Ancient yet modern, safe yet violent, Israel is a land of contradictions

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

 

Since returning from a hastily planned trip to Israel this summer, everyone’s been asking me how it was. Did I have fun? And I don’t entirely know how to answer. Many of the experiences one has in Israel can’t be filed neatly under the heading of “fun,” but it is definitely a trip worth taking.

The most prominent feature of the region is religion; therefore your experience with Israel will vary depending on your religious beliefs. For many Christians, visiting sites like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where, according to legend, Jesus was born) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where he was crucified and buried) are life-changing spiritual moments. Muslims have the Dome of the Rock, where some believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, and which is, in any case, an ancient marvel of architecture (or so I hear, as non-Muslims are no longer permitted to visit the site) and for Jews, almost the whole country is a sort of miracle, not to mention housing many sacred tombs and the famous Western Wall.

Our group wasn’t particularly religious, so I chose a “classical” tour that would give us a taste of everything with a focus on history rather than faith—to the degree they can be separated in Israel. There’s little variation in what highlights are included in most package tours, so go with whichever best fits your travel dates and budget. Ours was an “11-day tour” (with two of those travel days) that had us leaving Seattle on a Thursday to arrive in Tel Aviv on Friday. The guided portion of our tour began Sunday morning when we swung north to spend two nights in the Golan Heights before going back to Jerusalem for five more nights.

A few words of advice. One, do shop around for your flights—it would have been simple to use the tour provider for this, but we would have paid hundreds more in airfare and/or spent eight more hours in layovers each way. I took to Travelocity.com and found us an itinerary that was far superior.

Two, if your itinerary is like ours, consider spending extra time in Tel Aviv. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, when everything was just about to shut down for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, which goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Though more things in Tel Aviv remain open than in Jerusalem—like restaurants and some shops—this still limited our ability to see the city. On our only day in town, most of what we wanted to see—museums and two supposedly bustling markets—were closed or open for such brief hours that we missed out. This left us with Yafo and the beach (which, don’t get me wrong, are both incredible). To get our lower airfare we spent an extra day in Jerusalem, but I wish we’d had it in Tel Aviv instead.

Three, don’t let the tour people bully you into an upgrade; we went with base-level hotels and they were entirely acceptable. Only upgrade if amenities like swimming pools are vital to you. But if your trip is anything like ours, you won’t be spending much time at the hotel anyway.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

What’s awesome:
The age of the place. From Yafo (Jaffa), the ancient port city at the south end of Tel Aviv, to Tsfat (Safed), home of Jewish mysticism, to Jerusalem itself, it’s incredible to see how history has layered itself in these places, some of which have been continuously occupied for many thousands of years. For an American, this can be hard to quite understand. It’s hard to know how much of any given site is ancient and how much is new, because the construction matches so well. In many places it feels as if you’ve time-traveled thousands of years—until you catch the blue flicker of a television inside a building.

In Jerusalem, be sure to find your way to the “roof” of the city. The level at which you fight your way through aggressive vendors and crowds of tourists is only the middle. Older passageways are laced below, and newer ones above. The locals use the roof to bypass the throng below, but you can simply use it as a place to enjoy the view.

The food. Your mileage may vary, but I love falafel and shawarma in pita, hummus, and cucumber and tomato. The only downside is that there’s no bacon anywhere.

I found the implementation of kosher rules very interesting. Most restaurants do not keep kosher, but those that do are labeled as either meat or dairy (since the two are not allowed to mix). You can have pizza, but no meat toppings. Or you can have falafel (Israel’s national food—possibly in a semi-ironic way?), which I never even noticed was dairy-free. You can even go to kosher McDonald’s (we did not) and get a “Big American” burger, but you can’t add cheese.

The people. Get out of your tour group and meet some real Israelis. We did this by having dinner in a woman’s home (there are any number of people willing to do this, but we visited Iris: www.amechayeisrael.com). For the cost of a rather expensive dinner we had a truly fantastic dinner (with an obscene amount of delicious food), two or three bottles of wine, and hours of conversation on everything from American TV to cats to psychic powers to religion and politics. This was easily the most enjoyable part of the trip.

Another high point was allowing ourselves to accept a little Bedouin hospitality in the Old City. Of course, the shopkeeper would have been happier if we’d ended up buying one of his soft silk rugs, but he didn’t seem to begrudge the conversation and tea we shared.

What’s challenging:
The heat. Ohmygod, why did we go in July/August? I don’t recommend this. It was around 100°F most of the time, and we always seemed to end up out in the open during the hottest parts of the day, like when we visited Masada, the ruins of an impressive 200-year-old mountaintop fortress, at noon. I like hot weather, but there are limits.

The ubiquity of religion. Even a religious person will feel the strain of this, I suspect, because the three big “Western” religions are all heavily represented and have differing customs. Men have it relatively easy: for you it’s mainly a question of whether hats are required or forbidden. As a woman, I felt religion’s effects keenly. All of the holy sites require “modesty,” but they have differing standards and this is largely at the discretion of the man (always man) at the entrance. Is that skirt too short? Are elbows immodest? This leaves as the safest course wearing a lot more clothes than the summer heat makes reasonable. Female travelers, I recommend you carry a scarf in case your t-shirt is suddenly deemed unacceptable.

Another issue is that many of the Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall, are gender-segregated. Couples traveling together might find this inconvenient. Conditions on either side aren’t necessarily equal, either. I was shocked when looking at my husband’s photos how large the men’s section at the Western Wall was!

The fact that ideological violence is always just under the surface. Whatever your feelings about Israel—and there are definitely points to be made by all parties—the fact remains that the region is barely keeping itself together. During our week there, we learned of two ideologically motivated acts of violence. A house was set fire in the West Bank, probably by Jewish extremists, and a toddler inside was killed. And then, at the gay pride parade that wound right past our hotel, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people.

(A quick look at the news shows that the violence has only gotten worse since our trip, with another war with Hamas looking like a possibility. Yikes.)

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

One of the more interesting stops on our tour was at a hilltop overlooking the Syrian border. Part tourist stop, part military emplacement, it had metal soldier silhouettes with weapons, and it also had real soldiers with real weapons. The hill was catacombed underneath with bunkers, but it also had a café and gift shop. Coin-operated binoculars pointed toward the war-torn neighboring country, and from time to time we heard large-caliber weapons in the distance.

To be in a country that in many ways seems just like home, and then realize that a horrific civil war is raging mere miles away causes some cognitive dissonance. The fact that Israel refuses to take in refugees, despite being a country founded by refugees, despite the memory of millions of Jews in need of refuge during WWII, and what happened to them when all the countries turned them away… let’s just say I found it interesting.

I’ll sum up with a representative example from our trip, which can stand as a metaphor for the whole: our visit to the Dead Sea.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea is salty as all get out. As of 2011 it was 34.2% saline (and given that it’s losing around one meter of sea level per year, that number is probably higher now), about ten times more saline than the ocean. In contrast, Utah’s Great Salt Lake ranges from 5% to 27%—so even at its saltiest it’s got nothing on the Dead Sea. But this fact is pretty abstract. Going in we knew were going to float, and that’s about all.

What we didn’t realize was that the “beach” we’d be going to was made of sand pure salt crystals (sharp!). We also didn’t realize the water would be quite so hot—like shower water when someone else in the house flushes the toilet. Even the freshwater showers on the shore were uncomfortably hot on that uncomfortably hot day. Finally, we knew that we didn’t want to get the saltwater in our eyes or mouths, and we knew not to shave before the visit, but we didn’t realize that the water would sting the skin a little bit even so—and more than a little bit on more sensitive skin. It’s hard to keep water off one’s face when it’s on one’s hands, and when one’s own salty sweat (less than 1% saline, and think of how much that can sting!) is dripping into one’s eyes.

We did float, of course. You really can’t help but float in it, even those who sink to the bottom of swimming pools. It’s a strange, funny feeling, and there was much laughter. Am I glad to have had that experience? Absolutely. But overall, was our trip to the Dead Sea fun? All things considered, I’m not sure I can call it that.

And that’s exactly how I feel about the trip as a whole: I’m entirely glad we went, but it hasn’t made my list of places to return to again.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.