Impressions garnered during a recent trip to the Holy Land:

Cats everywhere. I mean all over the place.

Pilgrims too. Thousands of them, most traveling in huge buses that crowd the narrow streets of Israeli and Palestinian cities and jam the too-small parking lots at Christian shrines. 

The pilgrims are a colorful and multicultural lot. Coming from every corner of the globe, they embody the idea—or is it the myth?—of a Universal Church. My traveling companion estimates that two thirds of the pilgrims are white and the rest people of color. I make the mix at closer to fifty-fifty. They come from everywhere: Europe, both East and West; Russia and the Caucasus; East Asia; Southeast Asia; sub-Saharan Africa; Latin America; and, of course, throughout the Anglosphere. Together they offer a model of diversity that Harvard administrators would envy.

Most are Christian, but by no means all. While we stand in line at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—a two-hour wait!—the group following us consists of Muslims from India. Jesus is their prophet too. 

For the great majority, the motive for traveling to the Holy Land is clearly spiritual. There is praying and singing aplenty, the Africans outshining all others when praising the Lord. 

What does this impressive outpouring of religiosity signify politically? Next to nothing, it would seem. If pilgrims in like numbers descended on Jerusalem to promote gender equality or gay rights, the Times, the Post, and the news networks would be all over the story, with pundits vying with one another to explain the momentous implications. Yet people clinging to millennia-old religious convictions rate no more than passing attention from editors and executives who decide what qualifies as news and what doesn’t. God is so yesterday.

The crowds are generally cheerful and well behaved. Only when they close in on some shrine do they take leave of their senses. What ensues are not expressions of religious ecstasy, but outbursts of blasphemy via iPhone. Proximity to the sacred induces an apparent compulsion to preserve the moment for posterity, preferably by snapping a selfie or recording a panoramic video. In the holiest spaces in all of Christendom, flashing smartphones create an atmosphere akin to the strobe lights in a vintage disco. It is, to put it mildly, unseemly—like lighting up a stogie inside the Lincoln Memorial or shooting spitballs at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I take consolation in noting that my fellow Americans are not the only offenders. In their disrespect for the sacred, all nationalities, sects, and denominations are as one. Here is unimpeachable evidence that even the nominally devout have succumbed to the global pandemic of electronic narcissism. What chance does the Trinity stand when opposed by the likes of Jobs, Gates, and Zuckerberg?

I struggle to maintain a prayerful attitude. It is easier to do so on the Mount of the Beatitudes, where we celebrate an early morning outdoor mass in relative quiet, than in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, which is basically a mob scene. Following a visit to the Dead Sea, I give up. Just as I wade into its salty waters, I hear thunder and the sky opens up. But instead of the Lord issuing me marching orders, it’s merely a torrential downpour. I take the hint: there will be no revelation on this visit. 

The pilgrimage necessarily intersects with the troubled history of this ancient land. With rare exceptions, the churches we visit rest on the ruins of other houses of worship, demolished centuries earlier by invaders intent on making a clear statement about who was now in charge. War and religion and more war have shaped the Holy Land. Give the Israelis this much credit: since they took over, edifices erected by Christians and Muslims of an earlier era have survived.   

Yet as we crisscross the country, we encounter reminders of the divisions that persist: checkpoints (which tour buses glide past without pause) and hideous concrete dividing walls splashed with graffiti denouncing Israel and calling for the liberation of Palestine. 

On previous visits to Israel, albeit none within the past decade, I was always conscious of a guns-at-the-ready security presence. This time it’s different. The atmosphere seems more relaxed. Of course, our travels take us nowhere near the flashpoint of Gaza. (During our visit, IDF commandos conduct a botched raid into the Strip.)

Still, one gets the sense that the power differential between Jews and Palestinians is now so great as to make further resistance to the Zionist project all but futile. The mood conveyed by our tour guide and a pair of drivers—each a middle-aged Arab Israeli with a family—is one of resigned accommodation. The urgency of the graffiti notwithstanding, Palestinian liberation may well have to wait for the Second Coming.

I encounter occasional references to “peace,” but they strike me as half-hearted. In Israel today, peace signifies not reconciliation, but a willingness to accept a soft form of apartheid. No, it’s not South Africa in the bad old days. But it’s not equality and won’t be.

I encounter no one who considers the so-called two-state solution even a remote possibility. The Netanyahu government enjoys the upper hand and exploits its advantages accordingly. The colonization of the West Bank continues apace. Peace? One might as well look to Donald Trump to devote his remaining time in office to closing the divisions in American society.

The results of ethnic hierarchy are particularly visible in and around Jerusalem. Especially in Jewish neighborhoods, new buildings are springing up everywhere. In Tel Aviv, the same story applies, without the bother of Jerusalem’s weekly bow to religious observance. One cabbie’s comment: Tel Aviv has become Las Vegas without the casinos. He obviously approves.

Yet visit where Arabs live (or are confined) and you confront a different story. Jericho offers a case in point: depressingly poor with dozens of half-built, now abandoned cinderblock buildings, shuttered storefronts, trash-strewn streets, and kids everywhere. Cats too. Signs announce rehabilitation projects funded by the United States Agency for International Development. Substantive results are indiscernible, even if the signs are in tiptop condition. Your tax dollars at work.

When we interrupt our travels to take a break, I approach a group of young Israeli soldiers, themselves waiting for a bus. Anyone speak English, I ask? Sure, answers one good-looking kid. His accent is familiar. 

Where are you from? 

Connecticut. 

He turns out to be an Ohio State grad, serving a tour as a “lone soldier”—a Jew but not an Israeli—in the IDF. There are thousands of them.

I have never been comfortable with this phenomenon. If a young American hankers to defend a country, it strikes me that he ought to defend his own rather than someone else’s. But this Buckeye from Connecticut is obviously a fine upstanding fellow so I don’t press him to explain. 

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, offers an answer of sorts to why a young Jew from abroad might volunteer to serve in the IDF. We visit on the morning of our departure date. Although our pilgrimage is now finished, we have a few spare hours before heading home. 

The story that the museum tells is harrowing, of course—monstrous depravity, widespread indifference, and sheer evil leading to the betrayal, abandonment, and murder of European Jewry. The lesson seems clear: at the end of the day, to ensure their survival, Jews are unwise to rely on anyone but themselves. Perhaps that explains why a Connecticut Yankee opts to serve in the IDF instead of the armed forces of his very own United States of America. But I still don’t like it.

When we finish touring the exhibit, we walk back into the sunshine and take a taxi to Ben Gurion Airport. Our pilgrimage to this land, burdened with more than its fair share of religious and secular history, has left us with much to reflect upon. 

Near the entrance of Yad Vashem, a quote by Kurt Tucholsky, a German Jewish journalist from the Weimar period, caught my eye: “A country is not just what it does—it is also what it puts up with, what it tolerates.” Of course, the word tolerates implies agency—having a choice in the matter. Take the long view and you have to wonder whether in the Holy Land actual choice exists. Perhaps inhabitants across the centuries have merely played out their assigned roles in a vast drama not of their own design. If so, we know Who to blame.

Andrew Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.He is the author of Twilight of the American Century, which has just been published by the University of Notre Dame Press.