My first impressions of Israel

There would only be a handful of places that can evoke as many emotions as Israel does. Its breathtaking landscapes, cultural history as old as tales can go, the eerie stillness of the deserted landscapes and the far north, the ancient streets of Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the cultural kaleidoscope that the cities are, and the ease with which they transition to the cool and contemporary selves, are a call to every traveler. And not forgetting the ubiquitous signs of global diplomacy and conflict that has become a part of everyday life. But Israel is beyond the ‘top ten places’ or the ‘top ten reasons’ of any travel guide book. Israel is a reflection of co-existence of the calls of the Muezzin and the quiet prayers of the Jews, despite the politics and conflict that defines it.

The Western Wall, one of the holiest places on earth for Jews, is a remnant of the old Jewish temple built 2000 years ago.
The ‘Dome of the Rock’ or the ‘Temple Mount’ has both Islamic and Judea connection
Pilgrims take the route via Via Dolorosa following the route of Jesus after his condemnation as he carried his cross to be executed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

Israel gives you distinct feelings and eerie moments, right from the moment you step out to get stamps on your passports. The first highlight of your entry is the blue stamp that the authorities provide you to not hassle with a stamp on passport as some countries do not accept entries if one has an Israeli stamp on the passport. From coming out of the airport to taking a train to your hotel, you get acquainted to contrasting dimensions this country exists in. You see there are high rise buildings on one side of the road as tell-tales of the economic transformation and start-up, and then you might have some army personnel laced with AK-47 sitting next to you in a train or bus, giving you an eerie feeling of being on a constant watch. And despite of every contrast that can be mentioned, everywhere you go in Israel you can feel serenity, and a sense of community.

I stepped out from the train, onto the streets, and then to the residential blocks, and the perfection in the landscape was noticeable, everything was hand-crafted magic: the drip-irrigated green spaces, the meticulously designed side-walks, evolving cycling infrastructure, and perfectly curated public spaces. And be it Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or any other Israeli city, if the contemporary thrills you, there is always an old side to it dating back to the Bible, the Crusaders, or the Ottoman Empire. The Old Cities of Jerusalem, Jaffa and Lod are among the oldest in the world, or as old as the history itself. Israel gives the luxury to transition from the cool and the modern, to the cultural and the ancient in a jiffy.

And Israel is nothing, if it isn’t the cultural pot it is. You can’t smear it with one colour, it is a resettled land, that over time is learning to co-exist and grow. This striking essence of living in peace can easily be realized on the cobbled streets of Jerusalem that have seem some of the most momentous events in the history of mankind. The old city is a potpourri of faiths and ethnicities, a nest of strange coexistence which offers something for everyone. And this feeling is palpable in different Israeli cities. The Arabic quarters in Tel Aviv, Jaffa is a vibrant place with the cultural vibes and identity, beautifully blending with the chic, modern quarters of Tel Aviv. This cultural mix has left its imprint in every walk of life: architecture, literature, food, local culture and art, and even politics.

The liberal outlook is positively baffling. The society is open to embracing progressive ideas, from LGBTQ+ rights, regional harmony, scientific development, to enhancing and deepening democratic values. Possibly I met more liberals and secular, but the recollections of the conversations I could strike with locals, the hope and optimism of finding solutions, the desire for change from the status-quo, and the drive to peacefully progress, was promising. I recall an interesting conversation over coffee in Haifa, where I could strike a conversation on the issue of Palestine with a group of young locals. One of the guys said “we want you people to talk about good things when talking of Israel, and not the conflicts.” These are signs of hope, rekindled by the present generation, aloof from the politics of distrust and hate, and progressive and co-operative at heart.

And of course, don’t leave Israel without encountering country’s complex politics. Nothing strikes more about Israel than the ethnic strife in the West Bank, or the long history of regional conflict. And it would only take a few conversations for a traveler to realize how deep rooted are the ethos of coexistence and collaboration in common people. It seemingly appears a different leap from the politics that dominates the country, or is this hope just a sign of sheer loss and indifference?

Pencil in time to visit the Holocaust museums in Jerusalem, Haifa, or Tel Aviv; engage in conversations with artists and liberals in the politically charged cafes in Haifa; or take a detour to the West Bank wall in Bethlehem which brings the Palestinian resistance in a poetry of moments; or go to the Walled off hotel’ established by graffiti artist Banksy, and look through the iconic window which overlooks the West Wall to see “the worst view of the world” the hotel boasts of. It is amazing that such a small country where you can cover the farthest south to the farthest north in less than six hours, and from east to west in mere two hours, can evoke so many thoughts. For a curious traveller, Israel never fails to amaze and enthuse, albeit it challenges your held notions and confound. It’s a land where many contrasting beliefs, thoughts, and opinions coexist, and they leave an indelible imprint on every traveller who tries to scratch the surfaces and looks beyond the chic and modernity of Tel Aviv.

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