“You’ll like Tel Aviv. It’s like Manhattan, but a lot better.”
- An Israeli man sat next to me as I waited for my flight to Tel Aviv. I was in Newark at this point, and I didn’t expect the man who randomly talked to me to have a strange accent. It took me aback, until I realized I’m going to hear a lot of that sort of inflection over the next 10 days. He asked me if the group I was with—36 in total—was Taglit, which was another way of saying Birthright. I said yes. “Ah, if you go for free then you also should join the army.” He smiled as he said this, but I could tell he was thinking about his three years served back when he was my age. I told him I’d think about it and attempted a grin. He shook his head: “You don’t get an opinion.”
- The Israeli sun would kill you slowly if you let it, a mix of creeping warmth and brutality that echoed the country. It never seemed hotter than it was, until it did. The entire country was like this: unassuming, even as you knew you were standing in the most hostile area on Earth. You couldn’t help but feel comfortable in the sun. Surely no one would kill feeling this lucky. Then, a more horrifying thought would come: surely everyone would kill to feel this lucky.
- Maybe that’s why so many flags littered the side of the Israeli road. There’d be five in a row on each side of the highway, as if an invisible mirror was reflecting them to show the necessary patriotism in order to survive. Then, a hundred meters down the road, the flags would repeat—and again, another hundred meters. They marked the territory: this land belongs to the State of Israel, and we’ll be damned if you don’t understand that.
- The signs on the road were in three languages—Hebrew, Arabic, and English. The drivers in Israel are insane. It comes with the territory, with the sun and with their surroundings. America is bordered by Canada, Mexico, and two bodies of water, one of which literally means “peace.” Israel is bordered by five enemies, and, on a good day, four of those five want to kill them at any given moment. They can’t waste time obeying the rules of the road. They might be blown away tomorrow. There’s a reason the number one cause of deaths in Israel is car accidents. It’s better to die by an Israeli.
- The bus was disorienting the first time on it. My entire world had changed. And yet, Rhianna’s “Four Five Seconds” started to play over the speakers. Then came J. Cole’s “Wet Dreamz.” I can’t quite put it into words—not yet, at least—but there is something a little strange about listening to J. Cole talk about losing his virginity while gazing upon a land Moses never saw. “You can’t have nervousness, the sea is behind you!”
- We got to Israel on Friday afternoon, which meant it was almost Shabbat, which meant we had to rush to the hotel. We spent the next two days on the beach next to the Q Hotel, which wasn’t as nice as you’d think a hotel right on the Mediterranean Sea would be. The beach was beautiful, and it looked like Spring Break. It wasn’t, though, just Shabbat, and you could see the merits of having a day every week to simply relax and party.
- We traveled to the Golan Heights on Day 3, as well as an old military outpost. If you looked one way, you could see Israel. If you looked the other, you could see Syria. Our Israeli tour guide told us that, during a clear day (it was cloudy when we went), you could see the chemical gas rising from the Syrian side just a few hundred meters from where we were standing. She pointed at a spot in the distance and said people could see it as close as there; I’m pretty sure Aaron Rodgers could throw a football to the spot she pointed.
- It was weird to think about, since Israel, for all its wars and dangers, was still one of the safest countries on Earth. No other country could protect its people like Israel. And yet, just a little way’s off from where we were standing, Assad continually and viciously gassed his own people. The distinction is overwhelming.
- We visited a military outpost, where we were told the story of Eli Cohen, whose intelligence work nearly single-handedly help Israel win the Six Day Way. He was nearly named a Minister of Defense in Syria while working for Israel the entire time, feeding them information that ultimately helped prolong the Israeli state into its present day. He eventually lost his life after the Syrians found him out. Eli Cohen is considered one of Israel’s biggest heroes. “Guys, Eli Cohen was a real bad-ass.
- The afternoon turned much lighter after that, as we rafted down the Jordan River. The water was cool and refreshing. The fish came to greet us as we passed, and the turtles and crabs wanted to know what we thought we were doing, being loud and disturbing their sleep. Berries were in the trees, and our Israeli tour guide made sure she ate all of them. We fell asleep quickly on the bus, and even faster at the Kibbutz Shomrat, our home for the next day. We were told 7 Israeli soldiers would join us tomorrow for the next 5 days. We were excited.