The land of Israel is the heart and soul of three mighty belief systems, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and one of the oldest settlements on earth. It has been conquered by almost every ancient empire, as well as several modern ones trying to control its deeply religious lands. The State of Israel itself is only 64 years old, but the small country was first inhabited some 50,000 years and its remote, mystical deserts have inspired prophets and religious leaders since time immemorial.
Millions of visitors arrive at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport and include the curious, the devout and those simply searching for the ideal winter sunshine escape. Dozens of ancient sites scattered around Israel are world-famous for their association with iconic events and the settings of religious stories. Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, the magnificent Dome of the Rock, Bethlehem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Masada, the Crusader castles, the Mount of Olives and Akko, sacred to the Ba’hai faith, are all intricately connected with the spiritual history of the human race and Western civilization.
For visitors looking for an active vacation, there’s an equally good amount of rock-climbing, hiking, diving, snorkeling, wind-surfing and other water sports at the many beach resorts you may be surprised to find outside of what is usually thought of as just a desert. Floating in the heavily salinated Dead Sea is a unique experience for all. Skiing on the Golan Heights is a popular winter activity, and Tel Aviv is nicknamed ‘the city that never sleeps’ for its vibrant nightlife.
Israelis in general are a boisterous, friendly lot although the reclaiming of their ancient land, the Diaspora millennia and the Holocaust have made them tough, resilient and often uncompromising. Most are intensely proud of their heritage and happy to show it off to visitors through giving advice on travel and the best places to visit. Most destinations, sights and hotels are distinctly family-friendly, and medical care is of high international standard.
Tourist infrastructure in Israel is well-developed and well-run, with luxury spas and upscale resorts springing up all over the country. Accommodation is comparatively expensive, as is fine dining, but does represent a good value for the money except at prime periods like Christmas, when rates skyrocket due to demand outstripping supply. Recent upgrades at most sites have resulted in major improvements in facilities for the disabled, with even the peak of Masada now wheelchair-accessible.
Travelers to Israel should remember the spring and fall Jewish holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Succut, are all national vacation times for Israelis. Room rates rise dramatically, flights are full and accommodation is often scarce. Otherwise, spring and fall are the best times to be here weather-wise, especially if outdoor activities are part of the agenda. Summer is high tourist season in the resort areas, with higher room rates, as well as soaring temperatures and crowded attractions, entertainment venues and restaurants. Christmas sees huge influxes of visitors to Jerusalem and the famous Holy Land sites, as does Easter, with room rates again on the up and accommodation scarce. For those not arriving for major religious festivals or at high summer, bargains can be found in the off-season periods.
Currency: Israeli New Shekel (ILS)
Official language: Hebrew
Eretz Yisroel – the Promised Land of Israel – has been a crucial, sacred concept to the Jewish peoples since Biblical times, as the Torah relates that God promised the land to his nomadic people during the Iron Age, some four millennia ago. The first Kingdom of Israel came into being in the 11th century BC and was established for over 400 years until Assyrian and Babylonian conquests.
The Classical Greek era and its invasion reacted relatively peacefully on Eretz Yisroel, although the region became heavily Hellenized, causing conflict between the ruling Greeks and the Judeans. The Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC resulted in an independent state becoming established in Judah and expanded across the region roughly to the geographic limits of modern Israel.
By 53 BC, the powerful Roman Empire had invaded, first annexing Syria and moving on to Judah by intervening in a long-running civil war in the area. Resistance resulted in the appointment of King Herod the Great of New Testament fame, who oversaw the Judean region with a heavy hand and incorporated it as a vassal state of Rome.
Violent conflict between patriotic Jews and the Greco-Roman conquerors followed across Israel, and the Jewish-Roman Wars resulted in mass genocide, large-scale destruction and the shrinking of the Jewish population to a minority centered on the Galilee. Samaritans took over the hill country and Greco-Romans settled along the coasts, with the long-held dream of a Promised Land fading yet again.
During the next several centuries, the fast-growing new religion of Christianity began overtaking the pantheon of pagan Roman gods and, by the time Rome had fallen and the Byzantine era had risen, was a major religion with Judah designated as a diocese of the East. In the 5th and 6th centuries, revolts by the Samaritan population reshaped the boundaries of Judah and all but destroyed the Christian population.
Brief relief for the remnants of the Jewish community came via the Persian invasion, with the establishment in 614 AD of a Jewish Commonwealth in present day Israel, but in 625 AD the Byzantine Empire took control again amid more destruction until the Arab conquest in 635 AD. This unleashed centuries of unrest, during which control of Judah passed between Arabs and Crusaders, finally falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1516 AD.
The late 6th century Diaspora dispersed Jewish communities across the world, some as far as India, while the Passover prayer ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ kept alive a hope of the Promised Land for those in exile to return home to Israel. A few tiny settlements were reestablished in Muslim Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed by the 16th century as the modern Aliyah migrations and the Zionist movement began late into 1881, with Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern
Named Palestine and occupied only by Arabs, Eretz Yisroel became the focus of migration by Orthodox Jews and, during WWI, British forces conquered the area agreeing to form a home for the Jewish people. Four more Aliyahs followed, the last sparked by the Nazi movement and the Holocaust during WWII. Subsequently, the British Government reneged on its promise and took the side of Palestine’s Arabs, and the struggle for an independent Jewish State began.
After a year of desperate fighting in the Arab-Israeli War against a massive combined Arab army, the Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion, emerged victorious and the State of Israel was born in late 1948 and joined the United Nations in 1949. Since that point, several attempts by the Arab League to reclaim part of the land have been defeated, notably in the Six Day War, and Israel has become a powerful, militarized nation, with many decades of dreams finally a reality.
The diverse culture of today’s Israel is partly the result of the return of Jews from Diaspora settlements across the world to their ancient homeland, bringing with them their own traditions formed over hundreds of years of isolated and persecuted exile spent in shtetls (towns) and gated ghettos.
Rooted in the religious and secular traditions of millennia, as well as in the history of the Diaspora and the ideological Zionist movement, Israeli culture’s flexibility in embracing modern-day changes reflects the country’s unique spirit. Trends from all over the world are accepted with enthusiasm and integrated into the country’s rich heritage.
At the same time, the unique and varied Jewish religious traditions are linked with the nationalistic Zionism born as a reaction to anti-Semitism during the Diaspora years. Contrasts are huge here, from the secular culture of modern Tel Aviv to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in ancient Jerusalem.
Mixed in are the traditions born of hundreds of years of settlement of Muslim, Ethiopian, Orthodox and other Christian communities, as well as strong family and community ties and immense patriotism. Music of all kinds from traditional to contemporary is a major cultural aspect, and the nation is especially proud of its famous classical musicians and many orchestras.
Israeli dance companies such as Bat Dor and Batsheva are highly acclaimed and traditional dance is a feature at all celebrations and ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. Encounters between Western and Eastern artistry have given rise to adventures in modern art forms, with the country’s magnificent geographic features providing inspirations of shape and line.
Israel’s literary scene sprang into life in the late 19th century with Hebrew works rooted in the traditions of Jews from all over Europe. Many of the early writings focused on the loss of traditional lifestyles leading to a loss of faith and cultural identity, a concern still evident in Orthodox communities today. The Sabra culture of the kibbutz generation is immortalized in many post-independence works.
Theater and cinema are slowly moving away from the post-independence focus on the Holocaust, Sabra and national identity, although these themes are still popular with many Israelis. Half of the performances are produced locally and are stylistically diverse, and film-making, inaugurated in the 1950’s, is still focused on purely Israeli experiences such as the Aliyahs and the problems adjusting to a new way of life.
From ancient times, physical fitness has been a strong part of Jewish culture for its use in preventing illness, and the country holds its own ‘Olympics’ every four years – the Maccabiah Games, restricted to Israeli athletes. Basketball and football are the most popular sports, and the outdoor sports culture sees hikers and campers flooding to the country’s national parks and raising their families to love outdoor pursuits. Israelis are also known for being especially fit, as they are all, male and female, required to serve two years in the army before attending college.
Israelis are often considered brusque or even rude by Western visitors, but this is customary rather than deliberate, and honesty, directness, openness and warmth are the norm here. Israelis tell it like it is - a rare trait in the politically correct world. Hospitability is commonplace and locals delight in sharing their beloved country with visitors. Remember, it’s only technically been an independent country for 50 or so years, so everyone that lives there moved there by choice. You may be invited to share a meal in an Israeli home and presented with huge quantities of food. Getting drunk is considered impolite, as is backing away from an Israeli during a conversation, they are close talkers by Western standards.
While you may picture Israel as only desert, there are actually four climate zones in this tiny country that vary considerably, dependent on topography and altitude. From lush greenery to beachfront coastline, the reality far exceeds the sparse sand piles shown on the news in the conflict areas. In winter, the mountainous regions are cold and windy with the occasional snowfall, even in Jerusalem. The coastal cities of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Eilat enjoy Mediterranean weather, with summers long and hot and winters cool and wet. In the southern Negev Desert region, the Jordan River Valley and Arava, summers are extremely hot with no rain and winters are mild with occasional rainfall.
Rain anywhere in Israel between May and September is regarded as a rare occurrence. Around 70 percent of rainfall occurs between November and March, and varies year by year. Violent rainstorms causing flooding are common, and the precipitation falls as snow in the highlands. January is the coldest month across the country, with average readings between 41°F and 50°F and August is hottest, with temperatures varying according to location between 64°F and a steamy 100°F. For visitors who can’t cope with soaring highs, the shoulder seasons are comfortable.
Israel is one of the world’s most security-conscious countries, although visitors from the US, as well as European Union countries, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and a long list of other countries can get a tourist visa on arrival, valid for a stay of up to three months. Entry, however, is at the discretion of the immigration agency and Muslims and those of Arab descent may be subjected to throughout questioning on arrival.
Taxis are common in all Israeli cities and towns and come in two varieties – shared and exclusive. All journeys should be metered, although it’s not uncommon to have to remind your driver to turn the meter on. Pre-arranged fares are possible, but are invariably in the driver’s favor and the service itself isn’t exactly cheap, especially for trips from the airport to downtown Tel Aviv. Tipping is not expected and fares will be rounded down to the lowest shekel rather than up. The Hadar-Lod Taxi Company (+972-3-971-11-3) has the airport concession, and posts discount rates on a regular basis to lessen the blow for new arrivals. For other journeys, Israel Taxi Group (+972-5-263-5976) is a good choice.
Self-drive in Israel is easy to arrange, either on arrival at the airport or in the cities and larger towns. A foreign driver’s license with at least a year’s validity is required and Israelis drive on the right. Touring by car is an easy way to get around this small country, but Israeli drivers are infamous for their impatient road rage making it often more stressful than convenient for visitors. Even so, it’s by far the best and most economic way to see everything on your agenda. Five major roads, numbered directionally 1 through 5, run through all the regions, and are in good condition. Drivers should note that using a cell phone while driving is highly illegal, as is driving with even a miniscule amount of alcohol in your blood.
It’s possible to travel by train on selected routes in Israel, although fares can be double that of buses and lines often confusing. It should also be remembered that by Friday sundown all public transport shuts down for the Sabbath and opens up again on Sunday. Regular train services run between Haifa and Tel Aviv and the high speed connection from Ben Gurion Airport to Tel Aviv and on to Jerusalem was recently added. An intercity line runs from Nahariya through Haifa, Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion Airport to Beersheba, and Tel Aviv has a useful suburban network.
For regular tourists, buses are the most-used form of public transportation and are comfortable, reliable, fast, and inexpensive. If you’re traveling long distances, the downside is that it’s tricky to plan a logical itinerary due to a lack of passenger information and coordination between the 10 or so bus companies is difficult due to inaccurate or unavailable timetables. Within the major Israeli cities, however, the bus services are comprehensive and relatively easy to use and tickets can be purchased from drivers. Daily passes can save money, and the new Rav-Kav chip and pin card can be charged and refilled for a 20 percent discount on fares.
Before you leave on your holiday, there are at least four health-related things you should do. Please check the handbook for specifics, but for now, here’s the short list:
Step 1: Check with the CDC for their recommendations for the countries you’ll be visiting.
Step 2: Have a medical checkup with your doctor.
Step 3: Pick up any necessary medications, both prescription and over-the-counter.
Step 4: Have a dental and/or eye checkup. (Recommended, but less important than steps 1-3.)
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