By Ron Leir
NORTH ARLINGTON –
The borough’s globetrotting chief executive is back from another vacation trip – this time from the Holy Land. But lest anyone think Mayor Peter Massa and his wife Val had been flown in to serve as Middle East peace mediators or to set up a sister city arrangement, rest assured that his Honor and the First Lady of North Arlington were there on their own dime – or shekel – for pleasure.
“We usually go somewhere in Europe – we’ve been traveling since 1989 – but this was our first time to Israel,” Massa said.
It was a whirlwind tour, from June 14 to 28, as the escorted group of 39 Americans traversed the length of the country. “We were constantly on the go,” Massa said. “It was a diverse group: retirees, people still working, some who had relatives there,” Massa said. “We met one woman who taught in a school in Brooklyn that was across the street from where my aunt and uncle had lived.”
The tour began in Jerusalem where the group walked around the Old City and Arab Market, the Jewish Quarter and the New City and, after a three-day stay, then drove on to Masada, a first century fortification in Israel’s southern district where historians believe a mass suicide of Jews took place as a Roman legion besieged and then attacked.
Then, the tour visited the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley, Beit She’an, the Sea of Galilee and the Yigal Allon Centre museum containing the remains of an ancient wooden boat recovered from the Sea of Galilee, believed to date from the first century and similar in design to the type of vessel used by Jesus’ Disciples.
Next on the itinerary was a stop in Nazareth, then on to Haifa, Bethlehem and the 1,500-year-old Church of the Nativity – which religious scholars believe to be the site of Jesus’ birthplace.
“The church is now under the control of the Palestinian Authority,” Massa said.
And there were also visits to the southern resort town of Eilat, and the coastal town of Caesarea, midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, the site of an ancient Roman theater built by King Herod.
“It seems all these stadiums were built by the same guys with the same set of blueprints,” Massa quipped.
Asked for general impressions of the land and its people, Massa said: “What I find really inspiring is that you have three major religions converging in the same area. … The shekel (Israeli coin) has printing in Hebrew on one side and Arabic on the other. The traffic signs are in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.”
No matter where he went in the country, said Massa, a former North Arlington cop, he and his wife felt safe. About mid-way through the tour, Israel retaliated for a rocket attack in southern Israel, firing into the Gaza territory, resulting in a fatality, but Massa said his group wasn’t near either incident.
“You see young Hebrew soldiers hanging out in the cities, on a pass or furlough, and they’re completely armed,” the mayor noted. “That provides a very strong sense of security. They’re obviously ready to spring into action.”
At the airport in Tel Aviv, there were uniformed personnel carrying automatic weapons.
At the entrances to the hotels the group stayed at, Massa said he noticed men clearly assigned to security details. “They weren’t wearing uniforms but on their sides, you could see they had 9 mm guns holstered,” he said.
Culturally speaking, the trip was like stepping back in time, Massa said. “The history of the country is phenomenal. And my wife and I are ancient history buffs.”
Lasting impressions came, especially, from visiting the Stations of the Cross, also known as the Via Dolorosa, culminating at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in the Old City of Jerusalem which, according to theologians, is the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Also “inspiring” to see, Massa said, were such locales as the Western Wall, believed to date from 20 BCE from the era of King Herod, a section of a courtyard retaining wall for the Second Temple of Jerusalem; the Castle of King Herod; and the Ramon Crater (in Hebrew, “Makhtesh Ramon”) – believed to be the largest crater in the world – located in the Negev Desert at the midpoint between Eilat and Tel Aviv.
“Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” Massa said, “and even though there’s only been religious and political tension there, you still see Jews and Arabs doing business together in the marketplace, irrespective of internal friction.”
Massa said he was also impressed “with how cosmopolitan the country has become,” perhaps influenced by western culture.
Massa said the tour group was warmly received everywhere it went.
“I think (Israelis) very much appreciate its American ally,” the mayor said. “I remember seeing an Israeli guy wearing a T-shirt which had images of tanks and the words, ‘Don’t worry, America – Israel is behind you.’ ’’
Massa said he and his wife hope to do a return trip to Israel “in a few years.”