Israelis Travel Through a Hostile World
Israeli culture is one part Arab (basically) one part European Jew (basically). Within the past century Jews from North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and the USA convened together in the biblical lands and Israel was created. A new culture was formed in the process. Hebrew was resurrected from the ages, reformed to suit modern contexts, and relearned. Jews from the north, south, east, and west converged into Israel, intermixed, and formed a new culture very much unique from the sum of its parts.
During the mid twentieth century, half of my wife’s family emigrated to Israel, half to the USA. Beyond being Jewish, my wife is in no way culturally similar to most Israelis (though she does have the tell tale nose standing as a grand centerpiece of an overtly Semitic face). Israeli culture is something new, I stand amazed that so many different groups could come together in the same place, interbreed almost without distinction, learn a new language, and discard their particular old ways for a common new culture in one or two generations.
I have yet to meet an Israeli who visibly lacked confidence. They are an upright people, a solid people, a culture that takes what they want for themselves when they want it, a culture who lost the passive response a long time ago. It is my impression that the timid Israeli who talks into their shirt does not exist — either that or they have been steam rolled long ago.
What I like most about Israelis is that they are always talking about something, always debating, always seeming to have something to excited or otherwise really loud about. When I sit down to a table of Canadians or Europeans all too often they say “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?,” “What have you done here?” and then run out of ideas. I no longer feel the urge to talk with Europeans or Canadians, they all say the same thing — when I talk to them I find that I say the same things too. When I sit with Israelis they look at me and ask questions — real questions — I ask questions back, hours pass, we keep talking until some other force acts upon us. Israelis seemed to have learned the art of conversation, they seem to talk for the sake of their own stimulation rather than making a shallow pass at politeness.
And if we ever run out of things to talk about, I know that all I need to do is mention Israel. All Israelis seem to love telling others about their country. They teach lessons that need to be told, they share information that the anti-Israel bent press will never tell.
It is amazing to me how many Canadian or Americans think they know anything about Israel. They act as if they have a stake in the conflicts of the country, that they know what is going on there, that their opinion has the power to change anything. The information that they spout is always very far removed from the source — maybe they read the newspapers, more than likely they just regurgitate what they hear their friends say. They seem to think that Israel is 100% wrong, that they took over a sovereign people, that they are invaders that need to be pushed into the sea. They often get angry when they speak of Israel, they speak as if they spout unalianatable, pure fact that everyone else agrees with, they speak as if they know what they are talking about.
They can’t know.
Sometimes I hear Canadians or Americans or Europeans take political shots at Israeli travelers. They treat them as murderers, who served in the armed forces of their country killing innocent women and children. Sometimes the Western liberals seek retribution for some reason unknown to me — I have yet to understand why someone from across the world can feel any sense of solidarity with people elsewhere, in a country — or territory — they have never even visited.
The Israelis always seem prepared for such assaults. They seem to expect to be discriminated against, they seem prepared to travel in a world that they think may hate them. Many liberal Americans think that the world hates Americans, but few actually do — and even less show it. But the Israelis may have a point — they travel in a potentially hostile world, entire countries have banned them, many hotels will not serve them.
So they group up on the road, perhaps as a defense strategy.
The hotel that I am working at in the Guatemala jungle is on the Israeli trail. Israeli travelers talk to each other, they share information on friendly places to stay, they tend to go to these same places as they travel. I have noticed that many Israelis also carry little notebooks that are full of hand written addresses and phone numbers of places that other Israelis told them to go along with their Hebrew guidebooks.
They try to deny it, but they all go to the same places as each other. When an Israeli comes into the finca I know that they will want to cook for themselves (a year ago the finca allowed a group of Israelis to use our grill for Yam Kippur, and this rumor is still spreading), some want us to cook their food in their own pots, they will stay for four or five nights, fight and argue with us about every price, and then leave completely happy with big smiles on their faces and bigger goodbyes.
Invariably, they will then travel to Rio Dulce and then go swimming in the hot springs at Finca Paradiso, a place that few other travelers have ever heard of.
“Can you tell an Israeli by looking at them?” I asked a couple Israeli travelers at the Hotel Casa Shalom in Antigua.
They answered without hesitation that they could.
Israelis have a look to them, they are easy to spot, even easier to pin point after hearing the hanging a lugey “Arrchk” and “Ghresh” sounds of their language and the volume at which they speak it. I had to hold back my observation about their tendency to have rather grandiose noses, though could not help extending my hand towards the frontal portion of my face as I asked my question.
Instead, I offered that my wife had a similar appearance.
They agreed, but then added that they identify their brethren by their clothes. It is true, just about every female Israeli traveler wears black tights, and the dudes are often similarly dressed as each other — though I cannot clearly identify the trademark features. I must admit that in the presence of Israeli women I seldom looked at the men very closely.
“We went to Argentina and we saw a Star of David with a . . . a . . . a Nazi symbol . . .What is that called?”
“Yes, a swastika over top of it.”
An Israeli traveler was offering me a glimpse of what it is like to travel in a world that is hostile to their government, a world perhaps hostile to their people.
“People hate us, and it is for no reason other than we’re Jewish,” he continued. “I tell people here that I am from Israel and they say, ‘You are Israeli [makes machine gun sound and hand motion]. That is all they know of Israel. They know nothing, they don’t even know where Israel is. Everywhere we go in the world we are hated because we are Jewish.”
More than any other travelers that I have ever observed, Israelis seem driven to identify their countrymen and travel in packs. Very often a solo Israeli comes into the Finca Tatin where I am working and their first question off the boat is, “Are there other Israelis here?”
When I was researching Chinatowns in my student days in India I came across a passage that said, “The Chinese build Chinatowns not to keep themselves in but to keep other people out.” Chinatowns were built for protection, many cultural units residing in foreign lands do this. In Israel, I am told that the Russians build Russia towns, when traveling abroad the Israelis build little Israeli towns.
There is a website called something like Gringo.com that is for Israeli travelers. They read it and find out where the other Israelis are. They join them.
The fear of anti-Semitism seems to lead to exclusivist, which often leads to a reaction from non-Israelis that may be interpreted as anti-Semitism. It seems cyclic. Israelis tend to travel in packs, they have their safe houses all around the world, then often tend to show little regard for other non-Hebrew speaking travelers — Israelis move into hostels and take them over. This sometimes seems to be a little difficult for other travelers to handle.
You can sit around with a room full of Israelis and really talk about something. They are a conversationalist culture, not garbage talkers. They tend to gather in groups, they speak loudly in Hebrew — you listen to the grunts and the hacking a lugey noises emitting from the bunch, it seems difficult to break into the conversation without a knowledge of their language. You sit on the periphery, watching the group completely disregard your presence. If they talk to you it may be to ask for a chair at your table, or if you want the left overs from their dinner. It is difficult to get a pack of Israelis to regard you as a human, as someone to communicate with, but once you do the benefits are often far worth it. The language will all of a sudden shift to English, the conversation often has a tendency of quickly diving deep.
“I hate you, I kill you, you come into my territory, I kill you!”
An Israeli girl roars at an encroaching insect in the Guatemalan jungle. Honestly, she was talking about insects.
“Sometimes I just want to kill them all,” an Israeli girl spoke honestly about the people who have become known as the Palestinians.
I too, would probably share this sentiment if people were shooting missiles into my country.
I can feel the blood boiling of Canadian and European readers. Please read on.
“They shoot thousands of missiles into Israeli, and we do nothing,” the Israeli girl continued, “Everything we do we need the permission of the United States, the United States said that we could invade Gaza.”
A Turkish ship full of anti-Israel activists attempted to break the Israeli sea blockade en route to Gaza. The ship was warned to stop, they did not. The Turkish ship was making a political point, they were trying to break through Israeli control. Israeli soldiers boarded the ship, the Turks fought them, nine or so activists were killed.
The international press jumped into a feeding frenzy, the leaders of countries such as Nicaragua broke off all political relations with Israel.
I had to wonder, “What if a Turkish ship tried to break a US military blockade?”
It would probably be blown to bits. In the rules of international military engagement, this would probably be standard operating procedure: running military blockades is a sure way to get blown to bits.
It is my impression that the Turkish ship was trying to make a point, trying to create an international issue, trying to put the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict back onto the front page of world newspapers, trying to pick a fight that would leave Israel looking real bad. By all accounts, they were successful.
This happened a couple of months ago. When it happened, the finca had a group of Israelis staying in the dormitory. I asked them what they thought of the dispute.
They squirmed. It seemed to me as if they may have felt put up on chopping block, that I could have been picking a fight. I could have been.
They answered in a very non-committal, politically correct manner:
“There could have been other ways to stop the ship . . .”
I asked another Israeli a couple of weeks later the same question to receive almost the same response.
Squirm. “There could have been another way . . .”
Israelis seem to know the world they travel in.
“What did you do for your military service?” I asked an Israeli girl one night over coffee.
She told me that she worked in intelligence.
“Is there a certain screening process for the woman who work in immigration on the borders?”
The Israeli did not know what I was getting at, but a nearby Canadian traveler did.
“What do you mean?” The Israeli asked.
“Because all of the women on the border are really hot!” myself and the Canadian said in virtual unison.
“Oh, you must have been lucky,” the Israeli girl replied in denial of any sort of Israeli welcoming committee conspiracy, “so you only saw pretty girls in immigration?”
“Yes,” I continued as I explained how I found the men and women working Israel’s land borders with Jordan and Egypt exceptionally attractive. Then I remembered a person who was not so attractive: “Well, except for the lady cleaning the toilets.”
“She must have been Arab,” the Israeli girls answered matter of factly.
“Why?” I asked.
“If she was cleaning the toilets she must have been Arab,” the Israeli girl reiterated, “It sounds racist but its not, it is just the way that it is.”
“I have a friend who said that she wants to go to Gaza to study history,” an Israeli woman told me, “but the only thing there is in Gaza is Hamas, terrorists, and a bunch of buildings piled on top of each other.”
Never short to say what they think — this is why I enjoy meeting Israelis on the road.
Two generations ago much of the world implicitly supported the extermination of people of Jewish descent, today — in a country of their own — Israelis find themselves surrounded by people who want to wipe them out of existence. Many other countries would like to allow this to happen.
I imagine that this is a lot of baggage to take traveling. If I was born into a world of enemies — both real and projected — if I was raised to see a world that so clearly showed hatred towards me because of my race and country (no, USA travelers do not meet this kind of reception, even in the Middle East) I would probably take additional measures when traveling. I would probably have a very different view of the world.
“What you have to understand,” a Jewish friend once said to me, “is that Israel is run by the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, they are going to be a little crazy.”
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