Napa women find peace in Middle East
Pilgrimage yields tight security, little strifeMonday, April 29, 2002
Register Staff Writer
On the beach in Haifa, Israel last month, Jeanne Gillett of Napa met an Israeli medical student.
"The first thing he said was 'You're American. What are you doing here?'" Gillett recalled.
For Gillett's friend and traveling companion, Flavia Harris of Yountville, the questions began before she even left for the Middle East.
"Everyone here said, 'Why in the world are you going to Israel?'" Harris said with a smile.
For both women, the answer was the same: They were on a pilgrimage to the world headquarters of the Baha'i religion, atop Mt. Carmel in Haifa.
Gillett, 44, and Harris, 75, were among 24 Baha'i faithful from across the United States who toured shrines in Haifa and nearby Acca from March 12 to March 15.
'No feeling of uneasiness'
Both said they saw little on their trip to indicate the strife raging elsewhere in Israel.
Airport security in Tel Aviv was thorough, but the women said they saw no uniformed soldiers.
"I thought we were going to see soldiers all over the place," said Harris, whose last trip to Israel was shortly after the Lod Airport massacre in 1972, when an armed Japanese group supporting Palestinian independence killed 26 tourists and injured scores more.
Thirty years later, at a time of renewed conflict, "it was so peaceful. It was very calm," Gillett said. "We felt perfectly safe."
"I think (security) was very well camouflaged," Harris said. "We were in that (Tel Aviv airport) line for over an hour; they checked our passports about six times.
"But there was no feeling of uneasiness. We just had a good time visiting in line."
In Haifa, where a suicide bombing in December left 16 people dead and more than 100 wounded, "the only thing that even tipped me off that anything was going on was that there was a guard outside of every mall," thoroughly searching anyone who entered, Gillett said.
"The only way we knew what was going on was by tuning into CNN at night."
But there were signs that tourists were shunning the region, Gillett continued.
Few people were shopping at the mall. The tour guide told Gillett his company had sold several buses, because there was so little business.
Four of nine floors at their Mount Carmel hotel had been closed off, and many employees had been let go: Security staff doubled as bellhops and kitchen help.
The group's tour guide was Jewish and the bus driver was an Arab, Gillett said, and the two had worked amicably together for years.
"Haifa is the only town in Israel (where) the Arabs and the Jews have always lived peacefully together," Harris said.
"That was before it really heated up," Gillett added. "They're in a worse situation now."
In addition to the December attack, Haifa has seen two more suicide bombings since the end of March, leaving 22 people dead and dozens injured.
'The eighth wonder of the world'
Gillett and Harris met at Baha'i services in Napa shortly after Harris and her husband, a disabled World War II veteran, moved from Capitola to the Veterans Home of California two years ago.
The nearest Baha'i center is in San Francisco, so Napa Baha'is meet in one another's homes for worship every 19 days.
When they learned in February of an upcoming tour to their faith's holiest sites, the two friends decided to sign up.
Haifa and Acca, located in the northwest of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, hold the burial places of several Baha'i prophets as well as the Baha'i World Center on Mt. Carmel.
The region "means a whole lot to Baha'is," Harris said.
Harris and her husband had visited the Baha'i shrines in Haifa in 1972, but the Mt. Carmel site has been developed extensively since then.
Nineteen terraced gardens now rise from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea to the mountaintop. Ten years in the making, "they're considered the eighth wonder of the world," Harris said.
Founded in the 19th century, the Baha'i religion has 5 to 6 million believers worldwide and 14 in the Napa Valley. The religion preaches the unity of faiths and races, world peace, equality of the sexes and the elimination of all forms of prejudice.
Louisa Hufstader can be reached at 256-2265 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Net: www.bahai.org
©Copyright 2002, By LOUISA HUFSTADER
@copy;Copyright 2002, Napa News