I’m sitting next to an Israeli-American college student named Edan who has just told me two very different things. “There’s just this vibe in Israel,” he said first, an electric wistfulness in his deep brown eyes. Then, he hesitates and smiles in the way that someone smiles when they’re about to say something they can’t believe they’re about to say. “But, you really picked a hell of a time to come here.”
I know what he means—I’m not immune to the media headlines, the sensationalized rhetoric, the news stories from CNN and the BBC capitalizing on the mounting events that some news personalities have started calling the stirrings of The Third Intifada. I’ve been hearing it because I can’t not hear it—it’s literally everywhere, every time I open my internet browser. Palestinian-Israeli Tensions Mount in Jerusalem. Jerusalem Abandoned After Two Israelis Shot in City Center. Rocks Thrown at Innocent Bystanders in the Streets.
My friend Yolanda, who lives outside of Tel Aviv, has sent me the news articles from The Jerusalem Post—articles whose headlines are no less sensational—and has told me that, although she’s never said this to anyone before, we should avoid the Old City completely, because the situation there is just too unstable. I ask my seatmate about “the state of things,” what he thinks about these undeniable and interminable tensions that have become a daily part of life in this tortured little country, this complex, sacred space, in the heart of the Mediterranean. He shrugs and tells me this: “It’s just a part of who we are. It’s like, at some time or another, everybody is either oppressing or the oppressed.” His comment, though meant to be exasperated, tells me more about the way 20-somethings feel about Israel than anything else I’ve read.
Edan and I spend the next hour talking about what Israel is really like. As an American whose grandparents still live in Haifa, he is intimately connected to both cultures, and he decided to attend university in Israel so he could finally have the chance to see what life was really like for him, an American Jew with tangible roots to his homeland. As a budding entrepreneur, he is going to business school in Israel because he wanted to meet other young Israelis and he wanted to get a multinational education. Eventually, he wants to start a line of fashion jeans for hipsters with stores in both L.A. and Tel Aviv, the two most magnetic, sensual, misunderstood cities in the world.
So, here we are. I’m on an airplane to Rome, sailing once again over the Atlantic Ocean, to a place I’ve only imagined in my dreams. To a place that, until recently, I only knew as a country where my dear friends Alison and Joel took their birthright trips, as a legendary place that was mentioned in my Sunday school stories, as a nativity scene on my parents’ bookshelf during the winter holidays. I also knew, somewhere in this mix, that it was also a place as inextricably tied to occupation and political tension as the word Bethlehem is to the Christmas play we used to enact at school each year with white kids wearing brown leather sandals with straps and tunics too big for their child-sized bodies.
I’m on an airplane to Rome, and then to Tel Aviv, to a place that, yes, reminds me that this chosen passion of mine, to journey, to experience, to write, to capture scenes as best I can with a lens, often comes with a price. It requires me to face trauma, to face insecurity and cultural uncertainties, to open myself up to the possibility that yes, life is not perfect, not elsewhere, and not at home; it is not without political strife; it is not without raced, gendered, and socio-economic realities. I think that this is one of the first lessons that Israel can teach me—that living with uncertainty is as undeniable a part of life as getting out of bed in the morning. It’s a way of life, it’s a reality of life, it’s a daily part of life.
But I also know that I am a better person for having had the chance to learn these things. And I’m not afraid—I’m electrified. I can’t wait. I want to understand more fully the lives the Israelis and the Palestinians live and experience every day. I hope, that even though I will be a temporary visitor in their home, that they will allow me to ask, and that they will tell me. What we see in the media is never, ever the full story, and I am so utterly grateful for this opportunity to learn what that actually means. I’ve been to places recovering from war before, places like Medellín, Ciudad Juarez, and Malta, but I’ve never been to a place that fears a new war is on the horizon.
Map of Where We’re Going
So, let’s see what our week in Israel looks like. Of course, our itinerary might—and almost certainly will—change depending on the current political situation, road traffic, and/or time and crowd constraints, but here’s what the Israeli Ministry of Tourism has planned for us.
Imagine a circle, starting at Ben Gurion International Airport (the blue airplane icon). Travel up and around in a clockwise circle from there and keep going until you get back to Ben Gurion. Because I could only figure out how to put pins on a Google map and not numbers, envisioning them as pins in a clockwise circle is about the best we’re going to get. That being said, I’ve read that flexibility and adaptability are as much a way of life as anything else around here, so in the spirit of our upcoming journey, let’s just use this as a starting point.
If anything, it’s nice to see an up-close map of Israel, a country no larger than the state of New Jersey.
Day 1 – Weds. – Haifa, Old Acre, Beit She’an
After the million hours it’s going to take us to actually get to Israel, we have to get in a bus and ride from the airport up to Haifa, where we’re spending our first night (and at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, a place I am hoping has beautiful pillows and comfortable mattresses….). When we wake up on Wednesday morning, we’re going to start our day touring Haifa, Israel’s third-largest port city (and the name of the dog who lives next door to the Winet cabin in Idaho). We’ll visit the Bahai Shrine and Gardens, which, though I know little about it, seems to be the world’s center for the Bahai faith.
From there, we’re going to drive across the Galilee to Old Acre, an Ottoman seaport designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where we’ll get to see the fishermen at work, shop at a street bazaar, and visit an Israeli bathhouse. After our afternoon in Old Acre, it looks like we’ll head back and check in at the En Gev Holiday Resort kibbutz, where we’ll have what is rumored to be St. Peter’s fish….or descendants of the fish St. Peter used to harvest on the Sea of Galillee two thousand years ago.
Day 2 – Thurs. – Kibbutz En Gev, Caesarea, Jerusalem
We’ll be waking up early Thursday morning for a tour of the kibbutz (commune) before we drive over to Caesarea, a coastal Mediterranean resort town and former Roman capital. We’ll spend some time wandering around the ruins and the ancient theater before heading to the Israel Museum where I will get to see, with these own two blue eyes of mine, the actual Dead Sea Scrolls. For those of you who don’t know what the Dead Sea Scrolls actually are, let me say this: they are the oldest remaining biblical texts in existence. No matter what your beliefs are (or if you even have any), there is something immaculately sacred about these books.
Thursday night, we’ll check in to the Dan Panorama Hotel in Jerusalem and get to meet Chef Moshe Bason, a local farm-to-table phenom in Jerusalem whose entire repertoire of recipes is based off of references to foods and cooking techniques mentioned in the Bible. This, too, sounds extraordinary….I’m hoping to steal him away for an interview!
Day 3 – Fri. – City of David, Western Wall, Mt. Zion (Jerusalem)
If everything goes as planned, Friday will be the kind of day that I know I will remember for the rest of my life. It will be that kind of day, the one and only chance I might ever have to walk through, on my own two feet, the world I only know from my Methodist Sunday school classes as a child, the world I know only through books, and stories, and the sermons of my childhood ministers. I will get to see the City of David. I will get to touch the Western Wall, Judaism’s most sacred place on Earth and I will get to walk through the Western Wall Tunnels. I will get to stroll down the cobblestoned alleys of the Cardo, the Roman-Byzantine streets that were once trod by people thousands of years older than me.
I will visit Mt. Zion, and I will see the room of Jesus’ Last Supper. I will dine in the old city center, and I will see the streets light up with life. Or so I’ve heard.
I hope, hope, hope with all of my heart that the Old City is reopened to the public and is safe by Friday. A precarious time, but in Israel, always a precarious time.
Day 4 – Sat. – Dead Sea, Judean Desert
And today, I will float on water. And we will visit the absolute lowest point on the planet. I think we’re also supposed to take a Jeep safari to Mout Sedom, a place comprised entirely of salt.
We will bathe in the sea and, according to my itinerary, put on the black mud. I have no idea what this black mud of which they speak actually is, but I guess we’ll find out together.
Tonight, we’ll spend our last night at the Leonardo Plaza Hotel in Jerusalem.
Day 5 – Sun. – Tel Aviv
In the morning, we’ll hit the road again and head to the National Musem of the Holocaust in Yad Vashem. From there, we’ll drive to the city of Tel Aviv, Israel’s cultural, financial, commercial, and entertainment center. We’ll walk through Neve Tzekek, Tel Aviv’s oldest neighborhood from the 1800s, and we’ll get to stop in some art galleries, cafes, and boutiques.
From the city center, we head to Old Jaffa, an ancient seaport on the coast that has (so I’ve heard) been transformed into a vibrant vacation spot for Israelis and international visitors. We’ll visit some museums, walk around, have dinner at Wilhemina, a restaurant in a former German colony, and hit the Tel Aviv nightlife, a nightlife I’ve heard is like nowhere else on earth.
Day 6 – Mon. – Tel Aviv
And then, just like that, our last day. Our plan, as of now, is to visit the Carmel open-air market, to travel to the White City, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique whitewashed, modern architecture, and to take a swim in the Mediterranean and reflect on our voyage.
We will have a special bon voyage dinner with the Ministry of Tourism at a local restaurant called, interestingly, Dr. Shakshuka. We will sleep a few hours, check out of our hotel at 1:30 in the morning, and leave for the airport.
I will be home, in the insanity of flights, time changes, and the weirdness of the Circadian rhythm, by 11:45 a.m.
So, without further ado, shalom Israel!
Yours in travel,
All photographs from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I thank them for their generosity and I hope my photos turn out just as beautifully!
I’m excited to be traveling to Israel and exploring this magnificent holy land with the Israel Ministry of Tourism.