Israel may conjure up ideas of war, human rights violations and Zionism, but it is also a country rich in kind, generous people, and beautiful landscapes. Much like its sister in arms, America, Israel is a nation fragmented by history and culture. It is a contrived and contradictory state where you can spend an evening partying with drag queens in Tel Aviv, and be chided the very next day for showing your bare arms in Beit Shamesh, an orthodox village west of Jerusalem.
The first thing to be aware of when visiting Israel is that they have a conscription army, the IDF. It can be daunting to step off the plane in Tel Aviv, the second largest city in Israel, and find yourself faced with seventeen year old boys toting assault rifles as if they’re toys.
However, the soldiers, young or old, are hardly going to open fire in front of you, nor is it likely that bombs will fly in from Gaza, contrary to popular belief. If staying in Tel Aviv, expect an experience very similar to London with the added indulgence of a sweeping beach looking out on to the Mediterranean Sea. It’s liberal, it’s exciting, it’s smelly, dirty, and it’s debit-card-bustlingly-expensive. It’s everything London would be if it landed in the Middle East. Visit the Rothschild and Ben Yehuda boulevards, and of course, the seafront, for the party destinations.
If you’re looking for culture, follow the beach over to Jaffa, Israel’s ancient port. It has the charm of Montmartre, Paris, with narrow alleyways and steep stairs. The town is awash with stunning Arabic architecture, the orange stone making for a breath-taking contrast between the azure of the Mediterranean, and the concrete grey of Tel Aviv.
Be sure to venture away from the main tourist melting pots, and find one of the many hidden cafes offering beautifully cooked fresh fish and refreshing Limonana; a frozen lemonade and fresh mint virgin-cocktail. When the sun is setting and losing its grip, add Arak, a potent Levantine spirit, to your Mediterranean lemonade. Not only will you fit in like a local, but it’s a flavour you will never forget.
Jaffa offers many quirky free tours, one of which is the graffiti tour. It will take you past Arabic buildings fit for an Indiana Jones movie, through the decrepit and ignored shack districts such as Florentin, which has the same impassioned youth culture as Hackney, and back into Tel Aviv. Along the trip you will see the mark of disenchanted individuals and underground movements trying to find a voice for their protests against Israel’s “war on terror”.
To be able to put Israel into a larger context, it’s important you stray from the big cities. Visiting the Negev desert or the Dead Sea will place you in the territory of the ignored and forgotten: the Bedouins and Palestinians, who are more than willing to give you food and water, and impart not only their wisdom on the unforgiving terrain, but also their side of the conflict. They will tell you how many native Arabs have been forced into the IDF against their will, both initiated into Israeli military, and excluded from full citizenship.
On the way to the Dead Sea, take note of the giant walls which straddle the desert, behind which is The West Bank. It’s surprisingly easy to forget the conflict when you’re in the urban areas, however when you are reminded it can be like a slap in the face.
This is Israel, a conflicted and contradictory state.