In 1998, Richard and I had a marvelous opportunity to sail around the world as the ballroom dance teachers on a cruise ship. Many of the places we saw then, such as Oman, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia and Israel are in turmoil now, and not as safe for tourists. Last year, when Palestinian soldiers took refuge in the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem and were under siege, I marveled that I had stood where they were, and I could picture the place as the news reports came in. Even when I was there, Israel and Palestine were struggling, as they have been since Israel was formed.
When we docked in Haifa, Israel, we had only one day, so my Jewish friends, Murray and Sylvia (who had been there before) and I hired a cab driver who drove us through the entire length of Israel, to see as much as we could in twelve hours. Getting to Bethlehem was a lesson in world peace, and I want to share it with you, from my travel notes:
After the long drive back from the Dead Sea, we reach the ancient walls of the Old City in Jerusalem, and pass right through the old city to go to Bethlehem, just to the south. All along the way, there is evidence of the constantly changing borders. A barbed-wire and chain link fence marks the border for many miles, and on either side of it can be seen buildings with Hebrew signs on the Palestinian side, and Arabic lettering on the Israeli side, indicating that the land has changed ownership many times. Back and forth, back and forth, the fence moves, as various skirmishes change the borders. Bethlehem is now under Palestinian rule since the peace accord four years ago, so our driver feels it is not safe for us to enter in an Israeli taxi—he has phoned across the border and arranged with friends for a Palestinian car and driver to take us in.
Changing cabs makes the tension of these places palpable. Our driver stops at the Palestinian border and instructs us to walk across. We feel like characters in a spy movie as we walk between the crude guard shacks on the Israeli side—which are manned by guards cradling automatic rifles—walk across the no-man’s-land in the middle, and then between the equally crude guard posts and the equally well-armed Palestinian guards, and no one seems to pay any attention to us—they stare right through us. Our friendly Palestinian driver, in his Arabic- marked taxi, greets us on the other side. We breathe again.
Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity are just three miles away, so we’re there in a few minutes. As the driver chatters to us in quite serviceable English, we begin to relax. The friendliness of the two drivers, citizens of warring nations, points out that even when political situations are uncomfortable, people can find ways to work together. These drivers are not hostile toward each other, they are helping each other (and us) out. Later, we find out that many cab drivers would not take their passengers into Bethlehem—only ours arranged the switch.