Israel is a land of contrasts. While it is officially recognized as a Jewish State, it is made up not just of people who have always lived here but also of people who have come here from everywhere in the world, bringing their languages, attitudes, beliefs, politics, and expectations. Other than the ancient buildings in the ancient cities, there is little here that was here before 1930.
In Tel Aviv, one of the two largest cities in Israel, there is nothing that is "native" here. Begun just over 90 years ago, the first Hebrew city was built over marshland and sand dunes next to the ancient seaport of Yafo (Jaffa). All the plants, trees, and much of the construction material had to be brought here from somewhere else. The Tel Aviv area now hosts close to 2.5 million people and is home of most of the foreign embassies. It is also part of the new "Silicon Wadi", the next computer Mecca of high-tech products, representing 60% of the country’s exports, surpassing the once commanding diamond industry.
Jerusalem is the largest city, but one fraught with political and religious pressures as it is host to three major religions: Muslim, Christian, and Judaism. Israel gained control of Jerusalem in the wars of 1967, giving Jews access to the Western Wall for the first time since 1948. Home to ancient history counting back over 5,000 years, it is a city as representative of all of Israel as it is full of contrasts. From the highest point in the remains of King David’s Tower, now a museum, you can look out over the city for a 360 degree sweeping view of all the diversity. Herod’s rebuilt Second Temple for the Jews was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and in 691 AD, the famous golden Dome of the Rock was completed, crowning the ancient city of Jerusalem, a closely woven mesh of buildings and narrow alleys. Look in the opposite direction and you will see the dramatic King David Hotel and numerous new and old constructions. Towards the west is the new city, full of skyscrapers and interesting architecture built within the past 20 years. Towards the east, past the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock, you can see the Mount of Olives and East Jerusalem decorated with vast cemetaries and ornate churches, topped by the beautifully constructed Mormon Church and University.
The Palestinian territories (known as the Palestinian Authority or PA) are split into two main areas. The Gaza Strip is along the Mediterranean Sea close Egypt, and the West Bank includes Bethlehem and Jericho and is located close to the Dead Sea and along the southern part of the Jordan River. Of the estimated million Palestinians who live in the Palestinian Authority, approximately 200,000 work within Israel. Recent peace talks have stirred up a lot of dust, with Arafat announcing he will soon claim an independent state for Palestine, denouncing Israeli control over the area. In a survey taken in the summer of 2000 published in the Jerusalem Post, over 80% of Palestinians do not want to give up their Israeli citizenship as they really enjoy the higher standard of living and freedoms accorded their "dual" citizenship. The older people want the land back that they lost over 50 years ago, but much of that land is now under housing developments, buried under massive Israeli expansion and construction. They seem willing to settle for reparations, though attitudes change every day.
“Their fragile peace going up in thick black smoke, Palestinian police and Israeli troops fought with automatic weapons Thursday at holy sites and in West Bank and Gaza, where thousands of Palestinians burned tires, threw stones and called for a revolution…58 Israelis were wounded in the gunfights, including two listed in critical condition…Palestinians reported 762 Palestinians wounded and 32 were killed. The Defense for Children International reported that five killed in the past two days were aged 12 to 16, and 42 of the wounded are under 17… The Prime Minister of Israel was hopeful last night that Arafat would agree to a meeting today… however, there was concern that Arafat would delay a meeting until he knew in advance what gestures he could expect from Israel… both sides were studying a proposal by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for a three-way summit…Cobra attack helicopters hovered over Ramallah and Nablus to give air support if needed….the Palestinians are using assault rifles, in addition to stones… Senior IDF officers are incensed with their Palestinian counterparts, whom they feel could have prevented their policemen from firing at Israelis. Others say that so many red lines have been crossed, that the situation which existed before – which included joint patrols and cooperation – can never be restored….Four soldiers and 21 Palestinians were reported killed in street battles in the Gaza Strip… Thousands of Palestinians took part in the attacks, the IDF said. Army sources said that the pattern was for the Palestinians to start throwing rocks and petrol bombs, which were then followed by gunfire. In Ramallah, shoot-outs between Palestinian policemen – some in civilian clothes – and IDF troops resumed just south of the town…. A more serious clash took place at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, where hundreds of angry demonstrators, aided by Palestinian Police, stormed the shrine…”
No, this isn’t a report from recent headlines. This is compiled from news reports from the archives of the Jerusalem Post dated September 1996. Benjamin Netanyahu was the Israel Prime Minister going up against Arafat then. The front page events in today’s newspapers may seem brand new, but this has been going on for a long time.
The Volume and Color of Israel
Three major religions dominate Israeli society, with Orthodox Jewish traditions ruling much of how the country functions. The country basically closes down on Friday afternoon for the Shabbat until Sunday morning, the first day of the work week. In the Arab/Muslim sections of Jerusalem and the country, Friday is their holy day, when most of their businesses are closed. In the Christian communities, Sunday is honored. But the whole country moves to the Jewish clock. While few Christian-based religions wear distinctive clothing, the different Jewish sects often wear clothing which typically matches the time period in which their sect gained popularity in their part of the world. Ultra-orthodox Jews are frequently seen wearing white shirts covered with heavy black vests, jackets, pants and tall wide brimmed black hats, and many hosting bushy long beards and long curling sidelocks. Other Jewish sects wear colorful prayer shawls under or over special shirt-vests along with their brightly colored kipas (small round skull caps) held in place with silver hair clips. Many women wear wigs and hats along with their long dresses of varying colors from black to bright flowing rainbows. Arab men and women are often wrapped in white or light colors, checkered kaffiyehs flowing off their heads. The architecture of most of the towns reflect the colorful population with domed synagogues intermixed with tall Muslim prayer towers. Most of the people are dressed in modern attire going about their day to day business.
The fighting in Israel also continues, same as ever, from within its borders as well as from without. Non-practicing Jews often protest the kosher laws and other Orthodox rules, though little is done to change the way things work. Haggling, a form of debate, is now only found in the ancient marketplaces, but is still done with the gusto of the ages. Arguing is a major pastime and you will often hear yelling between people on the streets, in their cars, and if you are in a taxi you will often hear them yelling at each other over their radios. Turn on the local "government access" television channel and you will see the Kinesset (government) wearing everything from the traditional garb to jeans and tennis shoes, all yelling and waving their hands over their heads. With about 20 different political parties vying for power in the Kinesset, it seems to be the rule of the government that whoever is voted by the people to become the Prime Minister instantly becomes a target for downfall by the other 19 parties, leading to what seems like a lot of time spent making deals for control. While in general the idea of the Israel government is to lead in the form of a democracy, as a Jewish State they are also ruled by Jewish laws and the religious. It takes time for an outsider to understand the undercurrents and confusing balance of power and control in the Israel government.
While parts of Jerusalem still offer displays of many traditional lifestyles, Tel Aviv is considered by many to be the most decadent area in Israel. It is host to gay bars, all night dance clubs, and a lot of western-style entertainment and practices, all supported by the great number of young people here. Israel is also host to several renowned institutes of higher education, attracting students from all over the world. The country has the world’s highest per capita number of physicians, about one doctor for every 250 citizens. Equal to the number of lawyers. It is also home for the largest dealers of polished diamonds in the world, exporting $6 billion a year. While Israel is a land of peace amidst controversy and unrest, it is also the world’s fifth largest supplier and builder of weapons in the world.
The country’s landscape and climate are as diverse as the people who inhabit the area. Though much of Israel has been destroyed repeatedly by war, and much of the native land has been cultivated and changed as the population expanded, some areas are protected for their natural wonder. To the south are fierce desert areas, to the north is lush green mountains and habitats. In the middle perches Jerusalem like a crown atop the Judean Mountains. Tel Aviv sits on the Mediterranean Sea on once arid land.
There is so much history here, it is overwhelming. In one day you can visit ruins or restorations of history from 200,000 years ago and then spend the afternoon in some of the most modern skyscrapers overlooking the new cities. Architecture and construction is major business here, representing a long history of building and construction for millennia. In addition to the mass expansion of Jewish settlements exploding around the country for the past 50 years, the passion to build a church or "holy site" on the "exact spot" where an event important to that religion occurred is pervasive. Unfortunately, with the building, destruction, and rebuilding over the millennia, no one really knows where most of the famous religious events really happened; they can just assume and call it "their spot". For instance, there are several sites in Jerusalem claimed by different religious groups as the actual "spot" where Christ was at each important moment in his life. Nazareth claims several sites as the childhood home and workshop of Christ and Joseph, as well as "the spot" where Mary met the angel.
While touring these "famous spots" (you have to see them all to make sure you were in at least one "right" spot), Brent came to an incredible conclusion. He announced that Christ was born in the basement of a church in Bethlehem, Joseph worked in a shop in the basement of a church in Nazareth, Mary was visited by an angel in the basement of a church in Nazareth, and the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes was also in the basement of a church just north of Tiberias on the Galilee. "Isn’t it amazing how all these basements were so handy to the early Christians!" Exploring these areas, this is exactly what it feels like.
Tel Aviv, Israel