Pictures Pending: Until blogger lets me upload them, check them out here.
Sitting cross-legged on a bed in a kibbutz in northern Israel last Saturday night, squinting and sewing a missing button back onto an Israeli army uniform was definitely one of the more dramatic how did I get here moments of my year. Come to think of it, I’ve had a lot of those moments over the past two weeks.
From spending the night at a free hostel in Jerusalem’s Old City run by Orthodox Jews who kept us up half the night debating Torah; to sitting on the couch next to an Israeli boy whose name I still can’t quite pronounce as he casually flips through TV channels, pausing to say, Oh, that’s my show!; to being cheered at bars for the simple fact of having come to Israel to “hang out” rather than find my heritage: It was a strange and enlightening vacation.
Rachael and I arrived in Tel Aviv on a Thursday and spent our first few days there, hanging out by the beach, exploring Jaffa and going to the Shuk (market) by day and spending our nights with an old friend of R’s who was living in Israel for a few months. He’s apparently friends with a big group of Israeli movie stars, stage actors and musicians, because every time we saw him, whether it was hanging out at the apartment of an actor our age, whose latest movie just went to the Cannes Film Festival, watching the Brazil-Argentina football match or going to the theatre, we were recognizing (with help) people from movies and previews we’d seen back in Paris (and elsewhere).
Through R’s friend, we met an actor named Yoav, who invited us to go see him act in Plonter, a play (in Hebrew with English and Arabic subtitles) about the occupation – so controversial that a couple sitting behind me stood up and stormed out in the middle of a scene of an Israeli soldier harassing a Palestinian boy.
From Tel Aviv, we moved onto Jerusalem, where we spent one night in the clean (though slightly creepy) and free hostel before moving onto the floor of an apartment on the campus of Hebrew University. We spent a day exploring the Old City, another at Yad Vashem. We spent our third day floating in the Dead Sea, and a night seeing an Israeli band (who we’d met at a party in Tel Aviv) perform at a Jerusalem club.
After Jerusalem, we took a bus to Afula to meet another of R’s friends near his kibbutz. We stayed there for a weekend, hanging out with a group of young Israeli-born Americans who had returned to serve their time in the army (their rooms at the kibbutz are paid for by the Israeli army). It was an interesting experience for sure, but I think I might just be too used to my role in capitalist America to appreciate a place where everyone’s incomes go into a shared pot, and each family has a golf cart to drive around to the shared pool and dining hall.
We left the kibbutz Sunday morning to spend a day in Haifa and old Akko before heading back to Tel Aviv for two more nights out and one more glorious day at the beach.
Israel is probably the most westernized of any country in the Middle East – it has an Ace Hardware, for pete’s sake, but even so it’s like a different world. When R and I stopped to ask directions anywhere, the first question we’d get back was are you okay with buses? We weren’t particularly more concerned about being on buses than being anywhere else in Israel – yes they have, in the past, been targets for bombs, but so have coffee shops, restaurants and night clubs. The Tel Aviv beach is swept every night by a huge Zamboni-like machine that sifts through the sand checking for bombs. Still, most people are the wariest of buses – a guy we met in Tel Aviv told us that when he was in middle school he and his friends would insult each other by saying Go take the number five bus. Once on the buses, though, there are constant patrols by security guards, who hop on at one stop, sweep through the bus and disembark at the next stop to sweep the next bus that comes along. There was never a moment when I was seriously concerned about being blown up on a bus.
Something else that really struck me was the presence of religion – I mean obviously, Israel was created to be a Jewish state, and Jerusalem alone contains the holiest sites for three different religions. I knew the question of religion was a predominant one, I just wasn’t quite prepared for the question of my religion to become so important. At first it was just puzzled people trying to understand what I was doing in Israel. Do you speak any Hebrew? Wait, you’re not Jewish? Why are you traveling to Israel? Do you have friends there? Family? You’re not Jewish? These questions made perfect sense to me. I mean why was I in Israel? The honest truth sounded weird every time I heard it coming out of my mouth. Just hanging out, going to the beach… is definitely not an answer passport control at Ben Gurion International hears often.
Are you Jewish? was obviously the first question posed to me at Heritage House (the free hostel), but once they’d confirmed that I wasn’t, the question never came up again. This was where I’d expected to be the most rigorously interrogated, but the people I seemed to puzzle the most were actually the secular Israelis. Fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t, in fact, Jewish, they became obsessed with trying to figure out what I was. So you’re Christian, then, they’d state confidently, Ehhh, not exactly. I mean I have a Christmas tree every year…but I’m just not really anything. This is where they got really confused. I’m not Jewish, not Christian, obviously not Muslim – so what was I? Okay, so you’re agnostic? I tried my best to explain to each new questioner that while I don’t associate myself with any particular religion, I’m not atheist and not really agnostic.
The honest truth is that I’m just not anything. The best way to classify me would probably be something like apathetic – I just don’t care. Most conversations ended with me saying something along the lines of religion is not a factor in my life, and I think at that point people just got bored, so I was let off the hook. I had imagined my visit to Israel as more of an outsider looking in, but once my plane had landed, my spirituality became fair game. It didn’t bother me at all – I had a lot of interesting discussions, but it was kind of exhausting. I think I probably discussed my “religious background” more in the past two weeks than in the whole of my life so far.
After determining my religion (or lack thereof), the next question was invariably pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. Actually, this was never even a question – hanging out with Israelis, I was assumed to be pro-Israel and was thus included in disturbing conversations about things like the “unsanitary” nature of Arab restaurants. There were a lot of times I wanted to speak up and say no, I don’t agree with this, but as a Westerner just passing through the country I became a pansy in the face of the pro-Israel furor. The way this conflict has boiled down to the people who live in it has become almost a question of Jews vs. Arabs. Obviously it’s more complicated than that, but it’s an easy distinction to make – we were warned not to go near the Arab quarters after dark, people make jokes like, Well if you’re worried, you can take one of the Arab buses… and we were confronted with people like the man staying in our hostel who came right out and said I hate the Arabs, but he also told us he hates Shiksa (non-Jewish women – i.e., me), so he was just bigoted in every direction.
Racial profiling is a disturbing but prevalent reality. R, whose ethnicity is not easily discernable (and could potentially be Arab) was stopped at every security checkpoint and quizzed about her origins, while I breezed right through. I guess these are the disturbing realities of living in a conflict zone.
Overall, the trip was fun, relaxing, and at times disturbing – partially because of conflict-related issues and partially because of the Crocs invasion. Seriously, I’ve never seen so many Crocs at once in my life. One notable quote heard on the street was This is Israel – of course everybody has Crocs!