Christians on a Plane

On Christian Tourists in Israel

Every time I fly into or out of Israel , approximately 30%+ of the other occupants of the plane are Happy Clappies.

Happy Clappies board in large organized groups. They wear name tags and often also have matching tee shirts or tote bags so as they won’t become separated from one another.

There are two distinct types of Happy Clappies: 1) The ruddy cheeked, voluble American, Southern Baptists (or other closely related sects) and 2) The quieter, more solemn, Catholic, Europeans. The Europeans are going on “pilgrimage”. The Americans are “walking in the footsteps of Jesus”.

It’s the Alps! We’re flying over the Alps! The guy behind me, one of the younger members of the European Happy Clappies, had his face pressed to the small oval window. I glanced out the window and silently I agreed with Russell that the Alps are pretty majestic as they jut above the clouds. A moment later, his thickly accented Irish voice also noted that I think we’re flying over the coast of Austria! I closed my eyes and supressed a laugh. Russell, that’s Croatia, said the elderly woman sitting next to him. After Russell finally went to sleep, Gloria confided in her neighbor that Russell’s penchant for pointing out every thing he saw from the window was exactly what he does on every other church trip. But you know, after what happened with Mary, bless him… their voices trailed off. Russell looked to be about thirty.

When the food arrives the Happy Clappies peel open their hummus and smell it curiously before poking it with a fork and deciding it’s okay. The chatter increases as they examine this strange new airplane food. Later, when the captain announces first in Hebrew and then in English that it is about 24C in Tel Aviv, they gasp and chortle — that’s a good deal warmer than it’s been in Dublin in AGES!

The American Happy Clappies look confused. Is that hot? Or — what? They have no context and there does not appear to be any communcation or cammaraderie between the two groups. Pastor Jim, their slightly chubby, middle-aged leader rises after a moment and tells the group he’s figured out that 24C is about 75F. They clap! Ha ha well thank the lord I brought my sunscreen!

Usually the chatter dies down after a few hours in the air, and the respective religious leaders of the Happy Clappies walk among them, checking each to make sure they are aware of their itinerary, how to disembark in an orderly fashion, where their first stop is, etc.

Later, when a group of Hasidic Jews gather in a minion to pray, the Happy Clappies nudge each other, goggle, and whisper politely among themselves — what are they doing? They are praying, Russell. That’s how they pray.

They. Resolutely, I clamp my eyes shut.

I have experienced the Happy Clappy flights into and out of Israel dozens of times. This time I am sat annoying close to them. They visit my country — my Jewish country — and call us “they”. They are strangely entitled, as if this place that has existed so far only in their abstract imaginations and in their holy texts belongs to them, somehow. They don’t live here, I think. They have no idea what the war last summer was like except, as my neighbor Pauline told me, that it might have threatened their trip. The whole thing was nearly canceled, she told me somberly. Pauline’s eyes are bright blue and her hair pure white. She is from Ireland. She and her husband Phillip have saved for this trip for a long time. Pauline wears a beautiful silver crucifix with matching earrings. I nod politely.

Israel. A dream vacation? A country controlled by a right wing government, beset by an unending cycle of violence. A country so complicated and terrible and hopeful and complex that it defies a polite conversation on a plane. A country that has survived war after war, a country that has made ghastly mistakes and yet continues to survive. A country in which a three-month old baby was killed by a terrorist in Jerusalem just last week. Israel is tragic. But it is also a miracle, this country. That we yet survive. That we are, as is our national anthem — hatikva — the hope. A country built on the ashes of the six million. A dream envisaged by Theodore Herzl — the New Jew — a country that would finally give the Jews self-determination and a life in our ancestral home. A light unto nations.

We are not a theme park, I found myself thinking bitterly, for the umpteenth time that I have sat on a plane full of Happy Clappies. You have NO IDEA what this country is like. Go on your pilgrimage, follow the footsteps of a guy who lived about 2,000 years ago, the life of whom has been embellished to serve an agenda. Go to Bethelem, the supposed place of his birth, and feast your eyes on the separation barrier and the check points that is our reality today. This is Israel, where Start Up Nation benefits the top 1% and everybody else is wearing worn out shoes. Where the ultra-orthodox pelt cars with rocks, where the Temple Mount is a battlefield of molotov cocktails. This is Israel, which has revived an ancient language and made it alive again, where Israelis are brave and brusque and would do anything for you, whether you want them to or not. Where the shopping, cooking and eating of food is the number one priority each day. Where my neighbor plays sad Hasidic songs on his piano while his parrot sings along lamely. Where the warm blue Mediterranean washes up on the shores of Haifa and Gaza alike. This is Israel. This is my home.

But there was something about Pauline. The way she kept her purse and tissue tidy. The way she politely handed me my coffee when the attendant came along, even though her hands shook. The way she asked me very carefully and incredulously if I actually live in Israel and then, very politely, why I do. I could see the question in her eyes, that she was too polite to ask — I do not wear a head cover, I did not look like the Hasids on the plane. I did not look Jewish to her. I explained that I had made aliyah to Israel a few years ago. I explained what aliyah is, what the right of return is, that all Jews can come home to Israel if they would like to. I explained that not all Jews practice in the same way and that the ultra-orthodox are only one way of being Jewish. I explained that when she goes to The Sea of Gallilee, which we call Lake Kinneret, which means “harp” because it looks like a harp, she might see Rock Hyrax, strange, overgrown rodents the size of small dogs, clambering over the black rocks near Capernum. I explained that Tiberius, her first stop, is primarily an Arab village and that in Israel, the solar waterheaters atop our homes are black if they are Arab and white if they are Jewish and I don’t know why this is. I told her she will love seeing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem because it is so ornate and pretty. I like your pope, I added. Pauline smiled and said she does too.

Slowly, thankfully, I began to be happy that Pauline and her fellow Happy Clappies were excited to come to my country. They bring with them their faith, their optimism and let’s face it — their money. Israel lost over 500 million dollars in tourism because of the war last summer. So you think this country is the land of your faith and of miracles? Maybe it is. Thank you for coming to my country, I told Pauline.

Moments later, the plane landed and as everybody half stood in that awkward position as we waited to grab our things and exit, Pauline jabbed her finger toward me while speaking to someone two rows back — she lives here! She gave me all sorts of proper tips, she did! I turned politely to smile at Pauline’s friend. Her hair had been blued and her eyes were giant behind her thick lenses. She clutched her Saint Anthony’s Parish Travel Tote to her chest and smiled an aged, crooked, British smile. Bless you, dear, she said.

I hope the Happy Clappies have fun.

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