Back in March, I took my first trip to the middle east, to attend Yossi Vardi’s “Kinnernet” unconference on the shores of lake Kinneret, also known as the Sea of Galilee. This is an invite-only conference and a great time, but being only 2 days long, it’s hard to justify 2 days of flying just to go to it. So I also conducted a tour of sites in Israel and a bit of Jordan.
Israel is another one of the fascinating must-do countries for an English speaker, not simply for its immense history and impressive scenery, but because it is fascinating politically, and a large segment of the population speaks English. There are other countries which are interesting politically and culturally, but you will only get to speak to that segment of the population that has learned English.
Israel is a complex country and of course one can’t understand it on a visit, since many of the natives will admit to not understanding it. Most of the people I associated with, being high-tech internet people, seemed to be on the less aggressive side, if I can call them that; people opposed to the settlers, for example, and eager for land-for-peace or two-state solutions. During my trip Gaza was in turmoil and I did not visit it. I drove through West Bank areas a couple of times but only to get from A to B — though many Israelis expressed shock that I would be willing to do that. (On our way back from Jordan, on the outskirts of Jericho, we saw a lone Haredi, wearing black hat and black coat, hitch-hiking after dark on the side of the road. Our car was full, but our driver, who was not much afraid of the west bank, did agree that was a man of particular bravery of foolishness.)
The Israelis have come to accept, like fish in water, many things that to an outside seem shocking. Having two very different levels of rights for large sections of the population. Having your car, and then later your bag, searched as you do something as simple as visiting a shopping mall. The presence of soldiers with machine guns slung on their backs almost everywhere you look. Being on the bus that simply shuttles all day along a 400 foot trip between the Jordan and Israel border stations, and having to go through a 20 minute security inspection even though it’s been in view of the Israel station the whole time. Showing ID cards all the time.
The latter is of course not unexpected but disturbing. Israelis are taught more than anybody else in school about the dangers of a society with too much identity information on its people, and which requires them to carry and show papers. So they would have been the last to accept this, but they have. It shows how extreme their situation is more than some of the other less subtle signs. If more buildings fall in the USA, we’ll become more and more like Israel.
And yet the people, both Israelis and Arabs, are all intensely friendly and gregarious. (The same whether I would reveal my Jewish ancestry or not. I do not, however, look Jewish.) Famously brusque but still warm hearted.
The food is Israel is much better than I expected. It starts with the extremely fresh ingredients grown in the tropical climate. The falafel stands on the sides of the streets put anything elsewhere to shame, and I became addicted to the fresh squeezed juices also found everywhere.
In Jerusalem, around my hotel near King George and Jaffa, I experienced an amazing contrast. On Thursday night the streets were packed full of young people, starting their weekend. On Friday night, Shabbat was observed so strictly in that area that you could hear nothing but the chirping of birds and a few distant cars. In Tel Aviv, and among the high-tech crowd, Shabbat was hard to detect.
The old city of Jerusalem is a great trip, and the Muslim quarter, which is the most lively, is not nearly so dangerous or scary, even after hours, as Israelis described it to be. Along it is the “Stations of the Cross” route which gets Christians all excited, even though it’s clearly not the original route, which was not dotted with hundreds of Muslim-run souvenir shops. Seeing an internet cafe, I joked, “And here, at station 5.5, is where Jesus stopped to check his E-mail and twitter about how tired he was.” Jerusalem, and the rest of Israel, is packed full of Christians on “holy land” tours. A friend described it as like Houston, in that it was full of Texans.
I have a very large gallery of panoramas of Israel, along with a second page of panos and a still yet to be processed gallery of regular photos to come. Also to come is the 2-day trip into Jordan to see Petra. I’m particularly pleased with the first one that I show here, a 360 degree view of the western wall (wailing wall) male section just before Shabbat. Check out the full sized version.