Monday, July 12, 2010

Come Visit Israel

Ari Bussel

I like to fly light, but it never seems to work. The one exception is when I return from Israel to the United States. Everything here is cheaper, so I really do not buy things in Israel, other than recently published books in Hebrew. In Israel, magazines and books in duty free are exempt from VAT, a substantial savings when the price of a book is close to $20. On the way to Israel, however, the situation is quite different. I take everything, from grocery bags (the paper type because they are bigger here) to paper towels (also bigger and better). Truth be told, one can buy everything in Israel, American made, but the cost is often prohibitive.

During a recent visit I had a cold, but the price of Vitamin C frightened me so much I decided not to buy any. Somehow, Israelis manage. I could not. My American dollars disappear quickly, their buying power sadly insufficient.

Time and again I am amazed at how many people have not been to Israel. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism dedicates a substantial budget to promote Israel, and indeed Europeans are coming to Eilat, where it is summer year round (they all return home burned red from too much sun), Christians are coming to the holy places, from Bethlehem to Nazareth to Jerusalem. Israelis arrive in droves to visit their families and, in recent years, young Jews are treated to “Birthright Taglit (Discovery),” a free trip to explore their Jewish roots.

Yet, there are so many who are afraid to go. I cannot blame them since Israel is in the news daily, usually portrayed as an evil occupier, an Apartheid state, a dangerous place altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Israel is modern and ancient, magical from within and like no other place on earth. It does not simply possess history; Israel is history. Its shopping centers bustle with people, its streets are full of pedestrians. Traffic is a mess, but still people communicate with one another. Some shout, others curse, still others just use their hands for obscene gestures. It is all done in a way you can understand, even if you do not speak Hebrew.

One dares not cross the street in a cross walk, since hardly anyone will stop. Although, the situation is not much different here in Beverly Hills, where a new operation will soon be on the way to enforce the law. The markets are a “must” place to visit, for the colors and smells and abundance is like nowhere else. At entrances to all public places, one needs to open one’s bags for inspection, a constant reminder of the Palestinian’s aspirations for 72 virgins and penchant for homicide bombings.

Tel Aviv is a microcosm of New York and Europe combined; a city that neither stops nor sleeps. There are nightlife and cafes on the major streets. There is a beach with warm Mediterranean water, museums, more per capita than elsewhere in the world, and history in every building. There are also sectors where foreign, illegal workers congregate and others where it is too sleazy and too dangerous for respectable people to even visit.

The very best breakfasts are served at Israeli hotels, included in the price of the stay. These are buffets filled with foods as far as the eye can see, an amazing feast to the eyes and taste buds. Be warned, though, as prices for overnight stays are very expensive. It is exactly for that reason that Israeli tourists prefer Cyprus, Turkey (yes, Israelis are forgiving and quite forgetful), Greece and the former Soviet Union countries. A weekend excursion, including airfare, is cheaper than a one-night stay at an Israeli hotel. Then again, there is that breakfast like no other.

I would highly suggest not to drive but to use public transport instead. Israel is so tiny that the sense of distance is distorted. A wrong turn, a few more miles (kilometers in Israel), and you are at a border crossing. Zoom, where did Israel go? Better safe than sorry – do not drive!

When using public transportation, if you do get lost, it will be part of the adventure, and you will still be safe. People will be eager to help as everyone speaks English. You will find that many other languages are spoken, a mixture of Jews who came to their homeland and yet carry their former lives, accents and modes of behavior. Taking a bus or the train between cities is a true experience since you will hear people conducting their lives on the phone, all in public. Anyone can listen, and often people will provide an opinion.

Israelis are very warm people. They not only communicate while driving and express what they think to others but will be eager to invite you for Shabbat dinner or just to a visit. Do that for it is always safe. Part of the Middle Eastern mentality dictates that a guest is a king. This is also true in regard to enemies. Once invited, they are sacred. Possibly this is the reason Palestinians, Hamas members, Gazans and other terrorists seek medical treatment in Israeli hospitals. They receive the very best medical care, even when the reason for their arrival is an injury suffered during a terrorist attack they carried out.

Amazing when you hear of instances where patients returned strapped with explosives to repay those who saved their lives and rehabilitated them. Some things in the Middle East never change.

You will see many soldiers, young men and women of 18 or 19, in uniform and carrying handguns or M16s. They are part and parcel of the country’s very being, of Israel’s future. They, representing all walks of life, are in a melting pot that matures and molds them into productive members of society.

You need only see the smile on a young woman fighter pilot to understand there is no differentiation between men and women. The magnificent smiles on the faces of Ethiopian children will assure you Israelis also do not differentiate based on skin color. Even before its formation as a modern state, Israel openly absorbed immigration. The process is never easy, but the harvest is the children born in Israel. They know nothing else, and are like fruits of a cactus, spiked on the outside, juicy and full of life within.

Israel is wondrous and miraculous. Make sure to visit her capital, the heart of Jews for thousands of years. Jerusalem is the most unique place in the world, for there one feels closest with the Creator. Breathing the air, walking in the streets of Jerusalem is a fulfilling experience that begs for more. Go visit the Western Wall, the archeological excavations and just wander the streets. You will witness for yourself the miracle of a united city, the capital of the Jewish State.

Nestled on a mountain among trees is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial. There, on the Avenue of the Righteous, we stop to remember those who, despite great personal danger, risked everything to help others. Forever they will remind us there remains a grain of goodness in humanity, a flame that cannot be doused despite the darkness that seeks to engulf us.

Israel is a unique country, safe and inviting, welcoming and enticing. You are filled with a sense of wanting “more.” Thus, while my suitcases are always empty on the return, I am filled with memories and experiences that have energized me, feelings that keep me charged until the next visit.

I am surprised I have never been charged for overweight luggage when returning to the United States. I know the spiritual, emotional and precious gifts I receive while in Israel place me way over the limit.

Come visit Israel, it never disappoints and always delivers the experience of a lifetime.

In the series “Postcards from Israel—Postcards from America,” Ari Bussel and Norma Zager invite readers to view and experience an Israel and her politics through their eyes, an Israel visitors rarely discover.

This point—and often—counter-point presentation is sprinkled with humor and sadness and attempts to tackle serious and relevant issues of the day. The series began in 2008, appears both in print in the USA and on numerous websites and is followed regularly by readership from around the world.

© “Postcards from Israel—Postcards from America,” July, 2010


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