You never know when the vacation you’re most afraid of will end up being one of your favorites. Israel was never high on my list of places to visit, but my now-fiancée Steph was hellbent on taking me. Looking back on it, it probably wasn’t the best idea to visit during a high-profile event like the Eurovision Song Contest given my misgivings, but that’s exactly what we did. I loved every second of that trip to Israel and Palestine but I also spent the entire time hoping we wouldn’t get mass murdered in a public square.
Getting into Israel is one of the most stressful travel experiences ever
We flew into Israel on El Al, the country’s national airline. Before you’re even allowed to board the plane, you’re vetted by El Al employees who are trained interrogators in a section of the airport that is controlled by men in tactical gear and assault rifles. Getting into Israel is like being allowed into a top-secret government facility or if you’re American, like attending an anti-mask rally in Michigan – a little more intense than it probably needs to be.
The super fake nice attendants separated us and began their questioning. How long had we been together? How did we meet? Were we meeting anyone in Israel? The entire conversation is designed to flow like someone who is casually interested in you, even though this person could just as casually order to have you strip searched. I made the mistake of saying we had spent Christmas together even though we hadn’t. My interviewer cross checked Steph’s answers with mine, and finding an inconsistency, came back for more questions. This time they were more personal. What were her parents’ names? Where did we have our first date? What did we get each other for Christmas?
I was sweating like a pig about to be slaughtered. I watched other passengers get through their interviews in 3 or 4 minutes and be allowed to complete check-in. I kept glancing over at Steph who seemed totally unperturbed by the whole thing, because she’s done it multiple times. Meanwhile I was sure they weren’t going to let me on that plane, and I didn’t know whether to shit my pants or cry. After what felt like an eternity, they went through all of my bags – my nerves probably gave me away as the one with more to hide. And finally, mercifully, they allowed us to board.
When we got into the country, I instantly understood why they’re so protective. Tel Aviv is like an oasis where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts. Everyone is super attractive, the beaches are amazing, there are openly gay people being openly gay all over the place, and brunch is served 24 hours a day.
Frayed nerves and huge parties
Despite how awesome it is, there are a couple of things about Israel that make it a little disconcerting to visit. For one, national military service is required for all Israeli citizens. So the entire country is like an army base full of teenagers in fatigues carrying assault rifles like you would a purse. They’re everywhere. I’ve never seen a country that is so ready to go to war at any given moment. On the one hand, this kind of makes you feel protected because if anyone were to step out of line, there would be a dozen trained guns and probably several hidden snipers ready to take them out. On the other… what if you’re the one that accidentally steps out of line and you find yourself on the receiving end of that Israeli military training?
The other uncomfortable thing is that you have to go through an airport-like security checkpoint to get into any train station, mall, or large building. I don’t know if it’s that I lived in Europe through that spat of terrorist attacks a few years back, but whenever I’m waiting in a huge crowd of people to pass through a metal detector, I think, “This is exactly where someone would detonate a bomb to inflict maximum damage.” The other place would be at a huge outdoor festival with thousands in attendance… like the Eurovision viewing parties. Which is exactly where we found ourselves that week at Charles Clore Park.
At least we had reinforcements. We had met up with an old friend of Steph’s and her girlfriend. We had some drinks and they reassured me the festivities would be safe. They casually explained how the country has a great security system in place wherein if a missile is detected in the vicinity of a populated city, the government sounds an alarm so all residents can take shelter while they detonate the incoming missile in midair, resulting in only small shards falling to the ground. They explained it with the nonchalance of two people describing how to make risotto. It wasn’t quite as comforting as they probably intended. They also commended our bravery for wanting to go to the West Bank, which also didn’t inspire confidence in our safety for the remainder of the trip.
Nonetheless, after our nice chat and a few drinks, we made our way to the Eurovision street party. After getting through what was a far more lax security check than I would have liked, we were in the thick of it. Everyone was dancing, singing, waving flags from all over the EU, and after a while I forgot that I was afraid I might die there. If there’s one thing we could learn from the Israelis, it’s that when you live with the possibility of all your neighbors obliterating your existence, you live the fuck out of your life. These people are happy, free, and they have so much energy that they actually need a place to get brunch at 3 am. Being in Israel is like a celebration of life, especially when they’re hosting Europe’s most beloved singing competition.
Religious indifference in Jerusalem
I didn’t know if I would ever get the opportunity to return to Israel and I wanted to make sure I saw more than just Tel Aviv. So we headed to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv’s more devout older brother. Jerusalem is beautiful and important, since it’s the nexus of all the world’s most important religions. It’s where King Solomon built the first temple according to the Jewish faith, where Mohammed received the pillars of Muslim faith, and where Jesus lived and was crucified according to Christian faith. So it’s a hotbed of religious insanity – there’s no better way to describe it.
The walled off Old City of Jerusalem is divided into religious sections since everyone holds their own claim to the city, and it’s full of important sites mentioned in the bible. It’s like when Harry Potter fans go to London and they want to find Platform 9 3/4. Everything is packed, and everyone is kind of in hysterics – either in celebration or in deep prayer or just generally feeling enraptured to be in such a holy place. The sheer anticipation of the significance and history of Jerusalem felt overwhelming. While we had breakfast, I felt nervous about leaving a prayer at the Western Wall. What was expected? Should I recite something? What should I write in my little ripped up piece of napkin? In the end, I wrote a sentence fragment praying for my mom’s health and put it in my pocket.
Getting into Jerusalem’s beating heart was another security mission. I was afraid they’d be offended by the gnome in my bag and that we wouldn’t reach the Western Wall at all. But alas, Honks was not deemed a threat. The Western Wall is significant because that’s the closest Jewish people can get to Temple Mount, which is in the Muslim part of Jerusalem. I pushed past a small crowd of women on the side where women are allowed to pray and I pushed my little paper napkin into the crack. Everyone around me seemed to be having a far more intense experience than I, so I backed up out of there to move on with our day. I can’t say visiting the Western Wall stirred any feelings of faith in me. It sort of felt like when people throw a penny into a famous fountain so you feel like you should do it, too. Just in case it works.
A lot of the tips I provide on GnomeTrotting come from me not doing my homework and finding out the hard way how not to do something. On this trip, I found out the hard way that you can only visit Temple Mount to see the Dome of the Rock during specific hours of the day and we had missed that window. The other lesson I learned the hard way is that you absolutely should not make plans to travel in Israel during Shabbat and you definitely shouldn’t be in Jerusalem during Ramadan which is precisely when we decided to venture into the Palestinian territory of Bethlehem.
Get more important planning tips about visiting Israel here.
Adventures in Palestine
Getting into the Palestinian territory was a challenge because generally speaking, Israelis do not cross into Palestine and Palestinians do not cross much into Israel. Even if you took a cab from Jerusalem, they would drop you off at the border and wish you well. We tried to take public transportation into Bethlehem based on the guidance of Google Maps. The bus route seemed simple enough – after all, Jerusalem is less than 5 miles away from Bethlehem. We were on a crowded bus, which got increasingly empty as we approached the terminal station of Rachel’s Tomb.
The bus driver, seeing us with our bags, asked where we intended to go. We replied that we were trying to get into the West Bank, at which point he explained that the bus terminates in Israeli territory and does not have a route into the West Bank. See, what Google Maps doesn’t recognize is that Palestine is surrounded by a big ass wall flanked by Israeli security towers, so even things that are right next to each other on the map are not necessarily accessible. So he told us he would drop us off at the checkpoint, which his friend on the bus was also conveniently heading to.
So we followed his presumably Palestinian friend as he darted around other people heading across the border. For some reason, everyone was running toward it as if they were trying to escape some approaching threat from the Israeli side. There was no security to get into Palestine, and once you’re immediately across the border, which looks like the entrance to get into a football stadium, you’re met with the hustle and bustle of Bethlehem. We quickly lost the bus driver’s friend who also looked like he was in a big hurry, and we were surrounded by cabbies trying to catch a fare. Pretty standard operating procedure for a lot of arrival points in any city – it never stops being unpleasant.
We ignored everybody and kept walking in search of our accommodation, Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel, which is located right next to the Israeli-Palestinian border wall. After coming across a few more dead ends due to the Maps-unrecognized wall, we finally came to the ridiculously gaudy art hotel. The great thing about seeing Palestine through street artist Banksy’s perspective is that it adds a layer of surreal ridiculousness to the experience. The wall on the Palestinian side has become a mural full of irreverence and humor, and the hotel even offers stencil-making courses so you can contribute to the art on the wall. For someone who cares more about art than religion, this was one of the major highlights of the trip. Banksy’s own artworks are scattered all around Bethlehem, and of course, can be seen in the hotel.
Want to know more about the Walled Off Hotel experience? Check out my post about our stay.
Palestine ended up being a lot tamer than the media and our Israeli friends in Tel Aviv had led us to believe. Bethlehem is pretty gorgeous, not unlike its next door neighbor Jerusalem. As the birthplace of Jesus Christ (supposedly), Bethlehem is the most Christian predominantly Muslim city I’ve ever been to. As we made our way to city center, we passed dozens of little shops owned by friendly Palestinians… selling crucifixes and Virgin Mary paintings. Go figure. The church where Jesus was born was decidedly unimpressive and the little quiet town didn’t have much to do so we spent most of the night in the comfort and surreality of the Walled Off Hotel watching the Eurovision semifinals on my iPad.
After an amazing night of sleep and some great Palestinian food, it was time to head back to Tel Aviv. This is where a little bit of research would have gone a long way. We were on a time-crunch because it was Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, which means all transportation around the country stops around midday. We had to get back to Jerusalem in time to take one of the last buses of the day back to Tel Aviv. It was also, unbeknownst to us, Ramadan. Palestinians are not allowed to cross into Jerusalem to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque except on Fridays during Ramadan. Which is why when we awoke in our room and looked out the window, there was a huge pilgrimage of people walking along the border wall on the way to the checkpoint.
We asked the concierge of the hotel for advice on how to cross back. They recommended one of the local Arab buses, which we would have to catch deeper in Palestinian territory. We walked 20 minutes going against the flow of people leaving the West Bank to what we thought might be the bus stop and waited. And waited. A cab driver stopped and told us the buses weren’t running that day, but we thought he was just trying to pick us up, so we ignored him and kept waiting. Realizing he was probably just trying to be helpful, we decided to walk back to the checkpoint and take our chances with whatever transportation was on the other side.
In sweltering heat, we hauled our bags back to where we came from, stopping only to ask Israeli soldiers peeking through a window in the wall for the fastest way to the checkpoint since Google Maps was so unreliable. They shrugged their shoulders as if they didn’t know what we were talking about. We were left with no choice but to assume that the hundreds of people heading in the direction of the checkpoint had the right idea. Crossing the checkpoint to get out wasn’t quite as simple as it had been to get in. Israeli military waiting with full tactical gear were inspecting everyone that passed by – Palestinians a lot more carefully than us. We were trapped with a mob of people being herded from one caged area to another until we finally saw freedom.
On the other side were long rows of buses. We didn’t have tickets and we had no idea which bus would take us to Jerusalem. A helpful man with a friendly smile and a crooked nose asked us where we needed to go and assured us all the buses went to Jerusalem and helped us secure a seat in one of them. Considering the number of people waiting to board, I was surprised we got on a bus so fast. The bus was already en route when someone passed by to collect the fare from everybody. As we arrived at the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City, now far busier and with heavier police presence than we had seen the day before, we breathed a sigh of relief.
“The holy land is lit,” I said to Steph. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
We did manage to make it back to Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon. Having survived Israeli security to fly into the country and our maligned jaunt into Palestine, we were ready to spend the rest of the trip eating hummus, tanning, and loving life. We saw the Eurovision finale in a crowd of several thousand, swam in the Dead Sea, and had one of everything at the markets in Jaffa. I was terrified the entire fucking time, but it’s one of the best trips I’ve ever taken.