People, Politics & Prejudice: A girl’s Israeli travel experience

I will post other articles about my Israeli travel experience later in the week, covering topics like food and popular sights, but I wanted to address the metaphorical elephant first – the global assumptions of Israel.

“I just want to say ‘thank you’ and this is not one of those thanks that most people just say. This is a genuine thank you. Thank you for coming to Israel and for experiencing our country. I understand you may have been worried or nervous from what you heard. I bet many of you got ‘what???’ reactions from people you know when you told them you were coming here. We are really glad you gave our country a chance and have hopefully seen that this is a good place with nice people living here.”My Jerusalem Tour Guide

Before August 2015, my own knowledge of Israel was based on the media and news I consumed, and consisted of the following:

  1. Israel is a ‘big evil’ who constantly torments Palestine;
  2. Israel is a war zone where you’re constantly under threat of being bombed, maimed and/or murdered;
  3. It’s in the middle east so any woman who visits has no rights and is constantly at risk of attack;
  4. It’s in the middle east and westerners are prime picking for terrorist kidnappings;
  5. And although most of us will never know the words, Israel produced one of the best Eurovision-winning songs when they entered Diva back in 1998.

Seriously, that song is great.

Anyway, at the end of last summer, I ended up doing some freelance work for a tech company in Tel Aviv and became (cyber) friends with the marketing director. Gradually I began to see Israel in a different light, picking up little bits and pieces from our conversations that altered my perspective. I’m not talking about heavy political issues – just day-to-day updates that were relatable and very similar to my own life back in Dublin.

And honestly, I was surprised. My own knowledge of the country up to that point made it seem like it was a million miles away from the world I knew.

I was wrong.

The people

When she heard I was staying in Athens for a few months, this Israeli woman I only knew through email and Facebook invited me to Tel Aviv and insisted I stay with her while I was there. Airport Security and Passport Officials thought that was very dodgy and insisted on questioning me for many hours, but to me, it was just an incredibly nice gesture.

The Israelis I encountered during my trip reminded me of the Parisians – a little distant, can seem quite serious, dry sense of humour, direct. And like the Parisians, I think they could be read the wrong way. Personally, I didn’t have that problem. I warmed to everyone immediately and laughed so much during my stay because everyone was so entertaining and funny. They definitely related well to my Irish sense of humour and it didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable enough to slag (Irish slang for ‘tease’ or ‘make fun of’) the people I met in the same way I would an Irish person.

My friend’s employers even extended an invitation to me so I could join in their Purim celebrations (think of it as Israeli Halloween). Hours before my flight back to Athens, I found myself in a function room with dozens of people dressed up, playing games and singing popular Israeli songs. I ate my weight in food, clapped along and tried my best to make sense of the madness (I don’t speak Hebrew). Basically, I had a blast!

And although I was a stranger, people made an effort to welcome me, to explain things and if anyone knew ANY English words, they spoke them to me. I felt comfortable in a situation that would usually make me feel anxious and that was due to how friendly my company was.

Israeli Travel Experience 3

The politics

Israel has a bad reputation around the world, not just because people fear middle eastern ways and values, but because of the country’s war with Palestine.

It’s human ignorance to think you can pass judgement on another region’s war and simply nominate a Good Guy and Bad Guy. Me, I will hold my hands up in a situation like that and say quite honestly that I don’t know what the hell I’m talking about and will refuse to offer my uneducated opinion.

As an Irish person, I have often had to sit through infuriating pontifications from foreigners criticising Northern Irish Catholics because of what international media told them about the IRA. Unless you live there, you can’t possibly begin to understand the ins-and-outs of the war in Northern Ireland. After hundreds of years and evolving cultures, there are no good and bad sides in the North anymore. It’s far too complicated and emotive a situation for that and that’s the same academic approach I take with Israel’s politics.

But regardless of how you view Israel/Palestine relations, the important thing to remember is that you can’t hold military and government decisions against the entire population. Would you judge ALL Americans because some of them are supporting Trump’s hate campaign and then refuse to enter the country? Of course not and your treatment of Israel should be no different.

Like any country, Israel is filled with people who have different outlooks, views and opinions, some on the conservative side and some that are incredibly liberal. Judge people on their own actions and opinions, not by those of the people in their country with power.

The society

I don’t pretend to know everything about Israel and its culture and intricacies after five days there, but I gained a lot of insights during my trip from interacting with a number of people.

It’s important to realise that Israel is growing like every other country in the world, with each generation making its own positive differences. Yes, by western standards, they may be falling short in certain areas of human rights, but you can’t change traditions and mind-sets overnight and it’s important to recognise that outlooks there are absolutely evolving.

Tel Aviv is a city like many others throughout Europe – modern, inclusive, enlightened and eager to grow. Family is very important and tradition definitely puts pressure on women to get married and have kids, but from my perspective, Ireland was much the same 20 years ago.

People dress freely; in fact, one girl was wearing a maxi dress with slits up to her hips on either side and I seemed to be the only one to do a double-take. The city also provides a safe haven for LGBT citizens and members of the Jewish community from abroad.

I’m not saying it’s nirvana on earth – like any city, there is a dark element that poses a threat to liberal behaviour – but unlike what many westerners think, Tel Aviv is not an oppressive and scary city.

Israeli Travel Experience 2

Safety

Fear of the unknown is a powerful thing – as a foreigner who doesn’t understand cultural and societal politics, I overanalyse most of my interactions when I’m in new cities.

If a man stares at me in the street back in Dublin, I know instinctively whether it’s because he’s a chauvinistic a-hole or because I’m in real danger. In another European city, I would have a similar ability although I also have to analyse my surroundings to figure out if I’ve accidentally stumbled into a bad area.

In Israel, I will admit the experience is a little more unnerving but it’s because you have more variables added into the mix. Not only do you need to consider the above, you also need to factor in the possibility of middle eastern prejudices and the issue of religion, with many of those values extreme compared to my own liberal Catholic upbringing.

So when I walk down a street, I don’t know if he’s staring at me because I’m a woman, a westerner, a Catholic, a tourist, offending his values, heightening his sexist personality or because he’s simply curious.

I guess what I’m saying is that I felt more paranoid because the city was so new to me, but that reflects more on me than it does the city.

In Tel Aviv, I felt very safe and comfortable; in Jerusalem, I found myself running through the above variables a lot. But was I frightened? No. Wary, yes.

Often you’ll see army officials standing around with big rifles, but if you’ve been to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, this won’t be your first rodeo. The most intense experience for me was getting the bus to Jerusalem and having a significant number of passengers turn out to be rifle-holding army members. I’m from Ireland – I’ve never seen a gun in real life there.

As for the bombings you think will happen several times a day, my trip was very peaceful. Actually, while I was there, there was a very sad bombing in Istanbul that killed a number of Israelis and the day I returned was when the terrorist attack on Belgium happened. Yes, Israel is under a larger threat, but they also have far stricter security measures. Nowhere in the world is safe these days.

My Israeli Travel Experience: In conclusion…

…I was already trying to work out when I could visit Israel again while on the plane back to Athens. I LOVED it and was kicking myself for not staying longer. I’ve lost a lot of ignorant prejudices, I learned so much about the country, as well as different religious cultures, and really enjoyed spending time with the locals.

Like any country you’re a tourist in, you should be alert and wary, but don’t let your fear stop you from booking a flight right now.