Discovering my birthright on a trip to Israel

An American university student writes that true knowledge about this country comes from interacting with locals.

birthright 311 (photo credit: Neta Shor)
birthright 311
(photo credit: Neta Shor)
I had never traveled outside America before my Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. And Israel is not exactly a typical travel destination in the United States. When I was asked what I was doing over my winter break, and I responded with going to Israel, the first question was always, “Why?”
Then, immediately followed a “be careful” or “please don’t die.”
In fact, I received about 15 text messages from friends before my departure telling me not to get shot or bombed during my trip. But, truthfully, I never felt safer than I did in Israel.
My introduction to Israeli security was with El Al airlines. Two hundred American students lined up at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to be questioned one by one.
The El Al security screeners are the most intimidating airline workers – or people, for that matter – to whom I have ever spoken. I thought American airport security was pretty rough, but it is nothing compared to El Al.
El Al is undoubtedly safer and much more trustworthy than the one security guard who spoke to me during my flight from Virginia to New York, whose four words to me were: “I like your socks.”
No one at El Al complimented my blue-striped socks.
Instead, I was interrogated.
“Why are you going to Israel?” “How do you celebrate Passover?” “Do you have a bomb?”
Luckily, I passed the security check. Some of my fellow travelers, on the other hand, were not as fortunate. A few of my friends were put through extra screening and even escorted onto the plane. Others were detained in Ben-Gurion Airport upon arrival, based on other countries they had previously visited.
When we finally stepped outside of Ben-Gurion, we were immediately greeted by an armed security guard who followed us during the entire trip. Ironically, he carried a US rifle.
Though I have not traveled extensively through the States, I have yet to stumble across anyone who carries a rifle slung across his back – but in the State of Israel, this seemed not uncommon.
To my surprise, no one seemed to fear that so many people were walking around with weapons. After a while, it even seemed a bit comforting. None of these armed citizens was going to attack any of us. If I ever saw a single person with a visible weapon in America, I would immediately sprint in the opposite direction and call the police.
Israel presented me with a new way to live, one without fear that the guy sitting next to you might steal your wallet or pull a knife on you. I felt safer walking the streets of Tel Aviv than I do walking home to my apartment in Charlottesville, Virginia at night.
But never during my American life have I worried that a bomb might hit my house at night from Canada or Mexico, whereas Israelis are afraid of bombs from enemy states.
Although I do understand that a significant amount of the world dislikes America, I also realize that Americanization provides America with a bit of a safety bubble. While they may hate the people, not many hate American movies, music and food. Yet, I found what true hatred meant in Israel.
Despite my visit, I could not imagine living in a state completely surrounded by countries that refused to recognize it as a legitimate country or Judaism as a true belief.
Each Birthright bus had seven Israeli soldiers join the group for five days. These soldiers led completely different lives from any American, but I was surprised by how we related to each other and even more surprised at how Americanized Israel is in general.
The soldiers listened to the same music we do in America, to the point where Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” somehow became the theme song – as well as dance – for our trip. One night, my friends and I were arguing about the correct lyrics to Gaga’s hit. The Israelis were right, not us.
My peers and I also passed by several McDonald’s establishments, yet another sign of the pervasive American influence.
Despite the cultural similarities, I still stood out as an American, or so I was told. Apparently, my North Face jacket, beanie and Birkenstocks screamed “American” to every Israeli I passed, as did my blonde hair, green eyes and fair skin. I walk the streets of Charlottesville and virtually every person I pass looks and dresses exactly like me. Israel was the first time I was ever “different.”
Furthermore, my utter lack of Hebrew comprehension did not help me blend in. I knew two Hebrew words coming to Israel: shalom and humous.
Amazingly, a person can go pretty far in Israel knowing the word for hello and the country’s staple food. Though most Israelis know a great deal of English, the confusion stemming from my inability to understand virtually anything said around me was plastered all over my face.
Although not mentioned here, I did visit all the typical tourist attractions. I floated in the Dead Sea, rode a camel and hiked Masada. But these activities did not define my trip and will not stay with me through my life.
Instead, what will linger in my mind will be the relationships I formedwith Israelis, and most importantly the thought of my new friendsreturning to their lives of dissecting bombs while I returned to mylife of dissecting Shakespearean plays.
The writer is an associate editor of the Cavalier Daily Senior at the University of Virginia.