The sea-side ruins of King Herod’s palace in ancient Caesarea look a lot like the ruins of the Crusader fortress about 50 yards away.  It takes an effort of the imagination to experience the millennial distance that separates one from the other.  At the fortress an exposed wall of earth displays the archaeological strata of centuries, but again spatial compression belies temporal distance. One insight, however, does come easily after a walk through Caesarea: there are a lot of histories piled on top of each other in this country.

“A Zionist propaganda tour” is how I described the impending trip to my wife after reading the itinerary. There was a moderate dose of irony in my reaction.  I am a Zionist, the liberal kind — two-state solution and all that — but contemporary Israel, I had concluded, was drifting further and further from its founding liberal ideals.  The Israel of Netanyahu and the religious nationalists whom he has co-opted (and who, in turn, are co-opting Zionism itself), was divorcing itself from American Jews like me.  This was an extended family trip, not optional, best to keep politics out of it, I thought. But could I separate the country from its politics, as an American or even as a Jew?

When a Jew immigrates to Israel, she is said to make Aliyah (“ascent”), but ascent (and descent) is the experience of all visitors to Israel who travel the compact vastness of the country. A surprising topographical variety creates a rhythm of ascent and descent: up from the coastal plain to the Golan Heights; down to the Negev Desert; even farther down to the Dead Sea; up to Jerusalem, which itself contains hills and valleys whose names evoke spiritual ascents and descents: Olives, Golgotha Gethsemane. Like the ancient harvest rituals that became liturgical holidays, the geography of Israel has become historicized, spiritualized.

Which brings us to the land. In a tour bus traveling south on Rt. 90 from the Sea of Galilee towards the Negev Desert you can easily miss the moment when you cross over into land that had been controlled by Jordan before the 1967 War. There was no Green Line on our tourist map.  Our normally voluble tour guide was quiet as we drove through — what?  The geographically neutral sounding “Jordan Valley” or the geographically charged “West Bank”?  Or maybe the biblically validated “Judean Desert”, preferred by the Ministry of Tourism?  Whatever the geographical designation, it is occupied territory.  Yet how easily moral qualms subsided as we admired the view eastward toward Moab. I’m in favor of two states after all; what else can I do?  My conscience was troubled only briefly when a Palestinian teen spat toward the bus.

The 4,000 foot climb from the Dead Sea to Jerusalem was imperceptible over the 20 mile drive until a distant view of the Old City made our elevation apparent.  These tours have a purposeful rhythm; we had arrived at the heart of the matter.  But contemporary reality quickly intruded on ancient reconnections.  In the time it took to walk from our hotel to the Jaffa Gate in the Old City, an Israeli Arab was shot and killed nearby while attempting to stab a police officer.  We turned back out of security concerns and a desire to spare the children a view of the crime scene.  But our appointment in Samarra could not be avoided: our bus inadvertently drove by the cordoned-off body covered in a black sheet, and we were stopped at a traffic light for good measure, forced to look.  Thanks to the anesthetic power of the iPad, our kids didn’t seem to notice the newest layer of grievance.

We did eventually enter the city on foot. Standing on the balcony of the Hurva Synagogue, scanning west to east, it all comes into view — Church of the Holy Sepulcre, Dome of the Rock, Western Wall, Al Aqsa Mosque — each a monument to revelation, but each an enclosing certitude, packed together, a stone’s throw apart.

Seaside Tel Aviv was a relief from the limestone heaviness of Jerusalem. But terrorism followed us there too with a horrific shooting on Dizengoff Street a few minutes from our hotel.  Meir Dizengoff had built the first home in Tel Aviv, a city which, I was surprised to learn, was just a beach north of Jaffa 100 years ago.  The house became an art museum and in May 1948 served as the clandestine meeting site of the Zionist leadership where founding father David Ben-Gurion read out the declaration of independence in front of a portrait of “the spiritual father of the Jewish State,” Theodore Herzl.  The new State of Israel “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.”  The liberal democratic principles of my America, under siege at home, too.  Histories piled on top of each other, far away but so close.