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Observations on Israel

[For an update on the Mt.Zion dig and to keep up with the progress go to http//digMt.


 The following is a hodge-podge of observations made during my first trip to Israel from February 26 to March 9, 2008, augmented by some fact checking. Just preceding the trip there was a renewed disturbance between Israel and Palestine. The purpose of the trip was to participate in an archaeological dig with James Tabor and Shimon Gibson on Mt. Zion. The trip grew out of my interest in Dr. Tabor’s book The Jesus Dynasty. One can follow the dig by using Google to go to Dig Mt.


Israel is a Parliamentary Democracy.


Israel is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. It is slightly smaller than New Jersey.

Traffic and Transportation:

Traffic moves on the right side of the road as in the United States. Passenger vehicles are almost all small to midsize and the scarcity of pickup trucks is striking. There is an abundance of small motorcycles and a moderate number of bicycles. In Jerusalem many people walk or ride the bus to their destination within the city. Parking space is at a premium. Fuel is expensive.


Tourism is the third largest business in Israel behind agriculture and manufacturing. The major imported food is grain; fruit and vegetables are exported. Significant activities are diamond cutting and software manufacturing.

Unemployment is over 7% and prices are high relative to the US. The poverty level is $7.60 per day per person and 21.6% of the population is below that level.


There are approximately 6.5 million people living in Israel of whom 76.4% are Jewish. Of these, 67% were born in Israel. The remaining 23.6% are mostly Arab.

Most appear to live in apartments. Muslims reportedly prefer single dwelling houses, but this was not confirmed.

Most buildings, both commercial and residential, are made of the ever-abundant stone. The stone is very hard sandstone and almost all have the same sand color with little variation.


People appearing in public are for the most part not smartly dressed. Many wear sweaters or coats even when the temperature is 75 to 80 degrees. On a day when the temperature was above 80 degrees I saw no one in short sleeves. Almost no women had really short hair.

There is less obesity among the population than in the US. The diet is heavy on fruit, vegetables, soups, bread and cheese and spare on meat. Breakfast is a hearty meal. Fish is more in abundance than meat. Eating out is popular and might be more so if the restaurants were cleaner. One is repulsed at the door of some (a minority) of them, but others that are passable have a slightly grimy look and feel. What does the public health department do?

Most of the locals speak passable English—it is the most common foreign language spoken in Israel.

While individual Israelis are delightful, outgoing people with a great sense of humor, most are outwardly distant and cold. They are said to have a cold exterior and a warm interior. No doubt the tensions between the Jews and other ethnic groups in the region contribute to this display of their public self.

The Orthodox Rabbis are especially poorly dressed. Their usual dress is all black. Their suit with vest and sometimes a sweater or top coat even on warm days are 2 to 3 sizes too large for their rather large persons; most are overweight. Many wear a large black hat and black shoes that would do a farm worker well. They seldom show any friendliness or even recognition of a stranger as a person. Many are seen reading the bible while walking, sitting in a restaurant or standing on the street corner.  One resident I spoke to about this said it was a problem. He said that they are trying to play act that their time and job are so important that they have no time or interest in things of the world. They cannot socialize easily with those not engaged in work such as theirs—so they walk and read and ignore the world. He said they do little work but often put the work off onto their wives. Perhaps this attitude is reflected also in their sloppy dress and personal appearance generally. There was an exception—one Rabbi came to the dig and without removing his garb fell to working for more than half a day. He worked hard, was friendly and attentive. He tried to do some of all the work being done by all of us. He was reported to be the “Orthodox of the Orthodox” and a wealthy farmer from Switzerland. He was an exception. He asked me a question I did not understand. I later realized he was asking if I observed the Sabbath.

Most Orthodox Rabbis seem to be stuck in time. They still apparently spend a lot of time and energy defining what is required to honor the Sabbath. That is, defining what constitutes work so it can be avoided since work on the Sabbath dishonors that day.

Generally, the population in Jerusalem where I had most contact seemed to possess a low-grade anger that is pervasive and not directed at a specific target.

Part of the heritage of the people in the region is a history of living within walled cities. It would be interesting to study the residual effects this heritage has, if any, on the current population. Has it seeped into and is now part of the unconscious mind of the residents. Is the wearing of excessive clothing symbolic of a protective shell?

The relations between the Palestinians living in Israel and the Israelis are strained as we all know. The causes are numerous and complex. As one Palestinian described the situation to us it occurred to me that at least for him the tension had less to do with historical factors than with current conditions such as the prohibition against him owning property in Israel.


In regard to religious affiliation: 76.4% are Jews; 16% are Muslim: 1.7% are Arab Christians; .4% are other Christians; 1.6% are Druze and 3.9% are unspecified. One knowledgeable person told me that approximately 50% of the Jewish population was Orthodox.


Literacy is defined as those 15 years of age or older who can read and write. The literacy rate is 97.1 %.  Most speak Hebrew and English.


There are some trees, flowers and shrubs in Israel that were familiar to me though my opportunity to view and examine them was limited.  Many trees and shrubs were gnarled and twisted as one would expect in a rocky, dry environment such as this.

I noted: pine trees similar to the Virginia Pine in the US., and sycamore, cedar, willow, juniper and a spruce-like tree. The olive tree is quite common. On the farmlands are fruit trees: plum, pomegranate, orange, banana, grapefruit, fig, pear, date palm and others.

Judging from the popularity of raw cucumbers eaten for breakfast one must assume that they are plentiful on the local farms as are cherry tomatoes. Sweet potato soup is a popular dish.

Redtop Fotenia, roses, rosemary are among the plants adorning the yards and parks.


I saw one huge rat run across the road while on a bus tour, but no other wild animal. There were a few birds, but they were not plentiful nor was there a great variety. At the Mt. Zion dig I saw 3 centipedes among the rocks and a few earthworms and ants where I was digging.

On the domestic scene I saw 2 camels and a few chickens, goats and sheep, and one donkey.  I saw no horses, mules, cattle or swine. Farm animals were not much in evidence.

There was an excess of cats and a few dogs.


Jerusalem is the capitol of Israel.

The terrain is hilly to mountainous. The streets and sidewalks are not well kept as regards cleanliness and trim of grass and shrubs. I saw several instances of unsafe obstacles such as iron rods sticking out of concrete, electrical connections uncovered and deep holes in the sidewalk uncovered and unmarked. Construction sites are poorly marked even when they intrude into the public streets. This is all surprising especially in view of the legalistic nature of this society. Perhaps they have decided to direct their legal skills toward protecting the city from suits from the people.

The Old City of David:

The old city is walled. It contains 4 sections: Jewish, Armenian, Arab and Christian. For the most part it is filthy, smelly, crowded and tourist oriented. There are numerous shops peddling everything from vegetables, bread, fish and meat to trinkets, jewelry and clothing. Christian religious symbols are plentiful.

The wailing wall is here and can be seen and heard by the visitors. The wailing occurs only at certain times and the sound is dreadful. The nearest thing to it in my experience is the sound made by many water jet skis or chain saws all running at once.

The Christian section is crowded with too many notable locations in a very small area to be believable. The Catholic depiction of the Stations of the Cross for example may have one or two shops between them and for some reason one station was being moved to a nearby spot. Golgotha is there despite that biblical statement that Jesus was crucified there and that it was outside the city, and despite the known historical fact that the Romans always performed their crucifixions outside the city.  The temporary tomb in which Jesus was buried along with other sites were all in close proximity. When we asked about this discrepancy, we were told that these events were all here because that is where the tourist are. The early church created a situation here that is a major problem.


Perhaps the greatest asset and resource of Israel is its great store of artifacts. They are everywhere and represent thousands of years of warfare, destruction and rebuilding. By law nothing is built without first digging for the hidden treasures and information under the surface: not highways, homes or businesses or any other structure are built without a dig.

The Dig:

The Mt. Zion Dig is located approximately 200 feet from the wall of the old city in an area believed to have been where the elite lived in biblical times. Specifically it may be the site of the home of Caiaphas, the high priest to whom Jesus was sent before his crucifixion.

I found many pieces of broken pottery and mosaic tile, several jug handles and the bowl of a 15th century Ottoman Empire pipe used to smoke opium. The group found several coins going back at least to the 6th century and my dig partner found a widows mite—a very small coin.

The dig will likely take 5 to 10 years. Anyone can volunteer to join the dig.

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