In August, I went on a 10-day tour of Israel with Taglit-Birthright, an international organisation that coordinates funded trips to Israel for young adults of Jewish heritage. There were 38 others in my group from the UK, and we were joined by a group of Israelis who were also in their 20s. Despite the events in Israel and Palestine since the trip, I want to share what I experienced and the ways in which the trip developed my understanding of the conflict.
We began our trip in Tel Aviv. We walked through Neve Tzedek, the first Jewish neighbourhood outside the old city of Jaffa, and enjoyed lunch in Tel Aviv’s famous Carmel Market. We also went to Jaffa, the ancient Levantine port city which is now part of southern Tel Aviv. Jaffa is known for its sweet and juicy oranges, and hence inspired the name for Jaffa Cakes! The following day, we visited an orchard in Rehovot, where we learnt about Israel’s agriculture and planted almond and orange trees.
On day 4, we left Tel Aviv and travelled to Jerusalem. After lunch in the Mahane Yehuda market, we visited the old city, Jewish quarter, and Western Wall. Jerusalem’s beautiful architecture and rich cultural and religious history were particularly special. It is like no other place I have ever been. The following day, we went to The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, Yad Vashem, and in the evening, we lit the Shabbat candles together.
Throughout the trip, we were encouraged to have more difficult conversations about Israel today. There were activities on Jewish identity, inequalities in Israel, and Israeli politics. We also attended a geopolitical lecture about the conflict and spoke both with the Jewish Israelis in our group, and with Arab Israelis, about their experiences. These conversations were poignant and thought-provoking. Above all, they highlighted the immense complexity and divisiveness of the issues in Israel and Palestine. The conflict is certainly more nuanced than any media site can portray, and more complex than we can probably ever begin to understand whilst living in England. Much like in the UK, though, opinions and experiences of the conflict are polarised in Israel, even amongst Jewish communities.
On Shabbat, we visited the Israel Museum. Most interestingly, this museum exhibits the Dead Sea scrolls: ancient Jewish manuscripts dating from the Second Temple period, but which were only discovered in the mid-1900s, preserved in caves to the north of the Dead Sea.
We travelled south the next day, to the Ein Gedi nature reserve. We hiked through waterfalls and rivers in the reserve and visited the Ein Gedi ancient synagogue. Although the synagogue was only discovered (by accident!) in 1970, it is one of the oldest in Israel and has an ancient bimah, arc, and mosaics in Aramaic. Afterwards, we drove to the Dead Sea and spent the evening in a Bedouin tent village in the Negev desert.
We walked up Masada to watch the sunrise the following morning. This was a highlight of the trip for me. The view was absolutely mesmerising. Masada’s history is well-known: Herod the Great built two palaces and a large fortress on Masada, which protected the Jewish kingdom until the siege of Masada by Roman troops in 73 or 74 CE.
We spent the final two days of the tour in the north of Israel. We first visited Tzfat, a city with beautiful candle shops and jewellery and art boutiques. We then drove to the Jordan River. We went rafting, had a jeep tour along the edge of the river, and enjoyed a final meal together.
My trip to Israel was unforgettable, and the friendships I made, and our experiences together, have undoubtedly gained significance in light of the recent violence in the region. Whilst I would recommend Birthright to any young Jewish adult, the trip highlighted to me that it is essential we stay open-minded to the incredibly different, but equally valid, experiences of the conflict, and reflect on both our position and privilege as Jews in the UK.
I am a member of LJJIP (Liberal Jews for Justice in Israel/Palestine) and an Associate Fellow with the Balfour Project, an organisation that advocates for peace in Israel. I would be more than happy to talk about my involvement with these organisations, should it be of interest.