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Another side of Israel: Tel Aviv and Bethlehem

By in News

It’s an 8,347 km direct flight from Toronto to get to Tel Aviv. Unfortunately, not only does that number represent a great distance, it represents the disconnect many Canadians feel toward Israel.

For far too long I was insensitive to, ignorant of, and apathetic about understanding and appreciating the delicate nature of the Middle East and Israel’s role in it.

I embarked on a seven-day experiential program to find out first hand what is really happening on the ground in the Holy Land. The Israel Young Leaders Program brought together 10 Canadian university students, including myself, all wanting answers and clarity. A comprehensive overview of everything Israel, including religious tensions, political complexities, culture and nightlife, was provided.

I’m not a religious person in any sense, but for the first time in my life religion began to make sense.

It’s practical. It’s in the streets, at a monument, a wall. And while I’ll continue to be a skeptic of religious practice, there was something that came over me while I was at the Western Wall during Shabbat; it was spiritual, palpable and moving. It was beautiful.

I visited the Western Wall at sundown in Jerusalem. It was Dec. 24. Shabbat was in full swing, with a gathering of jubilant Jewish people celebrating everything that life is. Singing, chanting and praying percolated around the Wall — it’s something to see. But it wasn’t Christmas.

I then made the two-hour pilgrimage to Bethlehem. The streets went from a quiet ghost town feel to Christmas lights strung on every street corner; Christmas was here.

I had imagined a somber gathering: choirs singing, candles lit and maybe a donkey or two. Was this silent night? Not really.

It was more like a Fourth of July Parade meeting Mardi Gras then combining to become Christmas in Bethlehem. People were partying in the streets, singing Christmas carols in languages I didn’t understand or could recall from intonation.

People were everywhere, dressed in everything from their best Christmas dinner outfits to Santa hats — they were relentless in wishing us merry Christmas.

Christmas in Bethlehem is something to behold.

But my Israel experience over December was more than that. For me, it was a complete paradigm shift. The theme of living in the present seeps into the being of the Israeli people. There is life to celebrate.

While the apparent threats of terrorism, war and danger are ever-present, one gets the sense that nothing is taken for granted. What a difference from the complacent self-righteous Western world we live in today.

And talk about creativity. The entrepreneurial spirit that envelops Israel is incredible. People take risks, dream big and are not afraid of being told no; no just means another opportunity.

The narrative surrounding Israel and the tensions in the Middle East needs to change in Canada.

Far too often, journalists depict a much different picture than what is actually taking place. At the end of the day good journalism should represent the feelings of the people living and breathing it; Israelis feel this is not the case in most coverage.

Having spent some time there, my want and need to know more has been escalated. Get to Israel. Read about Israel. Try to begin to understand, even at the surface level, all of the complexities of this sacred place.

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image: Devin R. Heroux

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