What do you think of when you hear the word 'Israel'?

THE TEL AVIV skyline (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE TEL AVIV skyline
(photo credit: REUTERS)
What do you think of when you hear the word Israel? It’s a serious question, because depending on your background, life experience, or political orientation, you might have wildly different thoughts when you hear the word Israel.
For some, Israel will conjure images of the Bible or religious sites. Others may think of a war zone and conflict, while even more may think about the photos of kibbutzim and Zionist pioneers that they saw as kids while studying in Jewish day schools. For most of you reading this publication, you probably have a very specific idea of Israel in your mind, based either on your own education or personal experience. But the truth, and this may surprise you, is that for many, if not most people, they don’t really think anything about Israel.
Why do I say this and how do I know this? Because I was one of those people who grew up not really thinking about Israel. I grew up in a typical white Protestant family on Nantucket Island. Sure, I heard about Israel in the news from time to time, but for me there was no frame of reference, no conversation, nothing for me to base an opinion on. So I can certainly understand how most people can draw incomplete or inaccurate conclusions about this remarkable, tiny strip of land.
Of course, I’ve since had quite a bit more direct experience. My Jewish journey to Israel started about 25 years ago when I married my, now former husband, and I converted to Judaism. In 2008 we decided to take the plunge and move to Israel.
When I speak to people both here in Israel and in the States, they are often surprised when they find out that I left a comfortable life in New York City where my husband and I both worked as lawyers, to start a brand new life in Israel. It’s these conversations that have led me to discover the unique prisms in which people view this country.
Because of my past, I moved to Israel not really knowing what to expect. I was kind of a “blank slate.” So I think I have a unique perspective on Israel that wasn’t tainted by bias or preconceived notions. When you discover Israel with fresh eyes, I think there are few things you realize that are often misunderstood or overlooked.
You will feel more safe and free in Israel, than you do in the US
This is something that will really surprise all of my friends back home. But it’s something you really need to experience here. Just walking down the street, or traveling across the country, there is an incredible feeling of safety and freedom that just doesn’t exist in the US. You get a real sense that everyone is looking out for each other’s back, naturally.
This is by far the biggest thing that goes against the conceptions of so many of my friends back in the US. They all expect Israel to be a war zone, where you feel in danger all the time, because of what they hear on the news. And it is just not the case!
Israel is a profoundly diverse place
Somehow, perhaps because Israel is “The Jewish State,” many people around the world expect to find an endless stream of Woody Allens and Jerry Seinfelds walking around here. Of course the reality is far different. Israel is remarkably diverse - both amongst its incredibly diverse Jewish population, which includes Jews and their cuisines and cultures from all over the world - and also overall when you factor in the large Arab and Christian minorities that live here.
In fact, learning about the history of Israel’s Mizrahi Jewish population was a real eye-opener for me. The existence of this community, and the prominent role it plays in Israeli society, is almost unheard of in the US.
Israel is a developed country
“Israel is backwards and poor.” This is something I heard mostly from Jews. Maybe it’s a result of a trip they took to Israel back in the 80’s or before, but many people still think that Israel is a backwater country where you have to smuggle in toilet paper. Well, let me put your concerns to rest. Over the last 20 years, and even over the last eight since I’ve been living here, the country has gone through rapid growth and development. The growth is happening at such a rapid pace that it is staggering and difficult to keep up with!
Yes, there are certain areas where Israel doesn’t quite compare to the US, but the country overall feels thoroughly modern, and developed. Anyone in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, or Beersheba with a pair of eyes can see how the cities are sprouting new towers like weeds. Israel is a lively, thriving, democratic, modern place that defies the labels that so many people try to throw at it.
Something about the food
I know many people who think that the Israeli diet is purely just hummus and shawarma. Although I’d have no problem eating that every day, this simply isn’t true. I remember when I first moved here, I thought eating a plate of hummus as a meal was such a strange concept, because we just didn’t do that in America. Now I can’t imagine eating it any other way.
No matter where you are in Israel, you find the freshest, tastiest foods. You can stop at a gas station while on a road trip and find the richest, creamiest hummus with the warmest, freshest bread. Israelis are more connected to locally grown foods, making seasonal fruits a staple in every diet. How many of you North Americans go crazy like we do when limes are in season? Our houses are full of lime pie, incredibly fresh margaritas and and every other kind of food marinated in limes, for six weeks, then it’s over! Even the grapes used in Israeli wines are picked with respect to the history and soil they are grown on. Israel is constantly making the lists for best restaurants, chefs, and cutting edge food concepts.
Israelis are rude and unwelcoming
You hear this one all the time. Israelis are rude, unhelpful and unpleasant people to deal with. I can’t speak for Israelis in India or South America who are fresh out of the army, but I’ve had quite the opposite experience. As a foreigner, going to the store and not knowing a word of Hebrew, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of welcoming. Israelis constantly go out of their way to help you, and open their hearts to anyone who will listen. Eight years later, and many Hebrew words later, I still feel this every day, wherever I go.
Live vicariously through me and see Israel with your own eyes
Israel is almost 70, and is quickly growing, but people have memories of 20-30 years ago that simply aren’t true anymore. This isn’t your father’s Israel: the desert has already bloomed, satellite dishes sit atop houses in Jerusalem’s Old City, and Israel has become a land of opportunity. This is a modern, amazing country intertwined with ancient history that you can see woven together in any of its cities. The dichotomy is fascinating and every time I tell somebody about my experiences, they are blown away. For some reason, my story resonates with them, because I wasn’t born a Jew, didn’t learn about Israel until much later in life, and wasn’t forced to live here, but chose to jump in and start a new life here.
All of this experience led me to finding new ways to advocate for Israel online, by creating and developing a web series called ThisisIsrael.Today, and tell its story to the world. So that anyone can live vicariously through me and see Israel with their own eyes, as it really is. The country has completely transformed since it’s infancy almost 70 years ago from a barren little piece of land into something that’s modern, gorgeous and alive.
I’m not the typical person you’d expect to advocate for Israel and spew information at you. I just don’t fit the mold. I came here not knowing the language, and I’d spend an hour at the grocery store just trying to figure out which of the hundreds of kinds of cheeses to choose from because I couldn’t read the label. I willingly sent my two children to the army. I feel more open and free in this country than I have in any other country, and some would say that’s ironic. I hope more people can experience this too.
About Mona Henoch:
With little idea about what Israel had to offer her, Mona Henoch instantly fell in love with Israel during her first visit. Mona, who was born and raised Christian and converted to Judaism, decided to leave her comfortable life in New York and move to Israel eight years ago. Since then, she's been journeying across the land to discover hidden gems. She speaks with fascinating people, eats delicious food, and sips savory wine, through her web series, ThisIsIsrael.Today, to share a different face of Israel with the public.