I visited a new country the other week, and I didn’t even get a stamp in my passport in return.
Israel had been on my list of places to visit for a long time. It’s scenery we’ve read about in the Bible, it’s a state that’s constantly in the headlines (not always in a good way), I’ve heard great things about it from friends who have traveled there, and it’s the home of a thriving tech industry.
My overdue introduction to Israel came courtesy of a trip arranged by the America-Israel Friendship League with help from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That New York- and Tel Aviv-based non-profit invited a group of U.S. journalists and analysts to get a close-up look at Israel’s cybersecurity sector, and my editors at Yahoo Tech thought its invitation worth accepting.
My report from the trip should finally be up in a few days. Meanwhile, here are some first impressions of the nation I took too long to visit; please bear in mind that if I were terribly confident in all of these judgments, I would have tried to sell this post to a paying client.
The food is great. A friend mentioned that he puts on a few pounds every time he visits Israel, and I must admit that I did too. Shakshuka for breakfast, the 20 different mezze at The Old Man & The Sea in Tel Aviv, the stews at Azura in Jerusalem… it was all delicious, and I didn’t even get around to sampling any of the street food.
Tel Aviv has neat architecture: I’d read that before about this city’s stock of Bauhaus buildings and believe it now. I wish I’d had more time to wander around (see also my comment on street food).
Ideological violence is not a far-off thing. Here, many politicians compete to show who can be more freaked out over the specter of terrorists showing up at their front door. In Israel, attacks on civilians are not a hypothetical risk–one happened at a grocery store in a West Bank settlement the week I was there, and the newspapers also carried numerous stories about the recent surge of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.
Israel is more diverse than it gets credit for. After a meeting with a cybersecurity professor at Tel Aviv University, we came downstairs to find the building’s lobby crowded with Muslim students wearing headscarves (which, it later hit me, would have been illegal in France). The next day, a quick tour of Jerusalem brought us to the Western Wall plaza as new soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces prepared for their swearing-in ceremony there, and I was struck by how many of them were the product of the Ethiopian aliyah.
Jerusalem is humbling and unsettling. Thousands of years of history intersect with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem, and standing in the middle of it left me feeling profoundly humbled. I expected that, but I did not expect to see so many IDF soldiers and police walking around with automatic weapons. It wasn’t just me who found that unsettling; one U.S. veteran in our group did not appreciate seeing one man casually hold a rifle pointed outward at a crowd. Another uneasy sight: the bomb-disposal containers we spotted.
I still think Israel is creating an existential problem for itself. A week in Israel left me as unconvinced as ever that the country’s continued habit of building settlements in the West Bank does it any long-term good. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg has eloquently observed, Israel cannot annex the West Bank without either betraying its own democratic principles or losing its identity as a Jewish state, and a permanent military occupation is not a solution either. The murder of civilians by Palestinians is horrible but does not justify Israel going out of its way to make any eventual peace more difficult.