My Impressions of Israel, Part 1

by: Jeff Spector

December 10, 2010

When I was first dating my wife, my future father-in-law said a very strange thing to me. As we were talking one evening, he asked me,

“When are you going back?”

“Back where?”

“To Israel?”

“I’ve never been”

“Oh, I thought all Jewish people went to Israel?”

“Well, I haven’t….yet.”

So 29 years later, I finally made it to Israel. I have wanted to go there for a very long time, but my wife was concerned about the safety of being over there. And I did have tickets for a work meeting I was to attend, but the trip was cancelled the day before I was to leave.

So I need to make a trip and decide to go to Israel. I was there only three and a half days, not enough to see much, I created a very small list of places I had to see. As a result, I stayed in the Jerusalem area.

Let me say at the outset, that it was a thrill to be there and I cannot wait to go back. It is a place that has that kind of effect on a person.  I’ve heard that said before, but I did not understand it until now.

I must say that Israel is a very strange place. Here you have a significant amount of the religious history of the “Western World” packed into one place. It is mind boggling to contemplate that three of the world’s great religions converge in this one area. The other thing that makes it strange is that you have all these people, about 7,235,985 (CIA Factbook) living together in this small place, but living very separately. In Jerusalem, you have Jews, Arabs, Christians and others in this tightly packed area, acting as though the other does not exist, but having to deal with each other anyway. Even among Jews, you have very obvious difference in religious observance noted mainly in dress, but also in actions.

It is generally a happy place, but it is sad as well. It is sad to see the walls that have been erected by the Israelis surrounding the Arabs areas. It makes the place look like a prison camp, in many respects.  I understand the motivation behind them, but it is still disheartening to see them.  One can hope that someday, there will be no need of the walls and they will be removed.

All the people I met, Jews and Arabs, were wonderful.  People are generally nice, but can be somewhat pushy. Maybe this is just a trait of people in all large, crowed cities.  I would not recommend driving there (I didn’t). They drive crazy in Jerusalem. And the traffic is massive and, particularly around the Old City area, a nightmare.  But frankly, there are many places in the world I would never drive.

Security

I felt very safe there. Even during my trip to Bethlehem, which is in the Palestinian West Bank area, I was never very concerned about my safety. In Jerusalem, there are soldiers and police everywhere with rifles and machine guns and you must do through a metal detector and have your bags x-rayed to go into most large public places like a shopping a mall.  And most places have a guard in front with one of those metal detecting wands.

At my hotel, there were security guards, mostly young women, with very large guns strapped to their sides. In fact, a great majority of the security people are women.

At the airport, the security is very different, as you may have read about.  They don’t make you take off your shoes and belts, take naked pictures of you or grope you. Yes, there is a metal detector and an x-ray machine for your bags, but the big difference is that the Israelis talk to you several times before you get on an airplane. In other words, you are profiled. They ask you questions about why you are in Israel, who you visited, who you know, and if someone gave you anything to carry on the plane. This method works for them. There is the famous story about the pregnant Irish young women who was carrying a bomb in her bags and didn’t know it. Turned out she has a Palestinian boyfriend who promised to meet her in Amman, Jordan to marry her if she would take a package to a friend. The Israeli security found this out by talking to her, not taking naked pictures of her through an x-ray machine. And a tragedy was averted.

I had a taxi driver for the few days I was there who was born in East Jerusalem. His family had been there for 1000 years, he said. He is, since the 1967 six day war recognized somewhat as an Israeli citizen, though he carried an Israeli ID card, but a Jordanian passport since Jordan controlled the East Jerusalem until that war. He is free to move about the entire state of Israel and the Palestinian Territories because of this, but is still hassled all the time. He was able to take me to Bethlehem, which an Israeli taxi driver cannot. Full Israeli citizens are prohibited by law from entering the Palestinian areas. And US citizens are very welcome except it is harder to get into the Gaza area than the West Bank. And it was very easy to get back from West Bank, but I did have to go through a checkpoint like everyone else. But as soon as I showed by passport, I was let back into Israel with no problem after the metal detector and x-ray machine.

In part 2, I will describe the sites I visited and the impression those sites had on me.

21 Responses to My Impressions of Israel, Part 1

  1. Dan on December 10, 2010 at 7:49 AM

    Israel is quite a safe place. I’m glad you had a good time. Aside from seeing places where Jesus had lived and gone (which are going to be packed with Christian tourists) I’m not sure what else would draw me there.

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  2. Mike S on December 10, 2010 at 9:15 AM

    This is a great article. I am fascinated by Israel and would love to visit there some day. Looking forward to the rest of the parts…

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  3. Keri Brooks on December 10, 2010 at 9:45 AM

    Great post. I look forward to reading the rest. I’ve been to Israel twice – once in 2000 as part of a choir tour group and once in 2006 for a study abroad program (not through BYU). It was a great experience both times. I would like to go back some day. There are places I didn’t take the opportunity to see that I regret not seeing.

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  4. adamf on December 10, 2010 at 10:01 AM

    I’ve actually never been that interested in going, but now my interest is piqued…

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  5. Ben S on December 10, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    I loved my time in Israel. Jerusalem is a magnetic place, and visiting sites really makes the Bible come alive. 3 days is enough time to see… a museum or two. We spent 5 months there, and felt like I’d scratched the surface.

    But then, I’m both a history buff, and a Bible guy, particularly OT.

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  6. mh on December 10, 2010 at 10:52 AM

    fascinating. I really want to go to israel someday, and I look forward to your posts.

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  7. Thomas on December 10, 2010 at 11:31 AM

    Jeff — Interesting. Look forward to the next installment.

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  8. diane on December 10, 2010 at 11:33 AM

    Thanks for the post, this makes Americans seem like wusses for complaining about air port security.

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  9. Kevin Barney on December 10, 2010 at 11:34 AM

    Thanks for the report. I would love to go someday; haven’t made it yet.

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  10. Paul on December 10, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    “Let me say at the outset, that it was a thrill to be there and I cannot wait to go back. It is a place that has that kind of effect on a person. I’ve heard that said before, but I did not understand it until now.”

    That sentence made me think of places I’ve visited that have been that way for me. I have no interest in going to Israel, but your experience has made me think of other such places I’ve visited — places that made a bigger or most lasting impression that I would have expected. And who knows, maybe Israel would do that for me, too, were I to go.

    Fascinating reading in any case.

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  11. Thomas on December 10, 2010 at 1:13 PM

    “this makes Americans seem like wusses for complaining about air port security.”

    Not at all. I’ve got no problem with airport security measures, even intrusive ones, that have the remotest connection to keeping me safe. But when I have some officious TSA dork waving his wand around my infant’s diaper (because, you know, a baby in the arms of a Scandinavian-American blonde mother *definitely* fits the About To Blow profile), I’m annoyed. Because it has nothing to do with actual security, and everything to do with the charade of pretending that the lion’s share of the security threat comes overwhelmingly from a particular, discrete, readily identified demographic.

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  12. hawkgrrrl on December 10, 2010 at 2:00 PM

    Great start to a series I’m looking forward to reading about, Jeff! I haven’t been to Israel yet – we had plans for a stop in Haifa on a Med cruise, but then 9/11 happened, and we cancelled. We will definitely go someday.

    The Israeli security system is one that is lauded as very successful. I think our issue in the US is that we can’t even train our 9-1-1 operators to answer calls correctly, so how can we train the extremely large number of TSA agents to correctly profile based on observation and verbal discussion? When you look back at the TSA tape of M. Atta going through security, even I can tell he’s a jihadist. But back then, if TSA had done profiling based on observation, they’d be called racist and sued.

    A couple years ago, we had dinner with an Israeli family from Tel Aviv. They were very worried about the escalating violence with Palestine, which was why they were out of the country. For families in Israel it’s very personal due to the compulsory military service.

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  13. Non-Arab Arab on December 11, 2010 at 6:10 AM

    I won’t go into the kind of debate I normally would with such an issue. For starters, I’m sure Jeff would be expecting me with a bit of dread to show up and do so :) But beyond that, while I may take issue with much of Jeff’s view on these issues (just as I would take vehement issue with my younger, less-experienced-with-the-unholy-land self), I appreciate Jeff’s honesty in this piece with acknowledging it was a short visit in which he could only take in brief initial impressions. The two things I will say are (1) have a look at my earlier guest post on the broader issues at Mormon Matters http://mormonmatters.org/2010/02/13/walk-a-mile/ and (2) realize that all the discussion about how ‘safe’ Israel supposedly is, is the view of the occupier and the occupier’s guests. One most go beyond the tourist routes (which as in any oppressive regime are kept as scrupulously ‘cleansed’ of the dirtiest secrets as possible) to really understand the brutality of what’s going on and the literally millions of ghosts and dispossessed who unknowingly surround the happy visitor. I sense Jeff, even if he doesn’t agree with my take on this stuff, realizes there is far more than meets the eye, so my appreciation to you for conveying caution regarding first impressions in your post.

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  14. Jeff Spector on December 11, 2010 at 7:10 AM

    Non-Arab,

    Believe it or not, I do appreciate your point of view to a degree. I am not sure I like the harshness in which you choose to present it, but I have somewhat of an better understanding having been there now than before.

    I will say that the walls had a deeper effect on me than the Church of the Resurrection. As do seeing the settlements built in the West Bank.

    I do not understand why they keep building those. it is a level of antagonism that is unnecessary. Having said that, I also realize that there at least 8 sides to this story.

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  15. Non-Arab Arab on December 11, 2010 at 8:19 AM

    Fair enough. If you do get a chance on a future visit there or to any of the neighboring countries, I’d highly recommend trying to see if you could pay a visit to a refugee camp and here people’s stories. Where they’re from, their lives now, and their hopes for the future. An enlightening experience if you have the chance.

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  16. O on December 11, 2010 at 9:26 AM

    Israel is a racist state (citizenship is based on race, however imagined), and if I were trying to bomb a plane, I would definitely hide the device on a blonde child.

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  17. FireTag on December 11, 2010 at 10:40 PM

    A charge of “racism” is a wonderful conversation killer, since it immediately invites charges of counter-racism.

    I won’t play.

    Please continue, Jeff. I look forward to your next post.

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  18. Joe on December 12, 2010 at 12:56 PM

    I went to Israel several years ago for a twenty day business trip. I enjoyed it far more than I expected. Several observations:

    1) Israeli’s are crazy drivers. I swear nobody used a rear view mirror when backing up; they just backed up.

    2) There is a great steakhouse in Herzliya.

    3) I found Jerusalem boring and fake. Same with Tiberias. It seemed obvious to me that Israelites have learned how to con conservative Christians quite well.

    3a) Haifa seemed very genuine. Tel Aviv is a nice city with horrible traffic. Herzliya is a very nice coastal town.

    4) Using tour guides is a must. I was lucky on the Jerusalem tour. After boarding the bus, the guide asked if anyone was a devoted Christian. Nobody raised their hands. “Good,” he said. “I’ll give you the non-religious tour of Jerusalem.” And he did. It was hilarious. (At one point we were walking through old Jerusalem and he said “Jesus didn’t walk here–he couldn’t have, the streets were 20 feet below where we are now and laid out differently.”)

    5) Masada blew my mind. I can’t even explain why. (Several people I know say the same thing.)

    6) The dead sea was very cool.

    7) I was stunned at how small the Sea of Galilee was.

    8) I was even more stunned at how much the non-developed part of northern Israel looked like northern California. The climates are very similar so it’s no surprise, but at one point during my drive, it looked just like drives I’ve taken around Petaluma, CA.

    9) The weather in Israel in April is fabulous. The Mediterranean is still really cold then.

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  19. Thomas on December 13, 2010 at 11:25 AM

    ” if I were trying to bomb a plane, I would definitely hide the device on a blonde child.”

    Yeah, well, good luck with that. Finding a mom of a blonde child willing to let her kid be blown to a pulp for the glory of jihad may be a tall order. Which is probably why invariably the plan comes down to “oh, hell, let’s just sew some Semtex into another swarthy guy’s underpants.”

    We feel so guilty about our ugly history of irrational generalizations, that in order to avoid making a rational generalization (i.e., when looking for airplane bombers, look for people who meet the profile of the latest crew of airplane bombers), we wind up making even more irrational ones. Yes, the vast majority of Middle Eastern travelers aren’t carrying bombs. But the even vaster majority of the general public aren’t carrying bombs — and yet we impose intrusive searches on the general public, even though we know, beyond reasonable doubt, that the general public is even less likely to be carrying bombs than the subset of youngish Middle Eastern males.

    Willie Sutton robbed banks “because that’s where the money is.”

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  20. AndrewJDavis on December 13, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    “I was even more stunned at how much the non-developed part of northern Israel looked like northern California. The climates are very similar so it’s no surprise, but at one point during my drive, it looked just like drives I’ve taken around Petaluma, CA.”

    Hmm, now you’ve interested me. I served my mission in Petaluma, and loved it. I may now have to look into going to Israel now.

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  21. Jeff Spector on December 13, 2010 at 2:09 PM

    ” I served my mission in Petaluma, and loved it.’

    Petaluma is Israel with bacon!

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