Saturday, 10 November 2012

Israel - Challenging Preconceptions

Jaffa - looking towards Tel Aviv
 Nothing ever prepares you for your first trip to Israel. At least, that's what I have learned as a result of last week's fascinating trip.

Of course, I was prepared for heaving crowds at all the major sites, so that was no surprise and I was prepared for the sight of cars rather than camels, roads rather than dusty tracks. I was even prepared for the River Jordan to be a narrow winding affair, little more than a stream in places. But, aside from that, so much has been a revelation. Nor was I alone in this. Although he was better prepared than me - having lived in Tel Aviv for four years during the Eighties - my husband was awestruck at the vast network of motorways and tunnels which have transformed transportation in the larger cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. In fact, he barely recognised the area he used to live in! Multi-national companies were conspicuous by their absence in his day. Now they are everywhere. House building has increased substantially and there is a curious preponderance of Russian, occurring on some explanatory and directional signs as the second language (following Hebrew and before English and Arabic).


With so much upheaval, war and negative reporting over the years, I fully expected to find armed guards on every street corner, total segregation of Jews and Arabs and a general undertone of menace everywhere I went.

I didn't.

Instead, I found a multicultural, international society, vibrant and growing. OK, with a long way to go I grant you, but the green shoots of increased integration seem to be there. Since my husband's time, skyscraper hotels have sprung up all over the place, bringing with them thousands of jobs with Israeli Jews, Palestinian Arabs (both Moslem and Christian) working side by side. In my opinion this lays the foundations for far greater cross-cultural understanding and religious tolerance for the future. I hope I'm proved right - even if it does take a generation.

Leonardo Hotel, Jerusalem. One of many large hotels to have sprung up in recent years

I also wasn't prepared for the relatively short distances between the major historic sites. Tel Aviv has sprawled into Jaffa, and Bethlehem is almost a suburb of Jerusalem as it is right next door. But here there is a great divide. The horrible, infamous high wall, houses Border controls permitting no Israeli citizen to enter. Its elected Mayor (this year, for the first time, a woman), must be Christian. There is graffiti - lots of it on the Palestinian side of the barrier. Most of it is political, but not all - slogans and artwork praising Leila Khaled rub shoulders with three foot high letters 'Make Hummous not war' and 'Olive trees shall be our borders'.

Graffiti on Palestinian side of the wall, Bethlehem

A surreal episode for me was our trip up the Golan Heights (on a tour bus). Practically at the top, we parked for a photo stop. Our view was of Syria, with Damascus just 45 miles away.

Syria from the Golan Heights

Acre (or Akko) was the biggest revelation to me. Its 12th century Crusader fortress is enormous, extending underground to the Knights Halls which were accidentally discovered by a prisoner held by the British in 1947 (during the British Mandate). He was trying to dig his way out and accidentally found himself in the long forgotten subterranean chamber.
The Knights' Halls, Acre

Israel is a country the size of Wales and is an archaeologist's dream. Everywhere you go there are excavations. It is also a gastronome's delight. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound and I have never tasted orange juice like it. A creative array of salads accompany a delicious range of fresh and saltwater fish and the desserts were light, varied and extremely naughty!

I'll put another post up on other aspects of our wonderful trip within the next week or so, including a feature on the most unusual YMCA you will ever have seen - I guarantee it. Not only is it unusual, it was also nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize!

The international YMCA, Jerusalem


  1. I went to Israel on a pilgrimage about five years ago and I adored it - it was a constant source of inspiration for me. Did you swim in the Dead Sea? And see the scrolls? They were amazing when you consider where and how they were written. I thought the contrast between the Arab and Jewish sides of Jerusalem very stark indeed, and the difficulties of life in general for both sides was brought home to me when we went into Jericho. Glad you enjoyed it :-)

  2. Hi Sue. We were only there a week, so didn't go everywhere. This is the problem isn't it? Not what to include but what you will, regrettably, have to miss out. For a number of reasons, we opted for another day in Jerusalem so didn't get to the Dead Sea which was an optional trip on that day. Yes, I agree, there were great contrasts and there is much to be done - including compromises on both sides - but I definitely spotted some green shoots that I wasn't expecting.

  3. I lived in Israel in the late nineties, and my daughter was born there. I'm very happy to hear progress is positive.

  4. Hi Catherine, I lived in Israel for 3 years during the first Intifada in the late 80's. Friends did not yet have tvs and washing machines; one of the clients I housecleaned for had gotten their first VCR. I had heard about some of this development but I am glad to hear your first hand account and to see photos.
    People don't realize how small a country it is and how close to hostile neighbors. My experience was that the Israeli people were generous, gregarious, and always looked out for me. At that time, I hitch-hiked from top to bottom of the country and then people started handing me shekels and asking me to take the bus. The disparity between Israel and the West Bank continues to be shocking and the political situation complicated beyond belief. I hope to go back some day. I hope Israelis have not lost their optimism for creating a future that is peaceful. Best, Wendy

  5. Thank you Tarah and Wendy. Israel is a 'work in progress' without a doubt. An amazing country, filled with fascinating people - so many cultures and backgrounds. Wendy, I urge you to go back if you can. You will see a great difference as you and my husband lived there at a similar time and I know how much change he found.

  6. Wow. Thank you for letting us share your trip. I'd love to go there sometime.

  7. This is bringing back so many memories from my trip. I went in 2000. I'd love to go back!!!

  8. I bet it's fun to stay at that YMCA!Israel may be the size of Wales but I bet English is more widely spoken. I have never been but I once had a long-term relationship with a Jewish girl who had spent time there; I have a great affinity for the Jews as a result but at the same time understand very well the plight of the Palestinians. Peace is the only answer to anything in this world; peace, tolerance, brotherhood.

  9. Thanks Sheila and Laura. Steve - you are so right. The sight of the sign 'Olive trees shall be our borders' which I saw a few times around Jerusalem and also on the Palestinian side of the wall in Bethlehem kind of said it all for me.