We hear a lot about Israel. In fact, the little middle eastern state is rarely out of the international news and world headlines are filled with tales of terrorism, sectarianism, and controversy. Of course, every now and then we also hear something about a couple of religions which trace their origins to the region’s deserts along with the occasional stories about trans-sexual pop singers.
Despite its international profile though, I actually knew relatively little about Israel prior to making my first backpacking trip therein the summer of 2016. When I boarded the flight to Tel Aviv from Uzbekistan, I really had no idea what to expect when I touched down.
Here are 9 things nobody told me about Israel;
Everybody speaks English.
My trip to Israel was something of a last minute decision so in the proceeding days between booking my trip and catching my flight, I vainly embarked upon a crash course in Hebrew and struggled desperately to get to grips with its throaty sounds and alien letters. When I arrived at Ben Gurion airport, I sheepishly approached passport control and enquired “Do you speak English?”. The guard looked at me like I was foolish and responded “Of course I do. This is Israel!”. I quickly learned that in Israel, more or less everybody speaks at least some English and the majority of people to a very high standard from shopkeepers to cab drivers.
Despite its gargantuan stature in world politics, the nation itself is amongst the smallest in the world. It amounts to just 20,ooolm and the entire country can be crossed from top to bottom in 7 hours driving. This, combined with excellent and affordable transport links, makes Israel an incredibly easy country to explore. It also boasts a pretty diverse landscape for such a small region packing in snowy mountains, lush green fields and dry deserts.
There are soldiers everywhere.
I expected some security presence but was totally unprepared for the reality on the ground. Most bus and train stations are manned by heavily armed security personnel and in Jerusalem, it’s rare that your metro carriage won’t have at least one soldier carrying their machine gun. Cross country busses also frequently fill up with conscripted soldiers headed home for the weekend but still carrying their carbines. This could easily be disconcerting for the traveller but what is truly interesting is how quickly you become completely accustomed to this. In areas like Hebron, the military presence is off the scale.
There is actually some harmony.
Despite the nation’s reputation for religious segregation, on the ground, there is actually some degree of harmony between Israeli Jews and their Arab neighbours in many cities. In East Jerusalem, for example, the Arabic neighbourhood is a mere stone’s throw from the Western Wall. In many cities, even Jewish neighbourhoods can hear the Islamic calls to prayer 4 times a day. Most people I met (whether Arab or Jewish) had the utmost respect for their neighbours and hoped for a swift, peaceful resolution to the conflicts which have dogged the region for the last 60 years.
They keep the Sabbath.
For the most part, Israel feels every bit like a 21st-century western state with 4g coverage, late night shopping and loud nightclubs. Where it varies from the rest of the western world though is that here, the Sabbath remains holy. From dusk on Friday until dusk on Saturday, the whole country closes down. Shops and business shut up and transport grinds to a halt. The only exceptions are the occasional Arab neighbourhood and the more central, affluent parts of Tel Aviv. My advice is a to make aure you get back to Tel Aviv by Friday afternoon or risk going bored and hungry on Saturday.
Bacon is on the menu.
Whilst Israel is the worlds only Jewish state, it is constitutionally secular which means that bacon, shell-fish and non-Kosher food is widely available for those who want it. Whilst it is illegal for Jews to keep pigs they can still eat them so the rearing and butchering, therefore, falls to the nations Arab’s who have found a booming market for swine flesh and cured meats. Furthermore, not only is bacon available in Israel but its actual amongst the best in the world.
Hitchhiking is alive and kicking.
Even though inter-city buses are cheap and plentiful, Israeli’s still love to hitchhike. Hitchhiking is not seen as an unusual, niche interest but rather is widespread, popular and perfectly normal way of getting around. I guess this stems from the sense of community which the state works hard to foster in its inhabitants along with a pragmatic and trusting national psyche. At first it can seem strange and even amusing to see a black clad Orthodox Rabbi sticking his thump up by the roadside but even they do it! The longest I was kept waiting for a ride was twenty minutes and our driver even took us for lunch.
Everyone is friendly.
Israel has a pretty bad reputation for being an uncompromising, hard-arse state. Its people though are possibly amongst the most friendly and helpful I have met and are generally very interested in foreigners. This makes backpacking alone very easy as getting into conversations with locals at bars, on busses and in the market comes quite naturally.
Everyone is beautiful.
Ok so not everyone gets to be gorgeous but believe me, Israeli’s are amongst the prettiest people I have ever come across. The state is essentially a nation made of other nations as Jews from around the world have been flooding here since 1948. This has created a rich & diverse gene pool and some pretty interesting faces. Add to this the bronzing effect of the Mediterranean sun, obligatory military service keeping people in shape and a flair for style, and we end up with some pretty damn sexy girls and boys.