|$1 = 3.8 Israeli Shekels
I have always wanted to visit the Middle-East, specifically Israel, since it is has such a long and incredible history. I listen to a radio show broadcast in the US by Michael Medved, focused on politics and pop-culture, and every year Michael brings a group of his listeners on a tour of Israel. Since Michael is well-known and connected, our group was able to meet some of the more influential people in the country, and visit many places not on the typical tour such as Palestinian controlled Bethlehem and Hebron, and a Jewish community located across the Green Line in the West Bank. We were also able to spend time with Michael's friends and family who live in Israel which was a great experience.
Many of the most important religious sites of Judaism, Islam and Christianity are packed into this tiny slice of land along the Eastern Mediterranian, smaller than New Jersey. That makes for interesting traveling, and also as we see in the news every day, a lot of friction among the locals. The result of that unrest is that you see a serious military presence in Israel, and in fact all of it's citizens, young men and women, are required to serve in the military.
One discovery on this trip was that, although Israel is the country with the highest concentration of journalists in the world, there are still a lot of misconceptions about the country. I found the Israeli people to be warm, open and generous, and suprisingly welcoming to the 1.5 million Arabs (20% of the population), almost all Muslims, who are Israeli citizens. Arabic is one of the three official languages in Israel, and Israel has enacted affirmative action policies to help its minority citizens achive full social and economic equality.
After visiting Jordan and Egypt later in this trip, it seems that Israeli society gives more opportunity to Arabs than do Arab states to their own citizens. Israeli Arabs and Muslims have the right to vote and to hold public office, like every other Israeli citizen. Nearly one-10th of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, is Arab; there is a mosque in the Knesset building for those who are Muslim. One of the justices of Israel's Supreme Court is an Arab Muslim; so is a minister in the Israeli cabinet. Arabs are active in Israeli commerce, media, education, and law. I spoke with several Arab Muslim citizens of Israel, and while many pointed out shortcomings of their country, they all much preferred to live in Israel rather than in the Palestinian controlled areas of the West Bank and Gaza, or neighboring countries such as Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.
We also experienced the most controversial issue in the region, Jewish settlements in the Palestinian controlled West Bank, by actually visiting one of these communities. There are absolutely legitimate differing opinions on this issue, but I found that the reality of these communities was much less sinister than you read in the news. This land is typically barren and unoccupied, and purchased by Israelis from Palestinian landowners. Many times these communities are built on land that these families owned decades or centuries before their families were expelled during the 1948 war when Israel declared its statehood. As of today, Israel settlements beyond the Green Line cover less than 1.7% of the West Bank, and they are almost all close to the border, so peace negotiations can incorporate these communities with minor adjustments to the border without having a significant impact on Palestinian population centers.
I think one other misconception about Israel that needs to be dispelled is that the Jewish people arrived here after World War II and took over this land. The reality, which is rarely discussed in the media, is that Jews have continuouly lived in the area we now call Israel and the West Bank for the past 3,000 years. In fact, Jerusalem was the capital of ancient Israel during the reign of King David and his son Solomon, around 1,000 years before Christ, and more than 1,600 years before the birth of Islam.
Ok, so enough history and politics. I was fortunate to visit Israel during their annual Purim festival which was a lot of fun. Our host Michael Medved also celebrated the traditional Shabbat weekly ritual with us in Jerusalem, followed by a Sabbath dinner. It was very cool to be able to participate in Jewish life and tradition first-hand.
I actually arrived in Israel two days before my Michael Medved tour began to hang out with my friend Ashira who lives near Tel Aviv. Ashira and I met three years ago in Cuba, and we stayed in touch on Facebook. She is a police officer stationed in the town of Ariel. Ashira showed me all around Tel Aviv and Jaffa, and we also drove up North to see the ruins of Caesarea, and the Israeli wine country of Zickron Yaakov.
So I hope you enjoy the photos and videos from this trip. It was a fascinating journey for me.