1. Hebrew is tough, practically useless, and worth learning.
The number of Hebrew speakers is about the size of the country (9 million), and most young Israelis in the bigger cities can speak English (hip-hop and Hollywood, man). But as it is one of the world’s oldest languages and the only one brought back to life after millennia in dormancy, there is a lot to learn from Hebrew. It has a complicated and rich history that stands on its own, and, like most people, Israelis will have an immense appreciation for someone who tried to learn a few phrases before coming to their home.
2. Israel is not a monolith.
Israeli politics can be as divisive among Israelis as they are elsewhere in the world. Not all Israelis support the occupation, even those who have served in the army (which is almost everybody).
3. Most Israelis/Palestinians are not constantly fighting.
And visiting Israel is not necessarily more dangerous than visiting other nations: the United States has a per capita gun homicide rate 33 times higher than Israel. Although the conflict is a huge part of the Israeli and Palestinian national identities, it is not the only thing that defines either group or, thankfully, their daily lives.
4. Chances are your Israeli friends are veterans.
With at least one war every generation and a serious Operation every couple of years or so (most recently, Operation Protective Edge in 2014) it is almost impossible for Israelis to not experience some element of war. So be aware if you are going to criticize decisions made by powerful people in front of those who had no choice but to serve, and who maybe lost friends and family because of it.
Arab-Israelis are a real population — and not all of them want Israel to cease to exist: About 20% of the Israeli population is Arab. The majority of them are Muslim, but there are also Christians, Druze, and Palestinian Jews (who were living in Palestine before it became Israel). Although racism is a serious problem when it comes to policing and land ownership, Arab Israelis, like secular Jews, receive the same rights under the law.
5. Israel is the LGBT capital of the Middle East, and proud of it.
This is huge for LGBT Jews who do not feel comfortable at home and choose to move to a country where they feel accepted. This is also important to LGBT Arab Israelis and Palestinians, as LGBT rights are not protected in the West Bank and homosexuality is illegal in Gaza. Especially in Tel Aviv, Israelis have a lot of pride over their liberal philosophy regarding sexuality and gender.
6. Israel is young and tiny.
Because of this, every Israeli experiences national events intimately. This includes the conflict, but it also includes the dozens of Jewish holidays, weekly Shabbat, music festivals, parades and countless other events that represent a small society still very in touch with itself. To experience an isolated nation with the population the size of New York City can rock your perspective on community, religion, philosophy, art and interpersonal relationships. Do not let your cultural experience be overshadowed by the politics of the region.
7. Don’t step in the Bullshit.
Brand Israel is also a real thing, and as a visitor, you will get the brunt of it. Don’t fall for the often repeated political traps, such as Arabs having 22 countries to live in while Jews have just one, or that “Palestinian” is a made-up nationality (they all are), it only prevents you from having deeper conversations about what Israel is now and what it is trying to become.
8. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are just parts of the story.
Yes, Israel is small, but within the Green Line (Israel’s internationally recognized 1948 borders) there are hundreds of historic towns and communities. Some stretch back to the biblical era while the communist and/or socialist Kibbutzim only 100 years or so. There are also Druze villages and Bedouin communities that are worth visiting, as they are a key part of understanding the complexity of Israeli society.
9. Since the Oslo Accords of the mid-90s, peace, and a two-state solution seem further away than ever.
Yes, Israeli and even Arab cities in the West Bank live in relative peace, but human rights violations perpetrated by the Israeli government on Palestinians happen every day (many of which are reported on by Israeli journalists). So don’t visit expecting endless tragedy everywhere, because it does disservice to the people on both sides who have made very real efforts to live in peace, but try to remember that Israel/Palestine is not a solved problem.
10. And you should visit the West Bank.
If you truly want to experience Israel, you must visit the Palestinian territories. Plan ahead as checkpoints and visa restrictions can get in your way, but visiting the West Bank (known as Judea and Samaria in Israel) is worth the lines, if only to get a better understanding of this complicated and unfortunate situation. No matter how you see Israel or Palestine before your visit, remember that, as Shimon Peres put it: “There are no hopeless situations, only hopeless people.”