With a long Mediterranean coastline, the Negev Desert to the south, and snowcapped mountains in the north, Israel is a geographically diverse destination, especially for its small size. It’s also the birthplace of Judaism and Christianity respectively, and an important land historically for Islam from the area’s time under Muslim rule. Within many cities and towns three worlds—one Jewish, one Christian, and one Muslim—exist both peacefully and in conflict.
Established in 1948 after World War II, modern Israel was founded as a haven for Jews around the world after the horrors of the Holocaust. The territory of Israel is historically considered land promised to the Jewish people by God. Yet, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been going on for more than 100 years since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War I.
A Palestinian state existed where Israel is today, established by the Romans almost two thousand years ago. The current conflict between the Palestinians and Israeli Jews is focused around this displacement. The country has made a lasting peace with Egypt and Jordan, yet tensions are still high with Lebanon, Syria, and the displaced Palestinian people.
More recently, the surge of Jewish settlements in the West Bank has sparked waves of fighting which flare and wane with the passing of time: most of the country today lives in peace.
Israel is many things to many different people: an embattled homeland, a symbol of religious imperialism, and a holy land. Unequivocally, Israel is a land of historical and cultural wonder.
Most Popular Films
Films featuring Israel from international, independent filmmakers
Soar over Israel’s lush fields and sculpted canyons, gliding past hillside towns.
Produced by Jeffrey Worthington
Women at the Western Wall
Learn about Israel’s Women of the Wall prayer group, which is challenging Orthodox customs at the holy Western Wall.Produced byTamir Elterman
Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls
Explore Qumran and learn about the Essenes’ complex culture—including the creation and preservation of the Dead Sea Scrolls.Produced by Jeffrey Worthington
Med Breaks - Haifa
Follow locals to the beach to catch some waves in Haifa where the surf industry is growing.Produced by Yaeer Eldar
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Immerse yourself in Israel with this selection of articles, recipes, and more
Piece together the meaning and history of Jerusalem’s mosaics with O.A.T Trip Leader Khalil Shreim.
See Israel from the eyes of a local—O.A.T Trip Leader Gabriella Landau.
Discover how Israel came close to creating a Utopian society.
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Jerusalem: A Living Mosaic
How Israel’s capital became a cultural composite
by Sukie Reyes
Together they make the whole picture. That is Jerusalem—a mosaic of people.
OAT Trip Leader Khalil Shreim, a slender man with a gentle smile and sparkling eyes, knows that his home town is complex. That’s why he likes to show visitors some of the preserved Byzantine mosaics in Jerusalem. “‘Look at the stones,’ I say. ‘See how they are made of different colors and materials, yet together they make the whole picture. That is Jerusalem—a mosaic of people.’”
Time and tile
It is fitting that Khalil uses mosaics for a metaphor. Among the greatest treasures of the Middle East are mosaics which have survived intact for as long as 1,600 years under the successive Byzantine and Islamic Umayyad empires. As bloody conflicts played out on the region thereafter, many of these mosaics were lost, but those that remain reveal a glimpse of an era of artistry.
Interestingly, the mosaic most associated with Jerusalem was actually found in Jordan, covering the floor of an ancient church in Medaba. Known as the “Medaba Map,” this sixth-century mosaic is a detailed city map as seen from above. The oldest remaining floor map on earth, it showed the location of Jerusalem city highlights that had been referenced in the Bible and Jewish oral tradition, but which had not yet been verified by the 19th century. One of its most tantalizing details was an image of a broad thoroughfare, the Cardo Maximus, running through the center of Jerusalem—a road of which there was no remaining evidence. Because working city streets and Jewish Quarter neighborhoods existed atop the location where the Cardo appears on the map, Israel was reluctant to dig there, even for archaeological study.
But in 1975, while the Israel Antiquities Authority was working on the infrastructure of the busy King David thoroughfare, excavators discovered the ancient Cardo some 15-20 feet below the current street. Large flagstones, each more than a yard long—laid side by side and end to end—stretched across the center of the city, providing evidence of a route that once bustled with pilgrims, traders, and citizens. Today, you can stroll and shop along that route, some of it above ground and some below. To walk across these ancient flagstones today feels like time travel.
While the era of those mosaic artists seems long ago—especially if your country is less than 300 years old—Jerusalem was already several thousand years old by then. It was a tiny settlement at first, a few blocks surrounded by forests, almond trees, and olive groves, but it beckoned travelers, seekers, and kings alike. By the dawn of the Common Era, Jerusalem had already been occupied in succession by the Babylonians and the Greeks. A cavalcade of occupiers followed: Romans, Arab Muslims, Crusaders, Sunni Muslim Abuyyids, Germans, Tatars, Mamluk sultans, Ottomans, and finally the British—the last foreign power to try to claim the land for itself. With so many eras leaving competing cultural legacies, the city remains an assemblage of disparate influences.
One city, many faiths
For many, the most important of these influences are spiritual. For Jews, the Western Wall and Temple Mount, where the First and Second Temples were located, are the holiest sites of their faith—in synagogues all over the world, Arks of the Covenant are positioned to face this sacred city.
For Christians, the last night of Christ’s life is said to have been spent here, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, and then making the final walk up the Via Dolorosa to Golgotha Hill, where he was crucified.
And for Muslims, the Dome of the Rock encompasses not only the story of Ibrahim and the near-sacrifice of his son but the night the prophet Mohammed left earth for heaven.
Spiritual diversity is so profound here that more days of the week than not are considered holy to at least one faith: The Druze Sabbath begins on Thursday night, while Muslims celebrate Friday as their day of rest, with Jewish Sabbath following from Friday sundown till Saturday sundown, and Christians ending the week with their holy day on Sunday.
Where cultures meet
With its dominant religious traditions cherished by more than half of the world’s population, Jerusalem was—and continues to be—a magnet for travelers. For Khalil, this determined the course of his life. “I was born and raised in Jerusalem’s Old City, so when I went from home to school, I met travelers. When I was 9, a couple from Sao Paolo asked me where the Via Dolorosa was. I said, ‘I know that street. I’ll show you.’ I led them around, talking in a mix of Hebrew, English, and Arabic, and they were so happy with me that when a 20-year-old tour guide tried to take over, they said, ‘No!’ They just wanted me.”
They paid Khalil handsomely, though he at first refused and had to be convinced to take the money, a transaction observed by the local priest. When his parents saw the money, they did not believe that he had come by it honestly, and it was only when Khalil dragged his father to the priest—who confirmed the story—that his father believed him. Khalil has been showing people around his beloved city ever since.
That story reveals something important about Jerusalem. That a Christian priest calmed down the Palestinian father of a boy leading tours in the holiest city of the Jewish faith reveals the truth of Khalil’s earlier comment: Jerusalem is a mosaic of people.
A city for our time
Khalil has watched Jerusalem change, from the cozy walled Old City of his childhood to a sprawling metropolis, and he knows his own children will witness even more evolutions. The father of four can’t guess precisely what the future will look like for them in the fascinating mosaic they call home, but he is certain of one thing: The city’s appeal will never dim. “It is Jerusalem,” he says fondly, smiling. “Everybody comes here eventually.”
How Israel’s capital became a cultural composite
Israel: A Country with Purpose
by Gabriella “Gabi” Landau, O.A.T. Trip Leader, from Dispatches
Israel doesn't have stunning water falls or lush green forests. Nor does it have a wide variety of wildlife or magnificent castles from the Middle Ages. The size of Israel is about half of the size of Lake Michigan, and its population is only half the size of metro New York City.
What makes this country such a unique and intriguing traveling destination? What draws more media crews to Israel at any given moment than any other place on the planet? Why is it that millions of people worldwide consider Jerusalem the center of the world?
In order to answer these questions, I invite you to join me on the journey of my life story, and to view Israel from my personal point of view—which I have developed throughout many years of guiding Christians, Jews, and Muslims along the ancient paths of kings, prophets, conquerors, pilgrims, pioneers, and warriors.
A “typical Israeli family”
My name is Gabriella Landau. I was born in Israel in 1955, only seven years after the establishment of the young state, which, after 2,000 years of being spread throughout the world like tumbleweed, brought the Jewish people back to their land, the Land of the Bible. My father was born in Jerusalem and my mother escaped from Nazi Germany when she was eight years old. I am married to Alberto, an Argentinian man who immigrated to Israel when he was 19, as part of a group of young pioneers to build a kibbutz. We have two sons who have finished their compulsory military service and are now students in their late 20s.
We are a typical Israeli family. A melting pot of cultures with a strong affiliation to the Land of the Bible, a wide knowledge of its ancient history, and great respect to its spiritual importance to millions of people all over the world.
The children of Israel learn the stories of the Old Testament from a young age. They celebrate the Jewish holidays based on biblical stories, and walk in the footsteps of kings, judges, and prophets. After not being spoken for centuries, Hebrew is the only case of a dead national language being revived in all of world history. Today, it is the native tongue of more than eight million people.
Young Israeli soldiers study the history and heritage of the Jewish people in every place where they are being trained. I served five years in the Israeli army and finished my service as a captain in the paratroopers’ force. Part of my service was to escort soldiers in the field and teach them history, archaeology, and Biblical significance as the heritage of the people who they are defending.
Small in size, immense in significance
Geographically, Israel is a bridge between continents; it was the only gateway in ancient times to connect Europe with the East, and vice versa. Emperors of long gone civilizations—the Canaanites,
Egyptians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Turks, and many others—did everything they could to control this strategic piece of land, which represents only one-sixth of 1% of the landmass of the Middle East. In the ancient town of Megiddo (which some identify as Armageddon), we find more than 20 levels of different civilizations going back 4,000 years.
There is only one Land of the Bible, and that alone makes this country special. People come to Israel to connect with their God. It is not necessarily the holy sites they are visiting; it is the spiritual journey that they make. The holiness of the Holy Land for the three monotheistic religions is unquestionable.
For the Christians, it is the land where Jesus was born, grew up, and started his ministry. In Jerusalem he was crucified, buried, and resurrected. Recently I participated in the Greek Orthodox Easter ceremony of fire at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Thousands of pilgrims from Greece, Russia, Romania, Egypt, Macedonia, and Ethiopia were in ecstasy when the Holy Fire came out from Jesus’ tomb to announce the beginning of resurrection. Another time I witnessed a mass baptism in the Jordan River for people who’d been praying to get there all their life.
For the Muslims, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is where Muhammad ascended to heaven on a mythological horse, El Buraq e, after praying where the Al Aqsa mosque stands today. This mosque is the third holiest place for Muslims, after Mecca and Medina in South Arabia.
Twenty percent of Israel’s 8.3 million citizens are Arabs. Most of them are Muslims, but there are also many Christians. (As a matter of fact, Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has grown over the last 50 years.) The Arab citizens are exempt from the duty of military service, but they can volunteer. Men of the Druze minority religion do serve in the Israeli army, and are known to be very good fighters.
The Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa mosque stand on Mt. Moriah. This is the holiest place for the Jewish people, where both the First and Second Temple once stood. The only remnant of the destroyed temples is the western retaining wall—now known as the Western Wall—of the temple that Herod the Great built 2,000 years ago. This is why for centuries the Jewish people called it the Wailing Wall, longing to go back and build the Third Temple when the Messiah arrives. Only after 1967, after the Six-Day War, did Israel return to the Old City in Jerusalem to conduct archaeological digs around the Temple Mount. Since then, we’ve found a lot of fascinating evidence about the life of the Jewish people from the times of King David 3,000 years ago. The plaza in front of the Western Wall is the place where many Israeli soldiers swear their loyalty to their state. In a very emotional ceremony they receive their personal weapon and a Bible. The Bible and the weapon go together.
Looking to the future
The Israelis feel that they have returned to the Promised Land. The only democracy in the Middle East is prosperous and vital. As children, we used to put small coins in little Jewish National Fund boxes to contribute to the effort of developing the country and covering the arid hills with trees.
Having to enter a military confrontation every few years with millions of Arabs, who simply don’t want us here, emphasizes the importance of life. There is a strong feeling of solidarity in the Israeli society. People have goals. Every day has a meaning here in our gem of the western and modern world, our kaleidoscope of cultures, history, religions, and ethnic groups.
The Israelis are known for having many children. The average number of children to a non-religious family is three. Among the Orthodox religious families it is nine. The need to survive and ensure a promising future for all these children puts Israel at the forefront of pioneering and innovation in almost every aspect of life.
Israel has the largest number of startup companies per capita in the world, and the largest number of NASDAQ-listed companies outside the U.S. and Canada. In the 80s, IBM chose an Israeli-designed computer chip as the brains for its first personal computer. Israel's dairy cows are the most productive in the world. They average 25,432 gallons of milk per cow per year, compared to just 18,747 gallons from American cows and 13,778 from European cows. The kibbutz way of life, which went through changes to adjust to modern needs, is still one of the most productive and unique ways of life in Israel.
Many people feel that Israel is an unsafe place to travel to. This, of course, is fed by the media, which portrays violence and conflict as the only reality. The hundreds of travelers whom I’ve guided in my seven years with O.A.T. will be happy to tell you that they never felt safer. The streets and coffee shops of Tel Aviv are bustling with young people. There are no soldiers with machine guns in the airport, and the market places are a celebration of flavors, sounds, colors, and scents. A woman can stroll on her own in the streets in the evening without being afraid to be mugged or harassed. Children play in the street squares and walk home from school on their own.
In many ways I feel that Israel is a place that touches everybody's heart. It belongs to everybody. Almost every culture that ever lived on this planet left its imprint here.
I invite you to visit us and enjoy a unique life-changing experience.
Making the Desert Bloom
The rise of kibbutzim in Israel
by Laura Chavanne, from Dispatches
Imagine a society in which all members are treated as equals—free from want, need, and the hierarchies that naturally stem from the pursuit of wealth and power. Not even gender roles apply here, and both men and women share every job to ensure the community’s sustainability. From food and housing to education and recreation, every individual is taken care of … for life.
It may sound like a utopian fantasy, but in Israel, it happened … and for a time, it even worked. More than 100,000 Israelis still reside in communities known as kibbutzim—and while the ideals have changed in modern times, the movement that created them embodied the essence of cooperation. It may not have been utopia, but for those who experienced the kibbutz lifestyle at its best, it probably seemed close.
Arrival in the Holy Land
For the Jewish people, the concept of aliyah—the return (literally, “ascent”) to the Holy Land—has roots in Biblical times. Yet the waves of immigration officially categorized as Zionist aliyah began in the late 19th century. Some came to Israel purely to fulfill Zionist ideals—but many did so to escape increasingly widespread persecution. Such was the case for those who emigrated, predominantly from Russia, between 1904 and 1914 during the period known as the Second Aliyah.
The pioneers who arrived in Palestine, then under Ottoman rule, found little in terms of industry and economic opportunity. As a result, they worked the land—which was no small feat. In fact, anti-Zionists in Europe referred to the arid expanse of Palestine as dos gepeigerte land: “the country that had died.” Zionist supporters, on the other hand, prided themselves on “making the desert bloom.”
Of course, this was easier said than done. Now faced with a challenge akin to drawing blood from a stone, the settlers—few of whom had prior farming experience—came to the realization that they simply couldn’t make it on their own. Working together, however, they might just have a chance. In 1909, the first collective farm was born on the banks of the Sea of Galilee.
For the group who founded it, the work was backbreaking—and the challenges of desolate land, scarce water, meager funds, and sheer inexperience with physical labor proved too great to overcome. The original group dispersed after a year. In 1910, however, a new group of ten men and two women leased the same land … with intentions far loftier than merely farming. They were there to start a movement.
A new way of life
They called it Kvutzat Degania, or “Collective of Wheat,” and they strived to create a self-contained, sustainable society based on democracy and absolute equality. Each member shared the work, administration, and ownership of the land. By 1914, twelve members had grown to 50, and more kibbutzim began cropping up around the Sea of Galilee. The fall of the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War I made it even easier for Jews to purchase land in Palestine. In 1917, the Balfour Declaration publicly stated Britain’s support of “a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.” This, combined with rising anti-Semitism in Europe, prompted a new wave of immigration—the Third Aliyah—in the early 1920s. By 1922, 700 people lived on kibbutzim—and the number grew steadily to 24,000 by the onset of World War II.
As the movement grew, so did the variety of kibbutzim. Some were secular, some religious, and some had an especially strong focus on agriculture or gender equality. Still, they all shared the same basic principles—and unique way of life. Personal property was discouraged, even in the form of gifts from relatives outside the kibbutz. Both work and social activities were contained within the compound, and meals were always taken together in the communal dining hall. Rotation of jobs ensured that members shared ownership of every task, down to the most menial.
In these early years, perhaps most foreign and fascinating to those outside the kibbutz was the ideology around gender roles—particularly when it came to parenting. The concept of pure gender equality extended from the fields into the home. After all, what role could be more stereotypically feminine than that of housewife and mother? Just as the laundry and cooking were communal, so, too, was the rearing of children. Children lived in designated “children’s houses,” spending time with their parents for just a few hours each day. And while children did form close bonds with their parents, they did so with one another as well. In fact, studies have found marriage rates amongst those born on kibbutzim to be extremely low—because even though the children were unrelated, they viewed each other as siblings after being raised so closely from such a young age.
Not that kibbutzim encouraged marriage in the early years. By shunning wedlock, women also shunned the idea that their survival depended upon a man. If a couple did wish to be wed, they did so by simply requesting a room together. They never used the traditional Hebrew word for spouse—ba’al—because it translates directly to “master.”
Progressive though this seems, critics still claim that kibbutzim never completely abandoned traditional gender roles. Yes, women performed “masculine” tasks like plowing and guard duty—but they did most of the cooking and cleaning as well. The women may have been masculinized, but the men weren’t similarly feminized to meet them in the middle.
Defending a fledgling state
At first blush, it’s understandable to equate aspects of kibbutzim with the “free love” spirit of American hippie communes—but the similarities only go so far. Rather than making love, not war, kibbutz members played an active role in the fledgling Israeli military.
In the 1920s, as waves of Jewish settlers arrived in increasing numbers, Arab-Jewish violence was also on the rise. Kibbutz sites were chosen for strategic purposes—both to create a line of defense, and to further establish Jewish strongholds in remote parts of the state. Although the British had control over the region, settlers did not trust that their administrators would adequately protect them against Arab attack. Underground paramilitary units—collectively known as the Haganah—began cropping up, initially in an informal fashion; kibbutz members purchased guns and learned to use them, but their role didn’t extend beyond that of farmers protecting their homes and fields.
In 1929, however, this changed. Hundreds were killed on both sides of the conflict in riots over control of the Western Wall. The underground militia became more organized, incorporating thousands of youths from both kibbutzim and cities. The remote locations of some kibbutzim were perfect for stashing secret weapon caches, purchased illegally in Europe. When tensions came to a head in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, kibbutzim were on the front lines.
This tumultuous time left a lasting legacy. After the state of Israel won independence, the Haganah became the foundation for the Israeli Defense Force. And a clandestine munitions factory on Kibbutz Magan Michael grew into the still-thriving Israel Military Industries.
Rise, collapse, and rebirth
The decades following Israel’s independence ushered in a brief golden age for kibbutzim. Not only were they still integral to military defense, but kibbutz members also held prominent roles in the Israeli parliament. As Israel on the whole began to industrialize, so, too, did kibbutzim—because agriculture alone could longer adequately sustain them. In 1962, the Kibbutz Industry Association was established to support industrial enterprises—which today include everything from machinery and electronics to furniture and textiles. Until the 1970s, the quality of life on a kibbutz was arguably better than that in Israeli cities.
There was, of course, a fundamental difference: on a kibbutz, wealth could only grow so much. When televisions began popping up on kibbutzim, members had a window on the wider world. This exposure led to desire … which in turn led to dissatisfaction.
In addition, many kibbutzim had accumulated substantial debts and were unable to repay—a crisis that came to a head in the 1980s. Eventually, kibbutz leadership reached an agreement with Israeli banks and the Ministry of Finance—but while this alleviated some of the debt, it also demanded considerable repayment. As a result, many became disillusioned, and abandoned kibbutzim in the 1990s.
While the story of the kibbutz could easily have ended here, the movement chose instead to evolve. While today’s kibbutzim may not resemble the utopian enclaves of yore, they still strive to maintain the original ideals while adapting to the modern world. Most, for example, have adopted differential pay, and many members take jobs either outside the kibbutz or in regional kibbutz enterprises. The commercial aspects of kibbutzim have become much more individualistic.
When it comes to community, however, the old ideals still live on—even if “children’s houses” have given way to a traditional family structure. From the strongest to the weakest, kibbutz members all enjoy security in terms of health care, welfare, and education. Communal meals are still an important part of kibbutz life—a time to connect and plan future activities. Holidays are celebrated together. For those seeking a way to embrace their Jewish identity—not to mention solidarity, a safety net, and a sense of belonging—the desert still blooms with possibility.