In Mexico City, after delivering a workshop on the Art and Science of Fundraising to the staff of a local philanthropic foundation, I received a good lesson in how the State of Israel is viewed from the other side of the world.
I exited the hotel to head for the airport for my return flight to Israel and the bellboy carried my bags to the taxi.
“Where are you headed?” the bellboy asked in English. I was happy I could finally conduct a short conversation (most of the hotel staff did not speak English) and I briefly debated with myself how to answer. After a week in Mexico City during which my hosts urged me not to walk outside at night, and their repeated warnings to me about pickpockets and kidnappers who prey on tourists had prevented me from exiting the car in certain neighborhoods, I was not certain it was prudent of me to reveal my country of origin. But finally patriotism conquered caution and I declared, “I came to Mexico from the Holy Land.”
The young man mulled this over, then said, “The Holy Land? Really the Holy Land? You’re from Israel?!”
“Yes, I am,” I said proudly. “You know the town of Nazareth? I live right by Nazareth, not far from the Church of the Annunciation.”
“Wow!” he cried, his voice filled with wonder and admiration. Then his expression suddenly changed from admiration to a half-embarrassed smile.
“Is Israel still the Holy Land?”
“What do you mean?” I asked, even though I already saw the direction this casual conversation was taking.
“You know… all the fighting and conflicts and violence you have… the war between the Jews and the Arabs… everything we see on television… that doesn’t sound to me like it’s exactly the Holy Land… “
I smiled to encourage him to continue speaking and not be embarrassed. So he continued:
“Here in Mexico City it’s understandable. There’s a lot of crime and corruption and violence… Mostly we don’t expect anything better, we’ve gotten used to how it is… But we expect better of the Holy Land… we expect more holiness… “
We parted with a firm handshake and I continued to ponder his words as the taxi slowly picked its way towards the airport through the interminable traffic jams of Mexico City. I finally concluded:
On the one hand, it is hard to reconcile the presence of violence and conflict in the living, breathing Land of Israel with the lofty ideals of being the Chosen People in the Holy Land.
On the other hand, when one takes a clear look at the violence and regression taking place around the world, including in the most advanced countries in Western Europe and even in the USA, and taking into account the fact that almost everything in life is relative and we are born and die imperfect (after all, even in The Bible some of the stories are steeped in lies, murder, theft, and adultery), we can see that although Israel is certainly not perfect, it is still, even at present, the Holy Land.
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He is Vice President of External Relations and Development at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College. Sagi serves as President of the Harvard Club of Israel. He is the author of “Son of My land” and “Fundraising” and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay first appeared in The Canadian Jewish News.