ISA Charity logo

A gap year visit to Israel

In the summer of 2010 I decided to spend part of my gap year in Israel. This, in part, was due to my interest in Theology. I planned to visit sites of significant theological interest as well as working on a privately owned farm in the north of Israel. I travelled together with two school friends, Tom and Jack who share similar interests to my own. However, once in the Holy Land, my interest in Theology rapidly paled. Instead, I found myself utterly fascinated by all aspects of cultural, social and political life. In this report, I have intentionally tried to let my observations and interviews with people speak for themselves. Many of the current issues in Israel have been shaped by millennia of history and opinion. After having only spent a total of three months in Israel, I feel as though some of the issues are too vast and complex to even attempt to fully understand them. Therefore, this report should be read more as an observational study, rather than be seen as an attempt to reach any steadfast conclusions about the current situation.

We arrived in Tel Aviv laden with rucksacks, sleeping bags and roll mats and were rather exhausted from a day’s worth of travel. We wanted nothing more in the world than to get swiftly and safely to Maison d’Abraham (a hostel run by nuns, belonging to the Syrian Catholic Church), put our bags down and sleep away the travel tiredness that we had accumulated. However, this, of course, was not possible. We had already prepared what we were going to say to security, that we were staying for one week in Jerusalem, that we were visiting monasteries around Israel, that we were not going to the West Bank and that we were not working on a farm in the North of Israel. We were instead staying with ‘friends’ on a ‘settlement’ in the North. The stern looking woman at security raised an eyebrow and asked if they were Jewish. We nodded and were released from questioning.
Our first night at Maison d’Abraham was an interesting experience. I was kept awake by the sound of gunshots, search dogs and a search helicopter that seemed to circle just above my window. I felt particularly vulnerable and began to question my decision to come to the Holy Land. However, sleep crept over me and the following morning washed away all the initial fears I had the night before. I still inquired about the turbulence at the reception of the hostel, but the man just shrugged his shoulders and said he didn’t know. It was obviously nothing too severe.

We had arrived in the dark and travelled from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem late at night so I was shocked when I stepped outside of the hostel and saw the Old City of Jerusalem before me in full daylight. It really is a white city and it gleams in the winter sun, with the golden Dome of the Rock taking the centre stage in the view. Its beauty makes it difficult to believe that anything bad could ever happen here and the sounds of conflict that I heard the night before seemed only like a bad dream.

We started off our first day in Jerusalem by visiting the gardens of Gethsemane and the beautiful church right next to it which commemorates Jesus’ arrest. Just up the street is a Greek Orthodox monastery, overlooking Christian and Jewish graves in the Kidron Valley. We then climbed the steep hill into the heart of the Old City and passed through the security check just by the Western Wall. The armed soldiers and police asked me if I was carrying a gun or a knife. I shook my head and they let me pass.

Just as we exited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the dominating Muslim prayer call sounded and engulfed the Old City of Jerusalem in its atmospherically sombre melody. It is strange to think that the call from the minaret echoed over the Western Wall where Jews (both Orthodox and non Orthodox) were pushing slips of paper into the crevices of the wall and chanting Jewish prayers and also over the Christian graveyards and church spires. It really was a dominating and even antagonistic sound. The prayer call also highlighted the utter holiness of Jerusalem as a city. It is fascinating to be somewhere that has no secular society. God is everywhere in Jerusalem, whether he is Allah, the God of the Old Testament or the Trinity. Everywhere you look you can see a steeple, a synagogue or a mosque and every religious building is there for a reason, not because people wanted them there, but because they couldn’t have been anywhere else. They are placed where real events happened and they are a commemoration and celebration of the truth, whether it be Jewish truth, Christian or Islamic.

Outside the Church of the Dormition we witnessed hundreds of young Israeli’s in military uniform coming to the site on tour buses and it looked as though part of the their military service training is historical and academic. We then ventured into the rabbit warren of Arab markets in the Old City, where each street connects to another market street or leads you back to your original starting point. It was utterly confusing and although there were some Christian or Jewish areas around the Arab markets, I found it difficult to know in which area I was in at any one time. The different quarters change so frequently and even seem to overlap sometimes. The freedom of speech in the Arab markets was surprising. There were t-shirts with ‘visit Palestine’ written on them, or ‘I got stoned in 1) Gaza 2) Hebron etc.’ Although it was very tongue and cheek and primarily for the tourists passing through, I was still surprised that it had not caused any problems with the vast array of different faiths that pass through the market every day.
We frequented an Armenian church in the Armenian quarter of the Old City and there were approximately 40 young and training Armenian seminaries in the service and around 30 Armenians in the congregation, giving the impression that the Armenian church is relatively strong and healthy in Israel today; after all, they left Urfa during the First World War and fled to Israel, following the Armenian genocide. We left the Armenian quarter and made our way to Damascus Gate; we were followed by an elderly Arab gentleman and young Arab boy. Crime has seemed non-existent so far, but it was evident that they were targeting us as a potential pick-pocketing opportunity. We made it evident that we knew what they were up to and they backed off quickly.

There was, as I now know that there is every day in Jerusalem, a huge military presence. Everywhere we went there were IDF’s with guns, young soldiers doing military service and others that were older and not in training anymore. It was initially a shock to walk into a cafe and see a group of normal teenagers having a coffee together, gossiping and giggling whilst re-adjusting the heavy guns hanging around their necks. The girls in particular look very proud indeed to be in uniform and to wield a gun. They would swagger around the streets of Jerusalem, covered in make up with their hair and nails done. There seems to be a certain glamour to being in the military. One boy I talked to in Tel Aviv, who had almost completed his service, admitted that it felt ‘very cool’ at first to have a gun visible to all the public. After a while, however, the novelty wore off and now the gun is more of a burden for him. However, although the youths can look slightly arrogant and seem to have a fairly large sense of self importance, they never go out of their way to intimidate you.

To see the Dome of the Rock up close we had to queue near the Western Wall to go through security and there were groups of young Jewish people with drums. They were singing, clapping and playing music. They stopped quickly however, dispersed and merged back into the crowds when a large group of soldiers came over. We also dispersed rapidly, trying to avoid any form of confrontation. The Dome of the Rock cannot be visited by Jews, which would explain the lack of Kippur’s in the crowds that waited to go through security. We tried to enter it on our first day in Jerusalem, but it was the Muslim Holy Day and therefore not open to Christians.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, there are no western chain stores, even though there are thousands of westerners visiting the area. Having said that, the Arab markets have a humorous way of selling ‘ancient’ religious icons and menorahs right next to I-pod’s and blackberries. We passed a group of Arab children playing football in the street and they were shouting aggressively and very hurriedly at each other in Arabic. However, intermittent in their discussion were the words ‘facebook’ and ‘ipod’ that stuck out like sore thumbs. Even in our hostel, around twenty Arab men could be found in the evenings sitting in the reception area, making full use of the internet that the hostel offered. I managed to sit behind them and saw that the majority were on social networking sites and were talking to pretty western girls on MSN Messenger or Facebook. However, interestingly there is very little sexual culture in Jerusalem, if none at all. It is normal in the West to walk past billboards with beautiful sultry women caressing bottles of perfume, but I did not see anything like that in Jerusalem, although Tel Aviv had its fare share.

On our way to the Church of Peter’s Denial we met an elderly Christian man from New York. He takes groups to Israel and has been here 5 times before. He first came in 1999 and said that things have defiantly changed in the Holy Land, some for the better and some for the worst. Our encounter with him was brief as he had to go and find his tour group who managed to get lost quite frequently, but he said that it used to be easy to get to Bethany in the 1990’s, but now there are many check points and too much security. After he left I looked over to the hills to the right of where we were staying, above the Kidron Valley and saw the West Bank wall that carved a great dividing scar-like line into the landscape. It was a big surprise as I had not seen it previously. The haze disguises it most days.

One evening we walked past a group of teenage Arab boys who were making a lot of noise in the middle of the street. They had a dog on a lead and were crowding around it shouting and laughing. One had what looked like a long piece of cardboard and was lifting it high up in the air above the dogs head and bringing it down violently by the dogs feet. We passed more young Arab boys sitting on the side of the street, warming their hands by trash cans which they had set fire to. They yelled in Arabic as we went past and we heard collective laughter in the distance behind us when we ignored them. There is a sense of boredom amongst the young, but one can just as easily witness such behaviour in London or any other large city around the world.

To go to Bethlehem in the West Bank, we got a bus from Damascus gate. It took around half an hour and we did not pass through a check point once, although we drove past one. There were no Jews on the bus at all. As soon as we arrived we were approached by taxi drivers, who, unlike in the Old City of Jerusalem, followed us up the street, almost begging us to get in their vehicles. There was desperation in their pleas, and I felt cruel for not accepting their offers. We were walking up one of the market streets (which are more westernised than in the Old City of Jerusalem and sell no religious items of any kind), when a young Arab boy put his hand into my pocket and tried to extract my passport. I withdrew quickly and he backed off. We attracted a lot of attention in Bethlehem.

We visited a Greek Catholic church there, which was initially closed when we arrived but a very friendly priest opened it for us. He said that it is hard to live in Bethlehem. He was born here and all of his family were too. He said that other Greek Catholic’s cannot emigrate here because of tough emigration laws. He spoke hardly any English, which was a great shame, as I would have loved to have heard more about his experiences in Bethlehem. I asked to take a photo of the church and he rather endearingly leapt into the centre of my shot and stood proudly before me as I took the picture.

Women in Bethlehem express themselves through their headscarves, shoes, handbags and make up. Their accessories are overly vibrant and seem to be used as a way of creating some kind of identity and femininity which would otherwise be hard to be found in their long, shapeless black robes. Interestingly, children seem to be all unaccompanied by adults. You would see toddlers playing or simply standing around with older children, who seemed to be responsible for them. They beg for money and we saw that they would use the money to buy their lunch. The children in Bethlehem (and also in Jerusalem, but less so) are very violent towards each other, and it was not unusual to see them ripping at each other’s hair or scratching each other’s faces. The police there generally turn a blind eye to the children who persistently ask the tourists for money, but the tourist police will sometimes step in if the begging becomes harassing.

We did get a taxi in the end from the centre of Bethlehem to the check point and our driver was the same man who followed us up the street when we first arrived, pleading with us to get into his car. His name was Abraham and he kept on trying to increase the price of our trip but we were persistent and eventually he gave up. He turned out to have a fantastic sense of humour and a great love of western dance music and our short journey in the back of his taxi was made highly enjoyable by the sense of relief we had after our first rocky encounter with him. The wall was vast, towering above us with graffiti all over it and barbed wire lining the top. It was very daunting indeed. Near the wall we saw Banksy’s graffiti of the dove of peace wearing a bullet proof jacket. I was surprised that it was not removed by the Israeli authorities and it was nice to see some leverage in freedom of speech. The image really stuck in my mind and seemed to represent Israel fairly well: a place of beauty and holiness but also a war zone. Bethlehem really does not feel like it’s in control of itself. There is a lot of desperation and poverty, poverty in the material sense and also in a spiritual sense. You can really feel a sense of tiredness in people, and a sense of wariness too. It feels like an outpost of the state of Israel, as though it has no identity of its own.
We met a rather humorous (although slightly tiring) man outside our hostel. I had seen him the previous morning talking at his wife for a good half hour or so and I remember noticing how she did not say a word back. I realised why when he began to talk to us the following evening. We could not get a word in and it felt as though he had wanted to give this monologue for years and years but had not yet had the chance, until he met us. Nevertheless, he made some interesting points. He emigrated to Sweden from Poland in 1968 and had been to Israel once before in the 80’s. He changed his name as his mother was Jewish and he is a Catholic, so as not to cause complications with the Israeli security. He said that they would think of him as a ‘traitor.’ He also said that security has become much tighter since the 80’s. He wants to set up a bank account here and was told in Sweden that it would be an easy process. However, the Israeli banks will not let him as he needs two forms of identification (unlike when he was last in the Holy Land) and he commented on their unhelpfulness and arrogance.

The Israeli’s, he said, are extremely nationalistic and arrogant in general and he commented on the numerous Israeli flags that you see wherever you go. He said that when you are asked what nationality you are by security, you are effectively being asked what religion you are. I found something similar at security in Tel Aviv on my way back to England. I was asked for the names of the friends that I was staying with in Israel. I listed off a variety of names, most were not Jewish and it wasn’t until I mentioned Jewish names of people at the farm that the security woman smiled and let me pass through. Finally, the man’s monologue was coming to an end and he finished by saying that he does not recognise Israel as a state and sees it as Palestine. He also wants to turn his back on religion as ‘good religious people would not try to take all of your money’ or ‘keep prisoners in Gaza.’

The following day we met a Jewish Israeli woman who lives near Haifa. She, unlike the man we spoke to the night before, seemed to have a more balanced approach and really shed a lot of light upon many of the issues in Israel. We met her in a Palestinian area of Jerusalem and she said that the Israeli flags everywhere were highly controversial, highlighting Jewish settlement in the West Bank. She does not agree with Jewish settlers in Palestinian territories but cannot think of a better solution; the Jewish Old City is visible from this area and is therefore very antagonistic. She pointed out that the water barrels on top of the Palestinian houses are there because the Israeli water mains are not connected to them.
She spoke a lot about military service and told us that girls go when they are around 18 and it is two years of service for girls and three for boys. People without full citizenship do not join and other people are exempt from military service if they are religious (Jewish Orthodox) or have mental or physical disabilities. Even homosexuals are exempt. However, there are drawbacks if you do not attend military service, and finding a job can be difficult. There is conflict because a lot of females say that they are religious and are therefore exempt from service. Men find it more difficult to lie as religious Jewish men are easier to identify, with their dress code and ringlets. Her son is going into the military soon and she says that it is unfair if others can be exempt from it through lying. She told us that there is voluntary community service before the military that young people can do and part of military training is historical; she managed to teach immigrants in the Israeli army Hebrew as part of her service.

She lives next to an Arab town and although it is very peaceful and she is not a religious Jew, she says that she still finds it difficult as there is a clash of culture. Unlike the Arabs, she said, the Jews are far more westernised. Both have very different outlooks on life and different attitudes. She said that in the Old City alone, there are 400 CCTV cameras. She was worried that this, coupled with the strong military presence, would scare away tourists. We told her that it did actually make us feel safe, and she was relieved to hear it. Her main concerns at the moment are apartheid between the right and left wing Jews. She is worried that Palestinian sympathisers will be persecuted. The foreign minister is ‘very fascist’ and has already begun investigating left wing political party’s funding. There are many Jewish charities that help Palestinians and there are collection boxes in supermarkets for the deaf and blind. However, any obvious funding for Gaza would be cut off. Her grandparents emigrated from Russia and she knows many other emigrants here. She says that there are around 120,000 Christians living in Israel at the moment but she thinks it is declining. They are moving because they are caught in between the Jews and the Muslim Arabs. The Muslims ‘make life hard for them’ and the Jews do not necessarily distinguish between Christian and Muslim Arabs so Christians are caught in the middle.

We visited the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, towards the end of our stay in Jerusalem. Part of it was built by members of Israel’s Youth Movements and this sense of nationalism was heightened by the numerous Israeli flags all around the museum. Having said this, it is easy to understand this nationalism after going to Yad Vashem. The horrific images and interviews with Holocaust survivors can strike a chord with any human being and I really felt as though I understood a little more about the necessity of having a homeland for the Jewish people. Maybe this is part of the desired effect of the museum, but it was done in an incredibly sensitive way and did not give the impression that part of its aim was to justify the need for the state of Israel. It was simply showing tourists the full horror of what happened. The facts spoke for themselves and I found it very easy to understand why the Jewish people are desperate for a homeland, whether it be Israel or somewhere else.

On our way to Yad Vashem we met an elderly woman who was the ecumenical accompanier for the World Council of Churches. She was a neutral accompanier for Palestinians and Israeli’s, listening to their stories and comforting them. She stands by the check points to ensure that tempers do not get frayed. The organisation is recognised by Palestinians and liberal Israeli’s. She told us that the Israeli government gives an edict about houses being demolished and the Palestinians may have three years to leave or only a few days. She says that it is illegal to do that in occupied territories according to the Geneva Convention. She said that Palestinian houses are not just houses. They are heritage sights, passed down from generations to generations. The Israeli government also demolishes whole towns. She spoke of 40 primary school children who may be evicted from one town. The evictees are cared for by Christian organisations, who supply them with tents and other basic necessities. She emphasised her need to be neutral, however, and said that they are still seen as Palestinian sympathisers by some right wing Jews; she is afraid that they will be asked to leave.

I also managed to speak to one of the sisters at the hostel where we were staying in Jerusalem. She was a very kind and elderly sister but seemed reluctant to talk too much about any current issues involving Christians in the Holy Land. She was asked to come to Israel in July 2007 as the previous sister left Maison d’Abraham . She is from Columbia originally but has lived all over the world. She told me that many Christians are leaving as they cannot find work or peace. She spoke about a young Christian guide who belongs to the Syrian Catholic right. His mother is French and his father Israeli. He married a French lady and will not move to France because he knows how little Christians there are left in the Holy Land. He feels as though it is his duty to remain there and keep the faith alive. She said that it’s the same with the Franciscans, who won’t leave Israel as they do not want to contribute to the diminishing number of Christians. The sister told me, as it has been said before, that the tension is primarily between the Jews and Muslims. Christians are caught in between. She spoke about how the Christians are not free here and said that in Bethlehem they have permission to come to Jerusalem for Easter and Christmas but cannot under normal circumstances, even if they have family in Jerusalem. I asked if the Syrian Orthodox church was doing well in Israel and she replied that it is stronger in Lebanon and Iraq but that there are a number of Syrian Catholic churches in Jerusalem, which Maison d’Abraham belongs to.
We were staying in an Arab quarter of Jerusalem, just above the Kidron Valley and close to the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. We frequented Arab stalls whilst we were staying there, buying falafel almost every evening and fresh fruit and vegetables. It was truly heart warming to meet the local shop keepers there, who were always so welcoming, asking us how we were and joking with us. They were genuinely interested in us, rather than just trying to sell us their produce and would offer us advice about where to go and where to avoid. They were always smiling and always offering us free food. It was touching to see such happiness and kindness in a rather dilapidated part of Jerusalem. The men who worked in the falafel store were all deaf, and I suppose that it was a charity run by one of the organisations that the lady from Haifa was describing.

I got talking to a middle aged Arab gentleman who worked on the reception desk at Maison d’Abraham. He said that Israel is not at war at all. It is just occupied and that is the problem. People are not happy. It is not a religious problem; it is a political and human problem that revolves around greed and wanting what the other one has. He said that people use God to support their moves. They have basically the same problems as in Ireland, and he gave the example of the IRA. He said that there is no peace in Israel at the moment but that one day there will be. Nevertheless, I still saw much happiness. One Arab man came up to us and asked whether we were from the States. We said that we were from England and a great big grin crept across his face and he started imitating us in a rather eccentric English accent, saying ‘Lovely Jubly’ and the word ‘water’ pronounced without the ‘T.’ However, I was swiftly reminded that not all was well in Jerusalem when I later walked down the main road from Damascus gate and witnessed two young Arab boys chasing aggressively after two Orthodox Jews, knocking them over, kicking and hitting them and laughing tauntingly as the victims tried to get up and run away.

Another harsh reminder of the turbulence to be found in Jerusalem was given to me by one of the employees at the hostel. I would sit on a bench outside the hostel each night overlooking the Old City and the bench was just above an Arab school; he told me that I should not sit there in the evening as the children throw rocks over the wall. He then produced a contraption made by a child that was used to inflict damage; it was a plastic bottle filled with rocks that they would hurl up to the Maison d’Abraham compound. I had witnessed something similar myself when I was walking back to the hostel the previous evening and saw lots of Arab children hurling rocks at a Jewish building.

The majority of our stay, however, was on a goat farm (‘Goat’s with the Wind’) in the North of Israel near a small town called Yodfat. We left Jerusalem on the 17th of January, 10 days after we arrived, and made our way up to the North by bus. We were only meant to stay a mere three weeks at the farm. However, we ended up staying there for the rest of our time in Israel, and after my two friends left to go home on the 11th of March, I found myself still at the farm for a further three weeks. The farm was a very special place indeed. It is privately owned by a Jewish family and is therefore not part of the WOOFing organisation. It started 18 years ago and they have been taking on volunteers for the best part of 15 years or so. In fact, two of the first volunteers to visit the farm have married into the family, marrying Amnon and Dahlia’s (the owners of the farm) children. The farm has approximately 200 goats, which are milked by hand twice a day and the milk is used for cheese which would be made in their dairy. The cheese is sold to the local shop in Yodfat, to other chain stores, to a market in Tel Aviv and to guests who eat at Dahlia’s restaurant which is also located on the farm.

We would wake up in the morning at sunrise and after a quick cup of tea or Arabic coffee, we would work until about 9.00 am. Then the volunteers and the family would enjoy a large brunch together, cooked by Dahlia. We would often eat the cheeses made by Amnon, colourful salads with wildflowers that grew on the hills surrounding the farm, spinach cooked with garlic and olive oil and freshly baked bread or muffins. Then we would continue working until around 5.00 or 6.00 pm when we would gather again for the next meal. Before each meal we would have silence and a Jewish prayer would be said. The family were not religious Jews but upheld Jewish tradition. They were in fact heavily influenced by Bedouin culture (Amnon lived with Bedouin’s on a nearby farm when he was younger) and the farm was decorated in Bedouin rugs and patterns. We would frequently have Bedouin’s and Arab’s visiting the farm and relations between Amnon and Dahlia and all the surrounding Arab villages were very good indeed. In fact, the whole of Yodfat was very relaxed and the inhabitants did not see any distinction between Jewish people and Arabs at all. It was not unusual to see Jews and Arabs enjoying a coffee together.

I met many interesting fellow volunteers at the farm and a shared interest in a particular way of rural life made it easy to bond with them. I met a young Israeli girl at the farm who had already fulfilled her military service but had decided to remain in the army. When I asked her why she chose to do so she became quite defensive and said that the army is ‘not just about guns’ but about community and building relationships with people. She said that some try to opt out of military service by pretending to be religious and she said that one of her friends managed to avoid it by making a rather long winded but convincing case about how he was a pacifist. She thinks, however, that everyone should go. She told me that the better educated do optional community service before going into the military.
One volunteer, a 26 year old Austrian man, told me many interesting things about his past and about his military service in Israel. However, it later turned out that he was not one for telling the truth and that it was highly unlikely that he was in the army at all. He left the farm in rather a hurry when the equivalent of £1,500 went missing from Amnon and Dahlia’s safe and that was the last we heard of him. Nevertheless, what he told me, true or untrue, was still of some value in shedding light upon some of the issues in Israel. He told me that he moved to Israel one year ago and was from a very religious Jewish family. However, he turned his back on Judaism when he was attacked as a teenager by Neo-Nazis and was left in a coma for three weeks. His father, a Rabbi, did not accept his decision and they have not spoken to this day. He decided to emigrate to Israel; he loved the country and had been going to the Holy Land since he was a child. He was, apparently, in the secret police section of the army and wanted to work in border control in Gaza.

A young Jewish volunteer from Massachusetts, who was taking some time out of college, arrived at the farm not long after I did. He volunteered in Israel in a predominantly Jewish organisation that learns about the political situation in the Holy Land and he helped to raise awareness of the refugees from Darfur who are flocking to Israel via Egypt. Funnily enough, the volunteer who remained in the army after her military service has friends who prevent some Darfurian immigrants from entering Israel. The refugees flee to Israel because they are unable remain in Egypt (where they initially escaped to) as the government makes it impossible for them to stay there. Although the Israeli government accept them into the country, they make it extremely hard for them to renew their VISA’s and they therefore cannot make Israel a home for themselves. He said that it is a big problem as Israel does have a right to maintain its borders and impose immigration laws, but the refugees from Darfur are truly in great need and are human beings too. He helped to write a speech for one immigrant who was to talk to a Jewish congregation at a synagogue and highlight some of the key issues involving the genocide in Darfur and their need to come to Israel.
My two friends from England that I initially travelled with felt it was time to take a short break away from the farm and went to Nazareth. Taking time off the farm was not so easy and I decided to wait so that I could make a bigger trip, which later turned out to be a week in Jordan and the south of Israel. Upon their return they described Nazareth as being a poor and run down town. The basilica’s they saw were beautiful and were in stark contrast to the numerous falafel fast food stalls. Nazareth is predominantly an Arab town and they said that Christians are sparse; the Christians of Nazareth are trying to get more to come. Egypt’s government fell whilst they were there and they witnessed a parade in Nazareth with Egyptians celebrating, playing music and waving Egyptian flags.

After a month or so at the farm, I began to feel claustrophobic. I needed a break and I was struggling with the heavy and relentless work load. The first month on the farm I found myself disliking the gruelling days and was far more intent on bonding with the other volunteers and frequenting the local pub than putting my heart and soul into the work. I began each physical task heavy heartedly and only remained at the farm because of the relationships I had formed with the other volunteers. I had heard, however, countless people talk about the soul enhancing spiritual nature of working with one’s hands and body and I decided, rather than leaving the farm altogether, to take a break from the work. In doing so I hoped to gain some perspective, come back refreshed and really begin to reap the spiritual rewards of working wilfully with one’s body. I decided to take a week off and travel to Jordan with three other volunteers from the farm.

We travelled from the very North of Israel all the way down to Eilat in the south, which borders with Jordan’s Arava border crossing. We decided to cross in the south, rather than the King Hussein crossing near Jerusalem, because our VISA’s would be extended automatically for a whole three months if we went to Jordan through Eilat. I remember planning my trip carefully in England to ensure that I did not go anywhere near the Gaza strip, as I had heard that rocket fire could hit villages such as Ashdod, Be’er Sheva and Ashkelon. We passed through these towns on numerous occasions during our trip in Israel, including on our way to Jordan and there was no mention of Gaza anywhere. We saw no signs that it even existed, even though it was quite close.

Upon reaching the Arava border we had to pay 100 NIS to cross (£20) and the security at the border was not extensive; all the security personnel were charming. The security office was filled with pictures of King Abdullah and he seemed to be a saint like figure for the Jordanians. Upon crossing the border, we had to get a taxi to Petra, our first stop, and were told that the whole journey would be about two hours. The driver of the first taxi that we got in told us that his shift was coming to an end and that he would take us to the nearest town centre, where another driver would take over. We reached the centre and were put in a different taxi and begun to make our way down a dual carriage way when he suddenly pronounced that he was ill and could drive no further. He stopped the car at a lay-by where his brother appeared in another car (not a taxi) and offered to take us to Petra. Although I had reservations, it was already late at night and we needed to reach Petra as soon as we could. We got in his car and all was well until he produced a book that he had had passengers from all around the world write in. One of the entries was made by two French girls and, as one of the people I was travelling with was French, the driver asked her to read the entry in the book, thinking that the two girls had written about how marvellous he was. It turned out that they had in fact written about his ‘wandering hands.’ This was somewhat disconcerting and I was relieved when we arrived safely in Petra.

There is huge gender division in Jordan, and this was displayed when we got a Jeep from our hostel to the gates of Petra. The men had to sit in the back which was open- roofed and the women had to sit inside. One of the boys that I was travelling with found this highly disagreeable and would not get out from inside the Jeep. However, I convinced him that you could perhaps get more out of travel if you respect different cultures and traditions, no matter how crazy they may seem. He eventually moved to the back of the jeep. Women in Jordan, like in Bethlehem, also wear a lot of makeup and accessories, to express their femininity, which would otherwise not be made obvious by their dark and shapeless clothes. I did not see any women walking alone, however, unlike in Bethlehem or other Arab towns in Israel. They always walked together in pairs with their arms linked and one girl that we met in the Wadi Rum desert said that when she was travelling alone through Jordan, women would invite her to sit with them on buses.
We spent the majority of our time in Jordan in the Wadi Rum desert. We initially rented a Jeep tour for 24 hours with two Bedouin guides named Audi and Mohammed. The tour was meant to include one day’s worth of driving around the desert, with time to stop and hike and an ‘authentic’ Bedouin dinner in a tent. Of course, it was not as authentic as we had hoped and we were lucky enough to strike up a friendship with the guides and get another three days in the desert with them for free, meeting their friends and family and experiencing a more authentic Bedouin lifestyle. One night in one of the tents (the tents are huge, covered in Bedouin rugs and fabrics with large raised fires in the middle) Mohammed, who loved telling jokes, asked to tell one about King Abdullah and all the other Bedouins immediately complained, saying ‘no, King Abdullah is very good for Jordan!’ Their swift and even automatic objection to Mohammed’s proposal seemed slightly odd. However, King Abdullah did originally come from a Bedouin tribe after all.

The Bedouin’s that we stayed with are not nomads and have taken advantage of the tourism in Wadi Rum, however, they still uphold Bedouin tradition, culture and practices. A lot of them have families in the Wadi Rum village but stay in the desert during the week to welcome tourists, or, if they have free time, to make use of many of the abandoned tents in the desert and throw parties with all of their friends. Bedouin women get married young, usually between 16 and 19 years of age and I was constantly asked if I was married, something I had in fact never been asked before. The men get married later than the women and are allowed to marry women from the West. Many men have taken advantage of this opportunity but the Bedouin women are not allowed to. Therefore, when I and the French girl I was travelling with wanted to visit Mohammed’s mother and sister, we could not, as we were travelling with two European boys, who could not be presented to the Bedouin females in Mohammed’s family.

The French girl and I did however get to spend time with Mohammed’s sister and cousins by ourselves in the Burda Women’s Co-operative. The women in the Wadi Rum village make ceramics, jewellery and woven goods to sell to tourists. It seems to give them something to do during the day, and it seemed to be a very good way to build relationships with other women in the village and catch up on some local gossip. They asked us to go to the local shop for them to buy some sugar as they could only go if they were accompanied by a man. Upon returning from the shop we noticed that they had all covered their faces and heads and I realised it was because the male cousin of one of the girls had come into the room since we had been away.

The last night that we spent in the Wadi Rum desert was an experience that I shall never forget. We attended one of the parties that are thrown by all the young men in Wadi Rum, in one of the abandoned Bedouin tents that are usually occupied by tourists. I and the other girl I was travelling with were the only two females in the gathering, and although we felt a little uncomfortable at first, we swiftly relaxed, smoking Shisha, drinking tea and listening to the Arabic lute, which I tried to play but did not manage to successfully master by the end of the evening. This, of course, was all for free, as were the last three days that we spent in the desert. It is part of Bedouin culture to give freely and they place great emphasis upon hospitality; it is even forbidden to turn away a person in need.

On our way back to the North we stopped in the desert in the South of Israel for one night, in a place called Mitzpe Ramon, which was just as breath taking and dramatic as the desert in Jordan. The next morning we managed to hitchhike all the way to Tel Aviv with a very suave young Jewish couple. Having been in the desert for almost a total of one week, with little access to showers, it was a big shock getting in the back of their futuristic 007 style car, filled with gadgets. They were very interested in our decision to come to Israel and asked us if we were not afraid by all the ‘problems’ they have in the Middle East. We replied that it feels a lot more peaceful than the media makes out and they seemed very pleased by this. Upon arriving in Tel Aviv it was a huge contrast to anything I had seen so far in my stay in Israel. There were absolutely no signs of religion of any kind around the area of the central bus station and the first sign I saw was ‘Get Pork Here.’ There were hundreds of African’s and Asians, the first I had really seen in the best part of a month and there were Mac Donald’s everywhere. We made our way to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and stayed with a Jewish girl for the night who had lived at the goat farm for six years.

She said that she sees no distinction between Jews and Arabs and said that we are all human at the end of the day. She told us about a young boy who was at the farm a while ago; he had been sent there on a reform program and it was hoped that he would ‘straighten himself out.’ When he first arrived he saw Arabs as animals and no matter what anyone would say to him, he would not change his mind. Only when Amnon took him to an Arab family for dinner did he finally see that they are humans too and have the same fears, worries, hopes, and aspirations as Jewish people do. She said that you need to experience to understand, and that you cannot simply learn about the ‘other side’ but that you have to form relationships with them and experience their way of life. Until the right wing Jews actually experience and therefore understand a different way of life to their own, their attitude will not change. Dahlia also believed that the reconciliation of Jews and Arabs can only happen when mindsets change. She said that both do not necessarily want to have peace. Not all Jews want to learn the ways of Arabs and vice versa. Only when they are appreciative of the other can things change.

The girl we stayed with in Jerusalem was from an ultra Orthodox family that tried to marry her off when she was only 16 years old. She ran away to the farm and spent her teenage years growing up with Amnon and Dahlia as her parents. She said that she struggles with being Jewish because Judaism is now far from the initial religion. The whole history of the Jews was about them not having a home land and being persecuted and now they are doing the same to the Palestinians. She said that it is totally hypocritical and if that is what Judaism is, then she wants nothing to do with it. It is not about God any more but about politics and greed.
Upon arriving back at the farm, I realised that I only had one week left in Israel, if I was to leave on the 11th of March. I suddenly realised how the farm felt like a home to me and how I could not imagine leaving it so soon. Amnon and Dahlia felt like my parents in Israel and the other volunteers like my siblings. But not only had I struck up very good relationships with the people at the farm, but I actually missed physical work whilst I was in Jordan. I missed the feel of earth beneath my hands and the aching muscles you would get after lifting hay bales or big bags of grain. I missed the smell of powdered milk that you would give to some of the baby goats and even their aggressive kicks that would bruise you when you lifted them out of their pen. I missed the decaying smell and the sting of wet weeds and nettles from the vegetable garden that you would collect and feed to the horses. I missed the warming tiredness of your body after a full day’s work and I decided to stay on for another month. During that last month I put my heart, soul, mind and body into the work and I began to feel a change within me. I felt selfless and I stopped thinking about my own needs but about the needs of the farm. I felt truly fulfilled, wholesome, healthy and happy. My loyalty was to the farm and its people. Working as hard as I did in that final month made me feel like I was part of this complex, terrifying but intensely beautiful country and I felt privileged to feel that way.

I find it difficult to paint an exact picture of my three months in Israel, and I think it will always be difficult for me to express how I feel about the experiences that I had there. But this is because it is an immeasurably complex country, one of contrast and even contradiction. There are acutely different atmospheres wherever you go in Israel, and it is mindboggling to think that a forty minute bus journey can take you from Tel Aviv, one of the party capitals of the world, to Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world. A two minute walk in Jerusalem can take you from an Ultra Orthodox Jewish quarter to the very Middle Eastern and often quite shady Palestinian quarters. A two hour bus journey from Jerusalem to the North of Israel can bring you to a number of very left-wing settlements, where there are no big divisions between the Jews and Arabs, but just friendships to be had between the two.

Israel is small in size, but vast in terms of varying or opposing cultures, beliefs, opinions and people. The differences in the places I visited and the people that I met along the way highlight this complexity. However, the common strands that I found along the way, expressed by both the old and young, both the Arabs and Jews, is that most are tired of conflict. It seems as though the majority want peace, and most agree that this peace can only be found when there is mutual respect and understanding of another people or culture. People do not seem to think that the conflict is religious anymore, or if it is, it is just as much religious as it is about human greed. Behind each depressing and hopeless news headline about Israel are families with the same wishes, desires, hopes and aspirations as any other family and the people of Israel, regardless of whether they are Jews or Arabs, also laugh, tell jokes, smile, share and forgive just the same as people do who live outside of war zones. You rarely see this on the news back in the UK, but now I feel that there is hope, great hope, for the future of a country that is, after all, simply filled with very human human beings.

|

Latest reports

Photos on Flickr

    Failed to connect to flickr.com!

Quotes

It’s been a truly fantastic experience and we cannot wait to return in the spring/summer to continue [building a new Centre for Roma children in Romania]…The sense of having achieve something from nothing and knowing that is possible and will make such an important difference to the children for whom we are building, meant that despite being sad to leave for the time being we went home happy.

James Dale, University of Edinburgh, 2006

About this site