See that photo above? That’s the relationship I have with Israel. We don’t fit together. We couldn’t connect. It was like a relationship you cheer on for so long that doesn’t have the happy ending you had hoped for.
Originally, this was going to be a post about Haifa, but I didn’t get to spend enough time in the city to offer enough for an in-depth article so instead, I’m going to tell you how Israel broke my heart. For me, Israel is the vanilla of the Middle East. If you’re going to visit this part of the world, Israel would be a good place to start. Visiting countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Oman, etc. are the toppings to the sundae.
It wasn’t included in my original RTW itinerary, but my trip was inspired by everyone I worked with back home at a Jewish non-profit. They always spoke so highly of their homeland, and to be quite honest, I felt left out because I couldn’t participate in any of their missions. So I took it upon myself to visit on my own.
I tried so hard every day to blend in with the hustle of Israel. Really. Part of the problem, however, is that there are walls and lots of them including the invisible barriers between me and the person with whom I was conversing. There are even walls reaching high towards the sky isolating different settlements, neighborhoods, and a general open-mindedness. All of the sites are stunning and the stories and history are eye-opening, but I just can’t put my finger on what was lacking.
Israel was the first place where I experienced culture shock. Up to that point, I was beginning to wonder if such a thing existed, but culture shock is, in fact, real. I know it’s taking the easy way out saying that Israel is just different, but it’s true. It’s different from what I’m used to back home, and it’s strangely different than anywhere else I’ve been.
Maybe it’s the heavy presence of religion, politics, and history staring me in the face everywhere I go. Maybe it’s all the young men & women walking around in uniform with machine guns. Maybe it’s because for the first time on my trip, I didn’t feel safe walking around on my own. Maybe it’s a culmination of many things.
Welcome to Israel
Walking through Ben Gurion airport, I was keeping an open mind to all the possibilities and new experiences that Israel would bring my way. Then I had the pleasure of meeting passport control where I assumed, just like all the others I had walked through, this would be a breeze. After 10-15 minutes of questioning and a sinking optimism of even getting across the border, it was safe to say that a solo female traveler with no other intentions other than tourism sent up some red flags. Apparently, my enthusiasm for being in the country was not well received. I left the airport still feeling positive but aware that I should dial down the happiness for my exit.
Fear Induced by Political Pressure & Conflict
Although my safety was never at risk, I was certainly on high alert walking around on my own. Israel always seems to be in the news for some kind of political unrest. On my second to last day in Jerusalem, there was trouble that broke out in the Old City, and policemen had to use tear gas to clear the situation. Past, present, or future, there’s always something going on that induces fear and paranoia, and it is contagious. Everywhere I went, I felt like I was walking on needles. At any moment, something could snap and send the country up in smoke. It is easy to succumb to fear when everyone else around you is radiating with that kind of energy.
I am not a religious person. I didn’t grow up with a religion in my household so to come to a country where religious traditions are very prominent was a bit intimidating. It was such an honor to learn more about Judaism, Islam, and Orthodox practices among others, but at times, it felt like it was being shoved down my throat. If I didn’t belong to a particular faith, I felt like I wasn’t welcome in certain areas or neighborhoods. It was like being caught in the middle having to choose sides or being outcast for being diplomatic/neutral. Learning about other religions is something I truly enjoy when I feel like people don’t have the hidden agenda of trying to convert me.
Apparently, smiles aren’t an acceptable currency here unless you’re a citizen. It felt like every time I tried to be polite, nice, funny, happy, etc., it was misconstrued as a sign of deviousness. Additionally, I can’t speak a lick of Hebrew, but there always seemed to be a lot of yelling going on. I couldn’t tell if people were truly angry or if that’s how loved ones/friends just talk to each other.
To me, it feels like the people are a bit are stand-offish like they’re afraid to mingle with tourists. They come off as unfriendly and unwilling to help. Of course, this is only my opinion. It’s almost as if they are crippled by fear, and their defense mechanism is aggressiveness. I will say though that when you come across someone who is willing to have a conversation with you and share their stories, they will break your heart so make sure to have some tissues handy.
I don’t know that Israel is is completely solo traveler friendly yet, and for that reason, I wish I had seen Israel as a part of a group tour.
Compared to its neighbors, Israel is more expensive in terms of food, accommodation, etc., but that’s not a deal-breaker to keep me from coming back. Not that it’s difficult to find a $3 falafel, but that will only last you so long. Prices for many things are similar to those in the States.
Rosa Parks Moment
After a relaxing Shabbat at the beach with two lovely women I met at the hostel, I was stunned and glued to my seat after watching a historic moment unfold before my very eyes. We were on the bus back to the hostel, sitting in the front to make sure we got off at the right stop. With plenty of free seats on the bus, this gentlemen who was no older than his 50s and in perfect physical condition, stepped on the bus and demanded to sit where one of my friends was sitting. Instead of being content with having her simply slide over, the scene ended with her having to forfeit her seat completely because this man felt it was okay to demand that he have the entire row to himself. He found satisfaction in being able to exert his power over women. I was disgusted, and I still am.
When my friend got up to confront the bus driver, his response was “Do you think this is Europe?” People are aware that it happens all the time but turn their heads away in fear of getting arrested. I don’t think I ever picked my jaw up off the floor.
All of that said, I do love Israel. Just because it wasn’t my favorite place to be doesn’t mean I don’t like it there. It’s a beautiful country and certainly much more unique than anywhere I’ve been. Would I ever visit again? Absolutely, but now I know to do things differently next time.