THE white cliff of Rosh-Hanikra in northern Israel plunges dramatically to the blue sea below. I had to catch my breath when we took the exhilarating gondola ride down its side. At its foot a labyrinth of sparkling grottos have been formed by the relentless Mediterranean. On the surface it appeared to be a typical scene: a group of carefree, bluejean-clad American students with cameras and funny hats enjoying a prized tourist attraction. Yet, not far away, armed guards patrolled the Israeli-Lebanese border where we had been warned earlier that picture taking was not allowed.
We were a group studying abroad in Israel, and reminders of the contrasts between normal daily endeavors and the conflicts of a nation at war periodically cast shadows as we traveled.
In the lush and richly wooded area of Tel Dan in the north, our guide described the processes involved in maintaining the ecological balance of the forest area. He also explained that excavations of archeological sites nearby had to be curtailed due to bombing in this region so near the Golan Heights. In the south, along a desert road in the timeless Negev with its rose-colored cliffs of Nubian sandstone, we came across the remains of tanks rusting peacefully in an oasis with swaying palms, overtaken by yellow and pink wildflowers. On the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, silhouetted against a sapphire sky filled with stars, Israeli soldiers carried rifles as they held guard over the ancient Damascus Gate.
We were somewhat aware in our youthful way of the conflicts and contrasts that veiled this land. And we were forced to ask ourselves how people coped. Children still played with balls and skipped rope in parks and playgrounds, families had picnics at the beach, and teenagers crowded the streets waiting to get into movies or concerts on Friday nights, just as they did in the States.
Even in a seaside town where we spent a few days, we had an unsettling experience and a reminder that we were in a country at war from without and within. Nahariya-on-the-Sea is located five miles south of the border of Lebanon and is a colorful, small city with beaches and resort hotels. It was filled with the lively cultural mix which characterizes most coastal Israeli communities.
Taking time off there for study and exams after the peripatetic pace of trips to archeological sites was a challenging change of tempo to adjust to. But it was also good to be able to look through our notes and allow some of the names on the map of Palestine that we had studied, and now visited, to sink in - reconciling real places with what we had imagined.
When we had finished exams, we decided it was time to relax on Nahariya's lovely beaches. But we were told to stay away from them because of the on-again, off-again border conflicts with Lebanon and the security risks: an indication of the continuing difficulties which have plagued this country since Biblical times.
I had with me what I called my ``Joseph's Coat.'' It was a sweater-coat of a variety of colors and knit patterns. It packed well and was light and easy for travel. It also reminded me of the adventures of Joseph in the Old Testament.
As a religion major I queried that ancient ``guidebook'' to Israel - the Bible. How did this record speak to the question of coping in diversity? Joseph was the favorite son of his father, Jacob, and was given a beautiful coat, which caused his brothers to become jealous. He faced experiences of conflict both from within his family and in the country to which he was taken. Despite all his difficulties, Joseph managed to not only survive but to thrive in adverse situations. What were some operative values here? It seems he was able to forgive.
Perhaps an answer also lay somewhere in the ``parables'' of daily commerce we saw as we traveled through Israel: Arab and Israeli kids at play sharing a slide in a park in Haifa; a Palestinian teenager giving up his seat to an elderly rabbi on a bus in Jerusalem.
Or with the people we met. There was the time I spoke with a man visiting Jerusalem for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. He had emigrated to Israel from Switzerland 10 years before and was eager to know all about us and in turn to share about himself. Wary at first, he wondered if we had come with a missionary intention to convert.
Relief was evident when I explained we were there to learn about his religion and culture, as well as the other faiths and cultures which historically have given vitality to the country. We agreed that an openness about ``this learning about one another'' was perhaps a way to resolve conflicts and eventually find shalom, peace.
Fourteen years later when I hear reports on the news of these countries in continual turmoil and think of the people who somehow manage to endure it for so long, recalling those daily human exchanges I witnessed as a student in Israel still gives me hope.
We have in common all the variously shared human experiences: the simple joys of childhood; the responsibilities of adulthood; the parenting of the young; the wisdom-seasoned caring by - and tender caring for - our elders; the funny and the sad times at any stage of our lives. And can't we find within the ``remnants'' of our common experiences woven together like a Joseph's coat - a kind of unity?
Memories of tanks forgiven by a thicket of wildflowers and the resilience of Arab and Israeli children tells me it might be so.