The Jesus Trail, Day 4: Arbel to Capernaum, and home to Jerusalem through the West Bank

According to the Jesus Trail guidebook (Walking the Jesus Trail by Anna Dintaman and David Landis), the path from Arbel…

…follows the Israel Trail blazes on a steep but beautiful route down a cliff face. […] Be careful as you descend. There is a bridge with handholds in the rock to assist you in the steepest section. The path can be slippery when damp, and park authorities do not allow hikers to descend in wet weather.

This put the wind up us. We were not reassured by the history of the cliff. According to the historian Josephus in his Jewish War (written around 75 CE), the troops of Herod the Great winkled Jewish rebels out of their holes in the Arbel cliff “by lowering down his soldiers in large baskets on ropes to pull out the rebels, causing them to fall to their deaths.”

For us, clearly discretion was going to get the better of valour. Still suffering from the exhaustion of the previous day’s walk we decided to take a taxi from our overnight accommodation, past the cliff-face descent, down to the edge of the Sea of Galilee / Kinneret. Please forgive us, dear reader.

At the town of Tabgha we joined a throng of tourists and wide-eyed Christian pilgrims at the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes. According to all four Gospels, at Bethsaida, about seven kilometres north-east of modern Tabgha, Jesus turned two fishes and five loaves of bread into a meal sufficient for five thousand people. There was even food left over.

In the Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes visitors light candles before a Greek-style icon of Jesus. They also pray, prostrate themselves on the floor, and (of course) take photos. A picturesque, Byzantine-style mosaic representing fish and loaves lies stamped into the floor in front of the altar. The image has been turned into a hundred different souvenirs snapped up by tourists in the adjacent gift shop. We too invested. We bought the image on a set of table mats that (hopefully) will help us feel more thankful as we tuck into our regular meal of grilled salmon and bread rolls back in Canberra.

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A Byzantine-style fish and loaves image on the floor before the altar of the Church of the Multiplication of Fishes and Loaves in Tabgha.

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The faithful prostrate themselves on the floor before the altar.

No more than two hundred metres down the road stands the lakeside Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. It commemorates the moment recounted in the Gospel of Matthew (chapter 16 verses 16-18) when, after his resurrection, Jesus spoke to his friend and follower Simon Peter, telling him “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus was making a play on words. “Peter” is derived from the Greek word “petros” meaning “rock”. (Peter’s Aramaic name Cephas is also taken to mean “stone” or “rock”.)

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Hammering home the metaphor, a large rock fills the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter, believed by many to be the first leader and the founding “rock” of the Christian church.

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A sign at the front door of the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. As a die-hard religious sceptic I interpret the sign to mean “Don’t try rational explanations, please, just have faith”.

The relentless crowds inside the beautiful but simple church have compelled real worshippers to shift outside. Under trees beside the church there is a small open-air chapel where we saw priests conducting a Catholic mass for a congregation of about 25 devotees. Nearby, visitors crowded a small, pebbly beach and looked out across the calm of Kinneret towards the Golan Heights on the opposite shore. Some removed their shoes to stand ankle-deep in the holy water, dextrously recording themselves with selfies as they did so.

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We have arrived. I stand outside the Church of St. Peter in Tabgha, and below…

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… Emmy stands on the pebbly shore of the Sea of Galilee, near where Jesus is said to have walked on water.

The final leg of our walk took us three kilometres along a picturesque, neatly paved, lakeside path to a park built around several small religious buildings on the long-abandoned site of Kfar Nahum (Capernaum), the village where Jesus is said to have based his ministry. We had reached the end of the 65 kilometre Jesus Trail. After subtracting the taxi rides in Nazareth on the first day, and Arbel on the last day, we had walked somewhere between 50 and 55 kilometres. We had seen much of the beauty and diversity of Israel, as well as its disturbing divisions. And our ancient bones, muscles and brains had survived the rigours of the walk. We felt pretty satisfied with that.

Postscript

Exhaustion was still clamped around our legs like manacles, so we decided to return to Jerusalem direct by taxi. Our driver took us around the northern curve of Kinneret and down the eastern shore, squeezing between the lake to the west and the beetling presence of the Golan Heights to the east. We went south through the town of Beit She’an and, unchecked, through a border crossing into the Israeli-occupied West Bank. We were on Highway 90, which is forbidden to Palestinians except with special permits. It runs the full length of the occupied West Bank. In the northern sector it sticks close to the Jordan River. The countryside left and right of the road has largely been de-populated (for “security reasons” say the Israelis). Ethnically cleansed is a more accurate term. The former population of Palestinian Arabs has been uprooted and shifted west, mostly to the major urban centres of Nablus, Ramallah and (further south) Hebron. In the northern sector the eerily empty landscape is filled with low hills of tawny grass, punctuated here and there with market gardens and plantations of dates, olives and bananas. In places there are derelict houses of the former Arab population, and once, we saw rows of stumps marking (according to our Jewish driver) a destroyed Palestinian olive grove. Here and there the highway passes squalid Bedouin communities, their tents filled with goats and surrounded by litter. The highway curves around the Palestinian town of Jericho, just north of the Dead Sea, and heads west into Jerusalem, passing signs pointing left and right to the prosperous Jewish settlements of Ma’ale Adumim. On this Jews/foreigners-only route, Palestinians are rendered almost invisible in their own land.

The occupied West Bank and Gaza are the conscience of Israel… and it is a very ugly sight.

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The Jesus Trail, Day 3: Kibbutz Lavi to Moshav Arbel

We stepped from the friendly ambience of the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel into the mild warmth of a clear Thursday morning. Our path took us across the central installations of the kibbutz: chicken runs, cow sheds, a petrol station, yards full of agricultural machinery, stables, workshops, offices, staff houses…

We walked along a well-defined path into neat fields, curving towards the low prominence of the Horns of Hattin. The big hill has a couple of lumps in it like protrusions growing on the head of a young bull. Everywhere in Israel visitors are either ogling history or trampling over it. Here you can do both. In 1187 Crusader forces clashed with the Muslim army of Saladin in the open country under the Horns of Hattin, right where we were walking. Saladin routed the Crusaders, putting an end to European Christian power in the Levant until Napoleon turned up at the end of the 1700s.

We reached a T-junction in the path, with an innocently inviting turn to the left and an equally inviting wriggle of pathway to the right. Both options were marked with trail blazes, so we consulted our map. The path to the left looked shorter. No-brainer… we turned left.

A gently rising staircase took us upwards and around the contours of the hill. A vast panorama opened up beneath us: the distant white roofs of factories and glasshouses glinting in the sun, shimmering villages and townships, green and yellow fields, a busy highway with insect-like cars creeping along it. We gulped big breaths of clean air and stopped for a selfie or two. How good it was to walk free and strong with the world spread out below us.

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I pose on the heights between Lavi and Arbel, innocently (or arrogantly?) unaware that our old age is about to be tested on surfaces rougher than we’ve ever walked on before.

Hmmm… within an hour that sentimental froth had been whipped away from us. The path turned nasty. REALLY nasty. A trap snapped shut… there was no turning back. For the next four hours we had to struggle forward over the most difficult walking terrain we have ever encountered in the ten years of our walking careers. It wasn’t a long distance, but it was slow going and harrowing while it lasted.

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Here is our “path”. Yes, it is an “official” pathway. Note the trail marker on a rock bottom left.

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Emmy comes up a slope, balancing precariously on the rocky surface.

The track ascended and descended steeply, sometimes precipitously. Over considerable distances (at least it felt “considerable” to us) the surface was boulders and rocks. Not a “path” at all. Yet it was the path, marked at regular intervals with official trail markers. We couldn’t leap from boulder to boulder as young walkers might have done, or mountain goats. In places we had to wobble forward, inch by tiny inch, testing every step with our poles, maneuvering among the crevices, crawling, or sliding on our bums in places. Being old, we were fearful of a fall or a sprain. At one point I slipped on to my back between two rocks. I couldn’t fold my legs under me, or find support for my arms on the smooth surface of the stones. Emmy couldn’t get close enough to help. It took me five minutes to get upright. The combination of old age and boulders is not a good one.

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Maybe over that crest the path will smooth out and it will be easy going again. Totally alone, we had no help but hope.

When we emerged from the grass and stones above the village of Kfar Zeitim, we were aching, dehydrated and exhausted. In the distance we could see our destination, the hamlet of Moshav Arbel. Behind it, through a gash in the hills, we could also see the burnished steel of Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee.

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Kinneret visible in the distance, and our destination, Moshav Arbel, visible centre-right. We still have around two hours of walking (trudging? plodding? staggering?) ahead of us.

Another hour brought us to a highway leading east towards Arbel. As we drooped along the shoulder of the road a car skidded to a stop beside us.

“Need a lift?”

A miraculous flash of energy teleported us instantaneously into the car where we met Corinne, the young driver. In ten minutes she had whisked us to our accommodation at the Arbel Holiday Homes. We thanked her profusely, but we couldn’t find words to tell her how deep our gratitude really was. Corinne didn’t care. In the spirit of true generosity she simply gave us a cheery wave and drove off.

The proprietors of Arbel Holiday Homes, Ben Konowitz and his wife, greeted us warmly and ushered us to a simple but comfortable cabin. I started to tell Ben of our sufferings. With a glimmer of Jewish humour and the slightest of smiles, he waved my lament away.

“You’re walking the Jesus Trail,” he said gently. “You’re supposed to suffer.”

The Jesus Trail, Day 2: Cana to Kibbutz Lavi

A jostling crowd of pilgrims and tourists jammed the front door of the Cana Wedding Church. (Cana is often mispronounced /kay.na/. It should be /ka.na/.) Emmy and I elbowed our way in and took a seat in the back row of pews. Under its bright red dome the church hosts a spacious nave and a light-filled transept. As we took in the ambience, a church functionary tried to shoo the crush of selfie-snapping visitors out.

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Christian visitors from southern India milling around in the Cana Church courtyard…

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… and inside the church tourists mingle with devout worshippers.

We were about to witness what the Cana Wedding Church is famous for. At the front of the nave, standing in a semi-circle before the altar, stood seven middle-aged American couples. One of the grey-haired ladies was wearing a bridal veil and holding fast to the hand of her slightly stooped, somewhat paunchy husband. They were all there to reconfirm their marriage vows. A Catholic priest appeared and launched into a short service. With sing-song enthusiasm he read from the second chapter of John’s Gospel.

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there, and both Jesus and his disciples were invited to the wedding. When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does that have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever he says to you, do it.” Now there were six stone water pots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each. Jesus said to them, “Fill the pots with water.” So they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.” So they took it to him. When the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him, “Every man serves the good wine first, and when the people have drunk freely, then he serves the poorer wine; but you have kept the good wine until now.

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Middle-aged couples from the United States reconfirm their marriage vows.

The best wine is well-aged wine and is drunk later in life. That was the message of the priest’s brief sermon on marriage, interrupted with giggles as the couples exchanged their renewed vows and wedding rings. The twenty-minute service wound up with a chaste kiss (“…just a very brief kiss!” warned the priest, but he was grinning as he said it.)

In the alley outside, the souvenir shops were doing a brisk trade in (what else?) wine. I sampled some. It was very red and very sweet, like sherry or rich port. I was deep in the narrative and reached for my wallet. Then I remembered, wine = weight. A day of walking lay ahead of us. There are certain trials that no amount of wine, however old and rich, can make smooth. I chose light luggage over a light head.

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Some of the walk to Kibbutz Lavi was tough. Here Emmy picks her way over grey rocks between grey, rock-hard cactus plants.

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The temperature hovered around 25 degrees. It wasn’t uncomfortably hot, but we had to stay well-hydrated

May 8th took us from Cana to the prosperous orthodox Jewish kibbutz at Lavi, a distance of about sixteen kilometres. We would be crossing an unmarked but nevertheless real apartheid boundary between Arab towns of Cana and Tur’an, and the Jewish territory of Lavi. Our route took us over open, empty countryside and through the Beit Keshet Forest. This so-called “forest” was sparse and degraded, struggling to live right beside a military base complete with barbed-wire fences and guard towers. But we felt at home… the forest was populated by large clusters of Australian ghost gums with their messy leaf litter and whiff of eucalyptus perfume. Even… could that be a dingo!? It was in fact a jackal. It darted on to our gravel path, stared at us for a split-second, then vanished. Again, we were completely alone, surrounded by sweet silence and sweet solitude.

Around midday we reached the Golani Junction, a major meeting point of the north-south and east-west highways in northern Israel. The trail took us past a McDonald’s restaurant and into rough farmland. The ground was stony and splotched with rock-hard dry mud well trampled by cattle. Large grey cactus plants leered over us. We reached a barbed wire fence hanging over boulders. This was a crossing point, but it took us a good ten minutes to find a way through the swaying, razor-sharp confusion of wires.

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We had lunch in a roadside Arab restaurant. “We want a light, simple lunch,” I told the waiter. “OK, OK, no problem… very small meal.” And this is what we got. On my plate: chicken schnitzel with sesame seeds, chips and rice. Then clockwise from the left of my plate, savoury rice, gherkins, olives, roast slices of eggplant, hummus, flat bread, fresh salad, and various relishes. Emmy has chicken kebabs on long steel skewers. And after eating as much as we could, we were invited to shift to another table for….

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… explosively strong Turkish style coffee and various sweetmeats.

By mid-afternoon we could see the Kibbutz Lavi Hotel, a substantial grey concrete building atop a high hill across neatly tilled fields. But somehow, the road we were on circled around the hill. It was an hour of plodding, culminating in a steep, hot climb to the kibbutz entry gate, before we reached the haven of the hotel. The welcome was warm and soon we were stretched out on a soft bed in a modestly luxurious room feeling the fatigue ebb away.

We enjoyed a smorgasbord dinner in a large dining hall with scores – perhaps hundreds – of American Jews in tour groups, mixing it with kibbutz staff. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial, brightened by the excited chatter of children. We felt comfortably at home. A wide range of Jewish styles was on display, from smooth shaven young men sporting crew-cuts and wearing shorts and t-shirts, to figures with corkscrew side-locks wearing black kippa skull caps and creamy prayer shawls under their dark jackets and waistcoats. Many women hid their hair under colourful turban-like headcloths, their modest dresses reaching down to their ankles.

It was Independence Day, which is always the day after Memorial Day. Everywhere there were Israeli flags: on the tables, hanging from the ceiling, decorating the food bars. The atmosphere was mildly exuberant and there was a special range of foods on offer: plentiful, very varied and delicious. Thinking with regret of my decision that morning not to buy a bottle of wine in Cana, I corrected my mistake and bought a mini bottle of red. The Jewish gentleman at the next table lifted his eyes from the mountain of roast meat and eggplant on his plate to point at the bottle and congratulate me on my taste. “Yes, it’s not bad,” I admitted. “Not bad!!??” he bristled. “That’s from the Gamla Winery in the Golan Heights. It’s the best wine in the world!”

I wanted to argue the case for New Zealand Pinot Noir, but my neighbour had headed back to the food bar and was busy heaping a second (or maybe a third?) helping of meat and eggplant on to his plate.

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On the way to Kibbutz Lavi, still managing to look cheerful. Little did we know… (see next post)

The Jesus Trail Day 1: Nazareth to Cana

Nazareth is the starting point of the so-called Jesus Trail, a 65 kilometre, four-day hike down to the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel. Two thousand years ago Nazareth was a tiny village where, supposedly, Yeshua ben Yosef (better known as Jesus) grew up. With a population nearing 80,000, it is today Israel’s biggest Arab city. Most people there are Muslims, but about 30% identify as Christians, mostly Catholic.

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“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single selfie.” I’m in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, bringing Lao Tze’s ancient aphorism into the 21st century. Behind me tourists take pictures of the cave where Mary was told of her divine pregnancy.

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Our accommodation in Nazareth, the basic but very welcoming Villa Nazareth.

Airily throwing aside our burden of years (we’re now both on the wrong side of 75) Emmy and I signed up for the Walk as independent walkers whose baggage would be transferred by Abraham Tours from lodging to lodging along the way (see: https://abrahamtours.com/tours/jesus-trail/ ). The first leg, from Nazareth to Cana, would take us sixteen kilometres into the journey.

We checked in to the basic but squeaky-clean first stop, the Villa Nazareth B&B hotel among the twisting alleyways of Nazareth’s old city centre. We had some preliminary reconnaissance to do. Our guidebook mentioned that the walk out of Nazareth began with a steep flight of 405 steps. On our first evening in town we walked through the ancient stone passageways to the foot of the steps and peered up. One glance and our elderly legs began to tremble. Our knees sent painful signals clambering up our fragile nerve-paths to register a warning… “You’re very old, don’t risk that climb!”

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The exterior of the huge Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth…

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… and inside pilgrims, tourists and devotees of Mary swarm through the spacious, second-floor of the basilica.

Back at the Villa Nazareth I had a word with Razie, the ultra-helpful receptionist: “Could you arrange a taxi to take us to the top of the steps tomorrow morning?” Razie managed to look both surprised and not surprised. “Of course,” he said. “Very sensible.” Then he nailed me with a friendly but stern glare. “You should take a taxi right to the edge of Nazareth,” he said. “Almost every day we have to deal with walkers who get lost in the tangle of streets around the top of the steps. There’s a lot of construction going on up there, the way is not clearly marked. It’s very demoralising to get lost before you’ve even started.”

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Above and below: the narrow streets and alleys of old Nazareth

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I tried to look as if we didn’t really need to by-pass this initial obstacle, but inwardly I snapped up Razie’s advice and immediately ordered the taxi. The following morning, Tuesday May 7th, beyond the edge of Nazareth city, a short walk took us into a sparse, scraggy, rubbish-strewn forest. We were utterly alone. The weather was clear and warm but with a cooling breeze. The feared 30+ temperatures didn’t eventuate. The path was well-marked with frequent white and orange trail markers on trees and rocks. We strode forward confidently, jabbing our walking poles into the stony ground, scanning the rocks and trees ahead for the trail-markers that would take us down to the waters of Galilee. We were on our way!

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These trail markers – called “blazes” – appear about every 150 metres or so (usually) and will guide us 65 kilometres down to Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) on the Sea of Galilee.

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Israel’s forests are quite degraded. Some people treat them as rubbish dumps.

Around mid-morning we walked into Mash’had, a quiet, almost deserted, little town of multi-floor stone houses. Under Israel’s apartheid-like patchwork of segregated communities Mash’had is labelled “Arab-Muslim”. Like most towns in Israel it lays claim to a special connection with the distant past. Jonah (called Yunus by Muslims) was born into history there three thousand years ago. He got eaten by a giant fish and survived. In the course of time, story becomes history, so Jonah’s grave in Mash’had is proof-positive that he really did survive a three-day sojourn in the belly of the fish.

Heading out of Mash’had we stopped for a drink at an open-air café in the garden of a big, stone villa. The lady of the house apologised she couldn’t keep us company, and after putting cool drinks before us, she tugged at her hijab scarf and leaped into a car. “You here… at home!” she called, revving the car and disappearing into the streets of the town.

From the garden we looked across to the town of Cana spread out as dense and white as a ragged lace curtain along the opposite slope of a small valley. This was our destination for the day, but crossing the valley turned out to be an ordeal. The “path” was a rocky ditch that dipped and zig-zagged among olive trees, tall tough grass, and herds of goats. But we got there. After threading our way through narrow alleys around Cana’s famous “Wedding Church” we checked in to our ultra-simple but very welcoming accommodation at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse.

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Australian gum trees are everywhere in the forests along the Jesus Trail, and here we have a bottlebrush thriving in the garden of a villa in the Arab town of Mash’had.

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Sammy, our affable host at the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, enjoys the apple-flavoured tobacco of his hookah.

The strong aroma of fresh apples hung in the warmth of the late afternoon air. Sammy, the affable proprietor of the Cana Wedding Guesthouse, was sitting on the balcony-verandah, his mouth clamped over the mouthpiece of a hose that led to a hookah on the floor. Thick clouds of sweet-smelling smoke tumbled from his mouth accompanied by cheerful gurgling from the hookah. Between each puff, Sammy’s face broke into its trademark mile-wide smile.

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This sign, on a wall in Nazareth, accurately sums up the disaster that overtook the Arabs who had legally lived in their homes and farmed their lands in Palestine for a thousand years. There is fault and ill-will on both sides in the Palestine-Israel dispute, but far more than any other issue, it is this clear, unresolved injustice that keeps the enmity alive.  

But at eight o’clock the smile suddenly froze and disappeared. It was May 7th and across the small town of Cana a siren sounded, marking the beginning of Israel’s Memorial Day commemorating soldiers who have fallen in the country’s wars. Understandably, most Palestinian Arabs, like Sammy, do not celebrate this day. As in many public events in Israel, Palestinians are excluded. The state actively lobbies to discourage the small but growing number of Israelis who, on this grief-laden day, try to hold a joint Israeli-Palestinian grieving for the thousands of lives lost, Palestinian and Jewish. This year they held it by torchlight in a park in Tel Aviv. Arabs and Jews who took part were subjected to spitting and abuse from a crowd of racist ultra-right Jews. They were aided and abetted by the government which tried to stop Arabs from the occupied territories from crossing into Israel to attend the commemoration. Israel is a Jewish state – the official line runs – so reconciliation and inclusion are not (officially) on the agenda.

More on Cana’s famous wedding in the next post.