Traveling to Israel
I have been traveling to Israel regularly for the past couple of decades. And each time, I try to meet new people or spend time in places that I haven’t before. Without fail, I later walk away wondering how I didn’t know about “that place” before! And there is always more to see and experience.
I could genuinely say, I’m in love with this land. It’s such a small country yet fascinating people and exhilarating opportunities are around every corner. That said, I am not an “Israel romantic”—I’m a realist. There are real people with real problems mixed into the real landscape of conflict and rich biblical history.
Just a couple weeks of simple living in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem will cement several abrupt supermarket encounters in your memory. And when I say “abrupt,” I really mean a cut-in-line-and-pretend-you-aren’t-there rudeness. Israel takes rudeness to a pro level, which sends western sensibilities to counseling. And yet, if you stay in the country long enough, these same people will defend you with their lives.
Who is a Sabra?
There is a slang term used in Israel for a native born Israeli — they are called a Sabra. This Hebrew word refers to a fruit of a cactus, a prickly pear plant in English. This is a desert plant that has a tough and prickly skin, but is soft and sweet inside. In my experience, there is no better description of Israelis. When you take the time to get past the aggressive and sharp exterior, there is a sweetness and devotion like nowhere else.
If you have only seen Israel on TV, Internet articles, or from a tour bus window, you’ve missed the real Israel.
While all are viable options, these avenues simply show you what they want you to see. What you’re missing is the cornucopia of unique, quirky, astounding, heartwarming and heartbreaking things about the culture and the region. What am I referring to, you might ask?
Fully Present while Traveling to Israel
To list a few of those quirks… There’s an Elvis diner by the main route to Jerusalem, near a village where Jews and Arabs share meals. Said village also makes the best hummus in the land. You will follow with confusion odd Middle-eastern hand gestures that have the power to both rile up and to calm a stranger.
There are stunningly accurate ancient prophesies, secret hikes and caves, incredible Arab hospitality, grumpy nuns… And vast ways to serve the people and the country. Israel has the best roadside delicacies on earth. It offers the most memorable “adventures” in airport security.
And, let us not forget, Israel is packed with distinctive locations that invite visitors to reconnect with God.
Ezekiel 5:5 God said he placed Jerusalem (Israel) in the center of the nations. It’s not an arrogant statement to say Israel is the center of the world—it is biblical! To that end, there is something for everyone in the people, the culture, and landscape. It is where all nations will come to worship the King.
“…Yes, But Is It Safe?”
If you have or if you are traveling to Israel anytime soon, you have undoubtedly been asked this question. Well meaning friends or family often say something like “…but isn’t it dangerous? Maybe now isn’t such a good time to go.”
These questions are often asked with the best of intentions, but also with an uninformed perspective. They are influenced by western media, and usually come with half a tablespoon of “wisdom” that tastes more like fear. As someone who travels to Israel frequently, allow me to suggest a few things to share with our concerned loved ones. They might fit in the following categories:
The emotional family member:
Yes, it is safe. If you are going with a group, the tour company and guide will have their finger on the pulse. That includes the latest news, people, and events in the land. For them, bad tour experiences equal bad business. You can rest assured your bus driver will not drive into Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah on Friday afternoon as Muslim men are leaving the mosques. Guaranteed.
The frequent news consumer:
Yes, it is safe. Maybe turn off the TV and stop reading articles about Israel that have “you won’t believe what happened next!” in the title. Not everything you see or read online is true. Very few, if any, news outlets report on communities where Arabs and Jews live together. Majority of them work together and get along — communities like this are all over Israel.
The Bible thumper:
Yes, it is safe. God says in His Word “Do Not Fear” a lot more often than He does “Brace Yourself”. We are indebted to minister to Israel in practical ways (Romans 15:25-27). God called us to serve our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We live in a time where the Bible is coming to pass and much of it has to do with Israel returning to the land.
This is not a time to shrink back, but to go! While things can sometimes happen, God is more than able to keep those that He loves safe in His City. The believing communities in Israel can testify to this fact.
Someone who may listen to reason:
Yes, it is safe. Every major city has places that it’s best not to go at night, and so do cities in Israel. That said, every Israeli man and woman go through military training for at least two years. This means that everyone from the “mall cop” to guy waiting for the taxi to your waiter knows how to handle dangerous situations. Most Israelis are able to detect potential threats, and know how to respond. There have been countless crimes stopped by Israeli civilians that were never reported. Israelis watch out for each other.
To the facts quoter:
Strictly going by the per capita numbers, Israel is a safer nation than most of the major cities in the USA. The cities we live in or visit regularly have five to 10 times the rate of violent crime than Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. (You can compare your city’s crime to a city in Israel on this website) In truth, the “is it safe?” question is usually asked just from a person’s perception.
To Mom: Yes, mom, it is safe. Give her a long hug, send her daily pics and buy her something in the Old City. Knowing Mom, she’ll forgive you.
More than just traveling to Israel
I distinctively remember a conversation I had with an Israeli friend on a random street corner. I dare say, it changed my life. My Israeli friend pointed to a busy street and said,
“Do you know why Israelis have a reputation of being hardheaded, arrogant, rude and aggressive? Because they had to fight for everything they’ve ever gotten. If you want to bless Israel – come here and love people. A stranger’s love is something many Israelis don’t know what to do with. Then when life gets hard, they will know who to turn to.”
Then, he continued, “Some Christian groups come here to sing, dance and pray. They eat at big buffets and enjoy air conditioned buses. All the while they think they ‘blessed Israel.’ Their newsletters sound impressive, but they don’t really get involved here. If you want to truly bless Israel — come here, build friendships, and love on people. They will remember you.”
The truth is, Israel is a hard place to live. One in five Israelis lives below the poverty line. I’ve been told that many believers in the Messianic community are struggling to make ends meet. For Arab believers, these numbers are off the charts. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that tours are important. After all, a high percentage of Israelis work in the tourism business.
Nevertheless, to think we are blessing Israel by sitting in a plush hotel chair is like pretending we’re working while playing solitaire on our office computer. It’s like being physically there, but not engaging at all. Another local friend once told the group I brought to Israel: “Don’t just come here to touch the ancient stones that Jesus touched. Reach out and touch the “living stones” that the Lord is using today.”