Ever Changing Israel

It’s amazing how much Israel changes in a short time. It’s only been about two years since my last visit and some of the differences were startling. On the positive side, many of the roads have improved; there seems to be a building boom, with lots of new hotels, apartments and offices; new and exciting archaeological discoveries have been made and the population has grown. On the negative side, Israel’s roads are more congested, there is less open space and people smoke more than ever.

Most of my recent trips to Israel have been focused on business, so I sat in Jerusalem and had meetings with people. This time I was able to travel all over the country, from Tel Aviv up the Mediterranean coast to Acre, across the center of the country to Safed, up to the Golan Heights, back down south through Tiberias along the Jordan River to Jericho, through the Negev to Beersheva and Mitzpe Ramon and, finally, down to Eilat. Most of this traveling was accomplished in only six days, which illustrates how small Israel is and how much ground it is possible to cover.

Israel is an incredible place for archaeological discovery. If you haven’t been to Rome and seen the Coliseum, the next best things are the amphitheaters at Caesarea and Bet She’an. Digs in both places continue and whole ancient cities are being unearthed. Perhaps the most impressive place was Acre, where a subterranean Crusader city has been found since I first visited the city 20 years ago. Another interesting spot was Belvoir Castle, a Crusader fortress with a spectacular view of the Jordan Valley.

One thing that people often miss when visiting all the sites is the simple beauty of the country. The raging whitewater of the Banyas, a waterfall not far from Gamla, the lush Carmel Forest, the vast expanse of the Mitzpe Ramon crater. I was also lucky to see some wildlife, a heard of ibexes at the mouth of the crater, gazelles during a jeep safari in the desert near Eilat and a variety of animals in the Hai Bar reserve.

As always, the trip to a bunker on the Golan Heights was sobering. This visit was particularly poignant given the discussion about returning it to the Syrians and the fact that an Apache attack helicopter hovered overhead on a training mission. How can Israel give up this strategic advantage? If the government, led by the nation’s most decorated soldier, decides it can afford to, I certainly won’t object, but it’s easy to see why nearly every Israeli I spoke to opposed withdrawing from the Golan.

Speaking of politics, every Israeli had an opinion about not only the Golan Heights, but Jerusalem. As one cab driver said, every Israeli is a prime minister who believes they know everything about everything. The issue that was most on everyone’s minds during my visit was the allegation that Yitzhak Mordechai had harassed a woman on his staff.

One of the biggest changes in Israel is the prevalence of people speaking Russian. It used to be that if you got lost, you needed to worry about finding someone who spoke English. Now, you’re more likely to find someone who speaks only Russian than someone who knows only Hebrew.

For many people, visiting Israel is an opportunity to sample Mediterranean dishes, but, as my friend explained to the waiters in every restaurant, my tastes are limited to meat and potatoes. Fortunately, I found both. Besides eating schwarma nearly every day for lunch — a great, filling meal for under $5 — we found some excellent meat restaurants. One in Tel Aviv was aptly named Meat Bar. Another was on a Western-style ranch near Safed. The best snack of the trip was when we stopped by the road at a Druze tent where an old woman was making giant, fresh pita, which was served with goat cheese (which I skipped) and a heavenly spice called zatar.

For comic relief, two experiences stood out. One was a visit to Mea Shearim. I wanted to visit some of the shuls on Shabbat because I remember years ago going to some other-worldly seeming services. My friend, however, was very uncomfortable walking through the neighborhood. He felt he was treating the residents like animals in a zoo. To me, the only one who looked strange was my friend, traipsing through the neighborhood full of hasidim in a neon orange and green windbreaker.

The other amusing experience was at the end of a jeep tour in the desert near Eilat. The jeeps drove down to a bedouin tent where “Faoud” was waiting with tea and the kind of pitas we had gotten from the Druze woman. The food and drink were fine, but “Faoud” obviously did not live in this tent. His jeep was parked beside it when we arrived and his tour company t-shirt was clearly visible beneath his traditional robe. For the rest of the trip, my friend and I frequently laughed at our meal with “Fra-oud.”

As much as we would have liked to stay, we were lucky to have gotten permission from our wives to spend two weeks in Israel. We also were happy to leave before the Pope and his entourage arrived. Still, like a great musical performance, a trip to Israel leaves you wanting more, a feeling that grows stronger after every visit.