Israel Today—A Reflection of the Past


It was July 4, 1976, and the huge, yellowed stones of the Western (Wailing) Wall, all that remains of the enclosure that was once part of the resplendent glory of Solomon’s Temple, echoed with singing: “God is with us; no one can defeat us.” The golden city of Jerusalem, made more golden by the ruddy glow of the setting sun, sang her victory song. Israel had amazed the world that morning with her daring commando raid on the airport at Entebbe, Uganda. Ninety hijacked Israeli hostages, facing the threat of death, had been rescued and flown back to Israel.

On the evening of that eventful day, I photographed soldiers and civilians whirling together in dancing circles, singing and praising God. The dusky evening light merged colors and shapes into a oneness. I stood next to a soldier as he leaned his head against his arm to pray at the rough stone of the Wall, while behind us common folk and government officials blended their voices in vocal prayer and thanksgiving for the glory of Israel.

Israel seems to be looking to God.

One evening in a small courtyard on Mount Zion near David’s tomb, I sat on a weathered wooden bench talking to a group of Yeshivah (orthodox Jewish seminary) students. The sun cast long golden shadows as they told me of God’s purposes for them in Israel. Several of them, American Jews who had immigrated to Israel, felt that God had arranged the events of their lives so that they would finally come to Israel. Their feelings were intense and sincere, and they seemed willing to follow God’s will as they felt it.

Israel seems to be preparing herself to renew her ancient covenant with God.

Even now there is a rapidly growing group of Jewish Christians. These are Jews who believe that Jesus was, indeed, the Messiah. Quite by accident I met a young couple who held that belief. Early one morning I entered a small stationery store in Jerusalem and was greeted by a friendly couple who spoke excellent English. We chatted for a few moments, and they were impressed by my Mormon attitudes, so they invited me out to lunch with them later that afternoon. After a very pleasant meal of Hungarian goulash, we talked for three hours, mostly about the similarities in our religious feelings. They were fascinated by the story of Joseph Smith and the idea of a personal, tangible God. They were especially interested in the Latter-day Saint concept of family unity and exaltation. They warmed to an invitation to attend our branch services in Jerusalem and expressed a desire to learn more about the Church. As we talked, I made a mental note to send them a copy of the Book of Mormon with my personal testimony written on the flyleaf.

Even atheists seem affected by God’s influence. A veteran Israeli soldier told me of his experience during the fighting of the six-day war of 1967. “Even though I was an atheist, a strange feeling came over me when we broke through the opposing forces and reached the Wailing Wall. I stood there crying like a baby. And since then … I don’t know … maybe there is a God.”

Most Latter-day Saints are familiar with the spirit of gathering that has impelled thousands of Jews to leave the lands of their birth, comfortable homes, and good businesses to immigrate to Israel. And they come in spite of extremely high income taxes (generally 50 percent) and the constant threat of war and terrorist raids. One immigrant told me that he had left his whole family and all of his friends in Chile. “I really don’t know why,” he said simply. Another young man from South Africa shrugged his shoulders: “I guess if I’m going to die for something, I want it to be for God.”

“Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger; … and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely:

“And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Jer. 32:37–38.)

Just the land itself is enough to stir up thoughts of ancient prophets and the ministry of the Savior. Jesus spoke of sowing seeds among the rocks; I’ve stumbled through fields that seemed more rock than dirt. Rocks are so numerous that the many hilly terraces, walls, and buildings made up of them do not seem to deplete their endless plenty. Wild flowers, the “lilies of the field,” are in great abundance and beauty. Everywhere there are shepherds and sheep, reflecting a changeless cycle and adding credence to the life of the Good Shepherd.

For me that sense of reality is the strongest message of Israel. The Savior’s feet walked and his voice sounded on the hills I climbed each evening as I wearily, but happily headed homeward after a long day of photography. He saw the sun coming up in the morning and felt its heat at noonday. Even some of the unpleasant odors of Old Jerusalem were common to him. Jesus taught here.

Later I climbed the Mount of Olives by way of a very old stone path. The huge stones were polished from the countless sandals of several thousand years. The feet of Jesus probably climbed this path from Jerusalem to Bethany. It was long and steep, and I stopped several times to gulp much needed air and to wipe the sweat from my eyes. As I lifted my eyes to see the top of the hill, I imagined myself to be one of the Savior’s disciples, following him up the path to Bethany. Perhaps I would have stumbled on a projecting rock and called, “Master, wait for me.” Or I might have asked, “Lord, what of the last days?” For a moment I stood there, aboard my own personal time-machine, wondering about the closeness to Christ that I was feeling. As tears came unexpectedly, I understood those I had seen in President David O. McKay’s eyes during a sacrament meeting a few years ago. He had cried in contemplation of the suffering of a close friend, a man called Jesus.

Later, almost by chance while reading an obscure book, I made a discovery. There were still in existence two pillars, with the original capitals still crowning them, that had been part of the portico of Solomon’s temple. It took special permission from the Arab Religious Council to gain access to them, and then I could only get as close as the open mesh of a wire fence. In breathless silence I looked at a fragment of the glory that was Israel 3,000 years ago. Now they stand in a storage room crowded with empty chairs, silent sentinels of a glorious past.

Even in the midst of modern technology, ancient Israel pokes its way into the present. As they have done for thousands of years, Arab women in brightly colored dresses still carry baskets balanced gracefully on their heads, though the baskets are now made of garish plastic mesh. I saw a woman hand-spinning wool into yarn as she walked along herding sheep; she wore modern slacks under her purple and orange dress.

Such is life in Israel today. An old Arab in the mosque-of-the-Dome area in Jerusalem, caught my eye as I laughed at a group of children teasing him. “Children, the same everywhere,” he smiled. And didn’t the Master of us all say, “Suffer the little children to come unto me”? Jesus did walk and teach in changeless changed Jerusalem.

[photos] Photos by Don O. Thorpe

[photo] An exhausted soldier offers a prayer at the Western (Wailing) Wall, following a daring rescue mission to free hijacked Israeli hostages

[photo] The Western Wall becomes a blur of colors and sounds as Israelis sing and dance and praise God for the glory that is Israel, July 4, 1976

[photo] An Arab bus awaits its passengers to Hebron, its brightly colored paint covering antiquated insides

[photo] Prayer at the Western Wall can be quiet meditation or singing exuberance; here an old Jewish patriarch leads a group in prayer chanting

[photo] An Arab woman watching her sheep near Bethlehem spins wool yarn in the ancient way, in spite of her modern apparel of slacks worn under a purple and orange dress

[photo] With a leap of youthful joy, an Arab boy lets go of a homemade kite on the Mount of Olives

[photo] Since automobiles are forbidden in much of the old city of Jerusalem, the time proven principle of muscle and a broad back provides this professional porter with a living

[photo] The glistening asphalt of the road to Ramah silhouettes a boy on his donkey

[photo] Brightly colored plastic buckets carry water drawn from an ancient stone well still in daily use in the center of Jerusalem

[photo] The typical brown and white wool of most sheep in Israel takes on a golden hue in the late afternoon sun

[photo] Children dart in and out of the shadows cast by the arches of the ancient temple area in Jerusalem

[photo] The ancient road to Damascus began at this gate, which still welcomes buyers and sellers of many nations

[photo] Although the baskets have changed from woven grass to garish plastic and cardboard, they are still carried, as anciently, gracefully balanced on the head of an Arab woman