Israel is this tiny piece of land surrounded by Arab neighbors that wish it would slip back into the sea.
For all the fuss about the place it’s pretty difficult to locate the first time you look it up on the world atlas. It’s around 0.05% of the Arabic land mass so you might wonder what all the commotion is about. Don’t worry, you won’t be short of an opinion anywhere in Israel.
After all the hype about the Promised Land it’s a bit of a shock to arrive there and see this country of rocks, dust and sand. You get the feeling that Moses landed a few hundred miles too far south and that he was actually looking for Lebanon, the real pearl of the Middle East.
It has its charms though and offers amazingly diverse settings within a really small distance. In many ways it’s the best of both worlds as you get the heart and hospitality of the Middle East with the freedom and modern culture of the West. In other words people share and open their homes and women have a life of their own.
Tel Aviv is where most of the action is and is a young, pulsing city. It’s also loud, dirty and full of character.
Jerusalem is only an hour away and is the only city that counts for the religious men in black. It’s heavy, tense and historic but still has its charms.
Down south you have the Negev and Arava Deserts and these can be spectacular in places. There are no dunes to speak of but plenty of cool rock formations and valleys. Ideal for a bit of vision questing, provided you don’t mind the distant explosions of the Israeli army exercises.
There are hundreds of small towns and kibbutzim around the country. The latter used to be all the rage with travelers and you can still go and work for free on them. The socialist ideals of the kibbutzim have pretty much collapsed now as Israel grows more prosperous and these days everyone pays rent and often works outside the kibbutz.
For a country in a state of semi-war it’s pretty relaxed. Expect to have your bags checked at malls and cinemas and see soldiers around the place but that’s as close as you’re likely to see any conflict. The occasional bomb goes off but the national policy is ‘business as usual’. Everyone just gets on with it.
The Palestinian areas are there you’ll see the hostility as the poor sods object to their ancient olive trees being cut down to give the settlers more land or extend the security wall through their villages. Once the Arabs work out that you’re not Israeli they’ll be as welcoming as anywhere in the Arabic world.
Israel has the reputation for being one of the rudest countries in the world and there are travelers who arrive and bounce right out again. The direct manner of the Israelis can be a little too much at times but hey, culture shock is what travel is all about.