Holy Land is num­ber one with­out a bul­let

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - CELEBRATE -

Is­rael has be­come the holy grail for night-life as the hip crowd turns the cen­tre of the re­li­gious Mid­dle East into party cen­tral, writes Frank Bar­rett

TIME for a travel quiz: “Where are we?”.

Iden­tify the place re­cently named as the World’s Best Gay City (it’s also in the top 10 of the world’s Ul­ti­mate Party Cities). It’s packed with night­clubs and cock­tail bars – and it has a sea­side so ex­cel­lent it’s been dubbed “Mi­ami Beach on the Med”.

You may be sur­prised to learn that the place in ques­tion is Is­rael’s sec­ond city, Tel Aviv.

Re­ally? Is­rael is a deeply re­li­gious coun­try, you’re think­ing. Af­ter all, this is where some Or­tho­dox Jews take their re­li­gious ob­ser­va­tion so se­ri­ously that they are un­able even to turn on an elec­tric light on the Sab­bath.

For Chris­tians who view Is­rael as the cus­to­di­ans of some of their re­li­gion’s holi­est places, the idea that the coun­try is turn­ing into party cen­tral may be a lit­tle un­com­fort­able.

Now, im­prob­a­bly, Is­rael is on the thresh­old of a ma­jor come­back to the world’s hol­i­day mar­ket.

Is Is­rael ready for a new tourist invasion? And is there more to the coun­try than the Holy Land places?

I had good rea­son to go and find out be­cause some 40 years ago, it was here I al­most met a vi­o­lent death. I was aged 14 and on a Christ­mas tour of the Holy Land with my aunt.

On our way back to Jerusalem from a visit to the place where Je­sus is said to have de­liv­ered his Ser­mon on the Mount, our tour party stopped for a meal at a some­what shabby sea­side restau­rant.

Af­ter de­clin­ing most of the menu – veg­e­tar­i­an­ism was not a well-un­der­stood con­cept in the 1960s, par­tic­u­larly in Is­rael – I took the chance to break away from the rather suf­fo­cat­ing am­bi­ence of the group and wan­dered alone on the seashore in the gath­er­ing dusk.

For some­one who had been a re­luc­tant Sun­day school at­tendee, be­ing in the Holy Land was sur­pris­ingly heady stuff. Here I was by the very sea upon which Je­sus had mirac­u­lously walked and where two fish were caught which he then used to feed the 5000.

Per­haps it was this that might have sent a sud­den chill down my spine.

Ac­tu­ally, it was an uncanny whoosh that made me sud­denly ner­vous. The quiet of the evening was oc­ca­sion­ally in­ter­rupted by a whin­ing noise of some­thing pass­ing quickly over my head.

A waiter from the restau­rant ap­peared be­hind me on a meal break, puff­ing on a cig­a­rette. “What’s that noise?” I asked him as the whin­ing noise hap­pened again.

The waiter smiled. “Bul­lets,” he said, point­ing to­wards the Golan Heights. “The Syr­i­ans fire their guns hop­ing they might hit some­thing – they rarely do.” Rarely? I rapidly headed back to the safety of the restau­rant.

House of the holy: The Church of the Holy Sepul­chre in Jerusalem is ar­guably Chris­tian­ity’s most sa­cred site.

Vis­it­ing Is­rael in 1967 in the af­ter­math of the Six Day War was prob­a­bly not a bril­liant idea. It may have been of­fi­cially a “Six Day War”, but clearly, some six months af­ter it had sup­pos­edly ended, hos­til­i­ties were still very much in ev­i­dence – there were burnt-out tanks and bul­let holes ev­ery­where.

Forty-six years later I re­turned to Is­rael to see what the coun­try is of­fer­ing now as a hol­i­day desti­na­tion.

I ad­mit that I had suf­fered some de­gree of anx­i­ety.

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