One of my hopes for this trip was to have a day touring the first century mountain top garrison where Jewish zealots held out for months against the Roman army (and then committed suicide rather than become Roman slaves). It's a spectacular piece of geography on which Herod the Great built an equally spectacular palace where he hid out when he was feeling particularly paranoid. To get to Masada, you drive east from Jerusalem, descending 1200 meters (and 400 meters below sea level)to the rift valley which formed the Dead Sea and the now agriculturally-rich Jordan Valley.
Although not planned this way, I contracted with an Israeli company for the tour. One very Gentile-looking tourist among 20 of my closest Jewish friends - which turned out to be a particularly rich experience. As conversations with several busmates developed, we talked about our experiences and our impressions of Israel. As I had heard, Jewish tourists rarely encounter a Palestinian and almost never cross onto the West Bank. These people mentioned they had wanted to go to Bethlehem but were told it was too dangerous. There are indeed wonderful things to see in Israel and much to be proud of there, but they are denied the chance to see the whole picture. They leave knowing nothing about Palestine except that it is a place to avoid - and they never have the opportunity to meet a Palestinian. Very sad.
On the way home from Masada we stopped for a few hours at a Dead Sea resort. The sea itself is shrinking rapidly. Jordan and Israel have an agreement to withdraw all fresh water coming down the Jordan River before it reaches the Sea. Agriculture is flourishing along both sides of the valley, but every field draws water from the river. Regrettably, I had not brought my swim suit so I missed the full experience which includes bathing in black mud. People bob around on the surface of the sea, tryng their best to immerse themselves under the surface of the water. Without much luck.
Another great day.