.

Israel was created in 1948 from the erstwhile state of Palestine. Fifty-two years later, the territory is to be divided between Israel and Palestine, the latter carved out from Gaza strip and West Bank, the two units linked by a safe corridor through Israel.

Israel is a tiny nation of six million people, roughly half the population of Delhi, but the real melting pot on earth. India established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1992. India and Israel have a shared history. Both got independence at around the same time and both have fought several wars and skirmishes with hostile neighbours.

I got a four nights-five days package based in Jerusalem with day trips to Gaza, Tel Aviv, Haifa and the Walled City. Jerusalem is a beautiful modern city born out of the old Walled City enclosing the historic tri-junction near Mount Zion of three of the world's leading religions. The wall of the Old City, its 20th since King David built the first, has eight gates and names like Damascus and Jaffa. The Walled City is divided into Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Armenian quarters.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, The Dome of the Rock Shrine and Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Western (Wailing) Wall are the three hallowed portions of the Old City. The Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, is a symbol of Jewish dispersion and suffering for 2000 years. The Church of Holy Sepulchre was where Jesus was crucified and resurrected while the mosque and shrine complex is where Muslims believe Prophet Mohammad ascended to heaven. Sacred to both Muslims and Jews, the Dome of the Rock Mosque, according to the Jews, is the Temple Mount where the biblical temple once stood (a bit like our Babri Masjid and the temple of Ram).

The best views of Jerusalem are had from Mount Olive and Mount Herzl, named after one Theodore Herzl, who first conceived the idea of a Jewish homeland.

But the most haunting sight is atop Yad Vasham, the holocaust memorial which displays assertively the shameful history of the persecution and extermination of six million Jews, including one-and-a-half million children by the Nazis. These horrific crimes by man on mankind have no parallel. The only other place that is remotely as terrifying is the exhibition in Saigon of the bestial atrocities committed on the Vietnamese by the Americans during the Vietnam War. You need a full day for the Old City and another half day for the rest of Jerusalem.

Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta continues his notes on the Holy Land.

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