It has been almost a week since we left Toronto to visit Israel (an event organized by JDL-Canada). I am starting to write about it now – the delay was caused by two reasons. From the first day, the schedule was very busy, with several daily meetings and events, which didn’t leave much time for writing. The second reason was that the reality of Israel was quite different from what the Western media choose to write about the country. I needed some time to digest the avalanche of impressions and present what I saw. I started a new category for this trip, but this is not going to be a chronological description of all that happened.
The first thing that an unprejudiced visitor notices is that Israel is a country like any other country, with its normal everyday life, friendly people (at least most of them), and great infrastructure. This observation may seem trivial, but it looked like a revelation to me, because that reality never finds its way into the North American papers and TV, which see Israel as a constant battleground, where Jews and Arabs fight and Israeli companies desperately try to cope with the “devastating” consequences of a boycott led by the world’s “progressive forces”.
I don’t want to underestimate the impact of the hostility against Israel (after all anti-Semitism is one of the oldest and deadliest prejudices in the world), but despite all that the Jewish people managed to turn a desert and wilderness into a thriving land, a process started long before the State of Israel was established.
That required a lot of dedication and perseverance from many generations, because frankly the landscape is depressing – along with the large desert you can see many hills littered with rocks and stones where only grass can grow (that reminded me of the landscape I saw in Armenia).
But let’s start from the beginning.
We took the El Al flight from Toronto. There was a slight difference in the boarding process compared to other airlines – first we had to answer a few questions of Israeli security officers, who were standing right in front of the ticket counters. According to my Lonely Planet guide, that could turn into a nasty experience, because if you look suspicious, the security could grill you for hours, trying to find contradictions in your answers. Apparently, we didn’t fit that profile, because after a few questions about the purpose of the trip they let us go.
The flight itself was uneventful, but the different people on the plane gave us the taste of the complexity of the cultures and religions, which are linked to Israel. There were secular Jews, speaking different languages. Two Orthodox rabbis got up early in the morning, a few hours before reaching Israel, put on their elaborate garments, and then prayed for hours. A large group of pilgrims from a Toronto church kept reading their Bibles and computer printouts on what to see in the Holy Land.
At the immigration counter after landing, our passports were processed quickly, without the scrutiny that Lonely Planet warned about.
After taking a taxi, we reached our hotel. The problem was that it wasn’t really our hotel – the driver made a mistake and we had to walk a couple of blocks to find the place. Here I want to make a remark that may cause an orgasmic pleasure among the BDS and “apartheid Israel” folks, but it’s true – many Israeli cab drivers suck. Some don’t know their cities – on a few occasions some of them drove in circles unable to find the place, others had to call their office for instructions (not always successful).
On the other hand, the food in Israel is excellent. In most hotels in Canada, a breakfast is considered a tableful of muffins and jam, but at an Israeli hotel you get a choice of over 20 items – several types of cheese and spreads, eggs, fish (at least three types), vegetables (raw and cooked), fruits, salads, several types of desserts, etc.
We spent the first day in Tel Aviv. As a relatively new city, which grew tremendously during the last few decades, it doesn’t have the Middle Eastern appearance one may expect here. The downtown area is dominated by older houses and low-rise apartment buildings.
Most buildings’ roofs are equipped with containers for collecting rain water and solar panels. The solar energy is big here – since the weather most of the year is sunny and hot, it makes sense to use that energy successfully.
Many apartment buildings look neglected and some Israelis complain that the government doesn’t provide enough funds for maintaining the city. On the other hand, you can see construction sites all over the city – the older building are demolished and their place is taken by high-rises.
Despite the fact that Tel Aviv looks like most other cities, the traces of a gruesome past are still visible. On the road you can see the remains of military equipment left from the war for independence in 1948.
Not far from our hotel there is a small strip of stores and cafes. In the early 2000’s a Muslim suicide bomber blew himself up in one of the cafes, killing many people. The place is still closed, but a plate marks the tragedy and people regularly leave flowers at the site.
It was interesting to face the contradictions and problems of Israel on the very first day of our stay. As we travelled around, meeting different people, our fascination with Israel only grew stronger, but that will be covered in another post…
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