Kate Saunders takes us on a journey through a diverse Israel – from the party town Tel Aviv to the old city of Jaffa and Jerusalem’s traditional communities.
Like many tourists hailing from Europe, I first arrived in Israel by air, on a Saturday morning. I headed to the train station for the short journey to Tel Aviv. It was deserted: no trains, no passengers, no staff. The same at the bus terminal: “No buses – it’s Shabbat”.
Public transport simply does not operate on Shabbat – for 24 hours, once a week, there is nothing – if you cannot afford a car of your own, or a taxi, you just have to walk. Even the international airport, which handles 11 million passengers a year, has no transport links.
An extension of this is Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the Jewish year, when even the vaguest of believers will fast for 25 hours. The airport is completely closed during this time, along with all shops and restaurants. Even the highways are deserted – children ride their bicycles and chase footballs across the silent lanes. There is no radio, no television, no music – no sound. To the foreigner caught unaware, there is an eerie, post-apocalyptic feel: never before had I seen a modern town so peaceful.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a number of unexpected side effects. Walking the streets of towns around the country, I saw a scattering of what look like uncovered manholes. But they are not manholes – they are bomb holes. Thick concrete walls encase a well around three metres deep, into which passers-by can throw any bomb they might chance upon. The holes contain the blast, ensuring less damage and fewer fatalities. It’s a chilling reminder of the ever-present threat of conflict in this seemingly secure land, and put me ever so slightly on edge.
Petrol prices in Israel are among the highest in the world, many times what they are in neighbouring Jordan. Petrol is imported from the US, as none of the regional oil producers will sell to Israel. Some enterprising if foolhardy Israelis described driving into Aqaba, swapping their license plates for Jordanian plates at the border, in order to fill their cars with fuel. Returning home with a few cans of petrol in the back can make all the difference to a student’s income.
These same students often live in vast columned villas in the southern university city of Beersheva, where rents are some of the lowest in the country, thanks to the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza. Weekends can be spent at desert trance parties, driving out past ancient Nabatean ruins to a wadi where thousands of young people in fancy dress dance under the stars.
The army has a visible impact on everyday life throughout the country. Giggling teenage girls in the street carry rifles, and I stared in disbelief in the fitting rooms of a chain clothing store as a teenage girl modelled a dress for friends, all while her rifle propped up against the wall next to her.
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Tel Aviv feels like being in downtown Beirut – a vibrancy that I rarely felt elsewhere in Israel. The bars and the clubs are packed until dawn, and the partygoers often have a defiant attitude reminiscent of Lebanese youth – there may be a war, but life must go on. In the daytime the beaches are full of tanned bodies in bikinis, watching as the equally tanned, toned men run barefoot along the shoreline. When it comes to what to wear, anything goes, and as a beach girl at heart, that feeling is liberating - no catcalls, no whistling, no staring. There’s definitely a Californian beach vibe in the sea air.
Within Tel Aviv, the old city of Jaffa, perched on a clifftop to the south, is a different world. Elegant old sandstone buildings line narrow winding streets, with hookah bars, cafés and street markets vying for space. Here the population is more traditional, and the dress code more conservative. The weekly flea market sees local residents laying out some of their belongings on hessian mats on the streets – you can haggle over ancient chandeliers, mismatched spoons, and battered old books on everything from cookery to Hafez.
One surprising aspect is the prevalence of blonde, blue-eyed Russians – both Jews and Christians. Indeed, being blonde myself, I was occasionally addressed in Russian by shop assistants and waiters. These immigrants came from the former Soviet Union, drawn to the higher standard of living in Israel, as well as their liberal immigration policies for those who can prove Jewish ancestry. A sizeable minority of these immigrants were Christians with sufficient Jewish ancestry to qualify as a Jew under Israeli immigration law, who saw the opportunity for a better life. As such, Israel is scattered with Russian supermarkets, selling cabbage, kvass, pork sausages and other Russian imports. When I visited in December, one supermarket was hung with gaudy Christmas decorations, whilst a man dressed as Father Christmas handed out chocolates.
Jerusalem, a couple of hours inland from Tel Aviv, feels a very long way from the liberal, modern coastal towns. The old city is nothing short of living history, thriving with pilgrims, tourists and religious scholars of all three Abrahamic religions. At times, the weight of the historical and religious significance of the sites, all just a few hundred yards apart or often literally on top of each other, can be overwhelming. There is an element of old Damascus within the city walls, a sense of stepping back in time to such an extent that you half expect to encounter a Biblical scene every time you turn a corner.
It was, however, Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox Haredi neighborhood of Mea Shearim that provided the greatest contrast in this diverse land. Here, the men and women referred to as “penguins” by their more secular, liberal countrymen live an insular, conservative and traditional life of prayer and Jewish study. Men and women are strictly segregated, with some men wearing large fur hats and thick black coats reminiscent of Eastern Europe in the 1800s, summer and winter. Women must cover all their skin and hair, wearing long black skirts, socks, and wigs. Large signs in English and Hebrew on the roads leading into the neighborhood request that visitors respect this dress code. Families are very large, often with over eight children per couple, and family reputation is considered of utmost importance. Unemployment is high, dissent is not tolerated and military conscription is firmly rejected.
I rarely came across Muslims outside of Jerusalem and other Muslim-majority towns such as Nazareth. It felt as if there was a conscious effort to enforce separation – on whose side, I don’t know. When I asked Jews about Muslims, the general response was that they didn’t know any. One girl’s parents had a Muslim gardener, whose wedding they had attended. Otherwise, the Jews I met tended to speak of Muslims in general terms – sometimes pejorative, sometimes curious – but rarely in direct reference to an individual. This view of Muslims as a largely foreign, homogenous and truculent force may hinder any attempts at cross-border understanding.
On a trip out to the desert, we stopped for supplies at a supermarket in a Muslim village. All of us piled out in shorts and t-shirts, into a shop full of veiled women. However, they didn’t look disapprovingly, or curiously, as you might expect elsewhere in the Middle East. They looked away, and walked away. When we entered an aisle, the women (and a few men) would avert their eyes, and move in the opposite direction. I felt they were scared of us – a bunch of friendly, smiling 20-somethings. It was awful.
I now live in the Gulf, and have not come across a single person here who has visited Israel. Much like the Israelis I met, many Arabs here speak of their enemy in general terms, characterizing them as a single, unified and unreasonable force, and paying little heed to the divisions in Israeli society and the differences of opinion that exist. Perhaps this is part of the problem; if there was a way to diminish the role of stereotypes and allow both sides to see the other as a collection of individuals as diverse as themselves, it might be easier for a deeper understanding to be reached.
Kate Saunders is an aspiring Arabist. She lives in Dubai.