Israel is a place that means many different things to many different people. When I made my first visit to the Promised Land, I came hoping to gain new perspective on a country that’s experienced so much conflict and strife over the years. But I didn’t really notice anything obvious during my week in Israel that brought clarity to my conflicted feelings about this place. I only really noticed the cats.
There are cats almost everywhere in Israel. You can find them in Jerusalem, at the Western Wall (http://english.thekotel.org/), where devout Jewish pilgrims come to pay tribute to loved ones and feel spiritual oneness with God. When I laid my forehead against the ancient and crumbling bricks of this wall and said a prayer for my late grandfather, I really did feel a rare sense of spirituality. In Tel Aviv, there are cats strolling the beach alongside tourists clad in swim trunks and bikinis and hanging out at local restaurants where they implore diners for scraps of food. There are even cats outside the wreckage of the Tel Aviv Dolphinarium, an aquarium and nightclub destroyed by a suicide bomber in 2001. I remember a particularly friendly feline that rubbed against my legs and purred warmly as I stared at this abandoned structure, contemplating how so much hatred could arise over a country the size of Connecticut.
But now, I realize just how emblematic these cats are of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that rages across this country. Like the conflict, these cats are a part of Israel and are impossible to completely ignore. Israelis go about their daily lives all too aware of the cat’s existence, yet they have become such an accepted part of life here that most people don’t even stop to acknowledge their presence. But to an outsider like me, the cats are glaring and obvious, and like the conflict that they embody, are constant reminders that everything in Israel is not always what it appears to be.
Yet there is beauty here and experiences to be had in Israel, where the cats and the conflict are nowhere to be found. In the southeast desert, I climbed to the top of Masada, a rocky plateau where Israelite rebels made their last stand against the invading Roman militia (http://masada.org.il/en). I got to take a dip in the Dead Sea, which has so much salt that you’ll float like a cork atop this body of water, one that lies at the lowest geographical point on the planet. If you’re feeling more gastronomically inclined, Israel has perhaps the healthiest food on the planet available everywhere you look. A continental breakfast at any one of the hotels here includes hummus and fresh vegetables as well as delicious pastries and yogurts. And I’m convinced that the best falafel in the world can be found somewhere deep within the Arab sheik in the Old City district of Jerusalem.
It is impossible to ignore the disputes and conflicts that have come to define Israel for much of the world, but the most revealing part of my week in the Promised Land was the simple fact that life goes on here, not in spite of the conflict but because of it. Perhaps the fact that Israel is such a coveted and threatened territory is why the people there seem to enjoy the simple things in life, whether it be a walk along the Mediterranean, a Sabbath dinner with loved ones in Jerusalem, or a friendly cat that curls up in your lap to bathe itself in sunlight.
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