Forty-seven years ago, July 19,1967, I was traveling in Israel with a university study group. I had anticipated this trip for months, reading whatever I could find and watching as our itinerary began to coincide with sabre-rattling and then the explosion of the Six Day War. I was old enough to fill my journal with grand ideas about the world and my place in it but young enough, and protected enough, to feel excitement about going to a place where something was happening.
We arrived in mid July and traveled by bus, stopping at archaeological sites along the way. Our tour was to end at Arad, in the Negev Desert, where we would spend a month excavating the site of a temple, thought to be the model for Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. On July 19 we were in Tel Aviv where my journals record long walks through the city to a museum that was closed and then into the old part of the city which used to be Arab but was now deserted from the destruction of 1948, the ruins still remaining. After a delayed lunch (I complain about the slow service) we drove to Ashdod, a new city built in the preceding 20 years, and then on to Ashkelon.
At that point the tone of my journal changes. An announcement was made on the bus that we were going to the entrance of the Gaza Strip and were going to ask permission to go in. The road we were on was the ancient Way of the Sea, which used to go all the way to Egypt before being interrupted by the administrative territory of Gaza. We were driving fast and we all got excited, “so that when we arrived at the check point and received permission to go in we felt triumphant.”
This is how I continued:
“We first passed the UN quarters and then an Egyptian military post, now damaged and deserted, with an Israeli flag on the flag post. The houses were very poor and we saw lots of evidence of war. Most moving were the houses flying white flags. The people were cheerful and seemed to be delighted to see us. [I wonder now, about that.] The children lined the streets of the city with things to sell. We were told that we were the first group other than journalists to go in since 1948 but that by Sunday the area would be sufficiently secured to let in tourists. [We saw] several badly damaged or destroyed tanks from both sides, bullet holes in walls and garage doors, and damaged buildings.
“Our reason for asking to go into Gaza was to see a synagogue [Early Christian church?] that had been discovered only a few days before on the beach. The sun was shining through the clouds on the sea. The only thing left of the structure was a damaged mosaic floor so some of us walked slowly over the sand looking for shells. Most of the students were only interested in an Israeli soldier with a rifle. When I looked back I saw the girls clowning with the gun and having their pictures taken with the soldier who then walked to the water’s edge and shot it out over the sea.”
My 19-year-old self was “disgusted” with this display but “seeing no reason to grieve” I joined in the singing on the way to the hotel in Beer-Sheva where I record that dinner was egg salad, soup, roast beef, potatoes, beans, and stewed apricots.
Looking back I know that my disgust at those who would make light of a weapon and see a soldier as a photo-op linked in my mind to the view of burnt-out tanks and white flags. Sitting in the bus I still held the naive belief that, having seen the destruction of war, no one would want it to happen again. Only a few hours later I saw the allure, the vicarious thrill. I may have joined in the singing and enjoyed my dinner but somewhere in me I knew the cycle would not stop.
I have no pictures from 1967. This image, from BiblePlaces, is as close as I can get to my memory of the beach.