I first went to Israel when I was 21 and returned at least once a year until 2020, so I was thrilled to renew my streak in August. My wife and I were particularly anxious to see our son, who we had not seen since he finished his army service.
As you can imagine, getting into Israel was not easy and only possible at all because of our son being an Israeli citizen, since tourists were not being permitted to visit. We had to get an entry permit from the Israeli consulate, take a COVID-19 test and submit the result to the Israeli government 24 hours before our flight. Up until almost the last moment we were afraid we would have to cancel, as the Israeli government announced just before our departure that it was going to require all visitors to quarantine for at least seven days. We got a reprieve, however, when the government delayed implementing that decision. Still, once we reached Israel, we had to take another COVID-19 test at the airport and, the following morning, went to a lab to get a serological test. The Ministry of Health later gave us clearance to leave isolation and we received our “green pass.”
For all the publicity about the Delta variant, it was surprising to see the laxity of Israeli behavior and enforcement. While there were stories about police handing out fines at grocery stores to people without masks, we found that relatively few people wore masks except in the packed Dizengoff mall. There was no social distancing anywhere, as far as we could tell. In restaurants, staff members were apparently required to wear face masks, but many of them didn’t wear them properly.
I also had my first-ever experience with Israeli health care when I visited the emergency room at Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv because of an ongoing ear problem. Fortunately, the emergency room was relatively quiet, so it took little time to register and get my lab work done. After maybe an hour, I saw an ear specialist who was very professional and reassuring.
But enough about the unpleasantness of life during a pandemic
At the risk of what the anti-Semites would likely call “vacation washing,” let me tell you about the terrific Airbnb accommodations my wife and I stayed in and the quality time we spent with our son. Besides the usual falafel/shawarma lunches, we went to excellent, albeit expensive restaurants. For those interested, among our favorite meals were at Sea Dolphin and Adom in Jerusalem, Little Tiberius and Hermitage in Tiberias, and, in Tel Aviv, Goocha and my favorite steak restaurant, the appropriately named Makom Shel Basar (“A Place for Meat”). I was glad to see that my usual haunts had survived the pandemic economy with the exception of La Brasserie, a great 24/7 French restaurant across from Rabin Square that closed. I was even happier to return home and find that I hadn’t gained weight despite all the bread, chocolate cake and gelato (take that, Ben & Jerry!) I consumed.
This was a mercifully politics-free visit unlike most past trips, when I attended conferences on anti-Semitism and BDS and spent a lot of time discussing the usual issues. I was more interested in gathering material for the Jewish Virtual Library about sites in Israel to help remind people that Israel is not synonymous with conflict. As I wrote in response to Roger Cohen’s New York Times article suggesting that the country is a seething cauldron of internal turmoil, the 17 days we spent in Israel were uneventful and wherever we went, Israeli Muslims and Jews were peacefully coexisting as they have on the dozens of trips I have taken over the last four decades.
There was heat, but it was generated by the sun with temperatures in the high 90s in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and more than 100 degrees in Tiberius. Hence, my goal was to find places where we could cool off.
We stayed in a wonderful cottage that had once been an Egyptian embassy around the corner from the King David Hotel with a terrific host who had run a coffee shop in the American consulate before President Donald Trump closed it.
Not far from the city, we found En Hemed, a popular family picnic spot. Unfortunately, instead of a place to swim, we found only a trickling stream. When all else fails, my philosophy is to eat, so we drove to the nearby Arab town of Abu Ghosh, which is known for its hospitality and hummus. I am not a fan, but my wife and son testified that the hummus at Abu Saeed was the best they’d ever eaten.
We went from there to Nebi Samwil, which is just north of Jerusalem. It has a Crusader-era building Muslims and Jews believe covers the tomb of the prophet Samuel. From the top of the building, you get a spectacular 360-degree view of Jerusalem and its environs. If you’re interested in the politics, you’re in the West Bank, and you can see Jewish and Arab communities and how Israel has strategically settled the surrounding high ground to secure its hold on its capital.
Most tourists go to the Dead Sea, but you don’t have to go in the nasty saltwater to swim at the lowest place on Earth. Einon Tzukim (also called Ein Feshka), sitting alongside the sea at the foot of the cliffs near Qumran, is the lowest nature reserve in the world and the biggest oasis in Israel. There are other attractions, but we were there for the spring water. There are two small pools close to the sea that were relatively uncrowded and one had a canopy to provide shade. Near the upper level is a large circular swimming pool which was packed with kids but still refreshing. The view is again spectacular, and yet another reminder of the beauty of the country.
The following day we returned to a favorite site of mine, Ein Prat, an oasis only about 20 minutes from Jerusalem. There is a monastery built into the side of a cliff and different ways to hike through the Judean Desert, but we chose to wade through the stream running through the canyon and luxuriating in the ice-cold pools where fish nibble on your toes.
We stayed next in Tiberius, in an Airbnb across the street from the Kinneret. We went to the “beach,” which was really a postage-stamp-size waterfront of rocks rather than sand. The water was warm but still a welcome relief from the searing heat.
Our son took us to my new favorite place, which was not far from Beit She’an but seemingly in the middle of nowhere off a dirt road. Surrounded by trees, we found a raging river with waterfalls and pools to swim in that was beautiful and secluded. I’m not sure of the name and maybe that’s just as well so it can be my secret refuge.
We did go to one other park in the north to seek water, but the hike in the heat nearly killed my wife and me. We reached water but never made it to the main pool so I can’t recommend Nahal Amud, though I hear it’s quite beautiful.
Another great view was from the Rosh Pina, where you can see the Hula Valley, the Golan Heights and Mount Hermon. The lookout, about 1,650 feet above sea level, is named after Nimrod Segev, a native of the city who was killed along with his crew by an anti-tank missile in the Second Lebanon War in 2006.
We finished our trip in Tel Aviv at a great apartment overlooking the sea and spent relaxing afternoons on the beach watching spectacular sunsets. This is one of the great places to people-watch, eat well and relax. After years of packing my itineraries, it was nice to take some time to enjoy the city. I finally went to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and was excited to see the original painting of a print by Chagall I have in my living room. I believe it is the only realistic painting he did, which shows the Western Wall in 1932 with its then narrow passageway for worshippers. We also visited the impressive new ANU-Museum of the Jewish People (formerly Beit Hatefutsoth), the largest Jewish museum in the world, which focuses on the positive aspects of Jewish life from ritual to humor.
For Tel Aviv visitors, I would add the caveat that driving is hazardous to your mental and physical health with the multitude of scooters, motorbikes and insane Israeli drivers. Even trying to cross the bike path on the promenade is risky. Still, there was a certain relief in worrying about something other than COVID-19.
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including “The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews” and “After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.”