by Patrick Cressler | Harvard University
In the United States, when we hear about the Middle East, our minds begin to create images of a camel in the middle of the desert or the crashing of missiles and perpetuated conflict in a small, crumbling town. Although I knew Israel and its people offered so much more than this preconception, I did not fully understand the vast diversity of the region and the similarities between the country and my own until I saw the land for myself.
Although Israel is only about the size of New Jersey, it is difficult to find two places within it that are exactly alike. From the barren landscape of Masada and the Dead Sea region to the modern, bustling city of Tel Aviv, Israel consists of a wide range of landscapes. This is most likely the case because it is located at the edges of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Contrary to what some people might think, Israel is also full of trees thanks to a government mandate to plant them. As I travelled around the country, I couldn’t help but compare the landscape to that of the United States. Both maintain rich natural wonders and beautiful mountain ranges, beaches, deserts, and forests while, at the same time, foster cities and modern developments.
Israel’s diversity also extends to its people. After being in the country for ten days, I realized that there isn’t just one type of Israeli. There isn’t even just one type of Jew. From non-practicing Jewish Israelis to Orthodox Jewish Israelis to Sephardic Jews to Ashkenazi Jews to Muslim Arab Israelis to Christian Arab Israelis, the nation is full of a diverse set of people. I noticed this from simply walking through the streets in Jerusalem and seeing individuals wearing different types of traditional clothing or speaking distinct languages. Shadi Khalloul*, one of the wonderful Passages speakers, also opened my eyes to the extent of Israeli’s diversity by talking about minority groups such as his own people, the Israeli Aramean Christian Maronites. Because of the nation’s history, it is also a country of immigrants. Its people come from all over the world: the Middle East, Europe, the Americas, like my amazing Columbian-Israeli tour guide, Mark Shapria, and more. Again, it is not difficult to connect this idea to the U.S. Both countries are a melting pot of different people and lands built by immigrants. Both nations contain wide ranges of cultures, traditions, and languages.
From my time in Israel, I also realized that there are so many small similarities between the life of Israelis and my own life in the United States. For example, the Shabbat dinner host family talked about the importance of spending time with family, which made me think of my family and how we always eat meals around the table together. The family’s kids mentioned their tests and long days of studying for school, which reminded me of my time preparing for college. Bar, our security guard and friend, talked about his future travel plans and goals for further education, two things that resonate with my life. One speaker event was about Israel’s leadership in the start-up world – something so prevalent in the U.S., especially in our universities. Lastly, I saw people in Israel who simply wanted to go to the beach, eat ice cream, or hang out with friends just like me.
Even though Israel, due to its location, has a reputation for being dangerous, I always felt safe. Perhaps, it’s because the country and its people reminded me so much of home.