When a tourist comes to Israel for the first time, what do they expect to see? The ancient city of Jerusalem with its historical and religious relics and anecdotes? The cutting-edge powerhouse of high-tech, culinary flair, and world-class beaches that is Tel Aviv? Or perhaps the rolling green hills of the Galilee or the magical healing powers of the Dead Sea? Shwarma or vegan hamburgers? Ancient or modern? Religious or secular? Which is the true Israel? Short answer: a hybrid of all these great things along with a great many more.
Long answer: regardless of whatever preconceived notions you’ve developed before your arrival as a result of your cultural and religious upbringing, media exposure, social influences, etc., one can objectively identify three distinct Israel’s, each with its own special brand of Israeliness and a population with a shared set of social character traits. Each one as vital as the next to the existence of what we call Israel today, in the year 2018. Each one as similar to the others as it is different.
I have chosen, for the sake of this article, to omit any mention of Judea and Samaria, along with the large Israeli and Palestinian populations residing there; it’s simply not the subject today. I will make no mention of the Palestinian Authority, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights, or other points of contention that I deem irrelevant to the current topic. The Israel I speak of today is the internationally recognized parliamentary democracy located within the “Green Line”, the international borders determined in 1949 by the armistice ending the War of Independence. Today, as many guides at Massada tend to do, I speak not of how we died here, but of how we lived here.
TO HEAR IT
In my opinion, the single most important city in the history of mankind; despite its remote mountain-top location, Jerusalem has been the prized jewel in the crown of every major European and Middle Eastern powerhouse all the way back before King David and up until the ending of the British Mandate in 1948. She is the spiritual stronghold that alone has the power to bind the region together or tear it apart. Her ancient secrets literally ooze out of cracks between the worn stones and nobody is impervious to the sense of awe and importance obtained by simply strolling her alleyways, passages, tunnels, and courtyards. Her hilltops and valleys are home to many of the holiest sites of the three major monotheistic religions. Likewise, the surrounding foothills region is home both to traditional religious communities as well as modern shopping malls, ancient monasteries carved into the rocky mountainsides overlook the high-tech agricultural work that the kibbutznikim perform in the fields below.
Jerusalemites appear to be inherently aware of the austere importance of this heritage which they presently embody and their mindset is a balance of humility and pride, appreciation and acknowledgement of the weight of their burden. Even the city’s secular residents seem, on average, to be far more spiritually aware than in most other places around the world. Of course, a great deal of her residents are religiously observant, and this manifests itself through countless different branches and subdivisions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as well as through the appearance of a multitude of smaller and lesser-known religious followings, such as the Makuya, a group of Japanese Christians residing in Israel and studying the Old Testament in Hebrew! Strolling the modern streets of West Jerusalem, it is impossible to ignore the wealth of human history hiding just below the surface. Rambling the ramparts of the Old City walls, you can almost hear the Roman legions camped in the valleys below.
However, Jerusalem is not all history and archaeology and old dusty rocks and stories; she is also a vibrant modern city with a booming tourism industry alongside a thriving cultural scene that includes fine dining, museums highlighting both old and new, an internationally renowned university, a wide sampling of music and the arts, and much, much more. The Machane Yehuda market has, in recent years, become the new hub of Jerusalem nightlife, with thousands of people from all around the world filling its narrow alleys with dozens of different languages and culinary styles in the wee hours, long after the vegetable and spice vendors have closed up shop. The municipality presents an impressive sound and light show projected on the Old City walls outside the Jaffa Gate. Jerusalemites observe national book week and Ramadan, they have a Pride Parade and the Via Dolorosa, alongside a wide variety of ethnic foods from across North Africa and the Middle East you can find an impressive offering of locally brewed IPA’s and lagers. The Jerusalem foothills area has been producing some of the world’s finest wines continuously for literally thousands of years. Yet if you go for a drive down the hill and across the coastal plain, it is as if you had been transported 2,000 years in time, to an entirely different, though no less authentic, version of Israel.
There is not a shadow of doubt that Tel Aviv in the year 2018 is the single most socially liberal and progressive city in the world. Playing home to the world’s most vibrant and fastest-growing LGBT community has brought with it a massive upsurge in cultural wealth over recent decades, while fostering the world’s second largest center of technological innovation (after Silicon Valley) has led to a corresponding increase in actual material wealth. This is a different Israel; here you will much more easily find a vegan restaurant than a kosher one. Tel Aviv has almost as many sushi bars as falafel stands; thousands of certified yoga instructors offer their services in private studios, public parks, or down at the famed beachfronts. I was born and raised in Southern California, home of ‘Baywatch’, but I can safely and proudly say that, by and large, Tel Aviv’s beach culture makes SoCal look like a landlocked desert wasteland. The end result? New York City on the Mediterranean Sea; a city that truly never sleeps and, frankly, has no reason to, seeing as evening temperatures in the warm season (half the year) hover around the high 70’s and low 80’s. Did I mention the endless parade of absolutely gorgeous people of every imaginable color, shape, size…?
The way I see things, the municipality of Tel Aviv-Yaffo really should be expanded to include many of the surrounding suburbs, such as Ramat Gan, Petach Tikvah, the Sharon region, and Holon and Bat Yam, where many of its artists, professionals, and entrepreneurs make their homes; much like LA’s vastly sprawling suburban metropolis. Tel Avivim and many other Israelis often refer to the “State of Tel Aviv”, a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the socioeconomic and cultural bubble in which its residents appear to thrive. Truly, when in Tel Aviv, it is all too easy to either forget or simply ignore the often harsh realities of life outside the city limits. 24/7/365 you can find something to do and somebody interesting to do it with; culinary tours, street art and graffiti tours, massive groups of rollerbladers cruising the boardwalk late at night, and yes, even archaeological excavations and one-of-a-kind museums. Even Yom Kippur, Judaism’s holiest day, has become a sort of secular jubilee here, with tens of thousands of Israelis flocking to ride their bicycles on the empty Ayalon highway.
Yet Tel Aviv is not in fact as isolated as it seems, even here we can see shining examples of the potential coexistence that could one day reign in the region. To the south of the Tel Aviv Port are three adjacent strips of beach; locals know them as the gay beach, the dog beach, and the religious beach. Not surprisingly, those target audiences do in fact perpetuate the justification of the names by going to the beach that fits their state of mind and personal style. Yet they don’t have any conflict with one another, it is as if each group is almost unaware, albeit implicitly tolerant, of the others. Of course a great many Tel Avivim still appreciate the beauty of Israel’s natural treasures, and spend their weekends and holidays traveling to the north or south, staying at campgrounds or luxury guesthouses. Young people playing matkot along the water’s edge or eating watermelon on their straw mats or developing code in the high-tech parks are every bit as Israeli as their less urbanized counterparts. They do reserve duty in the IDF, generate economic growth, and serve as a collective welcoming party for millions of visiting tourists from around the world each year.
Make no mistake, the term is simply a geographical distinction; while the greater Jerusalem and Tel Aviv metro areas make up the better part of the country’s central region, there is still quite a bit of Israel to go around. The so-called “Periphery” is comprised of both large cities and small towns, agricultural communities and industrial parks, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Druze, Circassian, Bedouin, Baha’i, and the list goes on. This Israel is perhaps the most difficult to describe, being the largest both in area and in population diversity. However, Israel can no sooner continue to exist without its small, outlying communities that pepper several international borders than it can without Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Here you will find the “salt of the earth”, the kibbutznik and the moshavnik, the small business owner, the career civil servant, the nurse, the sculptor. Without this Israel, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem would simply have no reason to exist; this is the true ingathering of the exiles, the true harmony between ancient and modern.
The cities of Netanya and Ashkelon offer a more affordable and less clamorous beachside option for immigrant families from around the world. Haifa and Beersheva host some of the largest R&D and production facilities of some of the world’s largest high-tech companies. Eilat and Nahariya provide Israelis with a place to get away and work on their tans for a long weekend without having to leave the country. The incredible natural beauty of sites like Rosh HaNikra, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, Mitzpe Ramon, and countless other national parks and nature reserves harbors a magical quality that hypnotizes both Israeli and tourist alike. Despite existing on a smaller scale, Israel contains almost every bit as much natural diversity as a country like the USA; arid deserts give way to fertile plains and rolling hills give rise to staggering peaks.
The cultural diversity of this Israel influences the atmosphere no less so than the varied landscapes; the multitude of different peoples cohabit the cities side by side, while most small towns tend to have one defining ethnic element. Here, the secular Jewish families from the kibbutz will drive over to the Arab village on Shabbat to eat hummus and do some shopping; the Arab doctor who speaks three languages fluently drives from his small village to work at the nearby regional hospital; close-knit communities preserve cultural and religious traditions going back thousands of years, while their children study politics, humanities, or the arts at the university. In this Israel, you can still get a cheap, fresh falafel without four different types of fancified tahina; you can spend a hot afternoon cooling off in a natural spring pool or at your local shopping mall; you can work your fields in the morning and play music in the evening. And yes, whenever you feel like it, you can dust off your passport and go for a short jaunt into one of the neighboring commonwealths of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, just to get your fix. This is the Israel that I personally fell in love with, although I do very much love the other two as well.
I remember, during my first visit to Israel at the age of 24, the first real insight that I arrived at while attempting to process the massive overload of sensory input was that things here are complicated. Very, very complicated. At first I despaired, wondering how I would ever be able to get a grasp on things, how I would ever manage to fill in the overwhelming gaps in my knowledge and experience. (Spoiler alert: tons of reading helps.) However, on subsequent visits before I made aliyah, I slowly came to the realization that the Israelis themselves often have no clue what’s going on around them either! How many Israelis have I met that haven’t been to Jerusalem since their class trip in middle school, or their requisite visit during IDF basic training? How many Israelis have I met that haven’t ever been to a kibbutz? Or speak only one language? Have never traveled abroad? Confidently insist that there are 51 stars on the American flag? Or 49?
Israelis are a mixed bag, any way you look at it. I have not yet met one who isn’t prepared to tell me where the single best hummus in the country is. There are very few personal boundaries; you will often find yourself discussing politics or medicine with a taxi driver, or being set up for a blind date with the granddaughter of someone next to you in line at the supermarket. This is partially because, during IDF service, these barriers are effectively broken down for the sake of cohesion, but also because Israel is a dynamic, rebellious, and ultimately unpredictable land of paradox. See the Bedouin tent camp with a corral full of camels next to a paved parking lot full of tour buses. See the Jerusalemite whose family has lived in the same home for hundreds of years installing solar panels on the roof. See the doctor take orders from his auto mechanic once a year when they climb into their tank for reserve duty. See the famous “rollerblading Rabbi” of Tel Aviv, who somehow manages to reconcile an observant religious and spiritual life in the heart of modern day Sodom and Gomorrah. See the Kabbalists of Tzfat who express ancient mystical concepts in eye-dazzling modern art. See the shockingly well-preserved Roman ruins and the 3D audiovisual spectacular at the visitor’s center.
For a country roughly the size of New Jersey, with a population less than that of Los Angeles County, Israel has, in its 70 tumultuous years, made incredible leaps and bounds. From a backwater of the crumbling Ottoman Empire at the beginning of the 20th century, Israel catapulted itself to becoming a cultural and economical powerhouse by the onset of the 21st. It is truly a significant player on the world stage; harboring yet-undiscovered treasures from the past as well as yet-undeveloped technological marvels of the future. Israel is by no means perfect, but that’s also what makes it so emphatically human. Just like all other nations, we have corrupt politicians and social dissidence, we have unemployment and poverty, and we have what is probably the most inflammatory land dispute in the history of the world, which sadly has become so entrenched in the quagmire that it will likely take generations to resolve. No, Israel is not perfect, but it is most certainly a very special place indeed.