Israel Reflections

It has been almost four months since I’ve left Israel, and I figured that this is the time for me to say anything about it that I might not have gotten to. Thinking back to my trip, it seems just like yesterday, but in a different lifetime. Staring out of the bus window at the rolling landscape, walking down the Mediterranean, standing in the place some believe Jesus was crucified, digging up history and holding it in my bare hands—can these really be my memories?

I often think back to Israel, not just to relive my memories, but also to make sure that I don’t lose anything. I never want to forget the feel of picking up pottery off the beach of the Mediterranean, the exhaustion of a day full of digging, or the simple excitement that I experienced each time I saw a word in Arabic and realized I could, if not understand it, at least read it. While I talked about some of these experiences in my pervious posts, I never considered my trip in the larger context of my life. This always becomes apparent to me in my Arab-Israeli Conflict course. Our readings often mention places I saw in Israel, from the cities to the historical sites, even to the kibbutzim that I stayed at! It puts me into a larger historical context and helped me realize the gravity of the locations I visited. But my trip also humanized the events in the class for me. I’ve stayed at kibbutzim, I know how they work and the lives the Israelis who live their lead. I’ve walked among the Palestinians in Jerusalem on their way to Friday prayers and seen their tumultuous existence (I might’ve been in close proximity to a demonstration or two). I witnessed the wall, a hulking, gray concrete mass that divides the country. I’ve seen the land that two peoples still fight over. It gives me a feeling of both helplessness and hope. But, most of all, it gives me knowledge and motivation. My trip to Israel validated my major change to International Security Studies and confirmed my want to work in the Middle East. It allowed me to reevaluate my life. It showed me that I was on the right track and, for that, I will always be in Israel’s debt.


Digging at Megiddo

Over the last three weeks I worked on a dig at Tel Megiddo, located in Israel’s Jezreel Valley. Every day, Sunday through Thursday, I would wake up at 4:00, fumble through my morning routine, walk zombie-like to the bus, and end up at the site before 5:00 A.M. Then the real work began. The very first day of the dig we spent hours removing brush and large stones and piles of manure, courtesy of the cows from the nearby kibbutz, while also erecting a huge shade that would be our only protection from the Israeli sun. On a more typical morning, though, we would begin the day by going to our assigned squares and digging down. For most of my three weeks I worked in square S/5, on the western side of a wall that pretty much divided the square. By the time we closed the square, we had dug down over 1.5 meters—and that was just in a little over two weeks! After working for a few hours, we would begin our trek down the tel for breakfast around 8:30, where we had everything from cereal and eggs to chocolate-spread sandwiches (which I basically ended up living off of). At the end of breakfast Margaret, the volunteer coordinator, gave the daily announcements: reiterating the class schedule, giving the closing and opening times for the kibbutz store, and any other miscellaneous things we should know about. By 9:30 it was back up the tel, but unfortunately this time the sun was out. We often joked that we needed a break from just walking back up the tel! But once we were all up and had recollected ourselves, it was back to work. We would pretty much just continue whatever we were doing before breakfast—digging down, articulating walls, sectioning, brushing and cleaning our area. We did this until a little after 11:00, when we’d have a short fruit and (occasionally) coffee break. Then we’d work again (surprise, surprise) until 12:30, when we would begin to clean our area and pick up all the tools. By 1:00 we would be on our journey down the tel and to the buses. By 1:20 we would be back at the kibbutz and in the dining hall for lunch. After a meal that consisted of many glasses of lemonade, meat, and some sort of corn dish (we seriously had corn at least once a day at the kibbutz), we were gifted with free time until 4:00. I usually spent this time writing my field journal and showering, and unfortunately I had time for little else. When 4:00 all to quickly rolled along, we all journeyed down to the field office where we spent the next hour and a half washing pottery sherds and bone and flint fragments that we had found the previous day. Immediately following pottery washing, we had a Field Techniques course, where we would discuss everything from identifying and analyzing stone tools to operating a total station. Then at 7:00 we ate dinner, which was basically just a watered-down version of lunch. We had a little bit of free time until 8:00, when the lecture courses began. These lectures spanned the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age and every topic in between. Usually by the end of the lecture it would be around 9:00, so everyone in the course would stumble out of the classroom and immediately fall into bed. Then our alarms would go off at 4:00 A.M and we would do everything all over again.

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Tour of Israel

On my first week abroad in Israel, I participated on a tour that acquainted us with the basic geography and history of the country. Over five days we visited Sepphoris, Nazareth, Beit Shearim, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Banias, Nimrod’s Fortress, Capernum, Hippos, and Caesarea Marittima.


Sepphoris was a relatively large and well-off Roman city that contained lots of amazingly-preserved mosaics— it’s most famous one is even called the Mona Lisa of the Levant. We also visited the city’s water system, which was really cool to see. From where we toured, the water would be carried down the mountain and into the city through a series of tunnels and aquaducts.



For lunch on our first day we went to Nazareth. There I had my first taste of authentic-street shawarma and it was amazing! The dish quickly became our tour group’s staple food choice. Later we were also able to see the Church of the Annunciation. My favorite part was all the depictions of Mary the church owned. Countries from all over sent the church images of Mary and they hung all around the outside and inside of the famed church.



Beit Shearim:

Our last stop on the first day was Beit Shearim, an ancient Israeli burial site. Honestly this was probably one of my favorite places to visit, because exploring the catacomb-like tombs were unforgettable! Unfortunately, since it was so dark down there, I could not get any good pictures, but I did get a few of the coffins!


Tel Hazor:

The second day we toured Tel Hazor, the largest tel in Israel. This site was active in the Middle Bronze Age and the Iron Ages, and at various points was the northern most extent of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In my opinion, the most interesting part of Tel Hazor was its cultic elements, which we still do not know much about. We also got to tour its water system, which is pictured below.



On our third day we visited Banias/Panias/Caesarea Phillipi, and yes, it really does have that many names. It was originally called Panias, and functioned mainly as a cultic site for Pan. It then became Caesarea Phillipi, for Augustus and Herod’s son, under the Romans. Banias is its Arabic name and came from Panias, but since Arabic doesn’t have a “P” sound it was simply changed to a “B.” Anyways, the place was beautiful, and so green! I knew Israel’s ecosystems were diverse, but I never pictured it having forests and rivers that looked straight out of a tropical rainforest!

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Nimrod’s Fortress:

After Banias we went to Nimrod’s Fortress, which was probably my second favorite place that we toured. The hike to the fortress’s keep was quite the journey, but the views from it were to die for! The views in general, from anywhere on the fortress, were amazing. All you had to do was peer over a wall and you got to see beautiful rolling hills that went on for miles.




We began day four at Capernaum, right off the Galilee. The church there was beautiful of course, but my personal favorite part was just sitting on the rocks, looking out at the Galilee. The water was so blue and the air was so peaceful, it was just an impossible to describe experience.



After Capernaum we drove up to Hippos/Susita, and boy was this one a workout. Hippos sits atop a huge mountain, with a water source nowhere to be found. Sure, it has a great strategic location, but I personally didn’t think all the effort that went in to getting water there and building up the city justified it. I was amazed at how they were even able to bring all the materials they needed up there! They must have moved tons of stone up the mountain, and I can say from experience that climbing and navigating your way up is not fun.


Caesarea Marittima:

Our last stop, and my favorite, was Caesarea Marittima. It was one of the Levant’s most important ports and is located on the Mediterranean. When Rome ruled the region, Caesarea was one of its local seats of power and included all the bells and whistles that came with being an important Roman city: a hippodrome, amphitheater, lavish public baths. King Herod even built one of his palaces there! And I can completely see why. The weather there was perfect and the Mediterranean was gorgeous—if I had to pick a place to live in the ancient world I definitely would have chosen Caesarea.



Israel and Palestine

(Picture from The Daily Conversation YouTube–Israel and Palestine Explained)

Today I got to attend a talk by Dr. Gershon Lewenthal about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and how it has changed in the last year. He began the talk by bringing up Israel’s current political situation, since elections were held just a few months ago. A coalition was made with mostly right-wing or religious groups—but the government is extremely fragile. With only 61 seats, it is barely the majority needed to become a functioning government. Netanyahu, once again, is the Prime Minister, but this precarious government means he cannot take any hard stances that might isolate members of the coalition. The Israeli government is, in effect, limited to the wishes of the right-wing and religious parties. But what does this mean for the Palestinians? It means some of the extreme Jewish religious groups (such as the group who wish to rebuild the Temple on the Dome of the Rock) will be difficult to control and an end to the Jewish occupation of the Palestinian territories is unlikely. The recent actions of this government and its predecessor (again, a more right-leaning one) might help explain the recent outbreak of Palestinian violence. While it does not seem like another Intifada (the attacks show no planning nor do they have the larger society’s support), they are just as troubling because of the age of the attackers. The statistics provided by Dr. Lewenthal attribute most of the attacks to persons between the ages of twelve and twenty-six—mere children—with the majority performed by the eighteen to twenty-two block. In Dr. Lewenthal’s opinion, this might be because they were too young to remember the less-than-satisfactory results of the most recent Intifada. After the violence of the 2000s, most Palestinians came to accept that violent actions got them no where. In fact, it actually made life worse for them. More peaceful options proved more efficient for getting through to the Israelis, their government, and the international community at large. These children, though, do not remember this lesson. They are upset at the government’s inaction and have decided to take matters into their own hands. It is too early to assume what impact this recent violence might have on the ongoing conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but it does not look like a peace will be reached any time soon.

Where Should I Study?

After looking at the different study abroad options, I have narrowed down 100s of countries to three– for the summer at least. In regards to my semester abroad, all I have so far is that I want to go to a Middle Eastern country so I can improve my Arabic. Ideally, I would love to study in Egypt, but as of now I am mostly focusing on figuring out my summer abroad, as that requires more immediate attention. Before starting the Global Engagements program, I had no idea where I wanted to study abroad—my stock answer was “everywhere.” However, thanks to this class, I narrowed down my options to two programs, the OU Journey Program and a trip through the College of Arts and Sciences. In the Journey program, I am specifically looking at the Journey to China and the Journey to Turkey trips. The CAS (College of Arts and Science) trip I am considering is in Israel, and is basically a month long archaeological field school, which would be awesome for me since I hope to specialize in Archaeology, specifically in the Middle Eastern region. And there in lies the problem. I am now faced with the decision of whether I want to go someplace new, someplace I might never get to go to again (or at least go any time soon), or go to a place I will be going back to for my semester abroad and where I hope to work in the future. It’s a big toss up and I am currently still struggling with it. However, I plan to consult with my Study Abroad advisor, my friends and family, and my instructors, so hopefully they will give me good advice that will help make my decision clearer.