I went to the Holy Land and interviewed Israelis. Here are five surprising things they want

I went to the Holy Land and interviewed Israelis. Here are five surprising things they want

Israelis place coffee orders and mingle in a cafe in Tel-Aviv.

Courtesy of Rob Bye

There’s a lot of assumption in American culture about Israel. Our history has become so intertwined with that of the Holy Land. By consequence, there are underpinnings of automatic (and supposed) knowledge about the nation that seem to accompany American citizenship. But these vague understandings lead to spirited discourse, and in the end many Americans don't really know what's going on—yet they have strong opinions on it.

Obviously, the USA is far away from the Holy Land, and our education on what's happening there is often minimal at best. The media is the sole venue for most of us to learn about Middle Eastern current events, and it's simply not the same as being an eyewitness.

That’s why, when I had the opportunity to travel to Israel over the New Year, I tried to clear up any misconceptions I had about the Holy Land.

I spent time listening to over 20 Israelis and learning things many Americans would be surprised to know. Here are the five main points I walked away with:

1)    Peace is a priority for Israelis.

Most Jews aren't excited about the prospect of living forever in a state of strife with the Palestinian nation. Despite media portrayal, Israelis aren't out to make Arab lives miserable. Many Palestinians and Israelis work side-by-side every day, and several Jews even described their relationships with some Palestinians as “friendly.”

One woman living on the Gaza border detailed what life was like before Israel’s government turned the Strip over to the Palestinians entirely. She fondly recalled a time when she and friends from her neighborhood would walk to Gaza to shop and eat, with no fear of danger.

That isn't to say Israelis are unrealistic. After all, the conflict over the land is, at its root, religious, and practicing Jews and Muslims are known for their devotion to their faith. Peace in the Holy Land will never be reality without a great deal of compromise or change. And to many orthodox Jews and Muslims, a compromise on the land is a compromise to their faith.

Yet many Israelis are still holding out hope for an Israel that isn’t constantly having to fight for her own existence and a Palestinian nation that’s not simmering with rage.

2)    Israelis see America as a partner, not a benevolent parent.

During the week and a half I spent in Israel, I heard at least four Jewish people utter derogatory comments about Americans. They didn't even try to conceal their contempt for us, (obviously) American tourists. I was surprised by this, since the US has been—and remains—Israel's most consistent ally and defender.

Let's be clear: I chatted with plenty of Israelis during the course of my trip. They aren't running around saying bad things about Americans. The ones I heard were outliers, to be sure. But their comments did spur me to pursue a different line of thinking.

My hunch, according to Amrem*, a Tel-Aviv native and current Jerusalem resident, was right. Israel doesn't feel indebted to America.

“It’s a mutually beneficial relationship that we have with US,” Amrem said. “I don't think any of us are ungrateful at all. We all recognize that America is our only friend in the world. But we feel like we do a lot for America too. We are the democratic nation of the Middle East, and America needs us to give them a presence here—militarily and economically.”

3)    People have mixed feelings about Trump’s embassy move decision.

Not every Jew is on board with the president’s announcement, and many Israelis are confused about the reason behind it. Ilan, a Modern Orthodox Jew from Jerusalem’s Old City, said he found Trump’s announcement to be frustrating.

“I think it wasn't well-timed,” he said. “All it did was stir the pot, and we’re already on the verge of boiling.”

But Ilan does like Trump’s focus on supporting Israel’s sovereignty.

“It’s important that we have America supporting us. We couldn’t have a more powerful ally. But we all already knew Jerusalem was our capital. I think if he was going to announce, it should have been after some of our policies had changed and things had settled down more.” 

4)    The two-state solution is more popular with Jews than you would think.

Despite multiple attempts on the part of the Israeli government, the solution hasn't happened yet, and the current Israeli government isn’t intent on doing anything further about it. But a big portion of the Israeli population thinks it's the only policy shift that has a shot at putting a salve on the Palestinian issue.

According to a 2016 report from the Jerusalem Post, “Fifty-one percent of Palestinians and 59% of Israelis back the two-state solution.”

But the percentage of support was reduced when the terms of the solution were revealed to have been the same as those offered to Palestinians in the past.

That means Israelis are looking for a divorce from the Palestinians, but they’re convinced some innovative thinking on the matter is in order.

Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party—the party currently in power in the Knesset—are known for their strong nationalistic interests. And Likud has maintained a stronghold in Israeli society, thanks in no small part to aggressive action from enemies within and without.

Their policy in regards to the Palestinians, the West Bank and Gaza is one of management. Military force is used in a responsive manner and, certainly, the media has a field day reporting every defensive measure as an offensive.

But support for Bibi—as the Prime Minister is dubbed by Israelis—is at risk of lessening. The younger generation and more progressive Israelis are looking to the government for more sympathetic policies towards the Palestinian plight. Recently, accusations of corruption have been leveled at the right-wing prime minister, challenging the length of his control even further.

On the horizon, instead, are centrist and left-leaning parties like Yesh Atid that are gaining popularity. Yesh Atid’s platform heavily emphasizes the continuation of Israeli efforts to pursue a two-state solution.

Naama, a resident of Netanya and a mother of two children, said she doesn't see a better way to resolve the situation.

“We aren't going to leave, obviously,” she said. “But I can't think of one reasonable person who thinks it's a good idea to kick out the Palestinians. They have roots here, too. There has to be a compromise, and there's just nothing else I can think of besides two separate states.”

5)    Israelis have lives outside of thinking about the conflict.

“If it bleeds, it leads,” is the mantra for many a news editor. War, conflict and strife are the bread and butter of the news industry. And certainly, there is plenty of that in the Middle East. After years of reading about Israel's many problems, I was expecting a frazzled people who are constantly looking over their shoulders in fear.

But the scene in Israel is much less about the Palestinian and Jewish conflict and much more one of innovation, history and vibrant society.

Israelis, for the most part, have opinions on politics. But they’re mostly just living their lives with their families and friends, quietly practicing their religions, Instagramming their beautiful food, and working to make Israel a leader in tech and entrepreneurship. And they're succeeding, too.

 For instance, according to Israel 21c's website:

- Israel leads the world in the number of scientists and technicians in the workforce, with 145 per 10,000, as opposed to 85 in the U.S., over 70 in Japan and less than 60 in Germany. With over 25% of its work force employed in technical professions, Israel places first in this category as well.

-  A Jerusalem startup, Glide, has developed the first camera for Apple Watch, bringing game-changing functionality to wearables.

-  An Israeli company has created a rechargeable wearable device called Livia, which can relieve menstrual cramps.

-  Israeli engineers are behind the development of the largest communications router in the world, launched by Cisco.

-  An Israeli smartphone app already in use worldwide enables drivers to avoid jams and navigate their way through crowded city streets, using data from their phone’s GPS.

There are plenty more of these facts about Israel’s fascinating tech scene. Check them out at https://www.israel21c.org/israel-facts/technology/.

Of course, we only get a small part of the story when we look at things solely through the lens of media. If you ever get the chance, buy a ticket to the Holy Land and take the time to talk to the people that live there.

Who knows? You might even change your mind about a few things.

*For purposes of safety and at the request of the interviewee, some names were changed.

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