In many ways, Israel is a land of living history, as many aspects of society stretch back several millennia and are connected to ancient Judaism through hundreds of years of study of the scriptures by learned Rabbis. Other aspects of life here are surprisingly 21st century, and it’s the contrast between the two extremes which makes the country such a fascinating place to visit. Due to the deep significance of the land to multiple religions, Israel has been the center of endless conflicts in an attempt to control the blessed region. Despite what you may see on the news, it is more than safe to visit and has some of the most heightened security in the world as tourism is a major backbone of their economy.
Eretz Yisroel – the Promised Land of Israel – has been a crucial, sacred concept to the Jewish peoples since Biblical times, as the Torah relates that God promised the land to his nomadic people during the Iron Age, some four millennia ago. The first Kingdom of Israel came into being in the 11th century BC and was established for over 400 years until Assyrian and Babylonian conquests.
The Classical Greek era and its invasion reacted relatively peacefully on Eretz Yisroel, although the region became heavily Hellenized, causing conflict between the ruling Greeks and the Judeans. The Maccabean Revolt in 167 BC resulted in an independent state becoming established in Judah and expanded across the region roughly to the geographic limits of modern Israel.
By 53 BC, the powerful Roman Empire had invaded, first annexing Syria and moving on to Judah by intervening in a long-running civil war in the area. Resistance resulted in the appointment of King Herod the Great of New Testament fame, who oversaw the Judean region with a heavy hand and incorporated it as a vassal state of Rome.
Violent conflict between patriotic Jews and the Greco-Roman conquerors followed across Israel, and the Jewish-Roman Wars resulted in mass genocide, large-scale destruction and the shrinking of the Jewish population to a minority centered on the Galilee. Samaritans took over the hill country and Greco-Romans settled along the coasts, with the long-held dream of a Promised Land fading yet again.
During the next several centuries, the fast-growing new religion of Christianity began overtaking the pantheon of pagan Roman gods and, by the time Rome had fallen and the Byzantine era had risen, was a major religion with Judah designated as a diocese of the East. In the 5th and 6th centuries, revolts by the Samaritan population reshaped the boundaries of Judah and all but destroyed the Christian population.
Brief relief for the remnants of the Jewish community came via the Persian invasion, with the establishment in 614 AD of a Jewish Commonwealth in present day Israel, but in 625 AD the Byzantine Empire took control again amid more destruction until the Arab conquest in 635 AD. This unleashed centuries of unrest, during which control of Judah passed between Arabs and Crusaders, finally falling to the Ottoman Empire in 1516 AD.
The late 6th century Diaspora dispersed Jewish communities across the world, some as far as India, while the Passover prayer ‘Next Year in Jerusalem’ kept alive a hope of the Promised Land for those in exile to return home to Israel. A few tiny settlements were reestablished in Muslim Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed by the 16th century as the modern Aliyah migrations and the Zionist movement began late into 1881, with Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe.
Named Palestine and occupied only by Arabs, Eretz Yisroel became the focus of migration by Orthodox Jews and, during WWI, British forces conquered the area agreeing to form a home for the Jewish people. Four more Aliyahs followed, the last sparked by the Nazi movement and the Holocaust during WWII. Subsequently, the British Government reneged on its promise and took the side of Palestine’s Arabs, and the struggle for an independent Jewish State began.
After a year of desperate fighting in the Arab-Israeli War against a massive combined Arab army, the Zionists, led by David Ben-Gurion, emerged victorious and the State of Israel was born in late 1948 and joined the United Nations in 1949. Since that point, several attempts by the Arab League to reclaim part of the land have been defeated, notably in the Six Day War, and Israel has become a powerful, militarized nation, with many decades of dreams finally a reality.
The diverse culture of today’s Israel is partly the result of the return of Jews from Diaspora settlements across the world to their ancient homeland, bringing with them their own traditions formed over hundreds of years of isolated and persecuted exile spent in shtetls (towns) and gated ghettos.
Rooted in the religious and secular traditions of millennia, as well as in the history of the Diaspora and the ideological Zionist movement, Israeli culture’s flexibility in embracing modern-day changes reflects the country’s unique spirit. Trends from all over the world are accepted with enthusiasm and integrated into the country’s rich heritage.
At the same time, the unique and varied Jewish religious traditions are linked with the nationalistic Zionism born as a reaction to anti-Semitism during the Diaspora years. Contrasts are huge here, from the secular culture of modern Tel Aviv to the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects in ancient Jerusalem.
Mixed in are the traditions born of hundreds of years of settlement of Muslim, Ethiopian, Orthodox and other Christian communities, as well as strong family and community ties and immense patriotism. Music of all kinds from traditional to contemporary is a major cultural aspect, and the nation is especially proud of its famous classical musicians and many orchestras.
Israeli dance companies such as Bat Dor and Batsheva are highly acclaimed and traditional dance is a feature at all celebrations and ceremonies such as Bar Mitzvahs and weddings. Encounters between Western and Eastern artistry have given rise to adventures in modern art forms, with the country’s magnificent geographic features providing inspirations of shape and line.
Israel’s literary scene sprang into life in the late 19th century with Hebrew works rooted in the traditions of Jews from all over Europe. Many of the early writings focused on the loss of traditional lifestyles leading to a loss of faith and cultural identity, a concern still evident in Orthodox communities today. The Sabra culture of the kibbutz generation is immortalized in many post-independence works.
Theater and cinema are slowly moving away from the post-independence focus on the Holocaust, Sabra and national identity, although these themes are still popular with many Israelis. Half of the performances are produced locally and are stylistically diverse, and film-making, inaugurated in the 1950’s, is still focused on purely Israeli experiences such as the Aliyahs and the problems adjusting to a new way of life.
From ancient times, physical fitness has been a strong part of Jewish culture for its use in preventing illness, and the country holds its own ‘Olympics’ every four years – the Maccabiah Games, restricted to Israeli athletes. Basketball and football are the most popular sports, and the outdoor sports culture sees hikers and campers flooding to the country’s national parks and raising their families to love outdoor pursuits. Israelis are also known for being especially fit, as they are all, male and female, required to serve two years in the army before attending college.
Israelis are often considered brusque or even rude by Western visitors, but this is customary rather than deliberate, and honesty, directness, openness and warmth are the norm here. Israelis tell it like it is - a rare trait in the politically correct world. Hospitability is commonplace and locals delight in sharing their beloved country with visitors. Remember, it’s only technically been an independent country for 50 or so years, so everyone that lives there moved there by choice. You may be invited to share a meal in an Israeli home and presented with huge quantities of food. Getting drunk is considered impolite, as is backing away from an Israeli during a conversation, they are close talkers by Western standards.