Above the Hebron Hills the first rays break through the morning clouds clothing the hillsides in a golden light. The limestone outcrops stand out among the sparse cover of Jerusalem pines and low grass. Soon the sun will shine forcefully on the rolling countryside cut by steep valleys and meandering wadis. Soon another day begins in this ancient land. Signs of its past inhabitants can be seen in these open spaces. The steep tell, home to cities through the centuries, the well from which water was drawn for thousands of years, the tombs in which generations were buried in the distant past, the wine press once surrounded by stands of grapevines. Modern human activity is not missing. Most people in the kibbutz are still asleep, but a lonely cyclist is already on the road in this early hour. A few cars pass. The power lines are a constant reminder that these hills are connected to modern infrastructure. Yes, this place might be in the country, but it is part of a populated state, it is part of a growing economy. But modern life here has not obliterated the signs of the past, modern life has not wiped out the beauty of the place.
Not all of the Holy Land is like that. No, only pockets remain where the landscape has not been cut up. As I travel through the coastal plain, past Qiryat Gat, then through Tel Aviv to Netanya, uninspiring housig blocks stretch on all sides. There are fields, too, fields of monoculture orchards crossed by irrigation lines and scattered with tattered greenhouses and large chicken barns. They are interrupted by large shopping malls, factories, car parks, and rubbish dumps. Empty lots flash past where some building project has been abandoned or not yet finished, where thistles and rubbish have taken over. Roads and highways, wide and flat, lie in the sweltering sun. They are connected by massive interchanges with sweeping on-ramps and large bridges. Beside the concrete, dust piles up …and rubbish. Streams, once flowing freely, now find their way as drains through the roads. Some may overflow in winter into boggy ponds, but in summer only dust and rubbish are collected here. It seems that if there is one thing that’s cheap in Israel it is land. For it is used with abandon. Large swathes are converted to commercial and infrastructure purposes every year, while new neighbourhoods with wide roads and little green space apart from palm trees are developed on limestone hills and sandy plains alike. Meanwhile old warehouses are slowly dilapidating, while the shopping malls just moved to the other side of the city, connected by a new road.
And lest you think that I just bemoan the progress the Jewish State has brought to this land; I am no less enamoured by the chaotic Arab settlements springing up in many places. Houses outcompete with each other, signs of luxury and wealth incongruously slapped into seemingly poor neighbourhoods, where roads remain unfinished for years and cars continue to turn new shortcuts into dust, even when roads are built. And did I mention the rubbish? It surrounds the towns as the unmistakeable sign of human acitivty.
The land is not just cut up in the densely-settled coastal plain or the population centres of the West Bank. No, fleets of excavating machinery have turned to the hills. Where a few years ago a wadi emptied into the plain, a concrete drain is built, a scar – two hundred meters wide – has been cut into the hillside. Stabilisation works have turned the rolling fields into denuded, symetric slopes. Even large mechanical excavators appear small in the expanse of flattened land. I know that this land was once the backwater of the Ottoman Empire, that the impoverished inhabitants gathered the last wood to stoke the fires of their poor homes, that erosion denuded its hills. I can see the trees planted in the last century, the irrigation lines that made the desert bloom. But has it turned into a new desert of concrete and asphalt, of greenhouses and square homes, of dust and rubbish?
I have to say it: it is ugly, this Holy Land. I am grateful that I still saw the wadi when just a small road wound past it. I am grateful that I still saw the sun rise over hills instead of rooftops, I’m grateful that I still walked in the quiet of the morning. I wonder whether in a few years I can still see the traces of the ancient past. I wonder whether people of a new generation can still imagine the landscape as it was for millenia. Can we still make the connection to those events and places, those people and experiences that cause us to call this land the Holy Land? Maybe one day archaeologists will just excavate among the modern clutter, as archaeologists do in many cities among modern office buildings, trying to piece together ancient lives with reference to a few pieces of scattered evidence, far removed from all context that the landscape could give us. Maybe all that will remain of the land will be a place for data mining, beside the all-encompassing economic activities and the ever-important task of moving goods and people quickly from the factory to the shopping mall.
I still think that the most important events in history happened in this land, that it is an amazing place. But I also think that in an attempt to possess it, we can also strangle the life out of this land. The Holy Land? Yes. But its history also continues in other places, in distant lands. And if God acted in this place at the crossroads of the continents, shielded by hills, yet taken by many conquerors over centuries, then God can also act in other places, whether it is at the crossroads of modern commerce or in the tranquility of the most beautiful landscapes far from bustle.
Some people may see the words of the prophet Isaiah fulfilled: “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the ground shall become level, the rugged places plain.” (Isaiah 40:3). But I never thought it would be like that. I never thought that it would destroy the land.