JERUSALEM—In the United States when I look around, I know the earth itself is old, but everything around me is new. I see new buildings, new ideas, and people who seem to always be on to the next, newest thing with little regard for the past.
But in Israel, I feel the weight of history everywhere I go—even in the metropolis of Tel Aviv. The people seem to carry it in their bones and on their backs. During a tour of a tunnel beneath the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I saw how this ancient city is actually one ancient city built on top of another, on top of another. And someone is always digging something up, or building on top of something that is incredibly old.
It’s like my Israeli sister-in-law said last Saturday during a family outing in the Jerusalem forest. We were having a big picnic and nearby was an ancient cistern for gathering water (which are everywhere around here). The cistern now makes a perfect swimming hole—if you can handle crawling inside the small opening. The hills around us were full of remains of ancient people. I thought the whole thing was pretty amazing, and told my sister-in-law so, to which she replied, “In Israel, everyone is always digging something old up.”
But even with the frequency of discovering ancient artifacts and buildings, it can still cause a stir. Once in a while, it even causes controversy.
Last week in a place called Ashkelon, an excavation of 3,000 year-old bones by the Israeli Antiquities Authority became the focus of national attention and even protests. The ancient cemetery, which authorities are nearly positive holds the remains of either pagans or Christians, was being moved to make room for the new wing of a medical center. The particular facility, Barzilai Medical Center, has been vulnerable to rocket and missile attacks over the years. So the government decided to build a bombproof wing to keep the staff, patients, and family members safe.
The irony of moving a graveyard to make way for the bombproof wing of a medical facility is the kind of thing I’ve come to associate wholly with Israel. It seems that here, on the doorstep of death, new things are imagined and created to protect life.
It’s a bit like the history of Israel. Israel wasn’t a place that was, and then just grew into its modern form. It was an idea, a dream, a wispy memory that wandered through the heart of the Jewish Diaspora for two millennia.
A century ago, before an official mandate or the formal creation of a modern state, there were those who found their way here and struggled to work the land and bring it to life. An elderly friend of mine told me the other day how her parents came to Israel 70 years ago from Russia. They called themselves pioneers—as though they were in the Wild West—and struggled to survive just for the dream of a life for them and their children. “My mother told me she didn’t even have enough food to feed us,” my friend said, smiling and adding, “But we grew.”
Today it seems like Israel struggles to make peace with its future as much as with its past. History has grown so heavy that it weighs down every sentence, every possible solution. But ironically, underneath it all are the roots of two peoples that are deeply and tightly woven together. Maybe that’s why people love discovering the past and try so hard to protect it—it reminds them of who they used to be and what they can become.