“Why would you travel to Israel now when there’s a war going on?” my nurse asked.
Like many others, she’d been watching television—rarely a portrayal of the whole truth. Since returning home from a tour with a group of journalists, I’ve concluded that North Americans have as many misconceptions about Israel as they have about blood cholesterol.
Starting at the Beginning
Arrival at an international airport quickly reveals much about a country. My first impression at Ben Gurion Airport was that Tel Aviv is a sophisticated, vibrant city that knows where it’s going. And the drive over rolling hills toward Jerusalem confirmed the impression of dramatic growth since Israel became a country in 1948.
This small, booming nation provides a variety of experiences for all tastes. In Jerusalem, you can absorb ancient history during a stroll along the ramparts of its protective walls. Or you can meditate about its centuries-old religion in evidence everywhere you walk. No location is more sacred than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was said to have been taken after his crucifixion.
Watching people kneeling, touching, and praying at this site moves you to realize that the depth of their religious pilgrimage means more to them than daily existence. Yet Jerusalem offers more—quaint shops beneath the walls, cafes, and incredible views of the hills surrounding the city.
From Jerusalem we traveled south to the Sinai Desert. On the way, we stopped for the most relaxing experience possible—floating in the Dead Sea. Here, where the salt concentration is 10 times greater than in any other body of water, it’s impossible to sink. If you have a sore, the salt water will quickly remind you of it. And if you’re foolish enough to dive into it, your burning eyes confirm that it was a bad idea.
The fortress of Masada in the Sinai was a major highlight of the trip. It has drama, location, and human courage all wrapped up into one exciting historical package. It was from this massive mountain top that 967 Jewish men, women, and children fought off a Roman army of 15,000 for months. Then when defeat was imminent, rather than live as slaves, they took their own lives en masse.
A good example of Israeli fortitude is how they have tamed the desert into a Garden of Eden. A large part of the Sinai is broken up by towering mountains. But where once there was arid desert, there are now miles of greenhouses that export products to other nations.
Eilat, the sun-capital of Israel, rather than exporting goods, imports thousands of tourists to enjoy a variety of activities. Situated at the northern end of the Red Sea, its magnificent harbor is ringed by first-class hotels. In Eilat, with a single glance it’s possible to see Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.
Eilat’s dolphins’ reef is unique. It doesn’t contain the usual trapped dolphins. Rather, if the dolphins get fed up with tourists, they can easily say goodbye via an easy access to the Red Sea. But they enjoy attention and keep coming back for first-class meals.
In Eilat, you’re just minutes away from the desert hinterland. So you can explore the ancient spice route by bike, jeep, or on the back of a camel, which was our choice. It ended with a specially cooked lunch under a Bedouin tent.
Play in Tel Aviv!
The eighth day of our visit ended in Tel Aviv. I often judge a city by asking, “Could I live here?” The answer for Tel Aviv is “Yes!” This response is best explained by our driver, who said, “I pray in Jerusalem and play in Tel Aviv!”
Tel Aviv is a sophisticated, modern city hugging the Mediterranean with miles of beaches and year-round good weather. As a resident of Tel Aviv, I’d be spending evenings in the old city with its art galleries and chic cafes. Known as a city that never sleeps, it’s as cosmopolitan as it gets anywhere.
The message I took from Israel is that you have to see this country to believe what’s happened in its 63 years. This country of incredible progress, innovation, and fortitude is so strong and vibrant.
To achieve these goals, Israel has been governed politically by what’s been labeled “chaotic democracy,” with the need for political compromise. This is best illustrated by the remark of Levi Eshkol, a former prime minister of Israel. When asked if he wanted coffee or tea, he replied, “Half of each.”On arrival home, I enthusiastically related my experience to a Jewish colleague. He remarked, “Now, I must go there!”
So should you.
Dr. Gifford-Jones is a medical journalist with a private medical practice in Toronto. He enjoys travel and likes to share these adventures with others.