5 Things That Surprised Us About Israel
Israel is a country rich in history and beauty, and it also rests in one of the most complicated areas of the world. No doubt many who have never been there will question whether now is a safe time to go, and we were no different. However, we were happy to discover that not only did we feel safe while we were there, but we also discovered a country that is as gorgeous as it is complicated. Because it was our first time there, we traveled on a guided tour, but would feel comfortable heading back and seeing the country again on our own.
You don’t have to be religious in order to have a meaningful experience
With some of the holiest sites for three major religions within its borders, Israel is often associated with being a pilgrimage site for those looking to connect with the roots of their religions. But the country also offers breathtaking beauty and thousands of years of history for those who don’t identify with one of the three religions typically associated with the country. A ride through the Judaean Desert outside of Jerusalem greets visitors with gorgeous, rolling hills where one can easily spot a dromedary wandering along the side of the road. Tel Aviv has a Miami-like seaside vibe and party atmosphere, along with exciting restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Or history buffs can take in some of the oldest archeological sites in the world, such as King Herod’s ancient port city of Caesarea or the Roman city of Beit She’an, one of the largest archeological sites in the Middle East. One of our best memories is sitting on the banks of the Sea of Galilee at our kibbutz with a bottle of wine, listening to the hyenas bark in the distance at night.
It’s safer than you might think
Yes, security is tight, but there’s a reason for it. Not once in our week wandering around the country did we ever feel unsafe. However, you have to go with an open mind and check your Western perspective before you go. Driving from area to area, its not uncommon to pass a security checkpoint, some of which, in our experience, included soldiers coming onto the bus to check things out before we were allowed to proceed. And upon arriving at the airport for departure, we were stopped and questioned before we even entered the door. The thing that struck us, though, was how kind and courteous those who were responsible for maintaining the peace were. Even when being questioned about where we were going or where we had been, we never felt worried, and the questioning was always quick and professional. As our tour guide told us, Israel is a safe country that exists in a rough neighborhood. There’s a reason these measures are in place, and they shouldn’t be seen as threatening or violating. We did a lot of obsessing before we left about whether Israel was safe to travel to, and are now laughing at ourselves. That’s not to say dangerous things don’t happen, but as long as you’re aware of your surroundings and stay on the beaten track, you won’t feel much different from being in any other country.
The food is worth the trip alone
Let’s start with the Israeli breakfast. Typically, this buffet-style meal centers around dairy with different types of cheeses surrounded by hummus, Israeli salad, baba ghanoush, yoghurt, fresh fruit and vegetables, olives and a savory pastry called rugelach. Meat is typically not served, so while the breakfast can seem heavy, we never left feeling full and bloated. A typical lunch consists of fresh falafel or shawarma. For dinner, major cities like Tel Aviv host world-class restaurants serving not only Middle Eastern food, but any type of cuisine your palate craves.
Despite what you hear on the news, foreign tourists can travel through and in the West Bank
In fact, some of the country’s most historically relevant sites, including Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah, are in the West Bank. What you need to know is the West Bank is divided into zones. Area A is completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority and it is illegal for Israeli citizens to enter. However, several major sites for Christians are in Area A, including Bethlehem and Jericho. On our afternoon trip to Bethlehem, our Israeli tour guide handed the group over to a Palestinian guide for this portion of the day. Area B is under Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian military control. Area C is under full Israeli civil and military control. With Western news reports often mentioning the West Bank’s problem areas, we thought we would have to avoid the area when driving around the country, when in fact, we harmlessly drove right through it.
It’s a complicated country – in many ways
Israel is bit like an onion, with layers that you can’t possibly begin to understand after one trip there. Upon arriving, you have to toss away everything you have heard and look at things in a new way – what our guide referred to as “taking off your American lenses.” This isn’t simply a country of Jews, Christians and Muslims, or of Israelis and Palestinians. There are practicing Israeli Jews of many varieties, secular Israeli Jews, Muslim Palestinians, Christian Palestinians, Christian Israelis, and so on. Don’t assume you know everything about this complicated country based on whether the people in the area identify with a particular religion or ethnicity. For instance, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, a holy site to Christians as tradition places it as the site of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, is controlled by six sects of Christianity under a tenuous cohabitation agreement. We came back from our time in Israel feeling like we had just gone through a weeklong history class, but feel like we only slightly better understand this complicated area of the world.