Israel Trip Reflections

It’s a little late, but I made a list of contemporaneous observations during my Israel trip 6 months ago. In no particular order:

* In Israel, places have been built, torn down, and rebuilt, in many cases over the course of centuries (or even millennia). In many cases, interesting sites have been modified to reflect the then-current ruler, which changed multiple times over the eons. So this leads to an interesting philosophical question: if modern day archivists wish to restore ruins, what era should they restore it to? With the evolution of history, there is no single definition of authenticity or accuracy.

* At the same time, the history is still being written, and this era shouldn’t be ignored either. It was weird seeing people still living in the “ruins” of the old city of Akko, which was a Crusader castle that was extensively remodeled by the Ottomans. Assuming we wanted to restore Akko to make it more authentic, are the modern residents any less a part of the history? This reminded me a bit of the gorgeous Ottoman walls around the old city of Jerusalem. They were not used for their contemplated defensive purposes over the course of 5 centuries–until the 1967 war, when the Israelis had to dislodge the Jordanian army from the old city (there are even bullet holes near some entrances).

* Excluding the historical stuff, Israeli architecture is generally not very aesthetically pleasing, but Tel Aviv and its suburbs was particularly conspicuous. Many buildings are unadorned concrete cubes with flat roofs. I imagine it’s what Soviet architecture looked like.

* The compulsory military service plays a big role in Israeli life. It acts as a type of social glue not unlike a fraternity/sorority. For example, one colleague told me that certain law firms are “tank” firms, i.e., comprised of lawyers who were part of the tank corp and, through that, developed a common identity.

* Advertising in Israel rarely featured celebrities–in stark contrast to the US, where so much of our advertising is celebrity-driven. My initial assumption is that certain religious subgroups would object to celebrity advertising, but no one supported that hypothesis. Perhaps it’s because there are relatively fewer homegrown Israeli celebrities? Or perhaps Israeli advertising is just behind the US, and a few years from now it will catch up?

* Israel is a cat country. There were cats everywhere. At the University of Haifa conference, one cat walked into the conference room, found a seat, took a bath and then curled up for a nap for a couple hours. No one seemed fazed by the extra attendee.

* Israelis smoke a lot. Of course, I come from California, which has virtually banned smoking in public places, and I know smoking is more common in the rest of the world. But people smoked everywhere, even where there were “no smoking” signs. On the first night, someone lit up in the restaurant dozens of feet away, but it still made my eyes water. It reminded me why I’m a huge fan of rules against smoking in restaurants!

* The diversity of produce in Israel was amazing. (Of course, we have it pretty good here in California, too). It was disorienting seeing bananas growing in the desert near the Sea of Galilee.

* Speaking of food, I loved being able to get tasty $3 falafels wherever I went. Why can’t we have this in the US?

* Particularly in Jerusalem, it was amazing to see people dressed up in all different types of religious garb. I didn’t even recognize most of the outfits. I wouldn’t say that Jerusalem was an integrated city, but there seemed to be significant tolerance for different outfit choices, much more so than here in the US. At the same time, one’s choice of dress was often a major political statement; down to different kepahs signaling which Jewish sect the wearer belonged to. This also contributes to rampant profiling, which was disconcerting to my American sensibilities. Also on dress–most religious sites banned shorts. That was tough on me!

* Israel used to be a near-socialist economy. Perhaps socialism (everyone pitching in together and making sacrifices) was a necessity when the country was literally in a fight for its existence. I’m not saying Israel’s existence is now assured, but the country has moved on, both economically and psychologically. From my vantage, there were almost no visible vestiges of socialism.

* I was surprised at how much trash was everywhere. My understanding is that some communities can opt out of paying taxes, but then trash pickup service gets cut. It was amazing how much trash was piled up right next to sacred sites.

* Israelis eat late. Breakfast often starts at 8. Lunch was typically around 2. Dinner was often at 8 or later. I wasn’t able to tell if this was due to some effort to harmonize with European hours? Israel was 2+ hours ahead of Europe, so maybe the schedule is pushed back to better sync up with European trading partners? It reminded me a little of the dynamic with NY and the rest of the US. New York is generally a late city; in many business circles, 9:30 or 10 is an acceptable start time for the workday. In the Midwest, which is one hour behind NY, the schedule was generally one hour earlier than NY (all the way down to the prime time TV schedule, which expressly is 1 hour earlier than Eastern time) to better sync up with New York. In Milwaukee, on New Year’s Eve, the TV stations even show the Times Square ball dropping live, meaning that Milwaukee celebrates the New Year at 11 pm. And in California, we don’t do everything 3 hours earlier than NY, but anyone dealing with NY works an earlier schedule. This is especially brutal for those in the financial industry (many of whom start when the opening bell rings at 6:30 am Pacific); but even I was affected; when I had NY clients, I usually tried to start my work day at 8 am, which was already midday (11 am) for my clients.

* Israel is so rich in antiquities, there was no visible effort to prevent tourists from destroying or picking up artifacts at sacred sites. Many amazing sites had effectively no security, and one tour guide even encouraged us to pick up a millennium-old souvenir from Caesarea. I contrast this with the very tight efforts to restrict such behavior in the US, where our physical cultural resources are so limited that we guard them very, very carefully.

* The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a truly remarkable place. I need to spend a lot more time there to fully appreciate it. However, I found one aspect especially noteworthy. The building is owned collectively by 6 different Christian churches, but they have divided the building into different property spheres that (as I understand it) are tied to who maintains the building. As a result, any maintenance effort has implications for property ownership, and the result is that maintenance efforts that cross property boundaries have property rights implications–which leads to paralysis. So the building is falling apart and in desperate need of maintenance, but the property allocation structure prevents that. It made me wonder if there would be some way to create tradeable property rights that would facilitate maintenance rather than inhibit it. So not only is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher an important place spiritually, but it may be a laboratory for the problems created by miscalibrated property rights.

* The “streets” in the old city of Jerusalem are too narrow for modern cars/trucks, so goods move into/out of the old city on narrow tractors. They travel around blind curves at a high rate of speed. It reminded me a little of the angry tractor-bull scene from the movie Cars.

* Walking around in Israel, I was routinely bombarded by dozens or even hundreds of personal commercial solicitations an hour–especially in the markets and tourist destinations. Verbal spam, so to speak. I wonder which is worse–the dystopian view of personalized broadcast ads from Minority Report, or the real-life assault of humans soliciting other humans?

* I loved the opportunity to hang out with a very eclectic group of international tourists in Jerusalem. I did some extra traveling with a Pentecostal Afrikaners couple from Namibia and a Church of Christ couple from Brisbane, Australia. (My wife still gives me a hard time that I spent so much time on the Christian historical sites).

* Israel is a country of high transaction-costs of living. Israel spends a lot of its GDP on security and defense–these are necessities, but they are “sunk costs” in terms of improving the quality of living. Plus, Israel simply can’t produce as much output as the US due to the extensive Israeli and Jewish holidays. Finally, a fair amount of time is spent bargaining over goods, which I found very tiresome and unproductive. It’s amazing Israel has as robust an economy as it does given how many disadvantages it has.

* Most people speak English, but A LOT of signs are only in Hebrew. I found it surprisingly difficult navigating around independently without speaking/reading any Hebrew.

Conclusion

Remarkably, six months later, I’m still sorting through my personal experiences and observations from Israel. It was that rich–and that complicated–a travel experience. For that reason (among others), I commend a trip to Israel for anyone who has the chance to go.

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