When I was leaving Israel on Thursday, after a weeklong trip with a small group of family and friends, newspaper headlines in the airport lounge spoke of possible military conflict with Syria. Yet there was no sign of anxiety anywhere around -- nothing to hint that this was a country in the shadow of war. Perhaps its people have lived in that shadow for so long that it is part of their not-so-new normal.
Such paradoxes abound in the nation, one of the world's oldest and youngest -- a country hailed as the only democracy in the Middle East and denounced as an oppressive "apartheid state." Over the centuries, the land of Israel has been a battlefield between Jews and ancient Romans, Muslims and Christian Crusaders, Ottoman Turks and the British Empire, and, more recently, the new Jewish state and the Palestinian Arabs.
The face of the nation is represented both by highly secular Tel Aviv, where a religiously garbed Jew is an unusual sight, and by Jerusalem, where Orthodox, traditional and modern Jews live next to Muslims and Christians of many denominations. King David's Tomb -- proclaimed as such by 12th century Crusaders in search of holy sites to justify their quest -- is recognized as sacred by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, even though archeologists take a dim view of its authenticity.
This coexistence has many historical ironies. While the modern-day politics of the region focus on Jewish-Muslim conflict, in the Middle Ages the Jews of Jerusalem were slaughtered and expelled by Christian Crusaders and allowed to return by the Muslims. Today, millions of Christians visit this land as both pilgrims and supporters of Israel.
The Jewish state is a place of striking diversity, even among Jews themselves (on a street in the ancient city of Acre, we saw Ethiopian Jews in Israeli army uniforms). Jerusalem, whose population is one-third Muslim, has vibrant communities of Armenian and Assyrian Christians. Haifa is home to the governing body of the Baha'i, the much-persecuted global religion born in 19th century Iran; the dazzling Baha'i temple, rising on a hilltop above the city, is its main attraction.
Near Haifa, we stopped in the Druze village of Daliat el-Carmel. The Druze, whose faith -- like that of the Baha'i -- combines Christian, Judaic and Islamic elements, are traditionally loyal to the state where they live; this has often caused painful tensions, with close relatives torn apart by the Israeli-Arab divide.
That divide remains a haunting presence. Driving from Jerusalem to the nearby archaeological site of King Herod's palace and tomb, we passed signs warning that Israeli citizens are barred from some sectors of the Palestinian Authority. (Those sectors include Bethlehem, identified as the birthplace of Jesus, home to a dwindling, embattled Christian community.)
The Israelis to whom we spoke freely acknowledged the problem and the conflicting perspectives. They know occupation is never seen as benign, even if many of the Palestinians' woes are aggravated by Palestinian leadership. They know Israel needs to do more to make its Arab citizens feel fully included. But they are also acutely aware that Israel faces implacable hostility from many Arab and Muslim states, and antipathy -- rife with double standards -- from many Western countries. Just last week, world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking pulled out of an upcoming conference in Jerusalem in apparent support of a boycott that singles out Israel for human rights abuses.
"It feels like much of the world doesn't want us here," said our Jerusalem guide, a secular Soviet immigrant who came to Israel as a teenager more than 30 years ago.
Peace in our time is increasingly viewed as a dream. Earlier this month, young Israeli journalist Lital Shemesh wrote about her dismaying experience at an Israeli-Palestinian peace seminar where she found that attempts at understanding clashed with most Palestinian attendees' rejection of a Jewish state. And yet as one looks at this country with its remarkable achievements -- in culture, economy and, yes, tolerance -- one must hope that it will continue to prevail against the odds.