Sunday, January 13, 2008

Israel: Journey to the Promised Land

It's impossible to visit Israel without some preconceptions of what it's going to be like. The epicentre of the most media-covered and debated region in the world raises spectres of heavy security, repressed Palestinians, manifest religiousity and life practically under seige.

Israel manages to possess all ofthe above, yet strangely, they all represent very small minorities of this diverse and wonderful country that has been fought over for millennia (the poor Palestinians aren't exactly a minority, but you don't see them in Israel anymore).

Despite seeing Hassidic Jews, lots of guns, and increased security, Tel Aviv feels more like a beachside city like Sydney than a city under seige. There's a relaxed beach & cafe culture, and even though while we there rockets were being fired from Gaza and military responses less than 100km south of Tel Aviv, life goes on as normal, with no hint of these increased pressures (although the vaunted security barrier is seriously imposing).

I spent a week in Israel with Ariel, a good Israeli mate of mine from Moscow, and was subsequently adopted by his large and wonderful family. Throughout the week, we drove the country from South to North, saw the major historical and religious sites of most faiths, put Tel Aviv nightlife to the test, and managed to eat more than I had previously thought humanly possible.

The first couple of days were spent exploring Tel Aviv, celebrating (and then recovering from) New Years Eve, and allowing Ariel to reconnect with family and friends- all of whom were determined to force-feed us delicious Middle Eastern food until we were both ready to produce fois gras.

For those who claim Tel Aviv has the best nightlife in the world- while I applaud the city's ability to sustain great nightlife every night of the week, as well as the range of well-designed and lively venues, it ain't quite Moscow- 'nuff said. (If you want details- email me, or just look at the photos).

Our first major road trip was to the South, where we drove through (but were unfortunately unable to visit) the West Bank, visited the ancient fortress of Masada* (where 1,000 jews sacrificed themselves rather than surrender to the Romans, who spent almost a year building a 20-story siege ramp up to the Fortress (those Romans don't f*ck around)).
*Ariel wishes to state for the record that it was my idea to hike the 500 vertical metres to the fortress in the middle of the desert, rather than take the cable car. I just wanted to be authentic.

From Masada we continued south past the Dead Sea, into the Negev desert. Apart from random signs warning of military activity and firing ranges, I don't have much else to comment about the Negev- it's big, dry, and rocky (but very pretty).

The second road trip was to the North, we visted Caesaria (Roman ruins), Haifa (pretty gardens & great falafel- Yum!), Acco (what old town?), the Sea of Galillee and the endless churches that commemorate where Jesus walked on water, produced loaves & fishes, slept, paid his taxes, and had his hair cut (I'm not much for religion, so I zoned out at some point). From there we went to the Golan Heights, which Syria adamantly claims is part of Syria, but given it's so green & lush, I don't see them getting it back anytime soon! Still laced with trenches, minefields, military bases & tank crossings, Golan was fascinating. We skirted both the Syrian and Lebanese borders before heading back to Tel Aviv.

Our final full day was spent in Jerusalem, the holy city. Jerusalem is truly an experience, containing the most sacred sites of Judaism (the Western wall is actually just a wall, but it's still a spectacular sight), Christianity (I never knew they actually knew the place where Jesus was crucified and buried), and Islam (they definitely have the biggest and coolest temple, even if the dome is actually copper and I'm not allowed inside). I was personally disappointed that I didn't contract Jerusalem syndrome, whereby people are so struck by the city, that they actually believe they are a prophet, the Messiah, etc. I guess I'll have to leave it till later to found my own religion...

This blog (or at least this post) is not the place to cover the myriad of complex issues surrounding Israel and the Palestinians, or Israel and it's neighbours. Suffice it to say that most Israeli's I spoke with do not expect a final settlement within their lifetimes, yet all perceive it to be inevitable and necessary.

On a final note, I must pay respects to the family traditions of Israel. Ariel's family genuinely made me feel part of their family, and I was welcomed and force-fed at daily family events throughout the week. This wonderful hospitality contributed greatly to my enjoyment of this fascinating country.

The photos are here.

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