In Israel, musing on discord and harmony

Worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

Destinations editor Eric Moya is accompanying travel advisors throughout Israel on a Central Holidays familiarization trip. 

Sometimes before a trip, I’ll put together a playlist. In Spain, for instance, my soundtrack featured the virtuosic duende of Paco de Lucia; in Panama, it was the sophisticated rhythms and harmonies of jazz pianist Danilo Perez.

In Israel, others have handled the playlist duties. On the Sea of Galilee, Christian rock blared over PA speakers during our sailing, like the most wholesome of party boats. As we drove into Jerusalem, our guide cued up two songs to play onboard our motorcoach: “The Holy City” (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Lift up your gates and sing”) and “Jerusalem of Gold,” an unofficial national anthem of sorts (“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, forever young, forever old”). In both instances, it was an effective attempt at mood-setting, judging from the hosannas from several in my group.

But even before we’d pulled into Jerusalem, I’d had another selection on repeat in my mental jukebox: alt-country artist Steve Earle’s 2002 album named after the city. 

Earle’s “Jerusalem” album is less about the Holy City per se than the aforementioned tunes; instead, it is intentionally and instantly evocative of the post-9/11 world in which it was released. Some might remember the controversy around the song “John Walker’s Blues,” with lyrics Earle wrote from the point of view of so-called “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh.

In his music and otherwise, Earle is outspoken about a number of topics, including politics -- “I’m a socialist in a country that doesn’t allow a socialist party,” he once said -- and the album is filled with wry, angry observations about everything from health care (“There’s doctors down on Wall Street sharpenin’ their scalpels and tryin’ to cut a deal,” from “Amerika v. 6.0”) to the complexities of the drug war (“All I wanted was a little money, all I needed was a week or two,” from “What’s a Simple Man to Do?”). 

Given the tensions between the U.S. and Iran as I write this, several of my friends and family members worried about the timing of this trip, the specter of retaliation against the region’s staunch U.S. ally looming. A few of the agents invited on this Central Holidays fam canceled. It all brought to mind the weary inevitability of the opening lines from “Jerusalem’s” title track, which closes the album: 

I woke up this morning, and none of the news was good
Death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothing anyone could do or say.

The majority of us decided to go ahead with the fam, with several commenting that they simply weren’t going to let fear and uncertainty dictate their plans. I can’t say the subject of Iran has come up very often, but our Israeli guide has been frank in discussions about tensions in the region, where even Jerusalem -- where followers of Christianity, Islam and Judaism coexist in areas within the Old City and beyond -- isn’t spared from the strife.

Regardless, there was something moving about walking throughout the Old City and seeing evidence of, if maybe not camaraderie, at least mutual respect. There were the faithful gathered along the Western Wall to pray; there was the man handing out paperback copies of the Quran, free of charge and in multiple languages, outside a mosque -- a form of outreach, he said.

In his song “Jerusalem,” Earle makes mention of his own spirituality:

Somewhere along the way I strayed and I never looked back again
But I still find some comfort now and then. 

View of the Golan Heights during a sailing on the Sea of Galilee.
View of the Golan Heights during a sailing on the Sea of Galilee. Photo Credit: Eric Moya

At least one of the guests on my trip made a similar comment about their religious affiliation, and I suspect that whatever one’s reasons are for visiting Israel, and whatever their relationship with spirituality, the experience will prove to be transformative in some way. 

On the subject of transformation: The funny thing about Earle’s song is that lyrically it soon takes a turn from its opening lines and, unlike the rest of the “Jerusalem” album, it is incredibly hopeful. It also makes use of biblical allusions:

I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.

The issues Earle spoke to on the “Jerusalem” album are still very much in the collective consciousness 18 years later. Perhaps the cynical among us would opine, like Earle’s unnamed TV commentator, that it’s always been that way. Still, perhaps others -- those who’ve stayed on a spiritual path as well as those who’ve strayed -- would find in Jerusalem an embodiment of the potential for humankind, no matter their beliefs, to live in harmony.

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