What It’s Like to Travel as an Israeli
“You can’t take this,” Mom said while she pulled my dear, favourite yellow t-shirt from the suitcase.
“Why not?” I pouted.
“Because it has Hebrew written on it.”
“I don’t want people to know where we’re from,” she replied, putting it back in my closet.
“I don’t want them to harm us.”
“Why would they harm us?”
“Just ’cause. Leave it be Tamar.”
I was five years old when I had that conversation with my mom. We were getting ready for a trip to Turkey – my first flight.
I’ve been travelling on and off for the last two years now, and as an inevitable part of that, I’ve met hundreds of different people. A lot of them have been excited to talk to an Israeli, as I am “the first Israeli [they’ve] met!”
That excited reaction is usually followed with the same, tired question:
“So, is Israel safe?”
For those of you who live under a rock and don’t know the reasons behind that question, I urge you to research the long-running, highly controversial and tragic conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has been running since the end of WWII. Imagine terrorist attacks, wars, military operations and oppression, rockets and missiles; whatever you come up with, we probably have it.
I give my routine answer: “Yeah, it’s pretty safe. The unsafe areas are not the areas that people go too, especially not tourists.”
“What about to walk in the streets? Cause you have, like, a lot of terrorist attacks and stuff…” they add, not satisfied with my simple response.
“It’s fine. Most of the terrorist attacks are concentrated in those areas I mentioned before… so, no problem to walk around.”
“What about the missiles? Do you not get them all the time from the Gaza Strip? Do you get them at your house?” they ask, eyes wide with wonder.
“We don’t get rockets all the time; the terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip aren’t capable of regularly handling our defence mechanism, they know better. And no, I don’t really get them where I live. I mean, back in 2014 we had a small… operation, I guess, in which Hamas got a little bit out of hand, so we were in range, but it only happened a couple more times after that. They mostly shoot rockets on the settlements in their immediate surroundings.”
“And what about you?”
“What about me?” I ask, awaiting their next intrusive question.
“Have you ever been to war yourself? I mean, I’ve heard that army service is mandatory. So, have you ever killed someone?”
“Do you know someone that has? Been to war I mean? Or, died?”
“Yes. Everybody knows somebody that has. It’s inevitable.”
And then comes the most close-minded question of them all. I mean, I know that not everybody knows enough about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; they know only what the media feeds them. Still, whenever I hear it I can’t help but (mentally) roll my eyes aggressively.
“So, do you, like, hate Arabs?”
“No. I don’t hate anyone. I fear the terrorists, despise them even. But Palestinians aren’t terrorists. Arabs aren’t terrorists. I have no reason to hate the majority over the acts of the minority.”
A few months ago, I was staying at a hostel in Sydney, Australia, when I met a British guy who was extremely interested in my background. He immediately started blasting me with questions, only his first one took me by surprise. Instead of the usual “Is it safe?” he actually asked me something I’d never heard before:
“So, do you feel safe travelling?”
Up until that moment, every person I’ve talked to has had one big assumption about me, and about Israelis in general: we don’t feel safe in our country. Now, I’m gonna shock you here — we actually do. As unsafe as it may be, and as scary as the news may portray it over the world, Israel has, and always will be, the safest country for the Jewish community. Since the beginning of time, Jews have been persecuted, banished from one country to another, murdered, abused and hated.
Israel is the only place we feel safe. That British guy was the only one to ever understand it.
“I guess?” I answered him. “Kinda. It really depends on my surroundings.”
“What do you mean?”
“Umm, well, I just have to be aware of who’s around me, ’cause not everyone is pleased when they learn where I’m from. So I won’t necessarily talk in Hebrew to my friends everywhere. I’ll never shout in Hebrew in public, unless of course I feel it’s a safe place. Oh! Also, I’ll never bring any belongings that have Jewish symbols or Hebrew words on it, or even if it’s just recognised as an Israeli brand, you know, just in case.”
“Are you serious? That’s so crazy that you have to go through that!”
“I don’t know, it’s pretty basic.”
“No dude, that’s insane. Like, the amount of thought you put into travelling is by far higher than most travellers. But then, what do you do if you talk to someone and you feel that they’re a bit… off, I guess? Do you just try to get away?”
“Basically, yeah. I also have cover stories sometimes if I feel they’re needed.”
“Yeah, you know. Like, lie about my origins and name and such so they won’t pick up on where I’m from. But that’s only in cases that I feel can go very wrong, like when I’m alone with someone I don’t know, or it’s late at night in the street. Stuff like that, the ones that give you bad vibes.”
I can sum up the rest of the conversation pretty easily from here. A lot of shocked expression, loud exclaiming and some pity.
I guess that conversation was my awakening of some sort. Seeing the horror on his face when I explained to him how I travel made me realise that something is a bit off. At that time, I was still convinced it’s a natural thing to do, that everyone has their own way of protecting themselves and this is simply mine. But the more I thought about it, I realised how messed up it really is. How, as absurd as this may sound, I feel safer in Israel, a country which in my lifetime has been through one war, four undeclared wars and the sum of six years of daily terrorist attacks.
As a woman, I face the dangers of being harassed, assaulted or attacked as a result of being an “easy target”. Being gay, I face the dangers of homophobic interactions. Yet, I’m more scared of identifying as Israeli or Jewish, something I should be infinitely proud of.
There have been many incidents in the past where I’ve felt the need to hide my identity. Like the time my friend and I were walking down a street at night in Barcelona and a random man came up to us and started following us around, insisting to know where we’re from. We tried to lie our way out of it, claiming we’re from Croatia, but he managed to pick up on our Israeli accents and demanded to know if we truly are Israelis. Eventually, we managed to shake him off, but those few minutes were not nice, to say the least.
Random incidents like that occur again here and there. But, putting the dangerous and creepy side of those interactions to the side, plain old anti-Semitic interactions kind of overshadow them. A lot of the time that I introduce myself, people completely shut off, start making snarky remarks, or even going straight into blaming me, ’cause I live in Israel and so obviously I’m a terrible human being.
The optimistic part of me hopes that one day I, and others like me, will be able to travel without having a set of rules we have to follow to protect ourselves. Without giving a second thought to our surroundings, the loudness of our voices or what we wear. Without feeling uncomfortable or angered by peoples’ judgment, without hiding.
But as a realist, unfortunately, I’ve learned those days are still out of reach.
Photos by the author