10 August 2012


I'm currently in Israel for about a week and a half, taking advantage of a general lull in life in Berlin, as well as the Symposium of the Music and Minorities Study Group of the International Council for Traditional Music.  This year (the symposium is held every other year), the conference is happening in Tzfat, Israel.

I haven't been in Israel in over 9 years, and never on my own as a solo traveler.  The first interesting thing I encountered happened before I even left Berlin.  At the airport, when I was checking in, I met a very nice young woman who was also traveling (on Pegasus Airlines, a Turkish company) to Tel Aviv via Istanbul.  When we got to Istanbul and our 3 hour layover, we also met up with an Israeli (living in Berlin) who was heading home to visit his children.  There was already a greater kinship amongst travelers heading to Israel than I have experienced traveling anywhere else.

I think that you'll notice through my discussions of Israel today that it's not going to be the typical "love letter" to the country that many people express after visiting.  I'm seeing Israel as a (dis)functional country with inherent problems beyond the much-mentioned problems between Israel and Palestine. 

My first reaction to the public Israel was a rest-stop on the highway on the way up to Haifa.  The small store and cafe was overrun with religious families stopping along the way.  It was hot (working its way up to 40 degrees celsius), and crowded with people ignoring many of the cultural niceties that I'm used to coming from Canada and having lived in Germany. 

Upon arriving in Tzfat, I did manage to find my way from the bus station to the main street (Jerusalem St.) and even managed to get an Israeli SIM card for my phone.  Walking along the circular street that had most of the city's shops, I was again surrounded by religious families.  Tzfat is a "mecca" for the Jewish mystics who follow the Kabbalah, and has become a very important place in Israel for religious Jews to live.  Unfortunately, the city itself is very poorly off, due to the fact that many of these Haredim do not work, and thus, do not pay taxes, draining the city of potential revenue. 

The drivers here are generally poor and impatient, with traffic snarling the ancient streets.  The sounds of Hebrew and English conversations are mingled with car horns as drivers try to get by people who have parked in the most inconvenient places. 

In many ways, while the landscape is beautiful in the mountains,* I find myself bristling at the way in which the ultra-orthodox Jews have seemingly overtaken the city.  I've heard stories, both in the news and from secular Israelis (some of whom have moved to Berlin), about ultra-orthodox Jews in Jerusalem trying to impose their customs and laws on the entire country.

While I can't speak to Jerusalem, if Tzfat is indicative of the direction the country is going (large ultra-orthodox families who do not work or contribute to the country's economy), not only will secular Jews leave Israel for countries whose politics are more in line with their own, but Israel's economy will collapse under the weight of supporting so many non-working religious Jews.  Now, this should be taken with a grain a salt, seeing as that I have pretty much only been in Tzfat so far.

I'll definitely write more than these initial reactions when I return to a more "civilized" city on Sunday!

* Israel is going through a huge heat wave and is very dry.  Almost all the grasses are brown, and as my friend Assaf told me, Israel is usually only green in the winter, unlike the northern countries that I'm used to.

1 comment:

  1. ....Tzfat is hardly representative of Israel. It's a beautiful little town albeit struggling with tourist loads and low resources. The best way to appreciate Israel is to take it as it is with cultural schisms, ethnic fracturing, social depravity and all. It's not a country that will treat you with kid gloves. You won't find a soft landing but you will find that its passion draws you in and makes you feel like a lover scorned. It's impossible to understand but you'll feel it if you close your eyes and let yourself grow to appreciate the roiling internal conflicts and seductive inconsistencies.