I’ve been in Jerusalem the last few days engaging in a combination of traditional tourism and what you might call political tourism (others might call it research, but I’m being honest, or trying to be).

Traditional tourism in Jerusalem has always been fascinating, but it has reached another level in the intervening twenty years since I have been here. The archaeological excavations in and around the Old City have grown exponentially and now are as interesting as the Roman Forum, more so if you’re Jewish. They are also extraordinarily well presented. You can spend a lifetime studying them and obviously people do.

But you can read about this a million places online and I have no special insight to add to what is already there — except to stay out of Hezekiah’s Tunnel if you’re claustrophobic and not to miss eating at the Mahneyuda Restaurant off Jerusalem’s Mehana Yehuda market, world class food in a raucous, fun atmosphere.

Now to the political tourism. Some of this had been arranged in advance. Through the offices of friends in the Israeli diplomatic corps in Los Angeles, a “briefing” was set up for me in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was quite cordial and flattering to be there.

But what did I learn that I didn’t already know? Nothing. If I had, something would have been wrong. Who was I? And besides, I have trouble keeping secrets about the most minor affairs. You would have to be nuts to share something of an important confidential political nature with me.

Well, I’m not dead certain of that. I’ve never actually been told anything of that nature that was any more than gossip. Maybe I’m more trustworthy than that. In any case, I learned at the Ministry that Israel thinks the Arab world is going through a tumultuous period of change with no clear end in sight. (Are you surprised? How could they think otherwise?) Also, they are generally loathe to get involved unless they deem it absolutely necessary. (Again, not surprising.)

Still, it was fascinating being inside an Israeli ministry. The foreign affairs building is attractive and made of translucent stone, a modernized Jerusalem look. The most impressive modernized Jerusalem look, however, is Moshe Safdie’s design for Yad Vashem, the Holocaust history museum, a prism-like triangular structure.

My second foray into political tourism was, let us say, somewhat more exotic. I was taken to the Israeli equivalent of Guantanamo to observe terrorist trials.

To get there, we drove out of Jerusalem along the highway that weaves in and out of the West Bank, along the security fence, past a checkpoint, several of the infamous settlements (they looked benign) and onto a military base that consisted of a number of mobile homes (thankfully air conditioned).

We were inside the West Bank at this point, although only a half hour or so out of Jerusalem. It’s not isolated like Guantanamo. Indeed, it can’t be.

The trials took place inside the mobile homes. We sat in on one of them where a half-dozen men were being arraigned for what appeared to be relatively minor infractions, although, we learned later, many serious terrorists had been through this place. The courtroom was apparently open to the public, including “human rights” NGOs that frequented it, although we and our hosts were the only ones in the audience this time.

We attracted the curious stares of the defendants who, ten feet away from us, didn’t look the least frightened or intimidated. Their defense attorneys, one of them with a trendy haircut out of Melrose Avenue, were trying to get them bail. (Difficult, I was told.) The defense attorneys were apparently Christian Arabs paid for their work by Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, depending on the allegiance of the (almost always) men in the dock. I was startled to hear that the dreaded Hamas could be involved at this level, but was met with a shrug.

It seemed the same mixture of scattered impatience and studied jurisprudence I was used to from American courts. A job was being done with the usual fairness.

Our friends at the United Nations, specifically UNICEF, I was later informed by one of the prosecutors, felt differently. A recently filed report entitled “Palestinian children in Israeli military detention” accuses the Israelis of not reading these children their rights. Strangely enough, however, this same report (it was shown to me) cites as proof of this accusation a transcript of the interrogation of a Palestinian youth in which he was read his rights in detail, essentially Mirandized. Go figure.

Well, don’t figure too long, because it’s the UN, that same organization that devotes a staggering percentage of its efforts to attacking Israel. Just keep this in your head next Halloween.


Thumbnail image courtesy shutterstock / Andrey Burmakin

Check out the previous installments in Roger L. Simon’s trip to Israel: