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Thursday, June 1, 2023

My Trip to Israel

 2023-06-01 My Trip to Israel

For my 60th birthday last year, my wife and sons bought flights to Israel for me and my wife and we went for 10 days in May. This blog is my summary and impression of The Promised Land. 

Day 1 Monday May 8th

Great flight in BA Premium Economy from LHR to TLV Ben Gurion - very comfortable. We sped through passport, baggage and customs in minutes at Ben Gurion Terminal 3.

Took the train to JLS Navon (the main Jerusalem Station) which was all quite uneventful and then an Uber to the AirBnB.

Took take-away Pizza & Pasta from Kazze - a 5 minute walk from where we were staying - which all 100% Gluten Free. The only disappointment was that it was lovely food and great to take away but not nice enough to ‘eat-in’ as, unlike the impression on the website, there were just a few outdoor chairs and it was far too cold once the sun had set to consider this option.

First impressions: Israel feels safe, haven't seen a single policeman or army officer anywhere. No guns in sight.

Buildings mostly look run down and shoddy from outside. Bad traffic, long long traffic lights for drivers and pedestrians.

Jerusalem Main Train Station JLS Navon

Day 2 Tuesday May 9th

Breakfast at Cafe Nodi on Hillel St. Very good.

Guided tour of Old City with Phil from Sandeman's (red t-shirt and umbrella). Excellent Guide offering both practical and spiritual advice.

Phil the Tour Guide at
The Tower of David

First Impressions of the Old City: visually a bit like a poor version of Corfu Town or Aigues Mortes. But then it grew on me as I started to see and understand the religious significance, the history and the 4 peoples living peacefully together.

Jewish Quarter; clean, shops selling menorahs and Jewish religious artefacts with ultra religious Jews scurrying around.

Armenian Quarter: quiet, tucked away, private. A few shops selling Armenian pottery.

Christian Quarter: Muristan Road - wide, welcoming and green, feels more comfortable, a little more familiar. Many restaurants and shops selling Christian merchandise.

Muslim Quarter: busy, noisy, shops selling lots of sweets and nuts, beggars. All a bit like Finchley Central on steroids wrapped in an ancient city.

My perceptions of the different Quarters makes me understand how and where I have been brought up. That’s what determines my comfort level in each area.

The Western Wall and the Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount

Shops in Finchley Central

We bought a Rav Kav card (with some difficulty) and took the Light Rail (tram) to get back to the Airbnb.

On our way to the Mahane Yehuda Market (impressive market) we met Meir Micha who runs a chain of Hummus restaurants here called Pinati. He opened one in the Knesset in 2020 and he told us he speaks with Isaac Herzog, Israel’s President, most days! He took us around the Askenazy area and we could see Jews living in dirt and poverty as if it was 200 years ago. The men study Torah all day and the large families live off state handouts. They try to keep people like us away from their slums but they are public roads. The children were rushing around outside in the filthy backyards, although to be fair, they looked clean and well cared for. Meir insisted on buying us coffee and we had a good chat. Most of the chats we had here with guides and taxi drivers made no attempt to avoid politics! Here's an extract from The Times of Israel: "In one memorable exchange, they sat down last week with Meir Micha, the famed owner of the iconic Pinati hummus restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, a symbol of Jerusalem’s Mizrahi working class and a lifelong Likud supporter."

For dinner we went to GF chip shop Chipsland and Gene showed the very Jewish owners her coeliac card in Hebrew. They were very interested and thanked us for sharing it with them. They assured us everything they cook is suitable so we took some vegetable soup, chips, hummus and they gave us some free eggs and they charged us just a few pounds (29 shekels) for the meals. And all this despite our non-existent Hebrew and their very limited English! We will probably go back for Falafels next time.

The guys at Chipsland happy to pose for my photo!

Day 3 Wednesday May 10th

This morning we took the tram to Mount Herzl and walked to Yad Vashem. Most people were arriving on coach tours. The Holocaust Museum is a very large elevated toblerone with a glass top - stunning architecture and beautiful grounds. The museum contains exactly what you would expect and is very well presented. We spent some time at the Hall of Remembrance with the eternal flame burning surrounded by the names of all the death camps. Of most interest to me for various reasons are “The Righteous Among the Nations”. These are non Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust and have had the title ‘Righteous” bestowed on them. Initially a tree was planted for each of them but more recently their names are engraved on a wall. I found Irena Sendler quite easily as her tree is in a prominent position. Sendler saved 2,500 children from certain death in the Warsaw Ghetto. We couldn't find the tree planted for Varain Fry so I asked at the Information Desk and they printed me a picture of the tree and a location map. Eventually we worked out what we think is his tree. It is in bad shape and the plaque is nowhere to be seen and it is surrounded by building materials. I hope I found the wrong tree. Even so, that was someone’s tree and the signage and the care shown was not impressive. I left a little disappointed.

Yad Vashem Visitor's Centre with the Toblerone shaped Holocaust Museum just behind

Varian Fry's Tree? Really?

In the afternoon we went back to the Old City to take a better look at the Armenian and Jewish Quarters. We finished with a visit to the Hurva Synagogue including a walk to the dome where there is a 360 degree outside viewing platform. After a delicious but expensive freshly squeezed pomegranate juice, we made our way back quite tired!

The Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

Day 4 Thursday May 11th

We took a tour to Bethlehem in the West Bank with Elijah Tours, stopping at Beit Sahour to see the Shepherd's Cave and a huge Banksy mural at a petrol station. We then went on to Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity where Jesus was almost certainly born (1.5 hour queue) and the Milk Grotto Church. Our guide, Elias, who joined us after the border crossing into the West Bank, is a Catholic Palestinian (Arab) with an Orthodox wife.

The Shepherd's Cave, which may be the site where an angel announced the birth of Jesus.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem - inside this door is the spot where Christ was born

We saw a KFC in Bethlehem which stands for Kentucky Fried Camel. That’s a joke of course but apparently the locals do eat camel. I hope it tastes a lot better than it smells.We also saw several shops selling alcohol which is common.

A huge Banksy at the petrol station in Beit Sahur 'Love is in the Air'

We had some amazing Palestinian hospitality at the shop ‘Olive Tree Factory’ where our tour stopped before returning to Israel. We were greeted with local tea (a small glass with mint) and coffee (a strong tiny cup with flavours - cardamom?) and local pastries. We were all invited to help ourselves to drinks from the fridge - mineral water, Pepsi, Fanta, etc. but were asked to pay if we took beer. After purchases were completed and everyone was back on the coach, the lady from the shop boarded and offered us food and gifts. I had a vegan falafel pitta (very good!) and there were bags of olive wood symbols and small objects being handed out around the coach. We said goodbye to Elias and returned to Israel via a checkpoint.

Dinner was falafel wraps from Chipsland and was fantastic.

During the day, we learned that yellow number plates are Israeli and, green number plates are Palestinian. But Israelis aren't allowed in West Bank Zone A (see sign below)? Well spotted. The yellow number plates in Bethlehem are likely to belong to Arab Israelis. It's complicated. The Palestinian Authority does not allow free speech so you need to stay with your guide at all times and be careful what you say. We learned about the complexity of Arab Arab and Jewish Jewish relations. Often the different sects dislike each other more than a different religion (e.g. Sunni and Shia). The Western concept of it being an Arab/Israeli conflict is far from the truth and a huge over simplification.

West Bank Zone A Border Sign

Complexity of the Temple Mount is an example where, as in many other cases, over the centuries different religions and peoples have built different temples and monuments on the same piece of land by destroying what was there before. This makes the same piece of land important and sacred to different religions despite what is currently erected on that site.

We learned that Palestinians are building the Jewish settlements as they get 4 times the money and Doctors go to work in Israel as the pay is many times higher.

Israeli settlements in the West Bank are hard to justify

We saw shops selling alcohol and beer.

If there is a problem between people in Palestine it is not resolved usually by law or police. The family clans get together and the strongest one usually decides the outcome.

Houses are often built without any planning permission. It’s easier to just pay the fine (or not pay it) if you get one. This is why there is a lack of conformity in building.

It's not as black and white as the media makes out. A very educational day and clearly the true situation is far more complex than it first appears. The only encouraging part is to see so many Arabs and Jews all working together in apparent daily harmony.

The West Bank is split into 3 zones. We went to Zone A which is run by the Palestinian Authority and where Israelis are not allowed to enter. Zone B is run jointly by Israel (Security) and the PA (Administration). Zone C is run by Israel. The zones are spread unevenly across the land.

Day 5 Friday May 12th

Travel to Tel Aviv, staying in the Yemenite Quarter, just next to the Carmel Market. We took the tram to JLS Navon station and then the train to Tel Aviv HaHagana station. We then got overcharged by a friendly taxi driver waiting in the rank outside the station to take us to HaYarkon 40. I was walking to the front of the taxi queue and he had pulled in at the back. He told me in Israel the queue works the other way round (haha!).

On arrival our host showed us the air-raid shelter which is in the basement of a building just opposite where we have 90 seconds to go if we hear the sirens. In the last 5 days, over 1200 rockets have been fired out of Gaza and the Israelis have retaliated accordingly. A ceasefire was negotiated and agreed shortly afterwards.

We stayed in the Yemenite Quarter

It's very close to the beach and Carmel Market

Day 6 May 13th

We took a day trip to the Dead Sea and Masada via the Judean Desert with Bein Harim Tours.

We visited the Dead Sea at the Kibbutz resort of Kalia Beach in the West Bank. (Yes, complicated!)

The Judaean Desert

Kalia Beach is a kibbutz resort on the Dead Sea

It was well organised with showers, changing facilities and plenty of shops and cafés including Bar -430 which is the lowest bar in the world at, well, 430 metres below sea level. I put on my special beach shoes and went for a swim. Except I didn’t because you can’t swim in the Dead Sea. With 10x more salt than the Med, you float so high that I found it impossible to swim. But I was happy to float on my back and if I had a newspaper I could easily have read it there! We bought some local medjool dates which you can see growing in date farms in the area. Otherwise it’s pretty baron desert and rock, with Jordan a mirror image of the landscape on the other side of the Sea. There are no boats, no fish, no life can survive in this water. On the hand there are many Ibex with long antlers that we saw near the Ein Gedi oasis. Since the tigers have vanished, the Ibex have become very common and are no longer frightened of humans.

I floated on the Dead Sea but couldn't swim!

Next we went to Masada, up by cable car, not the serpent trail. It is an extraordinarily impressive site. Herod built himself palaces up there in about 30 BCE so he could go and hide from his enemies. There were water cisterns, baths, luxury bedrooms state rooms and more. After he died and the Romans started to persecute the Jews, just under 1,000 of them escaped the city to live there. They took animals up there and became a self-sufficient community with a synagogue (that we visited). 10,000 Roman soldiers went to extreme lengths to capture them. When they eventually succeeded, they found that everyone except for two women and a few children had committed suicide; they preferred to die free than to live in slavery. It reminded me of the siege of Montségur in South West France, also on a flat mountain top, where 10,000 Catholics laid siege to the Cathars in 1244. They eventually surrendered and when about 244 of them refused to convert, they were burned en masse in a bonfire.

Our first view of Masada from the coach

View to Dead Sea from the top

On the way back to Tel Aviv, we saw part of the wall built to keep the Palestinians out of Jerusalem. It was built to stop suicide bombers coming in from the West Bank to kill Israeli citizens and has been pretty successful on that measure. It is known by the Palestinians as the ‘Apartheid Wall’.

You can see the wall along the West Bank keeping Palestinians out of Israel

Back in Tel Aviv, we had dinner at Meshek Barzilay, a vegetarian restaurant with plenty of Gluten Free options. The food was excellent although I can't say the same about the two Israeli wines that we tried.

Day 7 May 14th

We did a guided Tour of Jaffa with Avi Gletzer of Sandeman’s (red t-shirt and umbrella). He was great and explained the complex history of the city using the aid of some tumbledown cards. Jaffa is now a part of Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv Yafo).

Avi explaining the history of Jaffa (Yafo)

Avi explained how the Jews had been kicked out of Jaffa just over 100 years ago and decided to build a new city that they called Tel Aviv just next door.

The history included Napoleon's attack on the city in 1799 (The Siege of Jaffa), Nelson's role, the biblical story of Jonas from Jaffa and the whale and the story of Amdromeda’s Rock just outside the port from  Greek mythology. And plenty more besides.

The tour started at the Jaffa Clock Tower and our guide told us the story of how the tower was originally just two levels high with no clocks. A local clockmaker, Moritz Schoenberg, became fed up with the constant interruptions of people asking him what the time was 'What's the Time?' in order to catch a train at the recently opened railway. For most people clocks and watches were too expensive at that time. So in 1903 he decided to add a third level to the tower containing clocks for the people to see the time. Unfortunately, when it was built, it failed to stop the flow of people into his shop asking for the time. The people of Jaffa didn’t know how to read the clock! 'What's the Time?'

Jaffa Clock Tower

Jaffa from Aviv Beach

After the tour finished, we walked back to the old port in Jaffa and had lunch at The Old Man and the Sea in Jaffa Port. Before we even ordered, a massive mezze of some 20 dishes was placed in front of us. We then chose some fish - you only pay for the main course - and we were offered tea, coffee and sweets after we had paid the bill.

Plenty to eat!

Day 8 May 15th

We took a Bein Harim tour to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Mount Tabor (The Transfiguration), Meggido (Armageddon), the Church of the Loaves and Fish at Tabgha, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Kibbutz Degania (the first kibbutz), and the Jordan River.

This was a classical pilgrimage tour to the place where Mary is said to have conceived Jesus, the places where he performed miracles and where he was baptised (alternative site) in the Jordan river.

Nazareth is a town of stark contrasts: the wealth and sanctity of the area surrounding the stunning 1960s built Church of the Annunciation (stunning modern stained glass windows), and the filth and poverty of big parts of the rest of the town. Shopkeepers selling a few fruit with rubbish and dirt surrounding them, the pristine air conditioned tourist shops where everything is priced in dollars.

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Filth and Poverty in some of the streets

The Sea of Galilee is beautiful. It’s as alive and green as the Dead Sea is dead and barron. We saw fish, oleanders, cactus and the Golan Heights surrounding it to the North. We had lunch at Israel's first Kibbutz, Degania, established in 1910. Moishe Dyan was born here and the poetess Rachel Bluwstein worked here. She is on the 20 Shekel bank note.

The Sea of Galilee is beautiful - there is a magical peace about it

The baptism post on the Jordan River is an ‘alternative’ site as the original where Jesus was baptised is out of bounds currently. Three people in our group were baptised by a group of Canadian Baptist preachers who sang loud songs! It’s a very sacred spot and highly emotional.

Baptisms on the River Jordan

Day 9 May 16th

First we went to the Great Synagogue in Allenby Street where we were made to feel welcome despite the 10 shekel ‘donation’ required to enter; it is a very unusual building architecturally speaking and we were left to wander round by ourselves. It is just next to the Neve Tzedek quarter, where we had drinks and pastries at Dallal’s bakery.

The Great Synagogue, built 1926 and exterior arch facade added in 1970

We walked down the beach to Old Jaffa and then back up to Charles Clore Park where we had a great lunch at Manta Ray on the beach. Fabulous fresh fish and creative and beautifully presented deserts. In the afternoon, we chilled on the beach - our first (and last) full day in Tel Aviv with nothing organised! It was a refreshing change from 13 hour coach tours with a 6am start. Along the beaches - all the way up to Aviv and Banana beaches, we saw the hedonistic open minded lifestyles that Tel Aviv has become famous for. And you are made to feel welcome with free showers, toilets, shade-cover and facilities all the way along these wide beautiful supervised golden sandy beaches.

Tel Aviv has 14kms of wide sandy beaches

Day 10 May 17th

On our last day, after a final walk along the beach in the warm morning sunshire, we took a taxi (Uber) to HaHagana station, the train to Ben Gurion Airport T3 for our flight home. Minimal security again at the airport (just a question about who had packed and whether we were given anything by anyone) and a reassuringly uneventful flight home. 

Ben Gurion T3 Check in lounge

Rain fountain in departure lounge

Goodbye to Aviv Beach

So what did I learn in Israel?

That our media does not depict the situation accurately. At home it's very much presented as an Arab/Israeli conflict or an Israel/Palestine or a Jewish versus Muslim one.  In reality it's far more complex. For example, the Muslims in Palestine are predominantly Sunni and they dislike the Shia (Iran) - as do the Jews; we picked up clear tensions between the ultra Orthodox Jews and the 'ordinary' Jews; The Christian Arabs clearly live a very different life to the Muslims. And it goes on. What we saw, were lots of different types of Christians, Jews and Muslims, all living and working together. But of course some of them are separated and prevented from entering certain places or life is more difficult for some due to restrictions that have been imposed in an attempt to keep the peace. It's highly complex. 

That Jerusalem and Tel Aviv could be two different countries. One is tense, intensely historic and religious, hot in the day and cold at night; the other is relaxed, very open minded and revolves around its beautiful beaches, great food and (largely invisible) tech scene.

Don’t drink the wine. Good Lord, it's terrible and expensive. I tried a Shiraz (undrinkable) and my wife a Sauvignon Blanc (marginally less bad).

Tel Aviv reminds me of Miami in some ways.

I can see how insignificant the UK has become. The only mention here is in the context of the British Mandate in Palestine which ended in 1948 when Israel was created. You can pay in Dollars and Euros in many places but the relevance of the UK in the 21st century seems to be almost entirely historic.

I learned a lot about myself and how I feel when exposed to each different culture, all nudging shoulders with one another.

How did I feel in Israel?

Como un pulpo en un garaje? No
Like a fish out of water? No
Très dépaysé? Yes!

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