I already did a whole month on Israel (it actually was the second country I covered), but this month has been a part 2, as I had the great opportunity to travel to Israel for the first time this month. It’s also the first time I’ve been out of the country since the pandemic started – last time was Sep 2019 to Mexico City.
I covered a lot of turf in the three weeks I was in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, Haifa, Nazareth, the Dead Sea, plus trips into the Palestinian Territories and Jordan. There was just so much to take in – the historical sites, the religious sites, the food, the conflicts, the politics, the diversity, and the stuff I had no idea about before I even went.
There’s no way I can capture my whole experience, but I hope I’ve been able to share a bit of what hit me most. One of the things that hit me, especially as we stood on a lookout with some UN officers into what had been a Syrian warzone only a few years ago, was just how small and packed-together everything is. There’s little room to maneuver for anyone.
Likewise, getting to see the most contested and controversial piece of real estate in the world, the Temple Mount, is something that I’ll remember my whole life. Touching the Western Wall, working my way up to the Dome of the Rock, and seeing these historic and modern flashpoints in person will definitely change how I see the next time that conflict breaks out.
And speaking of conflict, getting to experience a “weekend war” of rockets from Gaza? As an Israeli friend put it, I definitely got the real Israel experience. Israelis really do treat attacks the way we Canadians take bad winter weather – be careful on the roads, but not a reason to panic.
That’s not the only conflict I got to witness. I’m still so pleased that, among all the contested and historic religious sites, I got to see the most important one of all: the immovable ladder.
I also got to see some of realities that Israelis deal with every day, including a trip to the Knesset in the middle of the fifth election in three years. I was also hit hard by the fast-moving environmental disaster of the Dead Sea, likely to be gone in my lifetime. It enjoyed floating in it while I could.
But Israel isn’t all conflict and tension, there were so many beautiful, fun, or even mundane things that I loved. The Haifa Carmelit. Good dark comedy. Cats everywhere. The Tel Aviv beaches. The markets. The fast train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The moment Avi, one of the best tour guides I’ve ever met, read out in his New York accent the last stand of the Jews from Josephus, as we stood on the spot on Masada itself.
I can also now say on good authority that 36C and 80% humidity is much worse than 44C and desert-dry. I’m already a winter person, but my god, if I ever complain about the snow in Ottawa, I’m going to remember just how sweaty Tel Aviv was.
Best of all on this trip was the food. So much amazing food and drink, and fresher than anything you’d get in Canada – I don’t think I can have hummus or falafel here anymore, there’s no competition.
And just to cap it off, this shirt is definitely on my “most hilariously out-of-pocket souvenir” list.
As part of my trip, we were given a tour of the Israeli Knesset. Our group were all political nerds, so we had a blast getting into the details of the political system and the functioning of the legislature.
One of the highlights was the stunning Chagall triptych in the main hall – setting out Jewish past, future, religion, and stories. Chagall’s work pops up all around Israel, but these massive tapestries are some of the most stunning, just overwhelmingly full of small details.
The Knesset was very quiet, as both it was summer break, and there was an election on. However, there will still a few MPs around, as there is a live board that shows which ones are in the building. It seems like it would be really useful for political staffers to find their MPs, but weirdly, this live board is also viewable online. It seems like a major security loophole in a country very focused on security, though our guide explained that in this case, transparency was more important.
While this was quite rosy and straightforward, Israel’s political system is anything but. They’re currently in the middle of their fifth election in three years. Israel has one of the most extreme forms of proportional representation, which ends up with messy coalitions of many parties, with minor party leaders becoming the “kingmakers”. There’s political parties along the left-right spectrum, like in any country, but there’s also identity-based parties, including Haredi and Arab ones. Religious vs. secular and Zionist vs. non-Zionist adds an extra dimension as well.
Here’s a really good primer on the Israeli political spectrum – it’s a few years old, but touches on a lot of deeper divides, voting patterns, and political priorities.
The time between elections in Israel is often spent forming and maintaining coalitions. The previous coalition was between eight parties, including leftist, centrist, right-wing, and Arab ones, and was notable for actually passing a budget. The coalition has since fallen apart, and this election this fall is once more a question of “Yes Bibi / No Bibi” – yes or no to a return of Netanyahu and his coalitions of right-wing and Haredi parties.
Somehow, voter turnout remains high (and higher than turnout in Canada), but most Israelis I spoke with expressed frustration at the constant cycle of elections, dealmaking, and coalitions – there seems to be very little time for actual governance.
Oh, to be a cat, sleeping on a Roman ruin or a pile of fine embroidery.
There’s feral cats all over Israel, and they’re the one thing that unites everyone across the Middle East – Jews, Arabs, religious, secular – everyone has a soft spot for them. There’s dishes of water and food put out on every street corner, and the cats are largely allowed to go as they please.
This one decided to claim my bag during a meeting in East Jerusalem – I was real close to taking her back to Canada with me.
Israel is, of course, jam-packed with religious sites – it is the Holy Land. There’s Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, Druze, and many more. Sometimes they overlap or are shared (or not, as in the Temple Mount), and some of them are in direct competition with each other.
I’m not really religious, and I was raised Protestant, so to me Bible stories were intended mainly a moral or a metaphor. I didn’t grow up with any devotion to sites or relics, so for me, the idea that many Biblical stories are set in real locations in Israel that you can visit was hard to get my head around. (This is the polar opposite to Jewish readings of the same stories in the Torah – it’s a story of their own people in their own land.)
We went to the Garden of Gethsemane on our first day – it, and the Mount of Olives, where it stands – are not just real places, but contested East Jerusalem sites within eyeshot of the Old City and the Temple Mount.
Likewise, the Sea of Galilee is not just a real place, but it’s a real lake – beaches, restaurants, and Wayze warning of of a fender bender. We stopped at the Catholic monastery at the site that’s held to be the “Pope-ing” of Peter by Jesus – families were zipping by on skidoos, and the shoreline has risen due to dams on the Jordan River downstream (it’s killing the Dead Sea, though.)
Deeper down along the Jordan River, well into the West Bank, is the site of Jesus’ baptism. There are Christian monasteries on both sides of the river, but one bank of the river is under Israeli control, and the other Jordanian.
There was the truly weird “only in the Middle East” sight of Christian pilgrims being guarded over by Jewish soldiers on one side and Muslim ones on the other – though it’s not a particularly tense site, as it was about 43C, and everyone wanted to mainly sit still and quiet in the shade.
There were also religious sites that were contested, not over ownership, but exactly where a certain event happened. Up Mt. Carmel in Haifa, there’s the Cave of Elijah – where the Prophet Elijah is said to have hid from Queen Jezebel’s wrath. The catch is, there’s two caves – one mid-way up the mountain is a Jewish site, which Druze and Muslims also recognize … but about 200m up the mountain is a different cave in a monastery, this one held to be the site by Christians.
It’s not just between religions where these locations are contested, but inside religions. I took a day trip to Nazareth by bus – again, a very weird thing to me that Nazareth is just a place you can take a bus to. One of the biggest Christian pilgrimage sites in Nazareth is the site of the Annunciation. However, there’s not just one site where it’s held to have happened, but two …and they’re along the same street.
There’s a Greek Orthodox site, with covered in ornate hand-painted murals. Then there’s the Catholic site, with the most oddly heavy, industrial architecture I’ve ever seen in a church – it felt like it would do better as a nightclub in Berlin than a church in Israel.
This is the site where most Christian denominations hold that the Jesus’ crucifixion and burial happened. Both sites are inside the church, only a few metres apart.
But unlike most of the other Christian holy sites, the church isn’t controlled by one Christian denomination, but six – Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, and Ethiopian.
They have a centuries-old “status quo” agreement, originally set by the Ottomans, and upheld by the British, Jordanians, and now Israelis. It gives each denomination their own section of the building, and all common areas are held jointly, with any upkeep or changes to be done with unanimous consent.
However, these denominations don’t particularly like each other, and getting unanimous consent to even pick up garbage or restore a painting is nearly impossible. Apparently if a lightbulb needs changing, it’s easier to quietly tell the Jerusalem police, who will then do it at night, rather than come to an agreement between the denominations. Even the keys to the front door are held by a Muslim family, to avoid tension over who controls access.
This tense situation has led to actual brawls among monks, usually over something small, like moving a chair over a “line of control” to get out of the sun, or one monk not being present for a procession.
There weren’t any brawls when I went, but the Catholic monks doing an afternoon service were going at triple speed – maybe if you stand around too long, it’s also a provocation. It’s a ridiculous way to run what is supposed to be an immensely holy site, and even more so since it’s all members of the same religion.
But my biggest highlight was getting to see the emblem of the worst of religious tension, the silliest damn religious conflict of them all – the immovable ladder. It’s a simple wooden ladder, probably forgotten by a worker, but it’s been sitting on the outside of the church since around the mid-1700s. Nobody can come to an agreement to move it, and even when it was once stolen, it was then returned to its exact spot.
I posted about my trip to the Temple Mount in Israel last month, but I also found these two great explainer videos from Religion for Breakfast that give a lot of good additional background on both the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and why the situation is all so … prickly.
He also got to go on an extremely rare visit inside the Dome, normally banned for non-Muslims.
There’s no way I can get into detail about all the food in Israel, but I’m going to do a megapost of some of my favourite/notable things. The food is broadly Mediterranean / Middle Eastern – a lot of Israelis have Sephardic or Mizrahi backgrounds – and more importantly, my god, the food is FRESH.
The quality of the ingredients that go into everything, from falafel to sushi to ice cream, was out of this world. I’m sure this is common among most Mediterranean countries, but likely even more so as Israel doesn’t have much trade with it’s direct neighbours, so many foods are grown or made locally.
It’s also probably because food in Canada just isn’t that fresh, and with our climate, we rely so much more on the mass global food industry.
The first thing that stunned me was the quality of the hotel breakfasts. This isn’t a sad little dry croissant and an overpriced orange juice, every hotel I stayed in across the country had massive buffets, with dozens of choices of dips, cheeses, breads, salads, fresh shakshuka made to order, and more.
Most of the hotel restaurants were dairy kosher, meaning there wasn’t any meat available. The exception is fish, which doesn’t count as meat under kosher rules, so there were good amounts of smoked salmon and pickled herring too.
Restaurants as a whole in Israel are either dairy kosher, meat kosher (no dairy), or not kosher at all, so meat and dairy are mixed. A lot of the secular Israeli majority, alongside the large Arab Muslim and Christian population, don’t follow kosher laws and generally don’t care if a restaurant is kosher or not. However, with the large Orthodox (both Modern and Ultra-) population, a lot of restaurants make sure to keep kosher to keep those customers. Pork is the only thing that’s really not served anywhere (I think Libiria in Haifa was the only place I saw it on the menu), but other non-kosher animals like shrimp are pretty widely served.
There’s great food markets everywhere – on our first day, we went to Jerusalem’s shuk, and ended up at a little hole in the wall Kurdish / Iraqi restaurant. There were wonderful veggie dishes, and spiced meatballs, aromatic rice, stews, and great pickles.
The dishes started coming … then kept coming … then kept coming, even after the table was covered. It was all so delicious, but the restaurant definitely won that battle.
There were some other amazing finds at hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I went to a little falafel stand in Paris Square in Haifa and had possibly the best falafel pita of my life. I had no idea falafel was even supposed to be so tender, it’s often a bit dry or gritty in Canada. It’s worth it to get all the toppings – pickles, garlic sauce, preserved turnips, cucumbers, hot peppers, and lots of sauce.
The food in Israel isn’t all just Mediterranean or from the Jewish diaspora, there’s are many good international options – especially sushi. I’m picky about my sushi quality, since I used to live in Vancouver, which arguably has the best sushi outside of Japan.
The sushi in Israel was extremely high quality, with very fresh fish, though the options were mainly the basics of tuna, salmon, and veggie rolls.
When my friend Pauline took me on a great tour of the Old City of Jerusalem, we went through the Muslim quarter to try some Arab food. We stopped at a cold-press tahini factory that still uses a huge millstone to grind sesame seeds. We got to taste-test a few of their offerings – the smoked tahini was my favourite.
I also got to try knafeh, a great sweet-and-savoury pasty of warm goat cheese, layered under kadaif and covered in syrup, as well as some really top notch kebab, spiced beautifully, and hot from the grill into a pita with tomato, cucumber, and yogurt.
As I had made the brilliant plan of going to the Middle East in August as a Canadian, I was also keeping my eyes on ways to stay cool. Lemonade is almost universally paired with mint, and there’s fresh fruit juice stalls everywhere, which are particularly good blended with ice. The ice cream game in Israel is particularly strong, Golda and other ice cream chains are ubiquitous. The cookie/chocolate flavours seem particularly popular, and the portions are extremely generous.
One of the things I relied on to beat the heat were all the coffee shops, particularly Aroma. Aroma is an Israeli coffee chain, and it’s so dominant there that it’s likely part of the reason Starbucks failed in Israel.
Israelis are big coffee drinkers, and in the hot weather, either a cold coffee (what I’d call an iced coffee) or an iced coffee (a coffee blended with ice) was essential.
The food at Aroma was also fantastic – the picture below is their breakfast plate – eggs done the way I want, fresh salads and bread, cream cheese, coffee, all about $15 CAD. And this is from a chain coffee shop?
Aroma has expanded into Canada, the US, and Ukraine. There’s spots all over Toronto, so when I was there last week, I went to a location to compare to what I had in Israel. The blended iced coffee is just as good, and I did appreciate that they made my breakfast sandwich fresh. I’d say it was miles better than Starbucks or Tim Hortons, but the Israeli Aroma is still much better than the Canadian one.
As for drinks in Israel, of course, wine is immensely popular – this has been a wine-growing region for quite literally millennia. While not much of a wine connoisseur, I did get to try a great variety of their offerings, almost all of which are home-grown. There’s reds and whites, mainly common grapes, as well as rarer “bilblical” varieties. The prime growing regions are up north around the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, where it’s cooler and there is good elevation – though you get the wild sight of vineyards right up to the Syrian border.
I’m more of a beer drinker, so I was happy to see how many local beers there were. There seems to be a lot of pale ales, lagers, ambers, and blondes (who wants to drink a cream stout in 35C heat?) but not much in the way of IPAs or sours. Some of the local beers I tried were from breweries like Negev, Malka, Shapiro, and the ubiquitous Goldstar. I also tried a nice flight of offerings from Libiria brewpub in Haifa.
I also got to try a beer from the first Palestinian brewery – Taybeh in Ramallah. I bought it at a little cafe in Nazareth, which is an almost entirely Arab city in Israel. I was politely discouraged from drinking it on their patio, since it was a mainly Muslim neighbourhood, so I took it back to my hotel and chilled it.
It was a light lager, straightforward but refreshing. They have several other beers, with a lot of German-styles like Marzens, Witbiers, and dark lagers.
One of the things that I stunned me on my trip to Israel was just how small and close everything is in the Levant. I think it’s particularly hard to vision for Canadians – we’re so used to having huge, empty spaces.
The whole of Israel and Palestine put together is only half the area of Nova Scotia, one of Canada’s smallest provinces. At it’s narrowest, Israel is only 10km wide. From north to south, the country is just 400km long, not much more than the drive from Ottawa to Toronto – a drive I’ve done just to go shopping.
And yet, Israel has 9 million people, plus another 4 mil in Palestine. And about half of all this territory in uninhabitable desert. You can see it in the crammed housing in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the sky-high property prices in Tel Aviv, and from Israelis who don’t support the settlements into East Jerusalem and the West Bank but live there anyways, since it’s the only affordable housing around Jerusalem.
It’s also why the conflicts are so difficult and intractable, including with neighbouring countries. There is very little room to maneuver. One evening, we went ATVing out into the desert in the West Bank (which was very fun and also very dusty).
We stopped at one point to take in the view. From where we stood, we could simultaneously see the individual towers of Jerusalem, the Palestinian city of Jericho, Jordan’s capital Amman, and the north end of the Dead Sea.
Our trip also brought us up to the Golan Heights. We stayed overnight at a nice little winery kibbutz that happened to be only 3km from the Syrian border. In the morning we went up to a lookout that gave a view into Syria.
We weren’t alone, as two UN officers were also using the lookout. They have a camp right on the Israeli side of the border – likely originally to monitor the ceasefire between Israel and Syria (the vineyards below were the site of tank battles in the Yom Kippur War) but now used to track the horrors of the Syrian Civil War.
We heard from several people that from the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 to about 2018, you could hear the explosions and fighting in Syria from the kibbutz, and even see puffs of smoke from the lookout down in the valley. It seemed like a shocking contrast between the peaceful mountain resort feel on the Israeli side.
Interestingly, this is also why Israel has been much more restrained in condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine than other western countries. Russia has been supporting the Assad government in Syria and has little desire to see the Syrian Civil War spill over into Israel, which could turn into a much larger war and destabilize the whole region. Right now, Russia also (usually) turns a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian / Hezbollah-linked targets in Syria. So, while Israel is no supporter of the invasion of Ukraine, the home front is taking priority.
A few kilometres away is another lookout, this time into Lebanon, and a different flashpoint. This border is just as heavily armed, and was the site of a much more recent war in 2006 – one between Israel and Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, but deeply entrenched in Lebanon. While there is a ceasefire, it is no peace, and Lebanon is currently facing serious internal instability that could see things spiral out of control again.
Even with more stable neighbours like Egypt and Jordan, who recognize Israel and have diplomatic relations (unlike Lebanon and Syria), the proximity and conflicts in the region create from very weird international situations.
On the vacation part of my trip, I took a day trip to Petra, in Jordan. Our tour bus picked us up in Tel Aviv at an absolutely unholy hour (2am) so we could be at the Jordanian border by morning. But then, if the country is so small, why was it such a long drive?
We stopped for gas near the Allenby Bridge, a border crossing about 30km from Jerusalem and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv. If we crossed there, it likely could have shaved many hours off our drive (and let us sleep in!). But Allenby is meant to be the main crossing for Palestinians into Jordan and until recently, the only way for both Palestinians and Israeli Muslims to go on the Hajj. Non-Muslim Israelis cannot cross at Allenby, and there are limits on visas and entry for foreign tourists.
So, as we were on an Israeli tour bus, we instead drove 250 km south, all the way down to the Red Sea, where there is a border crossing that Israelis and foreign tourists can cross into Jordan normally. We then backtracked back north, just on the Jordanian side, to get to Petra.
It was one more interesting real-life experience of the complexities of the geopolitics here. And as for the long drive, it was totally worth it. Petra is stunning.
The day we flew in to Israel, our group poured off the 11 hour flight from Toronto to Tel Aviv, got into a bus, and took a short drive up into the hills of Jerusalem. We were stupid with jetlag, but as the bus came around a turn, we all gasped – we could see the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount.
Metre for metre, the Old City of Jerusalem is probably the most contested and controversial piece of land in the world, and the Temple Mount is quite literally at the centre of it. This is where wars have been fought, both historic and modern, and the competing religious and political forces pulling on this one place continue to make it a flashpoint.
The Temple Mount has the distinction of being the holiest site in Judaism, the location of the Second Temple, the very heart of Jewish life, religion, and identity, before it was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE as part of crushing Jewish revolts against their rule. To massively oversimplify history, Jews were later banned from visiting Jerusalem in 132CE, and Roman persecution through that time period led to Jewish communities fleeing in all directions, starting the diaspora. Unsurprisingly, this spot underpins the modern State of Israel and the idea of a return to rebuild their homeland.
At the same time, the Temple Mount is also the third holiest site in Islam (after Mecca and Medina), and what most of the complex is currently being used for. On the same site where the Second Temple stood is the Dome of the Rock. This beautiful golden dome is the site of Muhammad’s Night Journey, where he ascended to heaven to receive instruction on prayer from God.
The religious importance of this spot is amplified by the tradition in the three Abrahamic religions that this is also the spot where Abraham almost sacrificed his son (Isaac in Judaism/Christianity and Ishmael in Islam), and even some traditions that this was the site of the creation of Adam.
The Western Wall (aka the Wailing Wall) is the remaining piece of the Second Temple, and is a spot for Jews to pray and mourn the temple’s destruction. The wall itself isn’t holy, but for most of the time since the destruction of the Temple, this is as close as Jews were allowed to come – at times fully banned from the Old City.
After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Jordan annexed the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem. After the Six Day War in 1967, Israel took control of Jerusalem and Jordan’s Palestinian territories. Jordan gave up claims to sovereignty over the West Bank in 1988, though they kept control of the Muslim sites on top of the Temple Mount as part of the 1967 “Status Quo” agreement with Israel, a renewing of older Ottoman religious authority agreements. The Jordanian Waqf continues of manage and control access to the top of the Temple Mount, while the rest of the Old City is under Israeli control and management.
Non-Muslims are allowed up onto the Temple Mount at certain times, and both Israel and Jordan enforce a ban on prayer, particularly by Jews. Up until 2000, non-Muslims could enter the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, though no more. There’s also contested opinions among Jews if they should even walk on the Temple Mount for risk of standing on the site of the Holy of Holies, though it’s not a universal belief – there were several Haredi boys that went up with us.
While the Western Wall is busy, the Temple Mount is quiet and peaceful, with families picnicking. I went up on a tour given by my friend Pauline, a professional Israeli tour guide, and we had no issue accessing it in the non-Muslim hours. A couple of elderly Palestinian women from the West Bank came over to chat, and after learning I was Canadian, had a sympathetic joke at me braving the heat. It was a peaceful, friendly moment, and a change from the animosity and violence that frequently makes the news over this site.
The microbrew scene is pretty strong in Israel – there’s brewpubs everywhere, usually with good restaurants. So after a hot day exploring Haifa, I took the Carmelit down to Libira Brewpub, in a cute port-side neighbourhood full of restaurants and bars.
I tried a tasting flight of all their beers – a Weiss, and Double Pils, a Bitter IPA, a Smoked Stout, and a Belgian Ale. I’d say the beers were very drinkable, but a bit lighter than I’ve normally had for each style. For example, the Weiss had good but not overwhelming banana esters, the IPA was pleasantly hoppy, and the Belgian really nailed the wild yeast notes, but I felt I could probably down a pint of the Belgian where I would normally sip one.
There was one that knocked my socks off, however: the Smoked Stout. Here, the lightness kept it from being too cloying (perfect for a hot day), and the smoky flavour was absolutely stunning – a little bit campfire, a little bit BBQ, with a slight caramel edge to round it out. Out of this world good.
Of course, I went for something completely new to me for dinner. The menu listed “Kadaif” as an entree, describing it as a “noodle-like pastry filled with creamy leek and goat cheese. Served with fresh tomato salsa, soft boiled egg, and tomato chutney”.
Kadaif isn’t really a dish itself, it’s an ingredient – fine shredded phyllo, like angel hair pasta, that’s mainly used in desserts in the Middle East. There’s also savoury uses of kadaif, especially with goat cheese or lamb. This is a upmarket restaurant take, and the warm goat cheese and soft egg made it a very rich and creamy, countered with the crunch of the kadaif and the acidity of the tomatoes.
Etgar Keret is an award-winning Israeli author, who writes short, sharp, sometimes rude black comedy. He’s also a screenwriter, and both his written work and his films and TV focus on the absurdity of everyday life in Israel.
The Nimrod Flip-Out is a collection of short stories (some very short) that really hit at friendships, love, and isolation. The titular short story is a gem – a group of friends realize they’re taking turns going mad, until one “leaves” by going off to get married, messing up the cycle of madness. There’s more metaphorical stories, like “Pride and Joy”, of a son worried that his success is causing his doting parents to physically shrink, or the heavy, like “Surprise Egg”, a doctor struggling with an ethical dilemma over the autopsy findings of a suicide bomb victim.
Keret’s work feels a lot like an Israeli Vonnegut, and his work is unpretentious, funny, and shocking all at once.