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Ω2

Israel (former Palestine): It’s not so simple…

Every traveler knows that entering or exiting Israel (former Palestine) can be quite complicated, especially if you are on a suspicious, multiyear, overland trip… It was the first time that I had to unpack every single thing from my motorcycle. Fairly enough, everything passed through an x-ray check and some officers opened my bags and asked more specific questions about my luggage. Then I had to reply many more questions during the passport control:

– What does “Elias” mean? (Unfortunately for me, this is a name Arabs use…)

– It’s just my name, sir!

– Why are you traveling 3 years non-stop? Why did you choose dangerous Africa??? What were you doing in Sudan? How long did you stay there? Do you know anybody there?

and the most important of all…

– Have you also visited our big enemies: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan?

– No sir, of course not! I know it’s extremely dangerous in those demonized countries, I watch it every day in the news…

After a couple of hours at the border, I was finally allowed in the country. It was not that difficult after all. I got friends who spent five hours at the border and a couple of them spent twelve hours before the officers could ensure that the couple was not harmful to the people of Israel…

Daily life in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood

Daily life in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood

I think we have to make a few things clear about Israel… There are plenty of stereotypes and most of them don’t describe the truth accurately, as it is usually the case with stereotypes. In the land called “Palestine” various people used to live since ancient times. Judaism is one of the oldest monotheistic religions. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew himself. He was but one of many orators critical of the materialism and decadence of the wealthy Jerusalemites. He was also contemptuous of the Roman authority over Palestine. After his baptism and his 40 days and nights in the desert, he started his ministry, marked by numerous miracles. When he became too popular, he was accused of sedition by the Jewish authorities and ordered to death by Judaea’s Roman prefect Pontius Pilate. The followers of Jesus Christ came to be known as Christians. That’s how Christianity was formed and became distinct from Judaism. A Greek-speaking Christian community emerged in Jerusalem and to this day the Greek Orthodox Church is the largest Christian denomination in the region. Islam came to Palestine much later, in AD 638, just a few years after Prophet Mohammed’s own preaching.

A poster warning women on the streets of Mea She'arim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem...

A poster warning women on the streets of Mea She’arim, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Jerusalem…

So, where Israel came from? Over the centuries, Jews faced waves of prosecution. The last, worst and most famous one was conducted by Nazis. Before that, after 400 years of Ottoman rule, the British had taken over Palestine. The British government was in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a “National Home for the Jewish People”. Thousands of Jews started migrating to Palestine and Arabs were already worried about that. Fighting erupted but it was hard to oppose to superpowers… By 1947 the British government turned the problem over to the UN. The UN recommended partitioning the land between an Arab and a Jewish state. That’s how Israel was established in 1948.

T-shirts on sale around the old city of Jerusalem...

T-shirts on sale around the old city of Jerusalem…

Israelis decided to drop the image of the coward and miserable Jews and to become a strong and aggressive military power. Today Israel is one of the largest arms exporters. The decades that followed the establishment of Israel were full of wars. After each one of them, Israel was founding itself having grown larger than before. UN assigned a small piece of land to the newly-formed country but it eventually occupied land belonging to Palestine, Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

This map shows the results of Israel's expansionism and the gradual destruction of Palestine.

This map shows the results of Israel’s expansionism and the gradual destruction of Palestine.

Eager to learn and experience myself what is happening in this bloody Holy Land, I was traveling with all my senses open… I rode north through some great off-road routes in the desert. The route in the Big Crater (Makhtesh HaGadol) was rough at some parts and I had to descend a huge rock by my heavy-loaded enduro bike. I enjoyed a lot the scenery. On my way to Jerusalem, I was just detouring wherever I could see some interesting dirt roads penetrating the forests.

The route through the Big Crater (Makhtesh HaGadol) was a bit rough for my heavy-loaded enduro bike and I enjoyed a lot the scenery!

The route through the Big Crater (Makhtesh HaGadol) was a bit rough for my heavy-loaded enduro bike and I enjoyed a lot the scenery!

Jerusalem is the epicentre of the bloody conflict between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Within a short walk of each other, you can find Christians praying in their holiest church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jews dancing by their holiest site, the Western Wall and Muslims prostrate before Al-Aqsa Mosque, their third holiest place, after Mecca and Medina. I spent more than a week exploring the ancient neighbourhoods of Jerusalem: the vibrant Arab old city, the historic Christian Quarter, the contemporary, posh city and the extremely conservative neighbourhood of ultra-Orthodox Jews, Mea She’arim…

Jews praying at the Western Wall, their holiest site.

Jews praying at the Western Wall, their holiest site.

It’s not easy to wander around Mea She’arim, since its inhabitants don’t welcome curious visitors, especially if they happen to be females not following their dress code. People on the streets are all dressed similarly. You see women carrying several kids and babies, while men go to synagogues and religious schools. Many of them don’t work, since they have dedicated their life to religious studies. They live out of government subsidies and donations from Jews from all around the world, who feel it’s their duty to support their compatriots back home… If you are struggling to fulfil the Ten Commandments, maybe it will encourage you to keep in mind that Jews have to fulfil 613 Commandments! They shouldn’t travel, drive, cook, write or even turn the lights on during the holy day of Sabbath (Saturday). On any day they shouldn’t touch a member of the opposite sex, except if they are family, of course and they must not eat meat with dairy products (yes, cheeseburgers are forbidden!).

Wandering around Mea She'arim is not easy, since its ultra-Orthodox inhabitants don't welcome curious visitors and they can become violent!

Wandering around Mea She’arim is not easy, since its ultra-Orthodox inhabitants don’t welcome curious visitors and they can become violent!

One of the things I was surprised to realise was that solidarity between Israelis is not evident in everyday life. There are many different sects in Judaism and arguments are common between them. I was astonished to see that there are even sects of Jews, like Satmar and Neturei Karta, who believe that the State of Israel should be founded by the Messiah and not by humans! Thus, they want this land to return to Palestinians. Zionism was shaped by Jews around the world who were dreaming of forming the State of Israel. Zionism, however, is not tied to religion. On the other hand, most religious Jews believe that this land was promised to them by God and that’s why the “Promised Land” belongs to Israel and not to Palestine!

Zionism is not tied to religion. Most religious and nationalist Israelis think that this land was promised to them by God but there are Jews who don't agree with that.

Zionism is not tied to religion. Most religious and nationalist Israelis think that this land was promised to them by God but there are Jews who don’t agree with that.

When I was too concerned and sad about the situation in Jerusalem, my Israeli friends were telling me: “Don’t worry, you’ll go to Tel Aviv and you will forget all that…”. Indeed, Tel Aviv is a more liberal city full of skyscrapers and modern buildings, green parks, vibrant parties and lots of drugs, a common thing in the Israeli culture. A visitor there tends to forget that he is in Asia. He would most probably guess he is in coastal U.S.A.. I happened to be there during the Gay Pride Parade. I had to be careful… Last year during the same event in Jerusalem, a Jewish extremist stabbed six and one of them was killed. He was just released from prison, since he had committed the exact same crime back in 2005!

Tel Aviv is a modern and built-up city.

Tel Aviv is a modern and built-up city.

Well, Tel Aviv was not my cup of tea… Happily, Boris was sent to save me from the city. He is another nomad, who got a normal job but lives in the forest during the whole year! I went there just for a night, not knowing what to expect but I ended up staying five days there. During the day I was with him in the truck he drives all around the country, while in the evening we were returning to his beautiful, hidden camp in the forest. Sitting around the fire and cooking on it, we were discussing until late and sharing our tips to escape the ridiculous ban on wild camping…

Franciscan monks and pilgrims walk along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus Christ had to take on the way to his crucifixion.

Franciscan monks and pilgrims walk along the Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus Christ had to take on the way to his crucifixion.

Unfortunately, in Israel I met the biggest percentage of nationalists than in any other country. Happily, there are exceptions. Boris is so similar to me that he became one of the best friends I made during my wanders around the world. We have a similar ideology but we grew up in different circumstances. It was precious to me to listen to his experiences and put a few more pieces on the puzzle.

In Israel you see more flags than anywhere else... People even openly thank Israel Defense Forces soldiers for killing and mistreating human beings. Pay attention to the American flag at the corner of the Israeli one. It probably comes from an American Jew who was gladly killing Vietnamese too, as the stickers on the sign show...

In Israel you see more flags than anywhere else… People even openly thank Israel Defense Forces soldiers for killing and mistreating human beings. Pay attention to the American flag at the corner of the Israeli one. It probably comes from an American Jew who was gladly killing Vietnamese too, as the stickers on the sign show…

Another thing I wanted to do in Israel was to visit a kibbutz. These are agricultural communities that established by Jews who bought land in Palestine at the beginning of the 20th century. That was the largest non-governmental collectivist movement ever attempted. Today most of them have been privatized but I visited Kibbutz Be’eri, which hasn’t changed its values much since the old times. It was formed in 1946 and it was a relatively poor farming community. That changed in 2003, when the small printing industry of the kibbutz signed a contract to print the governmental documents, bills, IDs etc. The kibbutz became rich and thousands of people want to become members now but that’s impossible. Even if somebody is born in the kibbutz, he lives there but he’s not a member of it until he becomes thirty years old. At that point, he can make a choice. About a thousand people live in Kibbutz Be’eri today and almost none of them is religious. Actually, there was not even a synagogue in the community until recently.

Kibbutz Be'eri is located right next to the world's largest outdoor prison, the Gaza Strip... The hand-made rockets that Hamas launches land often on Israeli fields and they are turned to... souvenirs!

Kibbutz Be’eri is located right next to the world’s largest outdoor prison, the Gaza Strip… The hand-made rockets that Hamas launches land often on Israeli fields and they are turned to… souvenirs!

Some members of the kibbutz work there but a lot of them work out of it. No matter if they are doctors, lawyers or carpenters, they have to hand over their whole salary to the community, which gives the same amount to everybody. Except for the fairly good amount of money they get, they are also provided with housing. There is a large, free restaurant with a big variety of food every day, free laundry and ironing service, bicycles and cars that anyone from the community can use. Actually, members are not even allowed to have their own private car. This way everybody is focused on his job and he doesn’t need to cook, wash dishes or clothes, fix his car or his house.

Painting the skyline of the troubled Jerusalem Old City with the Muslim Dome of the Rock standing out above the Jewish Western Wall.

Painting the skyline of the troubled Jerusalem Old City with the Muslim Dome of the Rock standing out above the Jewish Western Wall.

Before exploring the north part of Israel, it was time to have a look on the other side, the West Bank and that little piece of Palestine that has been left…

 

You can check out the map with more photos and reports at: Live Trip Traveller

 

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