A long time in planning
Israel is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. My reasons were many. From admiration for a country holding on its own in a very hostile neighbourhood to stories of the Israelis having made the desert bloom to a desire to see so many historical places crammed into a single country, there was no shortage of reasons to visit Israel.
Support for Israel
I have always believed that the UN resolution 181 which created Israel was absolutely fair. 33 countries had voted in favour, including the USA and the USSR. 10 countries including India opposed it. 10 including the UK and China abstained. The Jews have a claim on Palestine. Not an exclusive claim, but a claim nevertheless. If the Arabs and Jews could not live together, then splitting Palestine into two was the only option available.
I have always believed that the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict is more the result of Arab intransigence than anything else. The Arabs were unwilling to live alongside the state of Israel, as created by the UN. After the 1948 war, Jordan took over East Jerusalem and the West Bank whilst Egypt took over the Gaza strip, areas which ought to have been an independent Arab Palestinian state. This annexation was not opposed by other Arab states. In other words, the existing Arab nation states did not give the Palestinian state a fighting chance to survive.
Israel has in the past relinquished captured territory. In 1979, it gave up the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt which had been captured in 1967. The Israel-Egypt peace treaty of 1979 has survived Anwar Sadat’s assassination and other tests of time. It remains to be seen if it will survive Hosni Mubarak who is almost 80 years old now.
I do believe that Israel ought to relinquish the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights (which it captured from Syria in 1967), but I do understand Israel’s need to use these territories to obtain a guarantee that its existence will not be threatened.
Visa on a separate sheet of paper
I had heard so many stories of how an Israeli visa on my passport could prevent me from travelling to various Arab countries. Since I need to travel to Dubai for my work once in a while, I decided to play it safe and requested the Israeli embassy in London for our visas on separate pieces of paper. The very attractive woman who accepted my application threw up her hands in the air and asked, ‘if you don’t want an Israeli stamp, why travel to Israel at all?’ I could understand her irritation. It must be galling to receive so many requests for a visa on a separate piece of paper rather than on the passport, as if Israel was a pariah one was ashamed to visit. In any event, my request was granted. I got our visas on separate pieces of paper. Later I found out that the UAE does not have a problem with an Israeli stamp endorsement. But countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait etc. still do.
BA and not El Al
We (my wife, 15 month old daughter and I) flew British Airways and not El Al, mainly because BA’s timing is very convenient. We left London Heathrow on a Saturday night at 22:30 hrs and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport at 05:30 hrs the next day morning. Also, El Al does not fly during the Shabbath while BA doesn’t have such problems. I’m told that service on El Al used to be very shoddy, but apparently El Al has now cleaned up its act.
When flying from Heathrow, we did not face any additional security checks or any extra hassles. We checked in three hours before the flight departure and everything was exactly the same as for a flight to any other destination. On landing in Israel, we were psyched up for a long wait and a detailed interrogation. I’d heard horror stories of how people were kept waiting for five or even ten hours and questioned in relay by teams of security men. I was disappointed. Clearing immigration at Tel Aviv didn’t take any longer than what it usually takes me at London or Mumbai.
We had a similar experience when flying back at the end of our eight day trip, the only difference being that the Israeli security people who asked us if someone else had packed our luggage or if we were carrying stuff for others took a personal interest in our answers. Also, we had to first take our check-in luggage to a scanner and then proceed to BA’s check-in counter.
Ben Gurion International Airport
Ben Gurion is situated in between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. It’s 20 kilometres from Tel Aviv and 50 kilometres from Jerusalem (just as in India, distances are expressed only in kilometres in Israel). A state-of-the-art airport, it is not only very clean, but also smacks of all around efficiency.
An expensive country, especially Taxis
Israel is an expensive place to live in, almost as expensive as the United Kingdom. We learned this as soon as we landed there. We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel in Jerusalem and it cost us 250 Shekels (1 Shekel = 13 Indian Rupees; GBP 1 = 6.2 Shekels, and USD 1 = 3.55 Shekels). I don’t think we were cheated since I had checked with an Israeli friend and had been told what to expect.
All taxis have metres and we were told to make sure that we always paid by the metre. In most cases, our request to turn on the metre was acted upon. However, there were at least three instances where we told by the taxi driver that the metre was “not working”. Even when it was, taxi drivers liked to negotiate a fixed rate. Since the negotiations usually started after the taxi started moving, we ended up agreeing on a fixed rate, rather than go to the trouble of getting out of the taxi and finding another.
One evening, we had to travel from Jerusalem’s central bus station to our hotel and we couldn’t get a taxi to take us at the metre rate. Finally we agreed on a fixed rate of 40 Shekels. The next day morning we took a taxi to the central bus station from our hotel. The driver readily switched on the metre when we asked him to. We ended up paying the driver 53 Shekels.
The taxi driver who drove us to Bethlehem from Jerusalem told us that all taxis must pay the government a licence fee of 3,000 Shekels every two months. Petrol costs 6 Shekels a litre and diesel 7 Shekels, we were told.
It’s not only the taxis that are expensive. Food is expensive as well. On our first day in Israel, a Sunday, our simple lunch of pita bread, hommus, falafel and kebabs from a small way side eatery came close to 100 Shekels.
We were based in Jerusalem for the greater part of our trip. Jerusalem is a reasonably clean city drenched in sunshine. It is located on the Judean mountains and is therefore quite hilly, especially the eastern bit where the Old City is located. The buildings, both old and new, are made out of sandstone. It was interesting to see modern flats built using materials that gave them an antique look, despite the presence of dish antennae on their tops. In any event, the timeless look has been preserved very well in Jerusalem.
The first place we visited in Jerusalem was the holocaust museum, a memorial to the six million odd Jews who perished under the Nazi regime. The main museum consists of photographs, newsreels and personal memorabilia of the victims. There is a separate memorial for the 1.5 million children who also fell to the Nazis. The Children’s memorial is located in a dark cave lit up with candles. A sombre voice reads out the name, age and country of origin of each of the victims.
The Old City in the east of Jerusalem has almost all the religious sites. It is split into four quarters, the Jewish, Christian, Moslem and Armenian. Mark Twain in his Innocents Abroad (an account of his 6 month trip in a luxury liner to Europe and Palestine) describes Jerusalem as a small walled city around whose walls a man can walk in an hour’s time. Until the 1860s when Mark Twain visited Jerusalem, the Old City formed the whole of Jerusalem.
The Muslim quarter is the largest and I think the Armenian quarter is the smallest. The Via Dolorosa, the path believed to have been walked by Jesus Christ on his way to his crucifixion, starts in the Muslim quarter. The Muslim quarter has very narrow streets with cobbled stones flanked by shops run by Arabs selling curios, souvenirs, carpets etc. This could be place anywhere in the East, say old Delhi or Damascus. However, the narrow roads are reasonably clean, much, much cleaner than Old Delhi.
The Christian Quarter houses the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of Christianity’s holiest sites, where Jesus is believed to have been crucified and buried (before his resurrection).
I didn’t meet many beggars in the Old City, except for an old Arab woman in an all-enveloping burka (whom I ignored).
Temple Mount/ Dome of the Rock/ Al Aqsa Mosque/ Western Wall
The most important site in Jerusalem, for Jews, Christians and Muslims is undoubtedly the Temple Mount, referred to as al-Haram ash-Sharif by the Muslims. Jews believe this to be the place where God created Adam out of dust. Two Jewish temples have existed on this site, the first one destroyed by the Babylonians and the second by the Romans. For Christians and Jews, it is the place where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. For Muslims, this is the place to which Prophet Mohammad was transported by Angel Gabriel and from where he ascended to heaven, had a conversation with Allah, Moses and other prophets and returned to Mecca. It is the third holiest site for Muslims after Mecca and Medina.
Naturally, each community would like to have access to this site. However, thanks to the fact that in the last 1000 years, Jerusalem has been mainly under the control of the Muslims, the two main buildings on the Temple Mount are Islamic, namely the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. The Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is the only remaining portion of the second Jewish temple destroyed by the Romans and the Jews congregate there to pray and even wail. Prayers are written on small pieces of paper and stuck into crevices on the Wall. There are separate sections for men and women.
We could not go inside the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Dome of the Rock since it was the period of Ramadan and entry was restricted to two hours in the morning. However, we did go to the Western Wall. Men are expected to cover their heads and woman must be modestly dressed. It is also possible to tour the tunnels built under the Wall, but one needs to book in advance.
A large plastic urn held a number of cardboard caps for men (like me) who did not have the foresight to bring along a head covering. In the case of women, a couple of female guards stand around with long scarves. Any woman who gets close to the wall in a sleeveless blouse or shorts or an uncovered head is given a scarf or scarves to make herself ‘modest’ before getting close to the Wall. It was not only Western tourists who turned up without the right attire. I saw an Israeli Jewish woman in shorts and a sleeveless blouse being asked to cover herself up.
A large number of Israeli soldiers were present at the Wall. Many of them appeared to be freshly inducted draftees performing their military service. More about the Israeli army later.
As I approached the men’s section to have a chat with God, I was approached by a young Haredi (an orthodox Jew), wearing their traditional black suit, black hat and sporting ringlets. Have I a committed a faux pas already, I wondered as I clutched my paper cap to my head. I need not have worried. The Haredi was only begging and he indicated the small wad of notes in his hand and asked me to contribute my mite. Considering the enormous amount of experience I’ve had in India in ignoring beggars, I easily gave him a firm shake of my head and walked on to the Wall.
Conversation at the Western Wall
After spending some time at the Wall, we sat on a small parapet some distance from the Wall under a shady tree. Soon we were joined by a man who appeared to be in his eighties. ‘Where are you from,’ he asked us?
‘Oh, India. I love India.’ This was a conversation we would have many times during our stay.
The old man wanted to know which part of India we were from, what we did for a living, how old our daughter was etc. After a while, I turned the tables on him and asked, ‘Have you lived in Israel all your life?’ It was obvious from his American accent that he hadn’t. I was right. He told us that he had been a builder in New York and had come to live in Israel after his retirement 22 years ago.
‘Israel is such a lovely place,’ he told us. ‘It’s warm. I have my family here, my children, my grand-children…. Each day I wake up and see the sunshine and thank God for giving me a new day to live.’
‘So you never go back to the US?’ I asked.
‘Yes, I do. Every year. During winter. I go to Florida. Israel is far too cold during winter.’
‘Do you come here often?’ I asked him.
‘Yes. Once every week. Our holiest site.’
‘Our holiest site and the Muslims had to build their mosque here.’
I wanted to reply, but the old man was looking into the distance rather than at me. So, I kept quiet.
‘Our holiest site and we captured this during the six day war and we gave it all up to the Muslims. Madness I say.’
Maybe that was not such a bad thing to have done, I wanted to tell him. Maybe it resulted in peace. But I didn’t say all that. Instead, I asked, ‘Isn’t this place holy for the Muslims as well?’
‘It is. But this is not their holiest place. They have Mecca. They have Medina. Why can’t they give this to us?’
I was silent.
‘Are you Hindus?’ he suddenly asked us, as if worried that we might be Muslims.
‘No,’ I told him. ‘We are not Hindus.’ The old man’s brow furrowed.
‘We are Christians,’ I said. He appeared to be relieved.
‘There are 22 Arab countries in the world. And only one Jewish state! Why can’t they leave us alone?’
I was tempted to say something rude. Something like - The Arab Palestinians are as much entitled to a state of their own as the Jews are. But I kept quiet.
‘We have the strongest army in the middle-east. We could level all the houses in Ramallah if we wanted. But we don’t. We ought to. That’s the only language the Arabs will understand.’
I was bored. The old man could be a fundamentalist anywhere in the world. We said our goodbyes and left.
‘I might as well keep the cap on. It might be needed at the next place we visit,’ I told my wife.
‘I’m not too sure,’ she told me. ‘In a church, you don’t put on a cap to show respect. You take it off.’
Evangelical Christians in Israel
The next day our hotel’s reception desk sported a large banner which read, ‘Welcome to Benny Hinn’s Ministry on its Israel Tour.’ For those who haven’t heard of Benny Hinn, Mr. Hinn is an evangelical preacher with a very large following in the US and various other parts of the world. There were many from Benny Hinn’s group at the buffet breakfast tables that morning. They were cheerful people with a do-gooder expression on their faces. We had our breakfast quietly and left. In the court yard of our hotel were parked four or five large coaches meant to transport Benny Hinn’s group on their Israel tour.
Later when we were in Nazareth, we saw a Seventh Day Adventist Health Centre.
The Evangelical Christians have a love-hate relationship with Israel. They believe that God gave the Palestinian land to the Jews and they are entitled to all of it. Until the Jews get the whole of Palestine and rebuild their temple, Jesus will not make his second coming. When Jesus arrives for the second time, he will convert all Jews to Christianity. The ones who don’t convert will be killed.
During the 2006 war between Israel and the Hizbollah, thousands of evangelicals Christians had converged in Washington to lobby on behalf of Israel and prevent the US government from forcing Israel to a ceasefire. They wanted Israel to fight and destroy the Hizbollah. Unfortunately for the evangelicals, Hizbollah fought the Israeli army to a standstill and the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon without being forced by the US government.
I feel sorry for the Israelis who are forced to rely on support from evangelical Christians who ultimately hope to convert or kill them.
Caveat: I do know that Benny Hinn is an evangelical Christian. However, I am not aware on his exact stand on Jesus’s second coming and the conversion of the Jews. The evangelical beliefs outlined above are commonly held by most evangelical Christians.
I tried out the Maccabee beer which I was told is Israel’s most popular beer. It’s a blond beer /pale lager, not unlike lagers such as Becks or Amstel. I liked it, though there is nothing exceptional about it.
The West Bank Barrier
We saw the barrier as we drove from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank. It is at least 15 feet high, with a slanting top. Our Arab taxi driver muttered a series of curses as we drove past. Built entirely on land acquired from residents in the West Bank, the barrier has separated many farmers from their land. The highway runs alongside the barrier. Apparently, the barrier has increased the distance from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by 10 kilometers. We were told that it has also made travel much more difficult for the Arabs since one can only cross from Jerusalem to the West Bank through a check point.
We did not have any trouble at the check points. In fact the guards did not even look at our passports which we had at the ready.
‘Where are you from?’ we were asked.
‘Drive on,’ we were told.
A days later at the Dead Sea, we met a couple of tourists from the EU who told us they saw an Arab family being harassed by Israeli guards.
Conversation with Arab driver
The Arab driver who drove us to Bethlehem was a friendly sort. Initially we thought that we would have to take a taxi or a Sherut (a shared taxi which can take around 10 people) to the checkpoint and switch to an Arab taxi to enter Bethlehem. But no, this driver offered to take us to Bethlehem, show us around and bring us back.
‘How much?’ we asked him.
‘One hundred and fifty Shekels. It is a very good price for you,’ he said in reasonably good English.
We agreed with alacrity and did not ask him to turn on the metre.
After we had gone some distance, he turned around and said, ‘so you want to return today?’
‘Yes, of course. We are coming back today. We just want two hours in Bethlehem.’
‘I can bring you back,’ he agreed.
‘Yes, you said you would.’
‘So that’s three hundred Shekels.’
With a baby in our lap and the car speeding at hundred kilometres an hour along a deserted highway, we did not argue any further.
‘How come you are able to drive into the West Bank?’ we asked him. ‘We though Israeli drivers are not allowed to.’
‘I can because I am not an Israeli. I am from east Jersalem and I am not a citizen of any state. I have an Israeli ID card and that’s it. So I can drive to any town in the West Bank.’
‘Because you are an Arab?’
‘No, because I am not Israeli. Arabs who are Israeli citizens cannot drive to the West Bank.’
‘Has your family always lived in East Jerusalem?’
‘Yes, they have.’
‘How was it when East Jerusalem was under the Jordanians?’ I asked.
‘How does it matter? We are ordinary people. How does it matter?’
‘Do you speak Hebrew?’
‘A little bit. A little bit Hebrew.’
‘Do you have a large family?’
‘Six children,’ he told me. I was shocked. He was not much older than me.
‘So, your family lived through the six day war?’
‘What six day war? How can a war get over in six days? Those six days were only the beginning of the war,’ he told us. ‘It’s not over yet,’ he added darkly.
I decided to change the topic. ‘Your children go to school?’ I asked.
‘Yes, they do.’
‘A good school?’
‘Do they learn Hebrew at school?’
‘No, they don’t.’
‘They don’t?’ I asked incredulously. ‘They go to a school in Jerusalem and don’t learn Hebrew?’
‘School run by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinian Authority allowed to run schools for Arabs in East Jerusalem. My children go to that school.’
I wondered if they would get good jobs on graduation if they could only manage a smattering of Hebrew. I don’t think the Palestinian Authority is worried about that.
Bethlehem is not more than a thirty minute drive from Jerusalem, provided you don’t have any trouble at the check points. It is not much different from Jerusalem. The buildings are of the same sandstone. The main difference is that this town of 45,000 people doesn’t show much signs of activity. Whilst Jerusalem and the rest of Israel pulsates with energy, Bethlehem is dead. We saw a few workshops making souvenirs (crosses etc.) for pilgrims out of olive wood. And that was it.
I was given to understand by our taxi driver that things are much worse in the rest of the West Bank. Apparently Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron have a few areas that are particularly bad.
The cost of living in Bethlehem is naturally a lot lower than in Jerusalem. A flat which costs 4000 Shekels to rent in Jerusalem can be had in the West Bank for 500 Shekels.
We were told by our Arab Christian guide in Bethlehem that 75% of Bethlehem is Arab Christian. And the rest are Muslims. After he showed us around the Church believed to be built over the manger where Jesus was born, he took us to a few souvenir shops where we bought some stuff for family and friends back home. We saw lots of shops which were closed. Or guide blamed the West Bank Barrier. Thanks to the barrier, he said that tourists were down sharply. Things were much better before the barrier was built, he said ruefully. These deserted roads were apparently as busy as the alleys in Jerusalem’s Old City.
‘We feel betrayed by the Western countries,’ he told us. They don’t really care about Arab Christians.’
‘Tell me, what would you prefer? Being under Israeli rule or under Palestinian rule? How was it when the Jordanians controlled the West Bank?’
He hesitated for a moment and said, ‘things are better under the Israelis.’
The Dead Sea
It’s true. You can float on the Dead Sea. I actually saw a couple of chaps smeared from head to toe with Dead Sea mud sitting on plastic chairs which they had plonked down on the sea.
There are no big waves, thanks to the heavy concentration of salt water. If a tiny bit of water enters your mouth, you don’t have a choice, but to run back to the shore and gargle. A bit of sea water in your eyes can cause them to itch terribly, the only remedy being to run out and rinse your face with fresh water.
Overhead: Tourist Wife telling her Husband as they both sat on beach chairs after a dip in the Dead Sea
‘It itches a lot.’
‘Must be your piles. The salt water must have got there.’
Kalia (Qualya) Beach which we went to is a private beach and we had to pay an admission fee of 35 Shekels per adult. It is also the closest beach to Jerusalem. The Kebabs I ate at the small restaurant on the beach were very, very, good.
Ethiopians in Israel
Apparently there are over 70,000 Ethiopians in Israel. One sees them everywhere doing menial jobs, sweeping the streets and shopping malls and the like. However, I did see a few Ethiopians doing white collar jobs. One of the receptionists at one of the hotels we stayed was Ethiopian. Once in Jerusalem, I had trouble setting the password in the hotel safe and a very smart female Ethiopian employee came over to help. I’m sure that the confidence she exuded could have come only from her time in the Israeli army.
I am worried I am giving the impression that I went around Israel asking people their religion and race. No, I did not. What usually happened was that we would be asked where we were from.
‘India,’ we would say. Sometimes, if we were not too tired, we would say, ‘We are Indians but we have lived in the UK for over 6 years now.’
After this we would usually be asked our religion.
Once we divulged the details of our personal beliefs, we would usually ask the interrogator if he/she had lived in Israel all his/her life. This usually resulted in a detailed explanation as to whether they were Arab Christian or Arab Muslim or Jewish.
Also in Nazareth, every taxi displayed the name and licence number of the taxi driver in English.
Sudanese community in Israel
One of the taxi drivers who took us around in Jerusalem turned out to be a Sudanese Muslim. I had wrongly assumed he was an Ethiopian. But no, he was a Sudanese. His father had migrated to Israel around 40 years ago.
‘Is there a big Sudanese community in Israel?’ I asked him.
He replied in the affirmative. I do know that of late many refugees from Sudan have entered Israel. However, I had no idea that there was a Sudanese community before that.
‘How many languages do you speak?’ I asked him.
‘Arabic, Hebrew and English.’
Arabic and Hebrew
Hebrew sounds remarkably similar to Arabic when it is spoken. I quizzed the Sudanese driver on how similar they are.
‘They are very similar,’ he told me. For example, you say Ras in Arabic for Head. In Hebrew you say Rosh.
Caught in between
After having heard from the Arab Christian guide in Bethlehem that he would prefer to be with Israel, I kept wondering if Arab Christians from Jerusalem felt the same. I posed this question to a taxi driver in Jerusalem after he confessed to being an Arab Christian. ‘It doesn’t matter,’ he told us. ‘We are caught in between. We are too small, too insignificant. The Muslims don’t like us and neither do the Jews.’
‘But what’s better? Israeli control or living under a Palestinian state?’
I got a shrug for an answer.
We were told that public transport in Israel is pretty good, but it took us a couple of days to find the courage to switch from taxis to buses. The main drawback in using public transport is that all signs on buses are in Hebrew and Arabic. There is nothing written in English, except for an occasional English sign at bus stations. We did not find many people who could speak fluent English on public buses, though there were lots of people willing to help.
We took a bus to Kalia beach on the Dead Sea and back to Jerusalem. A return ticket cost only 41 Shekels. The next day, a Thursday, we checked out of our hotel and took a bus to Afula, which was a short distance from Nazareth, our ultimate destination. There were no direct buses to Nazareth from Jerusalem. The buses are very similar to the ones in the UK with a large hold underneath where we could keep our luggage. We had been warned that Israeli bus drivers could be rude, but on the whole we found them to be polite and helpful (though their English was very rudimentary).
We reached Afula and enquired at the information counter for a bus to Nazareth.
‘Stand no 2’ we were told.
At stand no. 2, I asked a helpful looking teenage soldier, ‘do buses go to Nazareth from here?’
Nazareth,’ I said very slowly.
‘I don’t know.’ It sounded as if I was making up the name of a place.
‘Nazareth,’ I repeated.
Oh! Nazruth? Nazruth? Go there. Last stand.’ He pointed to a stand at the other end of the bus station.
We hesitated. The soldier gave us a look which said, ‘why did you ask me then?’
We looked at a middle-aged man standing nearby for help. He was only too willing.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Oh India. I love India.’
‘Have you been to India?’
‘No, but I want to visit.’
‘Can we get a bus to Nazareth from here?’
‘Not too sure. Let me see.’ He went to the information counter and came back and said, ‘yes, there is a bus to Nazareth from here at 13:15.’
‘That’s what we were told,’ I agreed happily.
‘He is also right.’ The man pointed to the soldier. ‘There’s another bus to Nazareth from that stand which goes to …’
‘We’ll stay here.’
When it was 13:20 and there was no sign of the bus, the middle-aged man suggested, ‘you could take a Sherut (a shared taxi which can take around 10 people) to Nazareth.’
‘There’s a Sherut stand just outside. Only five minutes walking from here.’
We decided to give the Sherut a try.
As we walked out the station with our luggage and the baby in a pram, we asked for directions to the Sherut stand. A smart young man who spoke very good English told us, ‘it’s too far for you. With a baby and that suitcase, you should not…. Why don’t you take a bus?’
‘We waited so long for the Nazareth bus?’
‘But there’s another one. At 13:30 hours. You must go back. It’ll start from the last stand.’
We hesitated, but went back to the bus station. The middle-aged man was standing where we had left him. I rehearsed an explanation for having returned, but I need not have worried.
‘There’s a bus now. From the last stand. Go, go, go.’
We caught the bus just in time.
‘Where do you want to get off? Nazareth or Nazareth Illit?’ the bus driver asked us.
We told the driver the name of our hotel. He shrugged his shoulders.
‘What’s the difference between Nazareth and Nazareth Illit?’
Another shrug of the sholders.
We reached Nazareth in around 15 minutes., but did not get off. We finally got off at Illit and hailed a cab.
‘Twenty Five Shekels to ______ Hotel.’
We agreed. It turned out that our Hotel was in Nazareth itself. If only we had taken a taxi from Afula to Nazareth, we could have saved so much time and not spent much more than what we had spent on the bus and taxi fare.
The Israeli weekend is on Friday and Saturday on account of the Jewish Sabbath. When we travelled by bus from Jerusalem to Afula on a Thursday, the bus station was full of soldiers going home for the weekend. I suspect most of the solders were draftees performing their compulsory military service. They all appeared to be wonderfully young, the women looking radiant with all the right makeup and even designer glasses. The Uzi rifles did nothing to spoil their looks, though I saw a few uniforms crumbled on account of the appendage. Many of the men had kippas (thin, slightly-rounded skullcap traditionally worn by Orthodox Jewish men, stuck to the hair with a pin or slide), but I doubt if many of them are fanatic Jews since the usually extreme right wing Haredim don’t have to serve in the army.
A soldier sat in front of me on the bus, his rifle on his lap. After a while when I stretched my legs, my shoe hit something hard. I bent down to take a look at the obstruction. It was the soldier’s rifle which he had put under the seat.
I thought of requesting the soldier to move his rifle, but then decided against it. How often do I get the chance to rest my feet against the muzzle of an Uzi rifle?
I’m told that all men must serve 3 years in the Israeli Defence Forces after school and the women serve two years.
At the Afula bus station, a young and well dressed Haredi walked around asking for money – a posh way of begging I guess. I soldiers gave him short shift and ignored him completely.
One thing that stuck me about the soldiers was their easy camaraderie. This extended even to the officers. Earlier, outside the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I saw an officer speaking to a group of young soldiers in a manner not unlike that of a summer camp guide. I’m pretty sure that the Israeli army does not follow the horrid practice of making soldiers work for officers as batmen.
Nazareth and Nazareth Illit
Nazareth’s Arab and Jewish Quarters are divided by a road. The Jewish quarter is called Nazareth Illit. Nazareth Illit is a lot more prosperous and obviously a lot more public money has been spent on it.
Nazareth is an Arab town with a mixed population of Christians and Muslims. In 1948 when Israeli forces repulsed the joint offensive by various Arab states, they did their best to chase away or scare off Arabs living in Israel. However, the Arabs in the predominantly Arab Christian town of Nazareth were not hassled too much, mainly out of fear of Western criticism.
Nazareth is a beautiful town, as hilly as Jerusalem. It also has a historical and timeless look, especially because all the buildings are sandstone coloured. The main attraction is the Basilica of Annunciation built over the place where Virgin Mary is believed to have lived and where Angel Gabriel is said to have appeared to convey the news of Jesus’s birth. There is another church built on the place where Joseph is believed to have lived and worked as a carpenter. We also visited the Synagogue Church built over the Synagogue believed to have been visited by Jesus as a child and where Jesus is believed to have given his first sermon.
The Greek Orthodox Church believes that Angel Gabriel did not appear to Mary at her home. Instead, it was when Mary was beside a well that the news of Jesus’s birth was conveyed to her by Angel Gabriel. A Greek Orthodox Church stands at the spot where the well is believed to have existed.
We didn’t see a single beggar in Nazareth.
Different garbs of Virgin Mary
The Basilica of Annunciation has on its perimeter walls paintings and mosaics of Virgin Mary as portrayed in various countries. There wasn’t one from India, but the ones from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand etc. were very interesting since they showed Mary and Infant Jesus with Chinese/Mongoloid features and oriental attire.
One feels safe in Israel. I’m told that street crime is practically zero. There is no barrier between a taxi driver and his passengers. Bus drivers handle cash openly. At bus stations, luggage has to be put through an airport type scanner. One finds security guards and security checks everywhere. Before entering a shopping mall, handbags and backpacks are opened and scrutinised. One of the larger malls we visited in Jerusalem had a scanner. What I really liked was that every security guard was very well trained and seemed to know his or her job.
Chicken isn’t meat
After checking into our hotel in Nazareth, I went out to buy some food since my wife declared that she was too exhausted to move. I found a small restaurant not far from my hotel. I believe it was run by an Arab Christian since a portrait of the Virgin Mary figured prominently on the wall. I asked for a box of hommus, three pita breads, some falafels and pointing to some pieces of meat being fried on a pan, I asked for a few kebabs.
‘That’s not kebab,’ the cook told me.
‘Is it Shawarma? In any event, I’ll have that meat.’
‘That’s not meat,’ I was told.
‘What’s that then?’ That a die-hard carnivore like me could mistake meat for something else!
‘That’s chicken. Not meat.’
I didn’t understand. ‘I’ll have the chicken then,’ I said.
The whole stuff cost me 40 Shekels, half of what it would have cost in Jerusalem. The fried chicken was excellent. Later, an Israeli friend I met in Tel Aviv clarified that in Israel only lamb or beef is counted as meat. Chicken is just chicken.
Touring the Galilee
The next day we had to spend a couple of hours at the Hapoalim Bank since for some reason we were unable to withdraw money from cash machines using our debit or credit cards. A very smart Arab Muslim (I assume from his name tag) made a few phone calls and sorted our problem for us).
Since we had lost two hours, we gave up our plans to travel by bus and looked for a taxi. We found a driver who offered to take us around the Galilee for 500 Shekels – Kafr Kana, Tiberias, Mount Tabor, Tagba, Capernaum – there were so many places we had to see in a single day.
Kafr Kana or Cana is the place where Jesus is supposed to have converted water into wine – at a wedding when they ran out of wine. Capernaum is a small settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where many of Jesus’s disciples lived. There are churches at all these places, each of which is an architectural beauty. At all these churches, just as in Jerusalem, there were masses of tourists, mainly from the USA, France, Italy and Spain
The driver took us to a restaurant overlooking the Sea of Galilee where my wife and I had a large St. Peter’s fish each. Though the fish was not as tasty as the Karimeen (Pearl Spot) one gets in Kerala, we had a spectacular sea view.
It is easy to forget what a small country Israel is. We covered the entire Galilee region in a day by the taxi we had hired and reached our hotel by 6 p.m.
Overheard from an American tourist sipping a small timble of exquisite Arabic coffee after her St. Peter’s fish: The first thing I’m gonna do when I get home is to make myself a large pot of kawffee.
One of the best meals we had in Israel was at this old Arab restaurant in Nazareth called Diana. Thought a bit expensive, the lamb kebabs cooked with pine nuts were out of the world. The simple entrees we had - cauliflower cooked in sesame seeds and a salad of finely chopped vegetables – were also very good.
Mount Tabor is the place where Jesus is supposed to have radiated light and had a conversation with two long-begone Prophets, Elijah and Moses, an event described as the Transfiguration of Christ. As was to be expected, a church stands at the spot on top of the hill where this event is supposed to have happened.
As the three of us entered the church, I thought I had be transported to some church in South India. Usually churches are empty except when a mass or service is being held. But in this church were thirty odd Indians, with the women mostly dressed in sarees and churidhars. Two of the men wore a double mundu. I sat next to one of them and asked where they were from. Kerala. Apparently they were part of a group being taken to the Holy Land by a tour company in Kochi. Each of them had shelled out INR 59,000 for the trip.
Everyone likes India
We did not meet a single Israeli, neither Arab nor Jew, who did not like India. We got many namastes, especially from youngsters who had holidayed in India after their military service.
Tourist left holding the bell
We were at a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in Kafr Kana. Outside the beautiful church was an even more beautiful bell. As we stood near the bell, a couple of tourists walked up to it and rang it. We followed suit. I rang the bell once, my wife once again and then we handed the rope to my daughter who had been observing the proceedings very keenly. She tugged the rope once, looked delighted at the peal it produced, tugged it yet again and again. By the time she let go of the rope, the bell had been rung half a dozen times.
A middle-aged man, most probably yet another tourist, standing behind us decided to follow our example. With the air of a child being given a treat, he gripped the robe and was about to ring the bell when out came a priest. This priest yelled a string of obscenities (in what sounded like Arabic) at the middle-aged man who looked wonderstruck. He then managed to say, ‘I don’t understand what you are saying.’
‘You ring the bell so many times. Why? Why? Why?’
We did not wait to hear the explanation being offered. We left.
We had been told that tap water in Israel is potable, but for the first two days in Jerusalem, we drank only bottled water. However, paying 5 Shekels for half a litre of water is not much fun and soon we started filling the empty bottles with tap water from the hotel and carrying them around. We did continue to give our baby daughter bottled water – there’s no point in pushing your luck too much. I’m happy to say that my wife and I did not suffer any ill effects as a result of this.
Mistrust and lack of communication
At Nazareth, my wife wanted to get a few of her dresses laundered and pressed. I called up the reception and asked them how much it would cost.
‘Bring the clothes to the reception,’ I was told in inimitable Israeli style. I surrendered and did what I was told.
‘When will I get them back?’
‘Will they be dropped off in our room?’
‘You collect them from the reception.’
‘How much will this cost?’
‘You will know tomorrow when you collect.’
Since we didn’t have a choice, we left the clothes at the reception. The next day when we collected the clothes, we were told that the bill came to 22 Shekels, a measly amount by any standards.
Later in our room, my wife sighed and said, ‘they are not bad people. Just very badly organised.
Maybe it is the result of the mandatory military service performed by all Israelis, the Israeli waiter is the most unique creature in the hospitality industry worldwide. We stayed in three hotels in Israel during our stay and each of them provided us with a free buffet breakfast in the morning. The Head Waiters in the hotels at Jerusalem and Nazareth had a very standoffish air, not unlike that of a parent who is waiting for his kid to breach dinning etiquette so that he can reprimand him. I guess it is too much to expect men and women who have worn a uniform (and may be even had combat experience) to adopt a servile air when serving customers. But one gets used to certain things and it took a while to accustom ourselves to waiters who serve you as if they are doing you a big favour.
The only time we were asked for ‘Baksheesh’ was by an Arab waiter in an Arab run restaurant on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
Tel Aviv, however, was different. The waiters there were like waiters anywhere else in the world.
We only spent half a day in Haifa on our way to Tel Aviv from Nazareth. Haifa is a port city which reminded me of Bombay. There are modern buildings and shopping malls. There are also many crumbling buildings. The Baha’i gardens on Mount Carmel – eighteen immaculately landscaped terraces – form the biggest landmark in Haifa. You need to book in advance to be allowed in and you are taken around in groups.
Haifa is a mixed city of Arabs and Jews. It is also apparently very tolerant. Recently there has been a spurt of hi-tech industries in Haifa and those office buildings reminded me of the Bandra Kurla Complex.
Egged, the main bus Company in Israel does not run its buses during the Shabbath. El Al does the same. Also there are no trains from 6 p.m. on Friday till 6 p.m. on Saturday.
We were in Nazareth on Friday evening and since it is predominantly Arab, all the shops were open. That evening, the prayers and sermons marking the month of Ramzan could be heard through loud speakers. Fire crackers were burst. On Saturday we travelled to Haifa on a bus run by an Arab bus company. A couple of Arab Christians got on the same bus, beer cans in hand. No one seemed to care.
From Haifa, we took a Sherut to Tel Aviv. In order to reach the Sherut Station at a place called Hadar, we had to find a cab. It took us 30 minutes to find a taxi. The taxi driver who took us to Hadar told us that though he was Jewish, he did not observe the Shabbath.
My advice to anyone (other than an observant Jew) travelling to Israel is to avoid being in Jerusalem during Shabbath. The best place to spend Shabbath is an Arab town like Nazareth. If possible avoid travel (other than by a pre-booked taxi).
Tel Aviv is as different from Jerusalem as chalk is from cheese. Whereas Jerusalem exudes sobriety and religion, Tel Aviv exudes fun and happiness. Unlike Jerusalem where most Jewish people seemed to be Haredim, we did not see more than a few Haredim in Tel Aviv. Even Kippas were not too much in evidence. The beach front at Tel Aviv could have been anywhere in the Mediterranean. It is filled with umbrellas and sun bathers and bronzed young men playing beach volleyball. The blocks of flats and offices on the beach front are as modern and posh as anywhere in the developed world.
But once you get past the beach front, Tel Aviv is as dirty as any other city in the world. There are buildings with crumbling facades which reminded me of buildings in and around Charni Road and Grant Road in Mumbai. We saw homeless drug addicts and alcoholics begging and living on the footpaths. There is also a vibrant air of industry and commerce and adventure, not unlike in Mumbai.
There is a profusion of all sorts of restaurants. Unlike in Jerusalem and Nazareth where most restaurants served traditional Hommus, Falafel, Shwarama and Kebabs, Tel Aviv has Italian, French, Chinese and Japanese and everything else one could think of.
I wouldn’t say that Tel Aviv is cosmopolitan in the way London or New York is. It has masses of tourists, but I don’t there are many non-Jewish people from other countries living and working in Tel Aviv.
On our last night in Israel, we met up at a beach side restaurant with a couple of Israeli friends who had studied with me at London University.
Meeting with a Gujarati Jew
We were travelling within Tel Aviv in a Sherut when we saw a man who looked definitely Indian.
‘Are you from India?’ he asked us first.
‘Yes we are. And you?’
It turned out that he was a Gujarati Jew who had migrated to Israel sixteen years ago when he was twenty one. Having served in the army, he was now married to an Israeli born woman whose father had once been the rabbi at the Synagogue in Kochi. We were told that that the Jewish Indian community was over 30,000 strong.
He spoke to us in halting English that was definitely Indian accented. However, when there was a small argument with the driver who was collecting 5.50 Shekels from each passenger, our friend broke into rapid fire Hebrew that sounded 100% kosher.
Shopping in Tel Aviv
Sheinkin street which runs off Allenby Street is the most posh street in Tel Aviv. It is a good place to shop if you are willing to pay top dollar or top Shekel for boutique designer brands. Also, just like the M.G Road in Bangalore, one gets to see smartly and fashionably dressed people. However, if you want cheap bargains, this is not the place to be. Every thing we saw on Shenkin street was expensive. There were boutique shops where the average price of a dress was 1000 Shekels.
On the other hand, Carmel market is a long and narrow alleyway where vendors sell fruits, vegetables, breads, leather goods, scarves, and the like. There was even a handicapped man begging for alms, the one and only case of justifiable begging I saw in Israel during my entire 8 day visit. I found that leather goods such as belts and wallets were of good quality and relatively cheap.
In all shapes, sizes and colours
Jews come in all shapes, sizes and colours. You have black Jews from Ethiopia, blond ones from Russia and sabras (named after a prickly pear native to Palestine) or native born Jews who are not much different from the Arabs. This flies in the face of the belief that Jews are a single race dispersed across various continents over time.
Uri Avnery, a famous left-wing Israeli journalist, has an explanation for this. In one of his articles titled the Lion and the Gazelle, Uri puts forth a simple thesis. Jews used to be a proselytising race and they converted people where ever they went. Which is why you have Ethiopian Jews who look very much black African and Russian Jews who look very much Russian. You can read this very interesting article here.
If Uri Avnery’s theory is accepted, it will be political dynamite since Israel has always allowed, encouraged and even assisted the migration of Jews to Israel. Arabs, even those who fled Israel after it was created, cannot do the same. If Jews scattered all over the world are only descendants of converts with little or no Semitic inheritance or genes, this ‘right of return’ will be hard to justify.
Should the desert be made to bloom?
Israel is a desert, but the landscape is dotted with olive trees and date palms. On the road from Haifa to Tel Aviv, I even saw large chunks of land with banana trees growing on them, covered in some form of netting. I believe the cost of all this is that there is now an acute shortage of water in Israel. According to this article in the Economist, agriculture consumes some 60% of the country's total of 2 billion cubic metres of water a year, but contributes less than 2% of GDP. Indeed, in this globalised economy, it sounds incredibly daft to grow bananas in Israel or even dates or figs when Israel is not a natural oasis. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on Israel’s core competence and import that fruits and vegetables it needs?
And what is Israel’s core competence? Hi-tech industries. One of my Israeli friends I met up with was telling about Better Place, an Israeli company founded by Shai Agassi that is in the process of setting up the infrastructure for a complete car system which will allow customers to drive electric cars within a national grid. This New York Times article by Thomas Friedman has all the details.
However, it must be admitted that the olive trees and date palms do give Israel a pleasant green look.
Hot, but not so hot
When we were in Israel, the temperature was in the mid-thirties. There is a total lack of humidity and one gets dehydrated very fast. We were told that one had to drink at least eight litres of water a day. Having said that, if one is used to the heat in Delhi or central India during summer, the heat in Israel is not too much to bear. In fact, a young shop assistant in Tel Aviv told me that when she was in Delhi on holiday (after her military service), she found it difficult to breathe on account of the heat.
Israel has daylight saving and as a result it is almost always only two hours ahead of the UK. I did wonder why a country on a latitude not so much different from northern India needed daylight saving. But then Jordan, Syria and Iran have daylight saving as well. I guess it is a regional thing.
A Final Conversation
The best conversation we had with an Israeli was the one with the taxi driver who drove us from Sheinkin Street to our Tel Aviv Hotel where we picked up our luggage and went on to the Airport. We negotiated a rate of 150 Shekels for the whole thing. Once the acrimonious negotiation was done, the driver became friendly. What’s more, he started singing a Hindi song once he had ascertained that we were Indians.
‘Dil dekhe dekho, dil dekhe dekho, dil dekhe dekhojee …..’
After a few minutes spent complimenting the driver on his Hindi, I asked him, ‘do you like Hindi films a lot.’
‘Of course. They show it in our theatres. We also have channel for Hindi movies. It’s called Bombay.’ Later a google search told me that there are two channels in Israel for Indian movies, namely ‘Hot Bombay’ and ‘Yes India’
‘Which actor do you like the most?’
‘That tall one. His name is …..’
The driver was delighted when we supplied the name.
‘Do you like him as well?’
‘Of course we do. All Indians like Amitabh Bhachchan’.
The conversation then turned to him. He had been a taxi driver for 32 years now. Before that he had served in the army. He had two daughters and four grandchildren.
‘Were you in the army during the Yom Kippur war?’ I asked him.
‘Yes, I was. I drove a truck which supplied ammunition to tanks.’
‘It was a tough war wasn’t it? It didn’t go very well for Israel in the beginning, did it?’ I asked. Egypt and Syria has launched a surprise attack on Israel in 1973 during the Yom Kippur holiday and Israel had been taken unawares. It was with a great deal of difficulty that Israel managed to regain the territory lost in the initial Arab onslaught.
The driver misunderstood my question. ‘All wars are bad. Even if we win, it is still bad. All fights are bad. If I fight you and I win, is it a good thing?’
‘So you think Israel should make a settlement with the Palestinians?’ I asked him.
‘Of course, we should.’
‘Even give up land in exchange for peace?’
We found ourselves warming up to this man. I hoped that there were a lot of Israelis like him.
‘Do you drive to the West Bank?’ I asked him. I wanted him to say that as an Israeli he could not do so, but that he would like to. But his reply caught me unawares.
‘No, I never take on Arabs. It is very dangerous.’
‘You never take Arabs in your cab?’
‘No never. Sometimes they take out a knife and attack the taxi driver. Sometimes they take you to a place where one of their friends will attack you and take your taxi.’
‘How do you know if a man is an Arab or a Jew?’
‘Of course I know.’ He laughed.
‘So you have never driven to the West Bank?’ I still liked the driver and wanted him to say that once there was peace, he would be able to do so.
‘I have. But only with Jews.’ It then dawned on me that Israeli drivers would be able to drive to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Despite the way this conversation ended, I still liked this driver.
The rivalry between Arabs and Jews dates back to the times of the first Jewish King Saul who battled the Philistines (Palestinians) repeatedly and finally committed suicide on the battlefield rather than be captured. His son-in-law David had slain the Philistines’ champion fighter Goliath. When David became the second King of the Kingdom of Israel, he had a better track record that Saul and Israel expanded. David’s son Solomon, King Solomon the Wise, made Israel or Zion even bigger and stronger. Solomon, referred to as Suleiman in Arabic, built the first Jewish temple on Temple Mount in the 10th Century BC. Solomon’s heirs could not fill his shoes and the Kingdom of Israel fell on bad times. The final blow came from Nebuchadnezzar, the great Babylonian king who destroyed the first temple and enslaved the Jews.
This ancient rivalry continues even now. There is so must distrust and hatred between the two communities that it doesn’t make any sense to expect them to start loving each other anytime in the near future. It was this pragmatic view point which made the UN vote for the creation of Israel. However, things can’t go on as they are. Many Jews who migrated to Israel are leaving for greener pastures. Arabs currently form around 20% of Israel’s population. Soon they will outnumber the Jews in Israel, despite heroic efforts by the Haredim in matching them in child production.
The British were able to make a civilised exit from India due to the presence of the Indian National Congress. The Palestinians too had relatively secular outfits, the PLO and its political wing, the Fatah Movement, even though these were not particularly peaceful. Having undermined these organisations, the Israelis now have to deal with the likes of Hamas (Sunni) and the Hizbollah (Shi’ite). I don’t think it is possible to set the clock back and strengthen the Fatah which is unbelievably corrupt. Various Arab countries have done their best to ensure that there is no peaceful resolution to this conflict. For example, Jordan has made sure that the Palestinian refugees in Jordan remain in refugee camps rather than integrate them into Jordanian society. It would be too much to expect the Arab states to pitch in for peace.
Maybe the Israelis could focus on increasing economic activity among ordinary Israeli Arabs and making the West Bank and the Gaza Strip prosperous. An increase in wealth and economic activity will discourage the creation of martyrs. In the long run, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip could turn out to be prosperous autonomous zones under Israel’s security umbrella
Shalom (Peace be with you), Toh-dah (thanks), Le׳hitra׳ot (Good-bye) and B'hatzlacha Good Luck)