Why do Israelis flock to India?

A decade after the Mumbai massacre, what still draws tens of thousands of Israelis every year?

A decade after the Mumbai massacre, what still draws tens of thousands of Israelis every year? (photo credit: MAAYAN YAM)
A decade after the Mumbai massacre, what still draws tens of thousands of Israelis every year?
(photo credit: MAAYAN YAM)
INDIA— On a Saturday afternoon in late June, some 30 Israelis in their 20s and 30s gather to share a Shabbat meal. Some bear signs of religious observance such as a head covering or modest dress while others evoke a more secular lifestyle through tattoos, dreadlocks or provocative clothing. The traditional blessing is recited over wine and bread, after which a parade of humus, tehina, matbuha and other popular Israeli salads make their way up and down the long line of rectangular tables that have been joined together for the occasion. Were it not for the Himalayan peaks visible through the windows and the Indian waiters bustling to and fro, one might easily imagine that the gathering was taking place most anywhere in Israel.
Welcome to the Humus Trail – a term coined to denote the travel route through India most frequented by Israelis, particularly post-military service ones looking to blow off steam, score high-quality hash, and take in stunning natural sights – all at a bargain price. So well-trodden are these areas by Israelis that entire industries have sprung up to cater to their wants and needs. Here the sacred language is as likely to be heard as Hindi, business signage dons both Hebrew and English, and shakshuka and falafel are part and parcel of local cuisine.
A Sabbath gathering at a Chabad House in a village in northern India is but one example of the microcosms of Israeli society increasingly found throughout the country. In the last 25 years, India has become a destination of choice for Israelis, particularly twentysomethings on their rite of passage backpacking trip abroad. Eli Sneh, head of Consular Affairs for the Israeli Embassy in Delhi, estimates that some 80,000 Israelis visit India each year – a number, he says, that is growing.
So what is it about India that has captivated so many Israelis?
“There is only one India!” wrote Mark Twain in his diary as he traveled through the country in 1896. “It is the only country that has a monopoly of grand and imposing specialties. When another country has a remarkable thing, it cannot have it all to itself – some other country has a duplicate. But India, that is different. Its marvels are its own; the patents cannot be infringed; imitations are not possible. And think of the size of them, the majesty of them, the weird and outlandish character of most of them!”
Indeed, there is nothing subtle about India. There is the sheer magnitude of its population (one out of every six people on the planet lives in India, and in the next couple of decades, it is expected to unseat China as the world’s most populous country). There is the staggering gap between its rich and its poor (it’s home to the fourth highest number of billionaires in the world and, until recently, to the largest number of people living in extreme poverty). And there's the diversity of its terrain and climate (the world’s largest continuous mountain range and highest peaks, some of the most vast open plains, three mighty rivers, hundreds of thousands of kilometers of desert and some of the best tropical beaches). Add to that the 22 major languages, hundreds of dialects, a host of religions, and food, clothing and customs that are unique to each of its 29 states, and one may begin to understand why Twain described India as “The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the world combined.”
“India is a very attractive destination for young tourists,” says Daniel Carmon, former Israeli ambassador to India, who completed his four-year term there just three months ago. “The diversity of nature – Himalayas in the north and wonderful tropical beaches in the south – the history, the culture, the religion, the diversity of people and languages, it’s really a fascinating country.
“In India, they find and have been finding for a few decades now a place to decompress after their military service. Traditionally, after army service and before starting their real lives as adults – before going to university or starting their jobs – the large majority of young Israelis have these four, six, eight months, one year of experiencing India, seeing the sights, meeting the people, and, by the way, meeting Israelis themselves, which is a phenomenon to see sometimes – the Israelis looking for themselves, on what is called the Humus Trail.
“Many of the Israelis are looking for other Israelis. They’re looking for the jachnun that they would eat in Israel on Saturdays or the humus that they would find in Israeli Oriental restaurants. This is a very particular characteristic of the 40,000 or more Israeli backpackers that flood India [each year].”
Ye’ara, 20, from Moshav Gimzo in Central Israel, completed her army service two months ago and plans to stay in India for two months. “I wanted to get away and be without a schedule and India was the cheapest option,” she says. “Also, my brother just came back from a trip to India and all his talk about it got me excited about going, too.”
Ora, 23, of Jerusalem, also recently completed her army service. She began her backpacking trip in South America and had some time left before the start of her university studies in Israel so she decided to travel to India as well. “Going to India has become a ‘goes without saying’ thing. It’s entrenched in Israeli culture,” she says. “When again will I have a period in my life like this when I am without commitments? In the last year, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve used an alarm clock to wake up.
“As an Israeli, it’s easiest to travel in India, to meet other Israelis,” she adds. “The way Israelis congregate in every place – it’s not like that with other nations, it’s special, and it’s totally part of the India experience.”
According to Tom Landau, 30, a Tel Aviv-based travel consultant, Israelis travel differently than people from other nations. Whereas travelers from other countries use guidebooks, Israelis travel in packs and depend on the feedback, information, tips and recommendations of fellow Israeli travelers shared via online platforms such as Facebook, he says.
One of the most popular of these is the Facebook group “Traveling to India with Meron,” which formed two years ago with some 2,000 members and has since grown to nearly 30,000.
“Every month, I receive hundreds of queries – from technical questions like how to get from one place to another, to matters that involve the embassy, to helping someone feel less lonely,” says Meron Kerlick, 54, the founder of the group.
“Almost 24/7, I am connected to what is going on in India,” he continues. “For example, today I posted about an Israeli traveler in India who has been missing for several months. Two week ago, northern India was a mess because of the weather so I posted a thread of updates about conditions. Because there are so many people living and traveling in the country, I’m immediately updated about things – even before the embassy.
“Thanks to the group, people can be aware of what is happening. And parents can also be more relaxed because they can stay in the loop.”
BILATERAL RELATIONS between Israel and India have blossomed in recent years, from military and strategic ties, to science, technological and agricultural cooperation to tourism. The gains in relations were solidified in 2017 when Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel. His historic visit was reciprocated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2018.
One of the fruits of this burgeoning friendship is the historic opening earlier this year of a flight route over Saudi Arabian airspace connecting Tel Aviv and Delhi via Air India – a development, Carmon says, that took many, many years to bring about and which he views as one of the greatest diplomatic achievements of his tenure in India. Both Carmon and Sneh cite the new flight path, which is both shorter and significantly cheaper than the options previously available to India-bound travelers, as another reason for the growing number of Israelis traveling there. Futhermore, they note, Delhi has become a convenient stopover option for Israelis on their way to other destinations in the East, such as Singapore, Bangkok and even Australia.
“Historically, we had a limited arsenal of areas where the two countries would meet each other – defense and maybe agriculture,” says Carmon. “But nowadays, the menu is very profound and large.
“The bilateral relations between India and Israel at the moment are at their best, but they are not yet at their peak; there should always be something better to aspire to,” he adds. “Although they are not yet at their peak, they truly have reached new heights with, among other things, four important reciprocal presidential and prime ministerial visits, and those visits are way beyond being just ceremonial. Not just the visits themselves but the fruits that they bear.”
Ten years ago this month, both countries lost citizens in one of the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks, which took place in Mumbai. Over the course of November 26-29, 2008, multiple coordinated shooting and bombing attacks took place across the megalopolis, including at its Chabad House, claiming over 160 lives.
“‘Twenty-six/eleven,’ as Indians refer to the day, is very significant for India. Half a dozen simultaneous terrorist attacks on India’s economic capital was a real trauma” says Carmon. “Although India, like Israel, has been suffering for years from terrorism, the 26/11 attacks, in which hundreds of people were murdered, was a ‘game changer’… and, among other things, detection methods were improved because of it. Nevertheless, I do not believe it has affected, or should affect, the economy or business or tourism.
“Both our countries, India and Israel, have been victims of extreme terrorism and this is something that bonds us together, no doubt about it. This also brought both governments to sign a landmark agreement on homeland security and anti-terrorism, which we have been implementing since 2014,” he adds.
“One of the ingredients of the growing partnership between Israel and India that always needed strengthening is the people to people channel,” he continues. “India and Israel have known each other for many years in various aspects and ways and means, but the people to people part of it was relatively weak. We did not, and still do not, know each other enough. We should study each other, we should give a much larger platform and [have] much more profound knowledge of each other, and tourism and the connectivity and the movement of people for business or pleasure are very important ingredients in those relations.”
FOR SOME Israelis, India was never a dream destination, but, rather, one that the circumstances of life conspired to bring them to.
“Until the age of 30, India, and the Far East in general, were not on my map,” says Roey, 39, of Rishon Lezion. “Actually, it was the opposite – I was against traveling in this area. I’m not spiritual. I don’t smoke. And I was appalled by the lack of cleanliness here. In short, nothing attracted me about the place. But at age 30, a relationship and a business endeavor of mine ended, and I wanted to take a break from Israel, get some air. And suddenly, the Far East called to me.”
For others, like Immanuel, 64, India was a homecoming of sorts. At age 12, his family left Mumbai for Ashdod. At age 55, he returned to explore his origins and initially, was alarmed by what he met.
“The crowdedness, the chaos… I was afraid to cross the street on my own,” he recalls. “When you land in Delhi or Mumbai, it’s traumatic.”
He returned to Israel but found himself back in India a few years later, with his second wife, a senior care worker from Nepal. “We traveled to Nepal to visit her family and I was really taken by the place – it was so relaxing and laid back.
“When we returned to Israel, I couldn’t get Nepal out of my head,” he says. “After six months, I returned to Nepal on my own because I was sick of living in Israel – from the stress. A month later, my wife joined me and we opened a restaurant in Kathmandu.”
After the April 2015 Nepal earthquake, the two left for Goa, a favorite beach destination in southern India, and opened another restaurant. Three years on, they’re still in India, splitting their time between Goa in the South and Dharamasala in the North, a common seasonal migration pattern in the country, timed to avoid the monsoon season in each region.
“In India, I discovered my passion for drawing – something that would never have happened in Israel because of the ongoing stress of making ends meet,” says Immanuel. “Here, I finally had time to myself. If I had stayed in Israel, I would probably end up passing my time playing backgammon or in a wheelchair with a Nepalese care worker.”
Says former ambassador Carmon: “Many Israelis make use of the richness of what this country has to offer and the fact that it can be done in a relatively economical way." Budget travelers in India can easily, and comfortably, get by on $20 a day, including accommodation.
“And the proof of the pudding is the fact that many Israelis come back, not just backpackers but also after they establish a family or they are older and do a rerun of an experience they had in India,” he adds.
“Israelis find a type of peace here that they don’t find in Israel, in their routine there,” says Michal, 31, a backpacker from Petah Tikva. “Here they feel freedom to do whatever they want.
“It’s not for naught that Israelis call India ‘Mama India,’” she explains. “There is a type of embrace that one receives here that one doesn’t in Israel. There’s a certain magic – one I haven’t yet fully understood.”
Oded, 40, a tour guide from Tel Aviv, has been to India four times. “India is like a favorite poem or song or book that you reread or listen to every few years,” he says. “And every time, you reconnect to it from where you are in your life in that moment; it ages with you.”
For some, India is an adventure pursued as a couple or even as a family.
Yonatan, 28, and Yael, 20, from Ma’on, recently married and chose India as their honeymoon destination. “A friend got us excited about India,” explains Yael. “He told us that there is a great deal of variety, from relaxing to going on treks. And it no doubt helps that it’s very cheap to travel here.
“I didn’t do a post-army trip. I hadn’t seen anywhere outside Israel, and I was curious – to see and live the unfamiliar,” she continues. “Also, it’s an opportunity to spend time together as a newly married couple, to build our relationship without the pressures of work and other commitments.”
However, “If we had known ahead of time just how many Israelis are traveling in India, it may actually have been a reason against coming,” she notes.
Oded, 37, and Meital, 32, of Kedumim, have been married for seven years and have two children under the age of five. For them, India was a last-ditch effort to save their marriage and family.
“We were on the brink of divorce,” says Meital, who first visited India 10 years ago on her own. “So we started working on ourselves and our relationship, attending different seminars, trying to understand our mission in life. And as a result, Oded opened up to the idea of India.”
“From the day we married, Meital told me, ‘What about India?’” recalls Oded. “But at the time, the idea didn’t resonate with me. In Israel, I worked in sales. Every few months, I was with a new mobile phone, a new watch, hair gel – I was unhappy and sought refuge in external things. Today, I feel just the opposite – like I just want to shed everything, to live in as minimalist a manner as possible.
“I’ve been here 10 months, but really, it wasn’t until two months ago that I started feeling like I was here, that I truly began to surrender to the place, for the masks to begin to fall,” he continues. “So now we want to extend our stay by another year so that we can truly experience and internalize what this country has to offer and teach us.”
The time in India has also benefitted their children, says Meital. “The kids have changed a lot. They used to be really closed. And now they connect to people very quickly. They have confidence. The freedom, the lack of structure, the exposure to all types of people and ages has done them wonders.”
MEITAL AND Oded’s stay in India took on even more meaning when they were offered the opportunity to run a local Lev Yehudi, a type of open house for Jewish travelers, for a few months.
“The young Israeli travelers in India have a need to decompress, to undergo meaningful personal growth,” says Meital. “I went through it myself when I was their age and I felt that I wanted to help and support others going through a similar experience.”
The house aims to be a home away from home for Jews from all walks of life; a place to gather, hang out, learn, take part in a workshop, join a meal, celebrate Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, or get advice or assistance with everything from logistical challenges to medical emergencies to homesickness.
“It’s very confusing here,” continues Meital. “People come to India to go through some type of journey and sometimes they need a bit of guidance. It’s easy to get sucked into the young Israeli culture here of smoking [marijuana] all day. I try to help them understand what they want, and to connect to themselves.”
Lev Yehudi, which is an initiative funded by the National-Religious movement in Israel, is joined by like-minded initiatives in India, albeit from different areas on the religious spectrum. Another is Beit Bina, a project of the pluralistic Jewish Movement for Social Change, and, of course, Beit Chabad, a project of the Chabad Hasidic movement that has branches in most major cities around the world.
Sigal and Shai Levy, a couple in their 60s from Tel Aviv, have been managing Beit Bina in the northern Indian village of Dharamkot for the past two seasons. The village has become one of the most popular stops on the Humus Trail.
“I was surprised to discover that Israelis [traveling in India] are looking for a place to feel at home, to connect with other Israelis after so much time abroad,” says Sigal. “At the end of the day, they’re looking for something beyond smoking weed or passing their time at coffee shops.”
Shai concurs. “Most of the Israelis in India are here to decompress, especially after their army service,” he says. “There’s something in India that allows for wild freedom, like the Wild West – a sense that they can do whatever they want, be that smoking weed, driving without a license or making noise. This is what they seek here – not self-understanding and not spirituality.”
Michal and Dror Shaul (and their now 11 children) have been the Chabad representatives in Dharamkot since the house first opened, in 2000.
“Back then it wasn’t like it is now,” recalls Michal. “There was nothing – the area was mostly fields. There was one restaurant. The first Shabbat we hosted, 60 people attended.” On average, much fewer people attend Shabbat events at Chabad in India these days.
“Most travelers back then were very deep. They were spiritual, searching for meaning,” she says. “There was more time and opportunity to self-reflect, to disconnect from one’s comfort zone and social habits and to truly experience the places one was in – without distractions of friends or family or workshops or what he or she thinks about me.
“Before the advent of social media, of accessible Internet here, it was possible to truly disconnect from regular life – it’s no longer like that,” she says. “Nowadays, if friends or family back home don’t hear from you for a day or two, they start worrying. Years ago, people would go weeks without contacting their families because there simply wasn’t how.
“It’s become a very touristic experience, like any other vacation. Local culture has been watered down, the experience is losing its authenticity. I wouldn’t be surprised if, over time, people will tire of coming here.”
Only time will tell, but until then, what's certain is that the kaleidoscopic enormity of experience that India offers is reflected in the diversity of what people look for and find in it.