Security when flying to Israel redefines robust. A dedicated, segregated check-in, discretely tucked away in a fold of Terminal One; a personal interview to examine your motives and the depths of your imagination, what dreams you have packed under your adapters and linen; checkpoints every few breaths. This is the shadowland between our world and the world of Zion. It is London and it is not London. You stand at the edge of a rabbit hole.
The man who interviews you is military, but innocuous in the bland uniform of the municipal official. And every question feels like choosing which wire to cut in the detonator of a Hollywood bomb, a binary choice with binary outcomes. It sounds like a conversation, but it feels like a parole hearing, where what you mean and what you think you mean blends in with what you imagine they think you mean and the effect that has on your answers, until you aren't sure if what you say is artifice or not. "Just here for a school trip" takes on a guilty, treacherous intent.
Jews – overt, out and proud members of huge Orthodox communities, so exotic, so noticeable even in even the melting pot of London – appear in greater densities, until the role of minority shifts, dissolves and fades away. Suddenly, you are the visitor, the minority. It is a keen reminder of why Zionists made a Home Land non-negotiable: not just numbers, but density – a critical mass beyond which the atoms of the diaspora could form molecules, then cells, then a body politic.
I'm travelling with seven of the best kids you could have wished for, another teacher, Lesley, and Father Brian, the school chaplain, whom I call the High Priest because of all the co-codamol he's taking for his back. The man practically rattles. Halfway through the flight, he justified his vicar stripes by taking an empty packet of Minstrels and producing three, then five, bullets of hard candy. We were as grateful as if it were the miracle of the Menorah. We blessed our luck and thanked St Rowntree, patron of diabetics.
I've been asked to write about this for the TES, although I don't know where it's going before I write it. Similarly I don't know what this trip will mean until I'm in it. We called it a pilgrimage because we did, but for what? Crusaders spent years of their lives walking painfully from England's shores to the Lion's Gate, months of peril there, months of peril back. I'm writing this on a jet, 30,000 feet above the Alps, greedily gobbling up landscapes and kingdoms and thinking nothing of it. What pilgrims ever faced decisions of such mortal and moral consequence: beef or chicken? Aisle or window?
The security interrogator asked me what the purpose of the visit was. As an agnostic RS teacher taking seven children of varying levels of faith – from secular scientist to aspirant novice – on a journey to the holiest site for three world faiths, it was a question I've asked myself many times over the years, and I found it no easier now. Pilgrims, tourists, tomb raiders or penitents? Are we bucket-listing or living La Vida Dolorosa? I have as many answers now as, perhaps, I should have. We'll find out when we get there.
But where is that?
And how will we know?