As part of my 3 months off work, I wanted to go to the Middle East because I couldn’t think of anywhere else in the world that was as emotionally charged and conflict-ridden as it was…and so I went. I didn’t know much about its politics, and so didn’t have any preconceived ideas about what it was like in that part of the world. My partner and I went with just enough research to know that we could get from Jordan to Israel without much difficulty, and so we landed, with Jordan’s desert sand still in our shoes, in Tel Aviv. It turned out to be one of the most memorable parts of the 3 month long trip we took.
1. Getting adopted by friendly Israelis to hit the hottest club on Friday night in Tel Aviv.
Before I went to Israel, I was told that Tel Aviv is the world’s biggest party central. We were actually exhausted when we landed at midnight in Tel Aviv (and after getting interrogated at the airport), but Saturday was Sabbath and we weren’t going to be in Tel Aviv the following Friday, so it was then or never! We put on our dancing shoes and went out. After a bit of bar-hopping, we found out which the club to go to was (I think it was probably TLV or Mad), but we couldn’t get in, so we just walked around the block and sat down at a seemingly popular bar. A girl sitting in the group next to us took an immediate interest in us and started talking to us, then thought we were pretty cool and invited us to join her group of friends at their table. Turns out, when does anyone in Israel ever see mixed couples? Never. Racial and religious lines are drawn clearly. So the group took to us and brought us out. And whad’ya know, they got us into the hottest club in town and we ended up dancing away till 5am! It was awesome, and we were blown away by the friendliness of the young Israelis to strangers they barely knew.
2. Spending Memorial Day at the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.
After the party, we went to Jerusalem to spend Memorial Day there. Israel’s Memorial Day is a day when they remember the sad history of the Holocaust, and when they mourn all who have given their lives for Israel in war. As a history major who used to study WWII, I decided that it would be apt, on Israel’s Memorial Day more than any other day, to go see the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. I’d gone to the Holocaust memorial in Munich before, and thought that I wanted to see the story as told by the Jewish people. When you visit a Holocaust museum, there is typically a flow to the story, told through the way you are guided through the museum space. I had noticed that the Germans told the story very matter-of-factly, as in: here’s what happened before, during and after the Holocaust (and in equal parts). The Jewish told a much more emotional story, with loads of video testimonials and stories of what happened during the Holocaust, and very little of the reconciliation. It was saddening to walk through those halls, but the exhibit also sent a strong message of strength, resilience and recovery in the Jewish people, despite a tragic history.
3. Getting interrogated by the Israeli security forces…TWICE.
The first time I got interrogated happened right after I crossed into Israeli territory, post-immigration at the Tel Aviv airport, as a “random” check. I had never received so many questions about my passport before. They freaked out when they saw about 17 Malaysian stamps in my passport, and I stupidly said that I had “many friends and family” in Malaysia (because that was the truth). I could not for the life of me understand why they started asking the names of people I knew in Malaysia, and why I traveled there so frequently. It was past midnight, I’d had a long travel day, and I really wasn’t amused. Finally, he figured I was harmless and let me go. It wasn’t until we got into Israel and met up with a friend, that we realized Israelis weren’t allowed to go to Malaysia (it’s an Islamic country).
The next time we were interrogated was when my partner and I were following a crowd into an unknown event at the Independence Park beside the Holocaust museum – we thought we’d join in and see what was up. Being the obviously non-Jewish people there, we were stopped by security and asked to show our passports. We were then asked to step away from each other and interrogated separately. The guards then stepped back together and corroborated our stories to see if anything was fishy. But this time, we had our stories ready! We both worked for American Jewish firms, lived in New York before, and we were here to visit our friends from New York who had moved to Tel Aviv. As for Malaysia, my American Jewish firm sent me there on business trips!
Evidently, people took security very seriously in this part of the world.
4. Seeing Benjamin Netanyahu in person and listening to hundreds of people sing the somber Israeli national anthem live.
It was Memorial Day, and the event that we got into turned out to be a very somber memorial service which the president of Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu were leading. It was being broadcast live all over Israel. Not that I understood any of it, since it was held in Hebrew, but it was interesting to be non-Jewish participants at such an important event, and to see Netanyahu up close. At the end of the ceremony, the crowd stood up and sang the Israeli national anthem – and I remember this deeply, because I had never heard a national anthem as sad-sounding as that.
5. Celebrating Independence Day in Tel Aviv.
In Israel, Independence Day comes right after Memorial Day. The transition is observed through 1 minute of silence, when everything and everyone stops. We were on the public bus at that moment, and the bus, together with all the rest of the traffic on the road, ground to a halt for 1 minute.
And then, it became the biggest celebration ever – quite an abrupt switch if you ask me! We ended up watching fireworks and song and dance, together with Israeli families at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Independence Day is actually a very controversial day – Palestinians celebrate the Catastrophe Day instead, since that’s when their land was taken away from them to become Israel.
6. Taking an independent tour through the West Bank.
I had read in the Lonely Planet that there were independent tours into the West Bank that you could take from Jerusalem. And since my partner and I wanted both sides of the Middle East conflict story, we went with Green Olive Tours for a one-day trip to see the Wall, search for Banksy graffiti, visit Bethlehem, go to a local Palestinian UN community, and see the settlements.
It was an intense day.
As international tourists, we got through the checkpoints easily. The Palestinians who did this on a daily basis went through a lot more each time they had to go through these checkpoints, which stood between their homes and schools, markets and mosques. The graffiti on the West Wall said a lot about the frustration of the Palestinians and their wish to live freely in a land that used to be theirs.
But what really made me feel for the Palestinians was when I walked through the settlements, there were groups of Israeli soldiers patrolling the settlements, all holding their rifles in ready-to-fire positions. It’s really disconcerting to have a loaded rifle pointed at you. (I kept thinking, what if one of them twitched and accidentally misfired at us?) There were little Palestinian kids around the settlements, who grew up with guns and patrolling soldiers who looked at them mistrustfully everyday. That was as normal as seeing traffic lights was for us. There were also nets hanging above our heads – all of which were full of garbage. The story was that the Jewish settlers built their houses above the Palestinians’, and kept throwing their garbage down into the streets. To prevent getting hit on the head by garbage, the Palestinians built these nets.
It looked like apartheid to me. I could understand how difficult and irreconcilable this piece of land was for both the Israelis and Palestinians, and the religious differences that belay the conflict, but I didn’t think there was any justification for subjecting an entire human civilization to such humiliation and second-class treatment.
If you’d like to know and see more about the West Bank, BBC’s Louis Theroux made an informative documentary about the Ultra Zionists in West Bank, which I think is fascinating and illuminating.
7. Discussing Israeli military conscription at a local house party.
Back in Tel Aviv for Independence Day celebrations, almost everything was shut. We were invited by a friend to a house party, and somehow, the conversation turned to conscription. In Israel, both men and women serve in the military for 3 years – which is not only a long time, but also very unusual that women are equally involved. In Singapore, there’s also compulsory conscription for men, but it is met with general reluctance and frequent grouses about it being a waste of time. So I was curious to know how Israelis felt about conscription, given the very different history and geopolitics.
It turned out that all of them, both men and women, felt strongly about serving the nation and protecting the Jewish state of Israel. They also thought that it was very natural and something they were not at all annoyed about. It was something everyone did after high school, and it was looked down and frowned upon if you came up with some excuse not to do it. I guess this made sense given the history of the nation and the ongoing conflict in the region. People can really rally together when united by a common goal, especially when that goal is existence.
Israel has its beaches and Dead Sea luxury resorts, but instead we chose to spend our one week there really engaging with the people and its history, and we learned and experienced so much.
Have you ever been to Israel and the Palestinian territories? What were your experiences there like? I’d love to hear from you.