Dearest Global Family,
Just one week ago I returned from an epic 22-day journey that included a sold-to-capacity seminar in Tel Aviv with an awesomely-receptive audience of 920 people, and leading an international group of 107 people representing 16 countries through to the Holy Land of Israel and Palestine. The impact of this Holy Land Tour (HLT) is still so very present with me today that I can’t imagine writing to you about anything else. So I’ll share some highlights of my experience in the paragraphs that follow and how this trip relates to my most recent book, Human by Design.
I traveled to Israel, with my wife, Martha, and our event and tour manager, Elan, five days ahead of my group to prepare for my presentation in Tel Aviv, as well as for a pre-trip reconnaissance to some of the key sites. Even after flight delays in Phoenix, Arizona, and a long layover in London, we were enthusiastically greeted at the Tel Aviv airport at 3:30am.
When we arrived, I was invited to the studios of i24NEWS, an international television station based in Tel Aviv, to speak as part of a series titled The Holy Land Uncovered. i24NEWS is an international news outlet and I immediately heard from friends in Europe who saw the segment when it aired on Sunday, March 11th. I was honored to have nearly ten minutes of a lively conversation with the series host, Jordana Miller (twice the length of the typical interview for this kind of mainstream programming). Click here to see the entire interview.
The National Theater of Israel
On March 9th the one-day event, titled Human by Design, was held at the national theater of Israel, the beautiful Hibima Theater, a popular venue for large-format events. Our event had sold out on both the ground floor and upper balcony levels. The 5-hour presentation was translated into Hebrew by two amazing female translators that had become familiar with my work before translating the event. So my Hebrew-speaking audience heard Human by Design as a feminine voice—perfect for the new human story!
In Search of Original Wisdom
The touring part of our journey began on March 10th. I titled the program In Search of Original Wisdom to reflect that it was a multi-faceted experience consisting of pilgrimage, exploration and discovery. I wanted to share with our group, and see for myself, the entirety of the Holy Lands beyond the limited views that we typically see on television. From the beauty of the Negev Desert in the South, to the mystery of the Dead Sea, the ancient city of Jerusalem, and continuing North to historic Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and eventually to the Golan Heights overlooking Syria, our group had the opportunity to experience first-hand the land, the people, the culture, the history, the realities and the controversy of this ancient land.
Highlight 1: The Temple Mount
While the entire experience truly fit the expression of a “journey of a lifetime,” there were precise places and specific moments that moved me personally as highlights of the journey. As students of history know well, there is a single location in Jerusalem that is ground zero for the three major religions of the world—Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Its history begins over 3,000 years ago and it is known today as the Temple Mount. The mount itself is a rock—a natural limestone outcropping—that holds religious significance for each of the religions. For Christians, it is the place that Abraham was tested by God and proved his faith. For Jewish people, is it the place where “the dust of the earth” was taken to create the first human. It’s also the location of Solomon’s Temples where the holy of holies—the innermost shrine housing the biblical Ark of the Covenant—stood directly over the rock. For Muslims it is place where the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven.
In addition to being a focus for the religions themselves, it is this place—a physical location on Earth that can be described by the GPS coordinates 31.7780° N, 35.2354° E—that has been ground zero for the great religious wars of the past. It’s this place, as well, that holds the key to the future of Jerusalem, the future of Israel, the future of Palestine and, ultimately, to the peace of our world.
I wanted to experience such a place for myself. I wanted to know what it felt like to stand on this powerful piece of land, and it was one of the first places we visited during the reconnaissance part of the trip. There are typically 2 hours a day when the Temple Mount, and access to the grounds surrounding the Al Aqsa Mosque—the Dome of the Rock that now covers the natural outcrop —is open to the public. I went with Elan and Martha at 6:30am to assure that we had access.
Once I was through the checkpoint and security screening, with the exception of a small Chinese tour group, for about 20 minutes we had the entire site nearly to ourselves. When I’m asked what I felt there personally, without going into a lot of detail, I’ll simply say that, for me, it felt as though the land has provided a stage for humans to play out their passions and their beliefs over time. It’s the thinking that has changed over the millennia, not the land. There was a sense of something ancient, quiet, and peaceful that emanated from the land itself. It’s that peace that set the course for the rest of my journey.
Highlight 2: The Shrine of the Book
From my first glimpse of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the 1960s, I’ve been a student of the scrolls, their mystery and their meaning. An added bonus for me on this Holy Land Tour was the opportunity to offer a seminar in the museum where the first seven of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered are permanently housed—The Shrine of the Book Museum.
Because I am not a licensed guide in the Israeli museum system, we were required to have guides that led us through the specialized exhibit of the Scrolls. Interestingly, our guides arrived early and sat in on my presentation. They told me afterward how much they appreciated the depth of my presentation regarding specific scrolls (particularly The War Scroll, The Community Rule, The Genesis Scroll, the Isaiah and The Book of Enoch.) I was even offered a job as a guide if my author “gig” were to not work out for some reason.
From the theater where I shared the presentation, I walked with my group (now divided into four smaller groups due to the limited size of the exhibit) directly into the specialized structure housing the scrolls. To our surprise, a new exhibit had opened only the week before, and we were told would only be available for a brief period of time—the exhibit of the Genesis Scroll. While there were duplicate copies of many of the texts discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls, there was only one copy of the oldest record of Genesis, and we were among the few that would have the opportunity to see it first hand.
Beyond Mainstream Media
While it’s beyond the capacity of this brief newsletter to share my experience in detail, I can tell you that our experience showed us that there is so much more to the lives of the people, and the politics of the land, than the limited perspective of unrest and political tension that is typically the focus of mainstream media.
Yes, the tensions and unrest were present, and yes, we saw them. We saw the heavily-armed security forces at the checkpoints between the Arab and Jewish quarters of the Old City of Jerusalem; we saw the eighteen-year-old Israeli girls fulfilling their mandatory 2 years of military training; we felt the earth shake under our feet as air strikes were carried out in Syria only 30 miles from where we were standing in the Golan Heights looking over the UN Peacekeeping Camps at the border; and, yes, we heard everywhere of the history of the countless wars that have been the fabric of the society for over 3,000 years. But we also saw something else—something seldom seen on national television.
The Future of the World in The Holy Land
We saw powerful signs of an emerging society based in peace and cooperation, and we saw it coming from the people themselves. I saw the hope of the future in the lives of Arabs, Christians and Jews living and working together in the city of Haifa, honoring one another’s religious holidays, and building strong communities based upon mutual respect and common interests. I saw hundreds of young people from the Palestinian cities of Hebron, Jenin and Jericho that want a future beyond war. As we walked along the mountain trail leading to the ancient Monastery of the Temptation, these young people engaged us shyly at first out of curiosity, and then with enthusiasm when they discovered the Americans and Australians in the group.
They wanted to try out their best English and let us know that they love us, and our part of the world. Under the traditional dress and white headscarves of the young school-aged girls, they were wearing designer jeans and T-shirts with the names of American cities like “New York” and “Denver,” and singing American songs to us. In an open area near the Church of the Beatitudes near the Sea of Galilee, a group of young Arab girls were drumming and dancing, inviting members of our group to join them in an impromptu celebration of unity and family. A Muslim shop keeper in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem was singing lines of George Strait’s 1990 country western classic “All my exes live in Texas.” I’m sharing these experiences because they contrast with the hate and violence that is often depicted as this part of the world.
A Shared Vision
I’m not denying the fact that people in nearby Israeli and Palestinian communities are having a very different experience from what I’ve just described. Clearly, the Holy Land is a land of contrasts. The tragedy of Gaza and the humanitarian crisis that continues there was openly acknowledged and discussed. As I had the opportunity to speak to everyday people about the realities of their lives, however, from bus drivers, merchants, artists, musicians, scholars, restaurant owners, school children and businessmen and women, the feelings were the same; regardless of religion, career and history, the people that make up the communities that we were traveling through shared a common vision for a new reality. And, almost universally, they shared their feelings that that reality is closer than ever. As different as the people were in age and rand violence eligion, there was a common vision of how the new world of peace will emerge—it is with the young people of the next generation.
The Vision of a New Generation
As a student of world history and having experienced first hand the revolution in Peru in 1989, the political tensions of 1990s Egypt, and the Buddhist tragedies in Tibet that continue today, I noticed a powerful difference between these extremes of the past, and what I experienced in The Holy Land recently. This is especially true with the young people and the thinking of the next generation.
While the young men and women of the region have experienced violence in their lifetimes, and suffered from separated families and the tragic loss of loved ones, the key is that they have done so one generation removed from the original choices that have led to the hurt. They hear the stories of life before the 20th century conflict, but in their lifetimes all they’ve known is the struggle that has become a way of life for them today. They want something more for themselves. They want a different future. And this is where the hope begins.
The young people that I was with will soon be of voting age. The internet shows them that a new world is emerging, and they want to be a part of that world. They want to share in the music, art, fashion and technology shaping the 21st century. It’s their renewed vision of peace, and a future of opportunity, that is the foundation of the thinking that will shape the platform for their votes. Just as America has a new generation of young people that’s driving the nation’s future in a new direction, the young Arab, Christian and Jewish men and women are igniting a new conversation for their future as well.
The New Human Story
The theme of my 2017 book, Human by Design, is based upon the science that tells us we are more than the chance product of Darwin’s idea of evolution. The genetics, biology and paleontology are telling us clearly, that while evolution is a fact for some forms of life, it’s not the human story. And this is the good news. Because the science clearly tells us that our lives, and our world, are based upon connection, cooperation, mutual aid, and not the separation, conflict and struggle that we’ve been led to believe in the past. It’s through the science that we are given solid reasons to think differently about our world, and ourselves. The science gives us a renewed appreciation for the value of life and just how unique we are. It’s precisely this value, expressed by the world’s spiritual traditions, and the role that these traditions play in The Holy Land, that holds the hope for peace in The Holy Land, and beyond.
With a renewed appreciation for life we are shown the path for a renewed respect for one another, and the building blocks for a new human story. The pages of our story are preserved in the rich history of our past. The question is, are we willing to read that history through the eyes of what’s possible rather than the eyes that judge what has been? If my experience in The Holy Land is any indication of where future generations are headed, I am confident that the answer to this question is an enthusiastic and epic “yes!”