I’ve never been particularly interested in visiting Israel. Or at least not as a priority. I always thought I’d visit some day in the distant future with my friend Dafna, who’s Israeli, or go in my “old age”, particularly if I ever found religion. Despite the constant barrage of negative news, I’ve always pictured Israel as a safe place to travel. Maybe too safe, maybe overrun with elderly tour groups.
When I started talking to a PCV in Georgia about traveling in the region he already had Israel as the beginning part and Egypt as the end, maybe a little Jordan in between. The Jordan part grew as we planned, but for me the destination was always Egypt, not Israel. If you’ve been watching the news, you probably realize the Egypt part is out.
But that’s okay because Israel is fascinating and beautiful and green and angry and even wet at the moment and not at all what I expected. What I like best is the constant stream of political talk from the taxi drivers, the waiters and café owners, our couch surfing hosts.
Tel Aviv was modern, as expected, but also nicely formed and walkable—with palm trees and beaches and great food. Everyone spoke English. It helped that we landed in a neighborhood near the beach, staying with a secular Russian Jewish guy in his late twenties who kept up a stream of hilarious invective against the religious politics of Israel, particularly in Jerusalem, where, according to him secular people go for university and then get out as quickly as possible. He said Tel Aviv residents prefer to travel abroad over dealing with much of Israel. For him the problems were as much between secular Jews and religious Jews as between Jew and Muslim or Israeli and Palestinian.
When we landed in Jerusalem, again through couch surfing, our host was a Jewish guy who left (or escaped) his Hasidic community in his early 20s, running away from an engagement. He was able to leave largely due to a group that helps former Hasidic Jews adjust to secular society. He now teaches gender issues (of all things!) and Jewish religious law at a university and runs an NGO that brings Jewish, Muslim and Christian kids together for a leadership/dialogue program and summer camp in the US. His perspective was not who is right or wrong but how Israel moves forward. A rare opinion in Jerusalem.
The first thing I noticed about Jerusalem was how the opposing cultures were so close yet so segregated. We knew the moment we entered or left East Jerusalem or the Muslim quarter in the old city, not because of any barrier, but because the dress and shops changed from one block to the next. Bethlehem in the West Bank was only twenty minutes by bus from where we were staying the first couple of nights, including passing through the wall. Easily walkable, yet a world apart.
Where we could move freely between the quarters of the old city, visit the tunnels under the western wall or enter the Temple Mount, talk freely with Muslims, Jews or Christians, Palestinians and Israelis and be welcomed, outside Tel Aviv I didn’t see much intermingling. As just one example, when we emerged from visiting the western wall tunnels, up into the Muslim quarter of old Jerusalem (an area we’d walked through quite freely), we now needed an armed escort on both ends to walk the ten minutes back to the Jewish quarter—because it was a Jewish tour and mostly Jewish group.
Mostly I heard plenty of hate. “Only animals over there,” a woman told us from the hillside in Galilee looking into Jordan. She wasn’t talking about the wildlife. “Arabs can’t handle democracy,” a taxi driver told us. From Palestinians in the West Bank we heard about their poverty, oppression, their anger. For me, compared to Georgia, the West Bank looked quite prosperous.
I think an Arab café owner in the Muslim quarter summed it all up best when he said he hated everyone, especially in Jerusalem: Jews, Muslims, Christians. “They all have an agenda,” he said, “and by-the-way how hypocritical are you Americans proclaiming democracy but supporting Mubarak? I hate you too!” I picked up a book in his café while we were drinking coffee which claimed not only the Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but also the tunnels under the western wall, all the pretty parks in Jerusalem, the light rail—they were all Zionist conspiracies to claim more land.
In Israel, it seems, it’s never just archaeology and good city planning, there’s always ten more layers of history, politics and meaning. And since I don’t have to live here, or deal with the tension, the bombs, the hate, it’s been strangely fun to experience. But then I’m a little weird.