In the dining room of the Kibbutz Ma'agan Holiday Village, where I and 30 members of a school trip were staying for the first leg of our week-long tour of Israel, breakfast was enough to feed a multitude of multitudes: vast troughs of herrings in sour cream, salads, olives, cheeses - in short, the kind of serious nosh you need after having milked cows or picked grapefruits solidly since 5.30am. Except that we had done nothing more strenuous than roll out of bed, inhale the improbably intoxicating and quintessentially kibbutzesque mix of jasmine blossom and cow manure and walk a few hundred yards through the coconut palms, pomegranate and fig trees.
"We", to be specific, were 20 students aged 12 to 18 from two Quaker schools in York, The Mount and Bootham, and five 13 and 14-year-olds from Farlington School in West Sussex, together with four teachers, a parent and lucky old me. The schools were in Israel largely for religious educationreligious studies.
Thanks to ETS and its Israeli agent Isram's exemplary guide, Gwen Bramhall, we did a lot more than whizz around holy sites. British-born Gwen had never taken a school tour before but adapted to it - and us - as if she had been doing this her whole life. Working in close collaboration with the teachers, she gave the group as much of the country past and present as she could cram into our seven days without overdoing it. She knew when to talk and when to let us take things in for ourselves. And, to give them their dues, the raw material - teachers and children - she was working with were exceptionally responsive and well-behaved. With a grounding in religious education, they took a lively interest in what they were being shown.
Offering a variety of information, combining the heavy with the light, is no mean feat. It requires an almost intuitive grasp of how and in what measures to offer a good mix of biblical history and contemporary social and political background and when to let us indulge in those most fundamental of human rights, what I like to think of as the Three Ss: swimming, shopping and scoffing falafel. We managed to do it all, covering over 1,000km in the process, swimming in three seas (the Dead, the Med and the Galilee), being within goose-pimple proximity to three borders (Lebanese, Syrian and Jordanian), taking in ancient synagogues, churches and mosques, passing through Palestinian towns, visiting the major museums, seeing Bedouin encampments . . . the list really does go on and on.
From our northern base near Tiberias, we travelled up to the Golan Heights, where we chatted with UN peacekeepers and snooped around a Syrian bunker from the Six Day War. The signs warning us of land mines scattered here, there and everywhere set the tone for a heavily atmospheric taste of this hotly disputed territory. While the teachers opened up a discussion on whether the Israelis occupied the Golan in 1967 or liberated it, we headed towards Qatzrin, the only Israeli town in the Golan - a charmless place except for some damn fine falafel. We all came away asking ourselves who would want to live in this godforsaken outpost in the middle of nowhere. The many Russian signs scattered around the "shopping centre" were a clue, although we somehow doubted that this was their first choice.
Passing through Druze villages in the area, Gwen told us about those non-Islamic Arabs who deify Moses' father-in-law, Jethro. She also let us in on the secret behind the men's traditional baggy pants - they believe the Messiah will be born of a man, and they don't want him to hurt himself when he emerges. Throughout the week, Gwen gave us a running commentary on the natural history of the country alongside the political and religious. As we trundled through the Golan Heights, we saw and smelled its part alpine, part Mediterranean topography. Later, making our way south through the Beka'a Valley down to Jericho, we saw the 6,000km Jordan Rift, the longest fault in the world, as well as the first Palestinian police force to be seen for 27 years. From our southern base, Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, in the hills just outside Jerusalem, we wandered through the Garden of Gethsemane, in which Jesus wept tears of blood and where there stood olive trees, some of which he would have passed in his final hours of torment. In as ancient a land as Israel, the movement of tectonic plates is almost contemporary history.
The single most affecting aspect of the trip, our visit to the Holocaust museummemorial Yad Vashem, left the group contemplative. It offered a new perspective on what the State of Israel was all about.
But for the most part, the focus was on biblical history. Gwen and the teachers, who throughout worked effectively and often inspirationally as a team, helped to put us in the frame of mind of imagining what it was like in biblical times, what Jesus and his contemporaries looked at from the Mount of Beatitudes or the rugged landscape that distracted the Jewish zealots during the long year under Roman siege at Masada. We wondered how those early fundamentalists got on in the abandoned but still sumptuous palace cum fortress that Herod had built. Would they have splashed about in the magnificent tiled baths and swimming pools as they waited for the agreed moment to kill each other rather than be forced to give up their faith by their Roman captors? Our musings weren't all so serious. At a restaurant in Galilee, one Bootham lad asked a teacher in a spirit of intellectual enquiry, "Are dogs Kosher?" The teacher, who also happened to be his mum, was across the packed room, so his question came out several decibels louder than it might, giving sudden food for thought to many of us as we sat, forks poised. If imagination played a large part in our experiences, so did biblical textual relevance. Gwen and the teachers worked out a selection of appropriate passages from the New and Old Testaments that individual students were asked to read. At Capernaum, a sixth-form girl from The Mount read a passage from Matthew IV about Jesus' time in Peter's house. It was hard to imagine Jesus on this site, since the Franciscan monks have erected a truly monstrous carbuncle of a building over the foundations. But under the olive trees, the ancient words somehow managed to blot out the concrete, the tour buses, the bermuda shorts and loud shirts. Other places prompted other passages, none more so than walking through the 12 Stations of the Cross in the Via Doloroso, ending up at Calvary. The solemnity of our walk, in spite of the argy-bargy around us as market traders in the Old City tried to seduce us with their toy camels and plastic amber beads, was genuine. While the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was the three-ring circus it always is, I don't think any of us emerged from it unmoved by the piety and devotion that surrounded us.
At the Wailing Wall, we found no wailing but much jubilation. It was one of the two weekdays during which Bar Mitzvas take place, and we were lucky enough to be there. That "we" needs qualification. The males of our group were right there with the Bar Mitzva boy and all his male friends and relations, hearing his nervous singing of a bit of the Torah and then watching as he was held aloft on a chair as the men holding him up danced like fury. We females had to stand up on dodgy folding chairs to see the whole thing across a partition, as the orthodox religion insists on separation during prayer. Alongside us ululated Sephardi women of Yemenite extraction, throwing boiled sweets at the boy which were swooped up by tiny Arab lads. Up on Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosques were staggeringly beautiful, offering a view of the majesty and serenity of the Islamic world that is otherwise denied westerners. But be warned: Islamic law forbids messing about on this, one of the holiest of Muslim sites. When a boy in our group innocently swiped the hat off a girl's head in a burst of joie de vivre as we waited to enter the Dome of the Rock - from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to heaven - a keeper swooped down on him in a rage about his inappropriate behaviour, leaving us all shaken. There are ways to communicate to unknowing tourists, but this was not one of them.
Still, it was an interesting object lesson in what faith does to people. Three days later, back at home, we were to see another, lethal side of the same coin - this time Jew against Jew. Yigal Amir's assassination of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin had all the hallmarks of irrational violence in the name of a life-sanctifying God that the man outside the mosque displayed. Jews and Arabs are cousins, after all.
That we all came away with stark images, vivid impressions and complicated ideas about the three major religions is certain. So, too, is the fact that without the careful thought and organisation that went into the tour, and the close collaboration of guide and teachers, we wouldn't have packed in all those experiences in such a pleasurable way. Sure, there were hiccups and irritations, such as insufficient room allocations, a lack of understanding on the part of the Israelis about prohibitions on staff and students sharing rooms and an unscheduled last day. But these glitches were overcome and forgotten. One of the girls echoed my feelings and those of our fellow travellers when she said, as we boarded the plane home: "This trip is going to keep me thinking for years."
The party were based in Galilee and Jerusalem for their one-week tour of Israel, organised through ETS Travel. Tel: 01763 262404