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A sanctified country, uniting Jews, Christians, and Muslims; Israel is biblical. Whatever your religious beliefs, there is a quiet respect carved into the soul of the country, and the Old City of Jerusalem is one of the world’s most visited pilgrimage destinations.
In the Old City, you can walk in the footsteps of prophets and pray in buildings constructed by caliphs and kings of centuries gone by. Sacred buildings and relics are interwoven with souks, and the streets are heady with pungent smells of spices and incense. In contrast is cosmopolitan Tel Aviv, an urban playground buzzing with art galleries, chic cafes and stretches of golden coastline.
Despite its historical and holy presence, Israel has been fractured by the relentless Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A day doesn’t go by without the threat of terrorism, with bombs and gunfire from surrounding regions sadly becoming the norm. However, at the core of Israel is an enigmatic land, both scarred and blessed by the passage of history. Israel is a sensory and divine experience unlike any other.
Israel is a geographically diverse country, with desert conditions in the south, and snow-capped mountains in the north. Summers in Israel run between April and October; they are dry and warm. Temperatures are often around 30°C, but this can sky-rocket to 43°C in Masada and Eilat.
Winters are generally mild in Israel, with temperatures hovering between 10 and 15°C. Hilly areas such as Safed and Jerusalem will experience winter temperatures as low as 5°C, with the Galilee hills often hitting freezing at night.
Regional conditions vary considerably and Israel is divided into three climate zones. The coastal areas have humid summers and mild winters, classified as a Csa climate. The climate further inland, which is hot and dry, is referred to as a Bsh climate. Temperatures here rarely fall below 18°C. Lastly, the regions in southern Israel have a Bwh climate, which is hot desert.
For travellers wanting to avoid being caught in 70% of Israel’s annual rainfall, steer clear of the November-to-March period. Precipitation often comes as concentrated violent storms, causing erosion and flooding. During January and February, rain may take the form of snow at higher points in Israel’s central highlands, especially in the Golan heights and areas around Jerusalem.
Jerusalem Average Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
Tel Aviv Average Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
Haifa Average Monthly Temperatures and Rainy Days
Religion plays an integral part not only in the daily lives of many Israelis, but also their national identity. Many citizens recognise that they are Israelis, but tend to refer to themselves as Christians, Muslims, or Jews. One group that resides in Israel does not recognise their home country at all. Palestinians do not refer to themselves as Israelis at all, preferring to stand with the displaced Palestinian nation and the Arab world as a whole.
Relations between Jews and Arabs have been fractured since the 1960s, with Palestinians claiming that Jews took over their homeland. Palestinians have exercised extreme military action to maintain it, whereas the Jewish population feel they are making a claim to a land that is rightfully theirs, and from which they have been exiled.
There have been atrocities committed by both sides of the divide and reconciliation is not on the cards.
Despite this restless part of life for some Israelis, it is a speck in a country that is a diverse melting pot of cultures. Although Jews, Muslims and Christians live peacefully side by side, this is not the only way in which the country is richly diverse. People from all corners of the globe reside in Israel, from African and Vietnamese migrants, to people from post-Soviet states and refugees from Bosnia, Kosovo, Kurdistan and North Korea.
Describing the culture of Israel of anything short of unique is an understatement. It is hard to label a country that is such a rich blend of nations, both spiritually and geographically. The land of immigration has provided the world with a cornucopia of different fashions, cuisines, etiquettes, music and languages, as well as beliefs.
Israel is a multi-lingual country, but Hebrew (the language of the Bible) and Arabic are the official languages. Both Hebrew and Arabic are written from right to left. All Israeli school children are taught Hebrew and Arabic, as well as English, and the majority of people in the country have an excellent grasp of the English language. Furthermore, most street signs are in the three languages.
For Jewish Israelis, who make up a large portion of the population, the day-to-day language is Hebrew. Resurrected from biblical times, it has only become a fully-recognised language again in the past 100 years. Its reintroduction to Israel was due to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, a Polish-born linguist. Eliezer believed that ancient Hebrew should be the language of the reborn Zionist vision. He codified Hebrew grammar, wrote the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and coined words necessary for a modern vocabulary.
With people from over 120 countries residing in Israel, there are vast numbers of citizens also speaking Russian, French, Spanish, Yiddish, and dozens of other tongues.
Visitors trying to speak in the native tongues will be warmly appreciated by locals. Shalom (peace) and shalom aleichem (peace upon you) are the most common greetings in Hebrew. As-salam alaykom (peace be upon you) is the most used Arabic greeting, but for something more informal, try salam. Thankyou in Hebrew is toda, and shukraan in Arabic.
Israel is a small country, and therefore it is easy to get from one place to another in a relatively short amount of time. Public transport is convenient and very cheap, but buses in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can be questionably safe.
Taxis are great for when in cities, but private transfers are the safest option for city-to-city travel.
Taxis could be used for this purpose, but haggling with drivers can sometimes be troublesome. Even so, the most expensive fares in Israel are much cheaper than the UK. Despite haggling, drivers are very helpful and speak good English.
The road networks in Israel are good and well-maintained. Driving in the country is not a bad option and it is a great way to tour the entire country. Most rentals are fixed fee; it is the petrol prices that some find crippling.
Trains in Israel are very useful and reasonably priced. Services are usually comfortable, especially for connecting to the airport or to Haifa, Tel Aviv and intermediate cities. Some trains run 24 hour services.
Buses in Israel are run by Egged, the world’s second largest bus company. There are over 1,000 routes in Israel; between cities and rural settlements. However, bus services run an extremely reduced service on Saturdays (the Sabbath). Trains do not run at all on Saturdays, and transport options are limited to taxis, car hire, or shuttles.
Shuttles, often referred to as sheruts, are shared taxis. They operate across the country and they cost the same as buses. They are excellent for inner-city routes or airport runs as they drop you right at your destination.
Ben Gurion is the international airport in Israel, and this is where tourists, visitors, and Israelis, will land. Internal flights operate from Eilat airport, to Tel Aviv and Haifa. These services are operated by two airlines: Arkia and Israir.
All Israeli citizens are entitled to basic healthcare as a fundamental right. As healthcare is universal, participation in a medical insurance plan in compulsory. The Israeli healthcare system is based upon the Health Insurance Law of 1995 which ensures that citizens join one of four health insurance providers. These are run as non-profit organisations and are prohibited by law from denying any Israeli citizen membership. Israelis can top up their medical coverage by purchasing private healthcare.
Healthcare in both private and public facilities is of equally high quality. The main difference is that private hospitals offer extra frills compared to public hospitals. Examples include private hotel-like rooms, internet and television access, restaurant-quality food, and extra beds for overnight guests.
Expats working in Israel are not entitled to receiving the national healthcare benefits. However, according to the Israeli Foreign Workers Law, your employer is required to provide private medical insurance at their expense. Employers are required to provide private medical insurance for the entire duration of their employment, and to provide the policy in a language that can be understood. In order to cover the cost of medical insurance in Israel, the employer may deduct a sum of money, not exceeding NIS 103.14, from an expat’s monthly salary. However, it may still be worth considering purchasing a travel insurance policy.
The Israeli currency is called the New Israel Shekel (NIS) or shekel for short. Travellers may also hear its Hebrew pluralised version, shakalim, or shekels in English. There are 100 agorot (agora in singular) in each shekel. The bank notes are in denominations of NIS 200, 100, 50 and 20. The country also has coins in denominations of NIS 10, 55, 2, 1 and 50 agorot and 10 agorot.
For travellers visiting Israel, unlimited sums of local and foreign money can be brought into the country in any form. It is easy to exchange foreign currency in Israel, with facilities at most hotels, airports, banks, post offices, and licensed exchange agencies in the large cities. The rates vary from place to place and banks will charge a commission.
Credit and debit cards are not an issue in Israel. Visitors are welcome to withdraw local or foreign currency at banks which accept their cards. ATM machines can be found outside of most banks.
The school environment in Israel is generally more laid back than compared to its US and UK counterparts. However, the socio-economic status of an area will greatly affect the atmosphere of its schools. Students are welcome to call teachers and principals by their first names and the curriculum tends to be broader than schools in the US. There is a greater focus upon maths, science and foreign languages.
Hebrew is the main language spoken in institutions of higher education, whereas Arabic is the language used at teacher-training college. There are some lessons taught in English.
Education for Israeli children aged between 5 and 15 is compulsory and free. Parents only need pay for textbooks, school trips, sports kit etc. Most public secondary schools have independent and recognised legal status and are run by public bodies or local committees. Funding is received from the Ministry of Education.
Private education is an option in Israel. Private schools can be highly competitive and many require rigorous testing before admitting a student. Students typically undergo verbal reasoning and English proficiency tests, a maths test and, in some cases, a science test. The head teacher may also interview the prospective student.
Private education can be very expensive for those earning a local salary. Expats, however, will find private Israeli education considerably less expensive than in their home country.
For expat children who do not speak Hebrew or Arabic, there are a number of international schools. The quality of education in private or international schools tends to be high, and the teaching allows continuity with the curricula of international schools in other countries.
Due to the diverse culture of Israel, children will be classmates with students from all corners of the globe. However, the fee for international schools is high. The majority of international schools are found in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. They provide either the US, UK, or French curriculum.
Israeli food is fresh. What is taken from the earth or the ocean is on plates a matter of hours later. As the seasons change, so too do the meals eaten. That said, there are some staples of Israeli cuisine, many of which are already recognisable worldwide.
Falafel, hummus, tahini and pita breads are everyday fodder for Israelis. Another notable dish recognised by western ears is shwarma. Shwarma is a pita or laffa bread (Middle Eastern flatbread) stuffed with grilled lamb that is thinly sliced.
Aubergines take centre stage in a lot of Israeli cooking, and are often smoked, tahini-laced, or smothered in baba ganoush (a tangy spread). Shakshuka is another popular dish, particularly favoured for breakfast. Peppers, tomatoes and coriander are served hot in a skillet, with eggs cracked and cooked on top of the delicious concoction.
For those who like their desserts, Israel isn’t a let-down. Baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made of layers of filo. It is filled with chopped nuts, with syrup and honey adding sweetness and holding the layers together. Another favourite pudding of syrup lovers is kanafeh. This cheese pastry is soaked in sweet syrup and sprinkled with pistachios.
Tea drinkers are welcome in Israel but shouldn’t get excited as mint tea is about the only option. Coffee is the main event and an upside-down coffee called Café Hafuch is the most popular. Fruit shakes and lemonades are also favoured. They are very refreshing and tasty, as all ingredients are fresh and grown locally.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against travel to Gaza, towns bordering Lebanon, and routes along the Syrian border.
Routes 60, 317 and 443 are synonymous with shootings, stabbings, and rocks and petrol bombs being thrown at vehicles. Anywhere along the West Bank is considered unsafe. Visitors should be vigilant and follow advice given by security forces. Route 443 is the main road connecting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, so sometimes cannot be avoided. Do not stop between the Maccabim check point and Jerusalem.
Public transport, particularly in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has had its fair share of violent attacks. Buses are to be avoided in Jerusalem, as is the Light Rail north of Ammunition Hill.
There are ongoing violent attacks in Israel and the West Bank, including Tel Aviv, East Jerusalem and the Old City (particularly in the Damascus Gate area). There have been physical clashes between protestors and Israeli security forces.
Visitors to Israel should familiarise themselves with safety actions to be taken in the event of a warning siren. Rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel are sadly a real occurrence, albeit not regular. Similarly, in northern Israel, there’s still a risk of accidental and deliberate rocket or mortar fire from Syria. Those travelling in Upper Galilee or the Golan Heights should be aware.
Lastly, the border between Egypt and Israel is volatile. Route 10, which runs along the border, should be avoided and is often closed.
When in Israel, trust the advice of the military and be very vigilant.
Israel is a sacred country, steeped in history of a biblical nature. There are many things to experience in Israel, from snorkelling and hiking, to museums and areas of outstanding natural beauty. Although these are great experiences, it is the religious sites that are the most captivating.
The Wailing Wall, Jerusalem
A relic visited by many and the cause of a 1,000 year-long battle is the Wailing Wall. The site is powerful and emotional, as Jews and visitors flock to place their hands on the cold brick. Many pray and place prayers on slips of paper into the wall cracks.
Every few days, a caretaker collects all the prayers and lays them to rest in the Mount of Olives. He places them in a 2,000-year-old cemetery; making every single scripture an eternal prayer.
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Visiting the sacred Church of the Nativity is a moving experience for any visitors as the crypt beneath the church marks the traditional birth place of Jesus.
The Door of Humility is the only access through the fortress-like front wall into the basilica. The doorway is just 1.2 meters high. It was lowered in the year 1500 AD to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself before man.
Beneath the floor is the Grotto of the Nativity, a dimly lit rock cave. Here, carved into the marble floor is ‘Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christius natus est’ (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). Instead of a star above, on the floor is a 12-point silver star representing the exact spot.
The Garden of Gethsemane, Jerusalem
The garden at Gethsemane, a place whose name literally means “oil press,” is located just across the Kidron Valley from Jerusalem. A garden of ancient olive trees stands there to this day. Jesus reputedly used to visit the garden with his disciples to pray. It is also the place where Judas Iscariot led soldiers to arrest Jesus.
Today, the garden is a fraction of the size it would have been during biblical times. However, visitors note the area to be peaceful, spiritual, and beautiful.
The Dead Sea
The Dead sea borders Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. It is a salt lake and its banks are more than 400 meters below sea level; the lowest point on dry land. The unusually high salt concentration of the water means that people can easily float in the Dead Sea due to its natural buoyancy
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
Established in 1953, Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. It is located on the western slope of Mount Herzl, the Mount of Remembrance. The exhibits in the museum focus on the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, the uprisings in Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, and the struggle of survivors to reach Israel.
The museum also has exhibits telling the stories of 90 Holocaust victims, with 2,500 personal items adding to the experience. Most moving is the Hall of Names. It is a memorial to the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem
It is widely argued that the Church of Holy Sepulchre is the holiest Christian site in the world. Located in Jerusalem, the church stands on a site that is believed to encompass both the site where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where he was buried.
Located in the church, underneath the large dome and rotunda, is the Edicule. This is the Tomb of Christ, enshrined in a large box.
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