Back from the Dead [Sea]: HBS Israel Trek 2010

Fresh from the oven and doused in olive oil and za'atar - delicious

Israel is widely known as the promised land – the land of milk and honey. White sands glisten along dramatic coastlines, lush orchards of figs, pomegranates and olives litter ancient landscapes and beautiful partygoers throng vibrant resorts. But after ten days of intense travel with a group of 80 HBS students, Israel seems much more like a land of paradoxes – a complex blend of antiquity and modernity, religion and secularity, patriotism and rebellion.

The center of three major religions, Israel attracts millions of tourists each year. However, in spite of (or rather because of) its status as one of the holiest places on earth, this tiny strip of land has seen centuries of conflict, turmoil and bloodshed. After a drawn-out battle against the Palestinian Arabs, Israel declared independence in 1948, only to face fresh attacks from Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. The now famous Israeli Defense Forces were formally established on May 26, 1948 and, by March of the following year, the IDF had miraculously repelled Arab forces to secure Israel’s borders. Unfortunately this was not the end. During the 6 Day War of 1967, Israel pre-emptively attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria to regain control of the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Egypt and Syria retaliated with a surprise attack in 1973, leading to thousands of casualties that highlighted Israel’s vulnerabilities and the need for peace in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict has persisted over the decades, manifesting itself in two wars with the PLO in Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and two Intifada uprisings in Palestinian territories (1987 and 2000). More recently, Israel imposed an embargo on the Gaza Strip after the territory fell under Hamas rule three years ago. Last week, a flotilla of 6 Turkish ships carrying 10,000 tons of aid for the impoverished Gaza Strip was intercepted by Israeli forces, causing a significant setback in relations with Turkey, a key ally in the Muslim world.

Given its political backdrop and religious tensions, I was surprised at how secular Israeli society actually feels. Jews, Christians and Muslims peacefully co-habit the densely populated Old City within Jerusalem and flyers promoting the latest clubs litter the glitzy boardwalks of Eilat. Hordes of sun-worshipping Tel Avivians flock to the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and, with the exception of Shabbat (the day of rest), every hour in the city feels like it’s bursting with modern life. Our guide for the trip spoke fondly of King Hussein of Jordan and his work towards signing a landmark peace treaty with Israel.

“We are desperately seeking peace with our neighbours. If we can build more friendships in the region, we’d absolutely be willing to cede land.”

Even more encouraging was our Arab-Israeli taxi driver’s impassioned speech for peace. “The people of the West Bank are trapped in a dead-end society. They cannot work and they cannot leave. I grew up here, an Arab in Jerusalem, and I know that we, the people, want peace. We want this to end. It is the politicians who want the conflict.”

Another remarkable paradox of modern day Israel is the co-existence of a strong culture of rebellion with a mandatory conscription for both men and women to the IDF. Everywhere we went, Israelis spoke proudly of their distaste for authority and their passion for disagreeing with the status quo (regardless of what it is).

“We don’t queue in Israel. Life is all about cutting lines”.

The cultivation of this particular personality trait on a national level appears to have created psychological unity among the Israeli people (above and beyond religious and ethnic similarities) and, perhaps more importantly, spawned a culture of risk-taking and entrepreneurship. Interestingly, Israel’s enormous military budget (~9% of GDP vs. ~ 4% for the US) necessitated by its location in a hostile Middle East, has fueled a booming high tech industry and a desire by its people to “build something” rather than work in say, financial services.

Blessed with lush, dramatic landscapes, gorgeous beaches and delicious and wonderfully spicy food, it is hard not to fall in love with Israel. After four nights in Tel Aviv, two in Jerusalem, three in Eilat and one in Kfar Blum, we were averaging 4 hours of sleep and many more units of alcohol. Despite the exhaustion, the heat and the sensory overload, the thought of leaving “the Land” and the fabulous group of 80 crazy partners in crime, was quite a downer. Israeli people are wonderfully warm and incredibly hospitable and the idea of a ten hour red-eye with American plane food was far less appealing than a hot pitta filled with spicy hummus and perfectly crisped falafel 😉