Sunday, January 22, 2012

Daniel Gerdes

Israel Blog, Day 14: Mitzpe Ramon and Sde Boqer ( A Kibbutz where Ben Gurion lived and is buried).

We said goodbye to Eilat this morning, and started making our way to Be’er Sheva, in the far northern part of the Negev Desert. We drove for roughly one hour where we stopped at a site called a makhtesh, something that looks similar to a crater. A makhtesh is a geological phenomenon that is caused by movement of the earth’s tectonic plates.

Tens of millions of years ago, there was a vast desert of sand dunes that existed on the land that is the state of Israel today. Slowly the ocean rose to cover those sand dunes. After millions of years of sedimentation, layers upon layers of calcium and other minerals were deposited on the floor of the ocean, covering the sand dunes that were swallowed up by the ocean.

Eventually the ocean began to recede again and the plates on the earth’s crust began to move. The crust started to elevate in one spot, creating anticline planes—a ridge with one very steep side and one very shallow side. Because the top rocks (usually limestone) are very hard and brittle, they break very easily when stress is put on them. Stress cracks began to form and eventually the peak of the new ridge split and created a large fissure. This fissure grew wider and wider as millions of years passed.

Now what you have today is a very large crater shaped valley in the desert of Israel. In the bottom—after the limestone ridges were forced open and away from each other—the sand dunes that were once buried under millions of years of sedimentation are now exposed. A makhtesh is usually drained by one narrow river or stream, which is dry during much of the year as there is little rainfall.

We got the best view of Makhtesh Ramon from the small town of Mitzpe Ramon, a town situated on one of the ridges on the north side of the makhtesh, where we also had lunch. We then moved on up the road to the outskirts of the Kibbutz where David Ben Gurion is buried with his wife Paula.

As one of the founders and the first prime minister of Israel, Ben Gurion is admired by many Israelis. As a socialist and a Zionist, Ben Gurion’s dream was to create a state where resources where shared with everyone, to allow everyone to prosper in Israel. One of Ben Gurion’s great visions rose out of the 1947 partition plan, which relegated Israel to a small parcel of land in the north, and nearly all of the desert land in the south.

Because much of the land that was given to Israel was desert land, Gurion’s vision was to convert the desert to make it prosperous and useful. He envisioned small kibbutzim and villages across the desert; little oases across the desert making infertile land fertile and versatile. That dream has become partially true. Although the mass movement of people towards the desert that Gurion envisioned didn’t happen, his dream of using the desert as a place of growth and production did come true as most of the produce that Israel exports comes from the Negev desert.

After learning about Ben Gurion’s dream for Israel we took a short hike through a valley nearby. The valley, the Tsin Valley, is a former Nabatean trade route which stretches all the way to Petra, Jordan. Ben Gurion’s grave sits at the spot he frequented after his retirement. He moved to a small kibbutz—Sde Boqer—in the desert after retirement and walked to a ridge overlooking the Tsin Valley; he is now buried at that ridge.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Joe Sathe

January 20
There was not blog entry yesterday since it was a free day and there was little to report on. However, I will tell you that many of us took this day off to recover and relax (and do laundry). Some of the other activities were; swimming, windsailing, snorkeling, scuba diving, and tanning.

Today we went to The Hashemi
te Kingdom of Jordan. The adventure began early in the morning when we drove from our Hostel to the Jordan border crossing which was a 10-minute drive. When we got into Jordan we met our new guide for the day. The drive to Petra was supposed to be two hours but ended up being longer due to the weather…it was snowing. However we had no problems and arrived safely at the site. The historic site is controlled by the United Nations organization UNESCO and has been since 1985. Prior to 1985 the valley that contains the ancient city of Petra was open and many nomads lived in the hundreds of caves that used to be tombs. The free access to the site also led to the looting of almost all of the treasures that were within the structures and therefore it is very difficult to find out a lot about this place. For instance, there are bullet holes on the face of the most famous structure (the stone fa├žade that is featured in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Transformers 2) where people had tried to dislodge parts of sculpture to sell them. However, Petra may be one of the most fantastic and awe-inspiring places that I personally have been to. The sheer size of the place is impressive and the structures in the stone are massive and 80% of the city has not been excavated. I will not say more so that your “correspondent” on the trip can inform you about their unique experience later.
We then had lunch at a hotel in modern Petra where I was told I need to note the delicious Mushroom Soup and a desert known as “Mother of Ali” (which was similar to a hot bread pudding).
On the way home everyone was so exhausted from the walking (two hours down and back in the valley that leads to Petra) that we slept on the bus, then we crossed back into Israel and are now safely back at the Hostel.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Gavin Hart

Greetings loved ones,

We’re halfway through our time here in Israel; it’s been a blast so far. Today started by driving south on the Israel/Jordan border and learned about the conflict between Jordan and Israel over the area known as the West Bank of the Jordan River. Today the West Bank is a disputed Israeli/Palestinian territory and not a Jordanian territory after King Hussein gave up the West Bank and decided Jordan no longer had a claim to the land. The next stop took us to the Tel of Bet She’an an archeological site which features a Roman era settlement, we explored the remains of what once was a center for trade and travel including an ancient Roman bathhouse and a Theatre (those Romans lived such luxurious lives).
After crossing the border between Israel proper and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank we stopped at the memorial monument for fallen soldiers who died on the Jordan River Valley. After spending some time at the memorial we stopped for lunch in Qumran. Qumran is the place where the Dead Sea scrolls were first discovered. Here at Qumran we learned about the Essenes and explored the ruins of their old settlement. Some speculate that the Essenes wrote the Sea Scrolls, however there’s an ongoing debate on the accuracy of this belief. We then drove further south to the hostel in which we were going to spend the night. Good News? The scenery was beautiful, right in front of the Dead Sea and overlooking the mountains of Jordan; bad news? 100+ junior high school students were also going to spend the night at the same hostel. We ended the night with a bon fire with the whole class and three young Israelis also joined us. It was really interesting to talk to them about the conflict and learn about their perspectives of Israeli foreign affairs and internal politics, after all they are the future of Israel. So far this trip has been the trip of a lifetime, we’re already half way through but there are still many more memories to be made.

Much Love,


PS: Dear mom and dad, miss and love you!

Sarah Gengler

We awoke this morning to the sound of fists pounding on doors and shrieks in the courtyard. Our 14-year-old hostel guests were already awake and impatient for their friends to get out of bed as well. In addition to the loud wakeup call, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise over the Dead Sea and ibex, a mountain goat native to the region, wandering about the compound. Because we had a busy day planned, we ate a quick breakfast and were off to accomplish the first task of the day: climbing Massada.
Massada is a Herodian fortress built atop a mountain just off the coast of the Dead Sea. Commissioned in the 1st century BCE by King Herod, what was initially nothing more than a place of safety for Herod, ultimately became an impenetrable oasis complete with two palaces, an extensive bathhouse, and a food store that would one day outlast a three-year siege. In the last years of Massada’s use, quite some time after the death of Herod, it was home to a community of zealous Jews attempting to escape the persecution of the Roman Empire. These Jews believed that god would lead them to a victory in any situation and under any circumstances, a belief that ultimately led to their demise. The Roman army, commanded to rid the land of those who did not assimilate into Roman culture and society, quickly realized that the possibility of attacking Massada would be impossible due to the steep cliffs and narrow “Snake Path” winding from mountain top to bottom. And so they waited, laying siege to the community. However, because of the food stores that had been kept up even after Herod’s death, the Jews were able to avoid starvation far longer than the Romans had ever anticipated. Tired of waiting, the soldiers began work on a second access point to the mountaintop. On the eve of the invasion into Massada, the men of the community met and agreed that death was better than the torture, rape, and, best case scenario, enslavement that would surely follow once the Romans entered the fortress. And so the men, following the same kosher practices used when slaughtering animals, slit the throats of their wives and children before killing one another. The Romans found nothing but bodies and a burnt village upon entering Massada at sunrise, in their bittersweet victory.
After a slightly terrifying decent from Massada (at least for those of us afraid of heights) and the memories the plateau holds, we arrived at the Dead Sea for an afternoon of floating. Because the Dead Sea’s waters are only able to evaporate and not flow into other bodies of water, it is incredible salty and mineral-rich. This has given the Sea a reputation for both its healing abilities as well as causing those who dare enter its waters (as nothing lives in the Sea itself), the ability to float on the water with no effort. Thanks to our tough, Midwestern skin, we were among the few brave enough to go for a float in the chilly, winter waters.
We finished the day with a drive along the Peace Road, a road that runs along the Israeli-Jordanian border. Unlike other borders we have seen while here (between Israel and Lebanon, Syria, and even some parts of the Occupied Palestinian Territories) this border is considered to be very peaceful and has a border fence that looks more like it separates two farms than two nations. An interesting aspect to this border is that various areas of land, while part of Jordan, are allowed to remain under Israeli control (in a land swap) to continue farming efforts that already existed in the region at the time the peace treaty was signed. We had the opportunity to briefly visit one of these farmers, the owner of the only Aloe Vera plantation in the Middle East. In response to questions as to why anyone would try to farm on the Negev Desert, she gave us the response of former Israeli PM David Ben Gurion when posed with the same question: “God gave us the land so we could be part of the creation.”
Tonight we will arrive in Eilat, at the southern tip of the country, to enjoy a few days of relaxation and warm weather.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Angela Pospichal-Heublein

We began the day with breakfast at Kibbutz Gonen.  Between this meal and the previous night’s magnificent repast, all were in agreement that the food, produced fresh on the kibbutz, was quite a treat.   After breakfast, we heard from a member of the kibbutz who joined the movement in 1965.  He spoke of his experiences during the war in 1967, at which time the border with Syria was at a distance of only 500 meters from the kibbutz and the entire area was home to heavy fighting.  He also discussed the ways in which kibbutz life today differs from the early days; in modern times, individualism and capitalism have displaced the socialist ideology of yesteryear.  We concluded our time at the kibbutz with a brief tour of the grounds, culminating in a visit to one of the many bomb shelters scattered throughout. In this potentially volatile region, we were told, all buildings must be constructed in such a way that no one is ever more than 10 meters from the nearest shelter.  In a fascinating modern development, Israeli military intelligence now relies on text messaging to warn of impending missile attacks and direct residents to take cover.

Bomb shelter beneath the kibbutz doctor's office
After saying goodbye to the Kibbutz Gonen, we began driving through the Golan Heights, an area made famous by its annexation into Israel following the 1967 war.  Prior to that time, this area was part of Syria, and its ultimate fate remains a contentious issue.  We then took a slight detour to visit the Druze town of Buqaata. The Druze are a minority group that practice a largely mysterious religion; even within their own community, only a select few are allowed to read the sect’s holy books.  The Druze in Israel enjoy a position unique among Israeli Arabs; because they have no nationalistic aspirations, they are allowed to work in sensitive positions and have volunteered to be a part of the nationwide program of compulsory military service.  Those who live in the Golan Heights have the option to be Israeli citizens, but many have declined to become such in anticipation of a time at which the Golan Heights in which they live will be returned to Syria.  

A Druze woman in traditional religious attire
We continued the day’s journey with a stop high above the abandoned town of Kunetra, which was returned to Syrian hands.  Here, atop an ancient extinct volcano, we were able to peer across a strip of demilitarized land into Syria.  At this point, we were fewer than 40 kilometers from the city of Damascus. We listened to a lecture by Amir in a coffee shop located on the summit.  The name of the shop was Coffee Anan, a Hebrew play on words referencing the former head of the United Nations (a UN outpost is visible from the peak) and punning on the fact that the mountain’s height put us in the clouds (Hebrew: anan.)  The lecture concerned the fighting that has taken place over the Golan Heights and the continuing issues of security that make Israel all the more hesitant to cede the territory to Syria.  Following the lecture, we had a bit of free time in which to take in the view and explore a nearby army bunker.

The Syrian border lies beyond the lake in the center of the photo
Crossing the famous Jordan River proved somewhat anticlimactic; even at a very high stage due to the recent rains, it seemed to us native Minnesotans as little more than a small stream.  We stopped for lunch in the town of Kazerin, and then journeyed to the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  At over 200 feet below sea level, this body of water is the world’s lowest fresh-water lake.  Although the north of Israel is known as The Galilee, the sea itself is instead known as Kinneret, based on the Hebrew word for violin in reference to its shape.  We visited the old city of Capharnaum, the site which the Bible says Jesus moved to in order to begin his ministry.  Here we had another lecture by Amir concerning the birth of Christianity. The archeological site is home to the ruins of very simple dwellings that date from the first century as well as the remains of an ornate fourth-century synagogue.  According to Catholic doctrine, one simple foundation was once the home of Peter in which Jesus stayed.  The remains of a Byzantine church are on top of the old foundation, and a modern Catholic church has been built high above that, allowing access to the ruins beneath.  

Ruins of the synagogue (left) and simple homes (center, right)
The Sea of Galilee
The last destination for the day was Yardenit, a baptismal site along the Jordan River.  Christianity refers to the baptism of Jesus and his early followers in the Jordan, and today religious pilgrims flock from all over the world to be baptized here in that tradition.  To me, this location proved an enlightening glimpse into the commodification of religious fervor.  Vials of water from the river, as well as hundreds of other items of religious significance, were on sale at a gift shop though which visitors are compelled to exit. A prominent sign above a cash register read “Baptism Cashier.”  Finally, we ended our day’s journey at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov near Tiberias, which is the only city located on the Sea of Galilee.

Baptism at the River Jordan
Capitalism at work? 

Sarah Cissan

Today was technically our second day in Haifa. It was absolutely amazing apart from the awful weather. It was raining on and off throughout the entire day. We started off the day with an amazing breakfast served on the staircase in the Gallery Hotel (Well, I was told it was amazing. I prefer sleep to food). After that we left the hotel at around 8:30. Way too early in my opinion. Our first stop was at the Baha'i World Center, where we learned about the Baha'i Faith. The Baha'i Faith is a religion that follows the prophet Baha'u'llah, and focuses on the unity of humankind. It's a monotheistic religion that prioritizes the good aspects in humans and looks to strengthening them. It was by far my favorite part of the day, coming from a family of Baha'is. Unfortunately we were unable to travel through the Baha'i gardens because of the rain. They were worried about people slipping on the rocks, so that was a huge disappointment for me.

Our second stop for the day was a mountain called Ladder of Tyre. (It is called Rosh Hanikra) It was one of the most beautiful natural figures I have ever seen. It bordered the Mediterranean Sea and was composed of a soft, light colored rock called Chalk. The part of the mountain that bordered the sea was full of steep and slippery cliffs. I looked down and all I saw were waves crashing against the rocks, leaving white foam in their wake. In the mountain were caves that we were able to explore. The Mediterranean had carved out these caves over millions of years and the result was absolutely beautiful. It was extremely slippery, and I nearly fell more than once (much to my embarrassment).

Afterwards we continued driving around various mountains, on our way to the kibbutz we were staying at. A kibbutz is a communal living center where everything is shared by the residents. Land, agriculture (and at one time, clothes) are shared. On our way to the kibbutz we drove along the Lebanese border. It was amazing, being able to look over a wire fence into another country. There were farms and animals on the other side. The only difference was that the mountains on the Lebanese side were rather bare compared to Israel’s. That’s because many of the mountains over there are used for grazing animals. Along the border we saw a United Nations station. It seemed old and run down. The flag was threadbare and the signs were worn away. The only hint that it was still in use was the man who walked out of the building.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Madeline Bolton

Hello from Haifa!

This morning we left Tel Aviv to go north to Haifa. We started our day going to Narazeth, the village in which Jesus grew up in Christain tradition. Today the Church of the Annuciation covers the entire area of the village. We didn't acutally go into the church, instead we spent our morning talking to an Israeli Arab. He talked to us about his views on the Arab-Israeli conflict, as well as his experience as an Arab Muslim living in Israel. He runs an interfaith program called Project Visit, in which he goes door to door in order to promote connections between the different groups within Narazeth.

In the afternoon we went to a Moshav called Nahalal. A Moshav is a small community orgininally based on farming. This type of town has four basic tenants to distinguish itself. First, the land is not private, but instead owned by Israel. Instead of buying the land, the owner will lease it for a number of years from the state. This is actually a very common practice in Israel today. Second, the labor done on the Moshav is by the families that live on the specific plot, meaning that families cannot hire workers. This was meant to eliminate the chance of exploitation. Third, the members of the community are obligated to aid another member in times of difficulty. This aid can go from helping another farmer who had a bad yield of a crop to taking care of funeral arrangements incase of a death.

The Moshav that we visted was actually the first Moshav to be created in what is today Israel. It was founded in 1921 by Jewish immigrants that came in the Second Aliya (wave of Jewish immigration). The Moshav Nahalal began with 75 famalies, and today retains its small communtiy with a population of around 500. While many of the members of the Moshav have left farming, as it became unprofitable for the amount of land they had, the culture of the close knit community remains.

Our trip to Moshav Nahalal included lunch and a lecture of the creation of the Moshav by the grandson of one of the founders. I can not begin to describe how delicious the lunch we were served was, and I'm sure everyone would agree it was the best food we've had so far.