I know, I know. Israel is not strictly in Europe, but if you ask my travel insurance provider it is. And Eurovision.
Israel is a complicated place, to put it mildly.
This was highlighted during the nine days I spent there recently, on a trip organised by the Union of Jewish Students. Yes I know I’m neither a student, nor Jewish – though I think I’ve now upped my Semitic credentials enough to claim to be Jew-ish? If some Jew-y knowledge and a few chat-up lines in Hebrew count.
Anyway, this is the first in a series of posts covering my time in Israel.
The trip was open to both Jews and non-Jews, and took us into Palestine and Sderot, a town just outside Gaza, as well as Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Dead Sea, and Tel Aviv. In a jam-packed week-long schedule we met people from all walks of life, and listened to speakers from either end of the conflict give their two sheqels. It was in turns fascinating, heart-rending, surreal and above all highly confusing – just as the trip organisers had intended. The idea was to present a variety of perspectives, and encourage debate.
As well as all the serious religious and political stuff, we got to have lots of fun, too. Highlights include floating in the Dead Sea, kayaking down the Jordan River, and of course beaching and partying in uber-cool Tel Aviv.
Our group was a mixed bunch, made up mostly of non-Jews and quite a few Scots, as we were all from Scottish universities. We were of all disciplines and backgrounds, and could boast amongst our number possibly the world’s only half-Chinese, half-Scottish Jew.
Prior to setting foot in the Holy Land, most of my exposure to Jewish culture had been through a good American-Jewish friend of mine, who came along for the ride. She had taken me to Shabbat dinner in the UK a few times, and clued me up on general North American Jewish culture, though she’s about as far from Orthodox as one can be without falling off the far left of the spectrum entirely.
My knowledge of Israel was pretty poor prior to the trip. I had a vague impression of a wealthy, modern nation, full of good-looking people (see Tel Aviv-based Instagram Hot Dudes and Hummus), but also a highly religious and controversial state at war. In a way, both are true.
Israel is home to some of the world’s holiest ground, the world’s highest number of start-ups per capita, and a mishmash of peoples and religions, who sometimes clash but just as often rub along side-by-side just fine. It’s a place full of contradictions.
I experienced a moment of unreality in a bar in Jerusalem when I heard the 2015 Dutch hit song “Drank en Drugs” banging through the sound system. Was not expecting that. Mind you I was hardly expecting to be pounding tequila shots fifteen minutes from Jesus’ supposed burial spot.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s going to take more than one article to unpack my experience in Israel, which I’m still processing now. Don’t expect a blow-by-blow account of my trip, but more a thematic exploration of some of the things I encountered there.
Welcome to the Promised Land.