Israel, an extraordinary country populated by extraordinary peoples -75% Jewish and 21% Arabic. Resilient, resourceful, innovative.
We had been promising ourselves a visit since 1991 when our travel plans to attend a wedding in Jerusalem were thwarted by the beginning of the first Gulf War. So, finally, we made it to the Promised Land in October 2018 … enchanting us with a multitude of warm and wondrous memories; answering several long-standing questions about the Middle East; but, leaving us with anxiety about the medium and long-term future of the State of Israel.
Our trip was aided and abetted by our travelling companions, long-standing Jewish friends from Melbourne, who had visited Israel many times during the past 50 years. They organised a local Israeli guide, an historian, who answered our weird and left field questions, at every step along the way. Plenty of planning ensured that we saw and did all that we wished, much of it off the traditional tourist path.
We arrived in Tel Aviv, a vibrant and exciting city, more Western than Middle Eastern. Fabulous Mediterranean beachfront, progressive politics, financial hub and a strong commitment to exciting, innovative food and plenty of nightlife … for those under 60! Most significantly, it felt like a "secular" city.
Our first major destination after Tel Aviv was Negev desert. How does Israel survive in this arid, relatively infertile land with little water, no oil and few natural resources? No problem for the Israelis! Innovate, innovate, and innovate! Dry-land farming with creation of drip irrigation, glasshouse horticulture and leading the world in recycling waste water - 90% waste water recycled. Spain runs a distant second at 19%!
Israeli desalination engineering also leads the world and we were amazed to learn that Israel is a net water exporter, providing a significant amount of water to neighbouring Jordan. We visited intensive horticultural "glass house” farming in Negev desert where the quality and range of foods produced was astounding. This was far beyond the Jaffa oranges and citrus fruit we traditionally associated with Israel. We were particularly overwhelmed by richness of pomegranates...incidentally the fruit featured on the RACP (and RCP) coat of arms.
Returning to Tel Aviv we visited the memorial to the Australian Light Horse in the battle of Beersheba. Given the bravery and brashness of the charge, it’s no wonder last year’s centenary celebration was so well supported and attended (Turnbull, Netanyahu etc).
Another highlight was travelling to the northern reaches of Israel, past the Sea of Galilee and its biblical connections, to Rosh Pina, one of the earliest Zionist settlements, dating from late nineteenth century. We were now in the mountains. Spectacular views. Close enough to view the Lebanon border and close to Golan Heights, disputed territory with Syria.
We had prearranged a visit to Ziv Medical Center, an Israeli Government Hospital, close to the Golan Heights, where we understood Syrian refugees from the civil war, particularly children, had been able to receive medical care for injuries received in the Syrian civil war. These patients crossed the border illegally without assistance from either government. Their care was led by local medical teams not politicians.
“At the next stand, exhibitors were demonstrating the newest marijuana harvester or header”
We were extremely moved by the compassion of the medical / nursing / allied health teams and then delighted to find out that the Head Paediatrician, Dr Michael Harari, was a Melbourne graduate, did his training at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne and he and Penny had worked together at the Royal Children's Hospital in the early 1990s. What an odd reunion in such an unexpected place.
It was also odd to be shadowed by two young Israeli Defence Force soldiers, in a paediatric ward, when speaking to a young Syrian boy, with horrendous leg injuries from an explosion but the IDF soldiers not as threatening as the “Nurse Ratchet” matrons from our medical student days!
Over the next couple of days, we followed the Jordan River, the site today, and 2000 years ago, of ceremonial baptisms; floated in the Dead Sea; and, climbed Masada (two hours in 38C), in the desert, somewhat akin to climbing Ayers Rock. Masada, is hugely significant in ancient Jewish history as site of the First Roman-Jewish war. In modern times, Israeli Defence Force graduates complete their training where they ceremoniously chant, “Masada will not fall again”.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, lift up your hearts...”. Emotionally overwhelming to enter this royal and ancient city, in late afternoon, as the setting sun lit up the ubiquitous pale, golden "Jerusalem Stone" (aka limestone). So many cultures have sought to claim Jerusalem since the Canaanites in 14th century BCE. The list includes Jews, Romans, Christians, Ottomans, Crusaders, Armenians, and Jordanians (1948 Arab-Israeli War).
Over the centuries, Jerusalem has been captured and recaptured more than 40 times! All the Abrahamic religions have genuine claims to the holy city. Haram es-Sharif (The Temple Mount), the Wailing Wall, the birthplace and then crucifixion of Christ, all so closely bound together like three melted candles of different colour. For Islam, Jerusalem is the third most holy city after Mecca and Medina. Visiting the Christian sites (Gethsemane, Golgotha, Bethlehem etc), in and around Jerusalem, was reminiscent of our first visit to London, where everything was vaguely familiar…except then it was from the Monopoly board. This time, our childhood religious instruction was being brought to life.
Religion is omnipresent in Jerusalem and definitely so on Shabbat, the Sabbath day. How quiet the city was on Saturday, until sundown. The large number of Orthodox Jews ("Black Hats") was a constant reminder of how important Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall are to the practice of Jewish faith. But our impression was the majority of tourists in Jerusalem were actually Christians, completing a pilgrimage through the Holy Land.
For us, the most searing and likely to be enduring memory of Jerusalem was a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Having previously visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, Dachau Concentration Camp outside Munich, Holocaust memorials in Budapest etc, we thought we were prepared. No! Particularly as our visit started at the Children's Memorial, a tribute to the 1.5 million children murdered during the Holocaust.
At varying times during our trip, we ate lunches with a Bedouin family anda Druze family; had morning tea with a Palestinian Christian family; dinner with an Orthodox Jewish couple; many meals with liberal Jews, and ate in Arabic restaurants. The common themes and discussions centred around wishing the best for their children’s education, nurturing of family and community and access to good health.
And, of course, peace.
An original tenet of Zionism, as espoused by Theodor Herzl in 1897, was that, in addition to return to the Promised Land, there should be peace. Sadly, this is far from the truth today and there is a readily-sensed communal anxiety. Understandably, given Israel’s geopolitical positioning where every neighbour is, or has been, belligerent to Israel and remains keen to see the State of Israel removed in its entirety from the Middle East. Somewhat facetiously, we viewed this anxiety and future uncertainty as the likely genesis of the commonly-observed wild and fast driving!
Our final highlight in the Promised Land was attending CannX 2018 in Tel Aviv, a conference attracting clinician, scientists, horticulturalists and government to better understand the production, distribution and uses of medicinal cannabis. It was strange viewing Pharma exhibits and watching videos of fMRI, whilst at the next stand, exhibitors were demonstrating the newest marijuana harvester or header.
To meet and hear the grandfather of endocannabinoid research, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, was special. He has been researching and writing about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) since the mid 1960s and is the discoverer of ECS receptors and endocannabinoids e.g. anandamide.
For the foodies, eating in Israel was a constant delight. Fresh produce, culinary influences from all over the Middle East, further enhanced by dishes brought from the diaspora. But, sadly, Kosher wine was a little disappointing - not consistent with Jesus’ first miracle “you kept the good wine until now" (John 2:10).
Did we feel safe? Absolutely. Saw plenty of soldiers and military installations…but so you do, these days, all around the world. Did the tensions about ownership of this ancient land intrude? No. As with all travel, the truth about the people and their beliefs is often found in the cafes, in the markets/souks, in the back streets, written in graffiti on community walls… rather than in editorials and opinion pieces in foreign newspapers.
Our message about travel - don’t wait until tomorrow! Having missed the opportunity to visit poor, war-ravaged Syria, we feel privileged to have at last seen Israel, in 2018.