I was about to devour one of the great joys of Israel, its breakfast, when the tour guide, Ofer, broke the news. Rockets launched from Gaza the night before had struck the south.

We were in the tree-lined tea house gazebo of the Port and Blue Hotel in Tel Aviv. Guests at nearby tables murmured about the unfortunate news. I put my fork down. Clearly the shakshouka, fresh hummus, and Israeli salad could wait. I turned to Ofer. A smiling Israeli Jewish man in his 60s with a calm, slightly raspy voice, he had the comforting demeanor of a wise uncle.

“Doesn’t the Iron Dome (Israel’s missile air defense system) intercept all rockets?” I asked.

Ofer thoughtfully adjusted his glasses, shook his head. “Most, not all.”

“Can rockets from Gaza reach Tel Aviv?”

“They can,” he said nonchalantly.

Voices from back in Canada, when I announced that I was going to Israel, filled my head. “Is it safe?” My mother asked, her forehead creased with concern. A bewildered Jewish friend questioned why I’d go and helpfully reminded me, “…you’re not Jewish.”

“You’re into Jesus-y stuff now?” asked an equally confused atheist pal.

A left-wing comrade had declared, “If you truly support Palestinians, you’d never go to Israel.”

These voices rang loud. Was I right to be here?

I finished breakfast and scrolled the news. Ten rockets fired from Gaza, eight intercepted, one Israeli home destroyed.

“Come,” Ofer said. “Let’s enjoy the day.”

Understanding the conflict

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No matter how traveled I am, as I embark on a new trip, like many of us, I still carry the baggage of perception and belief. From an early age our self-identities are shaped by family and culture. Throughout our lives we’re bombarded with biased opinions — from media and otherwise — that are pro-this and anti-that.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most complex, controversial, and longest-lasting in the world. At its core, it’s a struggle between Jewish Zionists (who believe Jewish people deserve their own state in Israel, their ancestral homeland) and Palestinians (the Arab population that come from the land that Israel now controls). Following a 1967 war between Israel and Egypt-Jordan-Syria, Israel gained control of the West Bank and Gaza, two territories with majority Palestinian populations. Israel and Palestine have long disagreed over who gets what land and how it is controlled.

Global public opinion (as well as my own) generally tilts in favor of Palestine. In BBC World Service polls over the years, Israel has consistently ranked as the fourth least popular country after Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

In my simplistic view, I saw Israel as a destination primarily enjoyed by Jewish folks, Zionists, and Christians. Why, then, would an atheist, liberal “lefty” want to go there?

Touring Jaffa, a town that breaks through stereotypes and preconceptions

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On the surface, war and politics seem distant in Tel Aviv; the young, secular hipsters and LGBTQ population are ostensibly more intent on revelry. Much to the chagrin of the devout, in this Mediterranean city, hedonism is the main religion.

Tel Aviv feels like a Middle Eastern version of Lisbon mixed with San Francisco. For this very reason, it’s a great way to ease into Israel. On any given day, sun-chasers play volleyball or lounge on the powdery sands that stretch for nine miles along the Mediterranean coast while surfers catch waves at Hilton, Maravi, or Dolphinarium Beaches. Meanwhile, in the heart of the city, the famous tree-lined Rothschild Boulevard sees tourists and locals enjoying dozens of coffee kiosks, top-rated restaurants, art galleries, and high-end shops, many housed in the hundreds of tastefully restored Bauhaus buildings.

Regardless of the rocket attack in the south that day, there appeared to be no threat to the city. The air-raid sirens were quiet. The sun was out, and people were smiling.

At the southern end of Tel Aviv is the 4,000-year-old port city of Jaffa. Ofer and I emerged from its labyrinthine alleyways to the foot of the centuries old Al-Bahr Mosque. It towered above old Jaffa, a biblical port said to be founded by Japheth, the son of Noah. Home to around 30,000 Jews and 16,000 Arabs, Ofer tells me Jaffa prides itself on being a mixed city.

In a search for food, we detoured through the crowded Turkish bazaar of the Jaffa flea market, its laneways draped in antique jewelry, leather goods, and swaths of fabric. The stalls were lined with wood crafts and musical instruments, silver trinkets, and much more.

Relief from the bustle was found at one of Jaffa’s most beloved restaurants, Cafe Puaa on Rabbi Yohanan Street in the heart of the flea market. This retro restaurant serves up wholesome, homestyle Mediterranean and Israeli fare. Around me, jubilant families spoke Hebrew and Arabic while chic 20-somethings conversed in English and Russian. After a delicious meal of stewed chicken and curried pumpkin dumplings, I finished with a crisp Negev craft beer.

Simmering tensions don’t quell Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean nightlife

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That evening, we headed north of Jaffa to Rothschild Street for a taste of Tel Aviv’s famous nightlife.

Across from the city’s largest synagogue is Port Sa’id, a restaurant, bar, and record library that is the capital of Tel Avivan cool. The patio was overflowing with dozens of Millennials and Gen Z-ers happy to be seen at the city’s hippest spot. For years people have been flocking here in part because of the food menu, created by iconic Israeli chef, Eyal Shani. After a simple yet flavorful Bread Salad (chunks of fresh bread, tomatoes, onions, and herbs), I motioned to the bartender for another Goldstar. But when the two young German dudes beside me handed the DJ a record of German oompah music to play, even though there’s an entire wall of good vinyl to choose from, I took it as my cue to move on.

Down a somewhat hidden alley off of Allenby Street, red pathway lights led to another of Tel Aviv’s favorite venues, Sputnik. It’s reminiscent of a Budapest ruin bar — just the right amount of shabby, with art-lined brick walls and multiple rooms offering multiple types of music. In the room blasting garage rock, I made small talk with a bartender that used to live in Canada.

“What do you miss about Edmonton?” I asked her.

She popped open a beer and handed it to me. “Nothing,” she said.

After a moment she reconsidered. “Actually, I liked how everyone, no matter who they were, got along with each other. But like, for real.”

On the surface, Tel Aviv appears to be a place where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures intertwine, where diversity is a unifying force. In many ways and for many people, it is. But en route back to my hotel I get a sobering reminder that this isn’t always the case.

My taxi driver, who appeared to be in his early 30s, took a call. Loud rap music played on the stereo. I couldn’t tell if he was speaking Hebrew or Arabic.

One of the first things I learned upon arriving in Israel is that all signs are in both languages (often including English, as well). Hebrew is Israel’s official language. Arabs make up 21 percent of Israel’s 8.7 million people. For 70 years, Arabic was also an official state language, but in 2018 that status was revoked in a move that many have called unabashedly racist.

Once the cab driver hung up, I asked him if he was speaking Arabic. His eyes met mine in the rearview mirror. “No, Hebrew, man, Hebrew. I’m not a fucking Arab.” As we wound through the streets he went on a rant. “We Jews, we tolerate the Arabs, we live beside them, but we don’t like them. I grew up in Jaffa, I live there. We talk to the Arabs, we deal with them, but we don’t trust them.”

“You don’t have any Arab friends?” I asked.

“In high school I used to. But not now.”

Trust that has never materialized

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“Jews don’t trust us.” May said in a hushed tone. She was referring to why there are so few Arabs in the Israeli military, but coincidentally confirmed what my cab driver had told me the night before. We were on the garden patio of Fattoush, an Arab restaurant at the foot of the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, Israel’s third largest city.

Half an hour earlier I, along with a Russian traveler I’d befriended, had struck up a conversation with May, who sat at a table next to us. She seemed happy to be conversing with two strangers, a common quality I’d found with Israelis. A recent university graduate, May was at Fattoush preparing for a job interview.

Around us on the packed terrace were twisted, hanging olive trees strung with fairy lights, potted wildflowers, and perfectly placed Hindu sculptures. Haifa is an Israeli city considered to be a model of Arab-Jew coexistence. With the mix of Hebrew and Arabic being spoken by the surrounding patrons, it was easy to see why that might be the perception.

“We’re second-class citizens,” May said matter-of-factly. “If an Arab kills an Arab, the police don’t care. But if an Arab kills a Jew…” She trailed off, eyes darting around.

Despite this, May quietly declared she was proud to be an Arab Israeli.

“What’s an Arab country you wish you could visit?” I asked her.

“My dream is to go to Lebanon, to Beirut. But if I went, I’d be arrested when I came back.”

Days later, I asked Ofer if he thought Arabs were considered second-class citizens in Israel. He considered this for a moment. He seemed unsure of what, exactly, he should say. Eventually he nodded and agreed that it was an issue. But he also questioned if that wasn’t largely the case in Western countries too.

In Jerusalem, tensions remain on display — sometimes

Photo: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51/Shutterstock

I hadn’t seen many soldiers carrying automatic weapons until Jerusalem. Dozens of young men and women, many still teenagers, roamed in packs at the Mahane Yehuda Market giggling, eating ice cream, taking selfies, clutching machine guns like it was no big deal.

Where Tel Aviv is the tolerant, laid back, cosmopolitan heart of Israel, Jerusalem is its religious conscience. It contains sites holy to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, and is the epicenter of much of the country’s religious strife. It’s currently Israel’s capital. However, if Palestinians ever get their state, they see part of the city as their capital as well.

Ofer stopped at a stall in the Yehuda market and bought me a Kanafeh, an iconic Palestinian pastry made from white-brine cheese, almonds, pistachios, orange food coloring, and a diabetes-inducing amount of sugar. I tried the sticky dessert, winced at its sweetness, and took in the scene. As far as the eye could see in either direction were stalls filled with produce, nuts, spices, and treats, interspersed by the occasional restaurant or pub. Here, shouting is the hawker’s preferred method of advertising their goods. Wide-eyed tourists milled about alongside locals and soldiers. Above us, lining the center of the greenhouse-like roof, were fans flanked by dozens of surveillance cameras.

I gawked at the cameras, then mentioned to Ofer the presence of all the young soldiers. He nodded and told me that suicide bombings here in the market in 1997 and 2002 collectively killed 22 and injured nearly three hundred. Since 2002 there have been no attacks. Tighter security, Ofer explained, along with the infamous border wall, increased prosperity in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. This, along with a stronger desire for peace by the Palestinian Authority over that of the current Israeli government, is why he believes Israel has known relative calm and stability for the last 15 or so years.

Exploring the traditions of Old Jerusalem through architecture and cuisine

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A walk in Jerusalem’s Old City, which is surrounded by monumental, centuries old walls, will take you through its four quarters. The most populous being the Muslim quarter, followed by the Christian, Jewish, and Armenian sections. On this afternoon, the narrow alleyways crackled with activity as hundreds of pilgrims from across the globe have come to worship at the Western Wall, Dome of the Rock, St. James Church, al-Aqsa Mosque, or Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The energy of the Old City was palpable. I understood then that you didn’t need to be religious to appreciate the history or the significance of these sites that are sacred to so many.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre looks less like a church than it does a jumble of ancient buildings, representing different architectural eras and styles, casually mashed together around a small courtyard. Since the fourth century, Christians have been coming here on pilgrimage, many believing the church to be built over Golgotha, the site of Jesus’s crucifixion.

As I walked through the arched entrance into the dimly lit church, I was immediately overcome with the scent of burning incense and a crush of tourists. Underneath the main chapel dome is the rotunda that supposedly contains Jesus’ tomb. Snaking around the Ottoman-era structure was a long line of worshippers waiting impatiently to enter. A woman and her elderly mother ducked under the guide rope, butted to the front of the line, and snuck inside. The gathered shouted at them in Greek and Russian.

Disagreements here are not uncommon. Over the centuries, clashes have occurred between the different Christian factions who share ownership of the church (Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian, Coptic, and Ethiopian). As a result, since the seventh century, the keys to it have been held by the Nusseibehs, considered to be the oldest Muslim family in Jerusalem. To this day it remains their duty to unlock the doors each morning and secure them again at night.

Back near the church entrance, dozens of worshippers urgently jostled for position to bow and kiss, touch, and rub the Stone of Anointing, a rose-colored slab on the floor. Despite the fact that the stone was only added to the church in 1810, Christian tradition still maintains that the body of Jesus was washed and oiled on it after he was removed from the cross in preparation for burial in a nearby cave. Exiting the church I thought, if only we could harness the energy of devotion, Jerusalem’s Old City would be an almighty power plant.

Photo: John Theodor/Shutterstock

If your devotion is more readily given to food than to the biblical significance of old stones, then it’s outside the walls of the Old City you must venture. Situated in an ancient building in the Artist Quarter is The Eucalyptus, certainly among Jerusalem’s, and likely the world’s, most historically unique dining experiences. Owned by renowned Chef Moshe Basson, it serves a modern interpretation of biblical cuisine.

“Welcome, welcome!” Chef Basson beamed at us with open arms. The robust, pony-tailed chef was standing at the head of the table. Laid out in front of us was a feast: slow-cooked neck of lamb with root vegetables stewed in a clay pot; three shot glasses each filled with artichoke, tomato, and lentil soups; fish falafels; seared mallard breast; and couscous with leeks, grilled veggies and braised lamb. “This is my passion,” the chef explained. “Everyone is welcome here.” He enthused about his love of wildcrafting and told us how all the spices and herbs used were cultivated in the hills of Jerusalem and Judea.

When someone cooks with intention, artistry, and adoration, that meal would be the result. The dishes at Eucalyptus were divine. It strengthened my newfound belief that Israeli food is right up there with the best cuisines in the world.

“It’s all about love here,” Chef Basson said before heading off to welcome guests at nearby tables.

An uncertain path for the future

Photo: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51/Shutterstock

‘My home and my soul are not for sale,’ the Arabic graffiti read. We were driving through Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood in a gulley at the bottom of Jerusalem’s Old City.

“Jewish organizations are trying to buy up property here,” Ofer said. But unlike in the West Bank, at least in Silwan, the settlers ask first. A few miles later, Ofer pointed out the window. “The infamous wall.”

He was referring to the 300-mile-long Israeli West Bank barrier that Israel considers a deterrent against terrorism, and Palestinians consider an apartheid wall. On the other side of it is Ma’ale Adumim, a large and ever-expanding Jewish Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Much of the international community considers these settlements illegal as they encroach on, and split apart, Palestinian communities. Ofer shook his head at the site of it and muttered bewilderment at these settlements’ continued expansion.

Days later, I was on a plateau at the ruins of the ancient fortress of Masada looking out over the Dead Sea and surrounding Judaean Desert. The midday heat was made bearable by a light breeze. Across the Dead Sea, Jordan lay in the distance, one of only two Arab countries (along with Egypt) that Israelis can legally visit.

My thoughts went back to Jerusalem. At the western edge of the Old City is the Wailing Wall, considered the holiest site for Jews. It was there, days earlier, that I’d maneuvered through the large crowd of worshippers and found a spot at the massive limestone rampart. Every available inch of its weathered cracks was stuffed with folded bits of paper­ — people’s prayers.

I figured this would be one of the more fitting places to offer up positive thoughts. I placed my hand on the wall. Even with all of Israel’s flaws, I thought, I’d be back. Next time venturing further into Palestine. I closed my eyes and imagined two states one day co-existing in peace.

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