“Going to Israel?” Are you mad? Do you want to get killed? These were the comments we heard when we decided to make a trip to Israel with Rotary friends. Israel is not a popular tourist destination for Indians but despite the present turmoil in Middle-East from Yemen to Algeria and Libya to Nigeria, we, a group of 60 Rotarians, Rotary Anns and some friends, decided to take the plunge.
Our Governor Vivek Aranha was keenly interested in our going to Israel and entrusted RC Poona Downtown President and Rtn Subhas Sanzgiri, Special Aide to DG and Counselor, District International Services Committee to organise this first ever trip of RID 3131 Rotarians to Israel and visit RID 2490.
Rtn Subhas’ contacts and knowledge of Israel played a vital role in the planning which was disclosed at the district conference in Goa. RC Poona Downtown invited representatives of Israel tourism department in India and Albert Benabou, Director of Israel’s International Travel and Congresses to Goa to give a presentation on Israel. After initial tardy registration, the pace picked up when the trip was thrown open to Inner Wheel members and friends of Rotarians. We had to stop registration at 60!
We landed in Jerusalem via Amman on May 16, all excited. Israel is a holy land, but let’s call it a “land of Books.” Moses’s Ten Commandments were written here, as was the Bible and part of Quran.
The world’s three major religions have their roots in this holy land. Israel was formed by the UN mandate in 1948. Since its birth this country has gone through severe problems which threatened its existence. But resilience of its people has given a new meaning to the word “existence.” One can think of no other country which has constantly fought for its survival and yet prospered. We looked forward to see Israel for its development in agriculture, horticulture and hi-tech defense production.
Our tour started with visit to Dead Sea, a land-locked sea 1,200 ft below sea level. Its salinity is so high that you cannot sink and float easily, but be careful to not let it into your eyes, or else your eyes will sting for 10 minutes! Apparently, the water is so salty that a glass of it can cause a heart attack due to sodium poisoning. It is so mineral-rich that its mud is used for therapeutic treatment.
We visited Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem was unique as it is a disputed land and is divided into ‘Old city’ and ‘New city’ by the Mandelbaum Gate. West Jerusalem was part of Israel since 1948 after the British left Palestine. But in the 1967 war, Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan and later in 1975 annexed it as Israeli territory. Though Jerusalem is the capital city of Israel, most countries consider Tel Aviv as capital. It’s a unique city — three major religions Christianity, Judaism and Islam have their holy places here. Parts of Jerusalem in the vicinity of Al Aqsa mosque are managed by a council under the Palestine Authority, though the territorial ownership belongs to Israel. Though politically complex, it is very peaceful.
There are gun-wielding Israeli soldiers everywhere, which gives a feeling of safety. The day we arrived in Jerusalem was the day of Israeli military victory over the Arabs in 1967, according to the Jewish calendar. So throngs of Israeli people and children singing patriotic songs were visiting the church of Sepulcher and the Wailing Wall. This Church is built on the place where Christ was crucified. The Church belongs to all major sects of Christianity.
People worship the wooden log where Christ’s body was kept after the crucifixion. Another place of importance was the birth place of the Christ, which is also managed by all sects of Christianity. The place where Christ was born is underground, in a cave-like room, where you have to descend many steep steps to get to the bottom. A simple manger like room gives a holistic feeling and also solitude. Our visit to a kibbutz, the Israeli word for community living, was very enlightening. Though kibbutz is now almost redundant, with only a few such communities remaining and prospering, the future of the country’s foundation was laid here.
After travelling through the holy land, now we were on our way to modern Israel — Haifa and Tel Aviv. Haifa is one of the most beautiful towns many of us had ever seen. Situated on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, it’s a town full of gardens and greenery, beautiful houses and eateries.
We visited the Hadassah-Hebrew University and Research Centre, a world renowned research centre in medicine and bio-technology. It is also called a “City of Healing.” With its high ratio of doctors and some of the ablest physicians and researchers, Israel is uniquely equipped to serve the Middle-East. Whether a Christian Arab or a Muslim Arab, both get the same treatment here. This centre has produced a large number of Nobel Prize winners. The Bahai temple in Haifa is something one can never forget. It has a seven layered terraced garden and the temple is situated over the 7th terrace.
After Haifa it was Tel Aviv, which is like any large metropolis and the commercial capital of Israel. It is also regarded by most countries as the Israeli capital as they consider Jerusalem to be occupied territory. Jerusalem was part of Jordan till 1967. In the famous six-day war of 1967, Gen Moshe Dayan’s army captured the whole of the Sinai peninsula and annexed Jerusalem.
In Tel Aviv we had the long awaited meeting with the Rotary Club of Tel Aviv Yaffo, where DG Mali Levy charmed the Indian Rotarians, and Club President Rafi Priel rolled out the perfect hospitality. RC Poona Downtown President Yezdi Batliwala read out DG Aranha’s message, exchanged flags, and explained the many projects undertaken by D 3131.
Patriotism and discipline
A striking feature we saw all the time is their sense of patriotism and discipline. Once we left Jerusalem, we never saw a single policeman. In Haifa and Tel Aviv we did not see even a traffic cop, yet the towns were peaceful and people law abiding. India-Israel friendship is now blooming and Israelis have great love and respect for Indians as large number of Indian Jews are settled in high tech jobs and are respected. Israelis also remember that in India there is no discrimination against Jews.
The hospitality shown to us and the trouble taken by Albert Benabou, Guy Leibovitz, our guide, and Amir, our driver made our 7-day trip truly memorable.
(RC Poona Downtown is planning a
second tour of Israel on demand from
Rotarians of RID 3131 in September 2015.)