When I declined the camel ride attraction, my tour guide took me by the elbow and tried to sell me to some Arab merchants standing nearby. "What will you give me for her?" he asked them.

"Nothing," said one, "I already have two women." Another was more indulgent: "Two thousands camels, a Mercedes, and my heart."

It was one of many occasions in Israel when I cringed at being an American tourist. I wondered what the locals thought of our fanny packs, cameras, and gaping mouths. "Excuse me while I admire your history. I'm not really interested in you—just those stones you walk by every day."

As members of an "archaeological study tour," we were not quite as gullible as many modern pilgrims. We met grandiose historical claims with cheerful skepticism. But we were pilgrims nonetheless, following the trail of biblical sites, collecting our souvenir olive wood communion cups, and singing hymns on the bus. It was often hard to strike a spiritual mood amidst the political graffiti, falafel, bargain packs of postcards, and T-shirts urging "Shabbat: Just Do It," but we tried.

The first time I knew for sure that this trip would be worth the itchy passport pocket around my waist was when I stood looking out over the Sea of Galilee at sunset. I could imagine a small fishing boat out there and a dark figure walking towards it over the waves. But the pinnacle, for me, was sitting on the Herodian steps of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In all of Israel this was the one place where I could be certain that I was sitting where Jesus had walked.

"No other sentiment draws people to Jerusalem than the desire to see and touch the places where Christ was physically present, and to be able to say from their very own experience: 'We have gone into his ...

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