Reporting from Israel
By Kiana Duncan
Duncan, a senior journalism major, filed her final blog from her semester at Kent State Prague (and beyond).
Two days before I left on a solo trip for Israel, President Trump announced that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, essentially declaring Jerusalem the capital of Israel. This announcement sent the country into a nationwide debate and sent my weekend into uncertainty.
I’d received texts, articles, and warnings from family and friends explicitly asking (and telling) me not to go, but ultimately, I decided to go for several reasons: First and foremost, I am a journalist. I spent my entire college career reverberating my desire to push myself out of my comfort zone; so I felt it was my job to witness news and report on this development. I also saw this as an amazing opportunity to test myself. Lastly, I thought about what would happen if I’d let the weekend pass, stayed in Prague, and never bothered to take a chance on myself. I would be extremely disappointed to look back, years from now, and think that I missed out on something because of a moment of doubt. I knew the experience would be intense. I would need to be constantly aware and never let my guard down completely, but I felt ready for the challenge and grateful for the opportunity.
I was definitely erring on the side of caution, though: knowing “help” in Hebrew, the location of the American Embassy, texting friends and family daily to keep them updated, and just being aware of my surroundings.
However, as my travels have proven time after time, there really is only so much you can prepare for.
My first impression of Israel was its beauty: From the skyscrapers along the coast, to the lively market places bursting at the seams with locals and tourists, the atmosphere was rich with culture and sunshine.
My second impression was the overwhelming, yet finely balanced chaos that hangs in the air and on nearly every moment in the bustling city of Tel Aviv. Buses jerk from lane to lane, stopping quickly, swerving often, and begin moving again at the most unexpected times (resulting in me falling on top of an elderly man at the central bus station. Much to my relief, I watched him fall on someone else approximately two minutes later). To keep on time, drivers open the doors, let everyone get on and line up to pay, and then continue driving. I watched in horror as a woman stood inches from the open bus door while the bus was easily moving more than 50 kilometers per hour.
When in Tel Aviv...
Like any country, Israel came with its own set of norms and rules, only known to locals. These norms take time to absorb, and often times, especially in cultures with so much Eastern influence, there is a steep learning curve for Westerners like me.
I’ve learned we Westerners love rules. Rules for what time the bus comes, set prices for how much we pay to go places, standards for how people talk to us and regulations for nearly every aspect of our life. We love what we can see and rely on; what is concrete and unchanging. Much to my surprise, Israel came with little of these to get a firm footing on. This meant that the key to success was to approach everything with flexibility and humility, and to accept that it was different from everything I had known.
I was wary of those around me, as well as hyper-aware of my place here. It would be extremely easy to rip me off or to take an advantage of someone so ignorant to the culture. As I attempted to refrain from getting whiplash on this bus, struggling to hold onto my heavy backpack, I showed the bus driver my bus stop on my phone. He asked me to pronounce the name of my stop, and I realized two things: he couldn’t read English, and I couldn’t speak Hebrew. Instead, we came to an agreement that he would count the stops for me, and right on cue, he waved me to the front: “You get off now.” I was relieved and grateful my first experience (while not easy), had at least ended well, and this man had been kind enough to give me a helping hand.
Taxis were also much different from anything I’d ever experienced: Shuttles in Israel have 10 seats, and take you to major cities: Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. They line up on the street, and leave when 10 people all want to go to the same destination. Not exactly the most timely or reliable option, but decently cheap and straightforward to use: “You go to Tel Aviv? 24 shekels.” Then you wait for nine other people.
The real fun began when we took off. While in the U.S. it’s completely acceptable to honk if you don’t agree with someone’s driving, Israelites prefer a different approach: sticking their hand out the window and hitting the car in front of them repeatedly until they move. I looked around the large van to see if anyone else was as shocked as I was, but their lack of attention told me this was a rush hour norm. No one looked up from their phone or back from the window. The other driver didn’t even honk back-- he simply pulled forward. It wasn’t personal, apparently. Despite this novelty I’d found, I will say that between the scooters, bikes and motorbikes weaving in and out of heavy traffic and the sheer centimeters between each car on the highway, I never saw anything even close to a fender bender.
I’d originally decided I would not go to Jerusalem because of the tension, but changed my mind quickly upon arrival. I found a shuttle on the overwhelming street filled with taxis in Tel Aviv, each taxi accompanied by its driver trying to drum up business: “You need a taxi, yes? I go to the airport, too.” Navigating which one exactly would take me to Jerusalem was intense, as every sign was in Hebrew and everyone appearing to understand the system but me. Eventually, one kind man walked me to the correct shuttle, tucked away among the other identical ones.
The drive to Jerusalem is breathtaking. The shuttle went through a tunnel, and on the other side were hills for miles, full of old and new architecture, all past a winding road along a steep cliff. Within the city, however, I -- and many other travelers who were willing to chance the weekend here -- agreed: The tension was palpable.
The Journey to Jerusalem
My first day in Jerusalem was a Saturday, I unthinkingly asked my hostel for vegan-friendly food recommendations. She smiled and said I would be lucky to find anything open, as it was Shabbat. I laughed at myself on the way out the door. I’d asked for a restaurant recommendation on a Saturday in Jerusalem. I settled on a Christian-owned (really one of the only places open) burger restaurant nearby and began my walk there.
Right as I sat down and ordered, my eye caught something out of the ordinary and I froze, shaken. I watched a homeless man walk in, carrying a large assault rifle. I knew that in Italy, Turkey and many other countries, military and security carry assault rifles, and in some of those countries, soldiers are expected to keep their guns on them at nearly all times. I knew that seeing a young man or woman carrying a large gun around Turkey wasn’t necessarily strange, but here I had no clue. My mind ran wild with possibilities, news headlines and hypothetical scenarios. It came down to one thing: I didn’t know what was normal here -- whether carrying your gun into a restaurant was acceptable or even legal here, or whether I was watching a political revolution about to happen. Just as I was about to text my friends a final farewell, I noticed the orange tip on the end of the barrel and breathed a sigh of relief. He walked out a few moments later. No longer hungry, I asked for my veggie burger to go.
Despite the scary moments of uncertainty, I wasn’t exactly alone. Each night in the hostel, I’d head to the bar or cafe, and luckily in Jerusalem, there was no shortage of fellow travelers also looking for either an extra sense of security on a weekend night or for an insight into bars open on Shabbat. I managed to find both. So an Australian, Israelite, American, Italian, Canadian, and German walk into a bar… (insert your own joke).
Moshe was an Orthodox Jew we’d met at our hostel who’d lived in Jerusalem all his life. I noticed many Israelites enjoy traveling to nearby hostels to meet travelers. He recommended a street of bars nearby, but we were skeptical. We’d heard on Shabbat many Jewish people don’t even turn on a light switch, let alone go to a bar. Moshe laughed and informed us with a wry smile that Shabbat was from Friday evening to Saturday evening -- and it was now Saturday night. We shrugged and agreed to let him show us around his home city.
I’m often in awe of the eye-opening conversations that have happened so organically during my global experience. People really do want to understand each other and find common ground, even if they don’t necessarily agree with each other. The Australian and I had been discussing gender equality and equal pay, and we decided to pitch the question to Moshe was well.
“Men and women are very equal in my culture,” he said seriously.
“So they get paid equally?” Mark asked.
“In my culture, it is a privilege to take care of the family. It is so important. It is my duty to work. We are both equal in our roles, and we could not do each other’s. But both are equally important to creating a life together.”
Mark wanted to continue to argue it out, but I was stunned at his response. Equal, but different roles. It was thought-provoking. I’m sure just as Christians can view the same argument thousands of different ways, so can Jews, but I didn’t feel it was my job to argue with this philosophy, or even agree; I just wanted to take it in and appreciate it as someone else’s culture.
Just in time, Moshe announced that we had arrived. Mark and I grinned at each other. The massive street was filled with lively couples, groups of friends and even a few families, all in kippahs and enjoying an Israeli brew. We were definitely going to have a local experience.
We spent the night sampling different beers and Israeli breads stuffed with brisket and sweet potato, teaching each other phrases and words from our respective languages, especially when a new round came to the table:
The next morning, I toured the old city. Contrary to many tourist locations, the old city is still very much alive, living and breathing with kids running around from the Armenian quarter to the Christian quarter and men with long beards and brimmed black hats cycling home for lunch. Along a gate overlooking the Western Wall, children went to school in ancient-looking buildings with kippahs and graphic T-shirts on. They sang in Hebrew and teased and threw balls at each other. The mix of modern and ancient took my breath away; this was a “normal” I had never experienced before. The rhythm of life here was so different from anything I had experienced. Life goes on here every day like this, I reminded myself, and I am so lucky to be a part of it even for a second.
I took a detour down to the City of David before catching a shuttle back to Tel Aviv. I looked across at a massive hill that looked straight out of a biblical painting. Below, a man was running in neon orange leggings next to women in long skirts and hijabs. Even further down, men and women were riding horses in long robes. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I sat down in awe, and just when I thought nothing else would ever compare to this moment, the call to prayer played over the speakers, calling thousands to honor their god and enveloping the side of the hill in the sound.
As I walked back to my hostel, a large school group of children were walking, singing and dancing in Hebrew, all smiles. I couldn’t even bring myself to reach for my phone or camera. This moment was untouched. It was the most normal, everyday kind of event here. It couldn’t be commercialized or recreated; it was beautiful.
An attractive part of traveling is seeing another culture, something we aren’t used to. The danger is not acknowledging our place in it, and not realizing that we are also different, especially when we are in someone else’s home. When we say “I want to learn about someone else’s culture,” it sometimes comes with the subtext of “because they are different from me.” During my weekend in Israel, I tried to remind myself at every turn that I was different from them, I was “other” and they were the norm. It wasn’t just a chance to observe, it was an opportunity to share, as well. It was a cultural exchange.
Discretion was key in taking pictures and video, because the last thing I wanted to do here was to ostracize a culture in which I was not a native, or to reduce someone’s life to a video I showed to my friends when I got back home. (There are also religious implications to be aware of in Muslim and Jewish culture regarding photos.) I was especially careful to keep my head down and dress modestly in particularly religious areas or ones likely to have protests-- not that I saw any. While there was tension, and despite the headlines I read every morning, everyone treated me with respect and kindness, and seemed genuinely happy to have me as a visitor in their country.
Traveling somewhere so unfamiliar is like jumping without looking. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I get to this bus stop, but I’ll figure it out. I can’t predict what might go wrong, but I’ll take it in stride. I don’t know if I can trust the person I’ve just met, but I’m going to be aware and cautious and hope that they have the best intentions. My last trip of the semester was the experience that stretched my comfort zone farther than it had ever been before, and after this semester, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am returning a much different person than when I left.