Travel Report on the Servas Israel International Meeting 2016

Israel had been high up on our list of places to go for many years. In 2013 Annika’s job took her to Ramallah in Palestine for a sewage works project. After her three-day trip via Israel (Tel Aviv) and an afternoon in Jerusalem, she was very keen to return and take a closer look at the country. But then the civil war in neighbouring Syria escalated and we decided it wasn’t safe enough to travel in the region. But what is really safe?

So when the invitation from our Israeli friends to the Servas Israel International Meeting 2016 on 15th-22nd May 2016 on “Water, Agriculture and Tourism”, it gave us both the opportunity and the encouragement we needed. We decided to travel to Israel from 13th-27th May 2016.

In a nutshell: We met lots of great people on this fantastic trip which helped to answer many of our questions about Israel’s special situation.

Because of the political situation in Israel, almost everyone has to do military service, and much time, money and effort is put into security throughout the country. This is particularly clear when you arrive in Israel, but even more so when you leave. At the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv we were subjected to very different and in some cases extremely detailed questioning and body searches. There are even armed guards at the entrances to shopping malls and supermarkets. Sometimes they ask, “You have a gun?”, “No” … “OK, then you can go in.” Wherever you go in the country, including the tourist sights, there are young soldiers out on excursions, learning about their own country. After all, the more you know and appreciate about what you’re defending, the better. At the bus stations you can see the soldiers at the end of their shift, still in uniform with guns over their shoulders. Some of them disappear into the toilets and come out a few minutes later in sneakers, shorts and T-shirts, laughing and looking forward to their free evening. They still have their guns over their shoulders. Every house is legally obliged to have a mini-bunker, although they are often used as storerooms. Even in one of our hotels the bathroom was built to function as a bunker. On the inside it had an armour-plated door, and outside the window could be closed with a steel hatch.

At no point during our trip did we feel that we were exposed to more danger than on a trip in Europe. And not just because of our Servas friends, thanks to whom we had a full sight-seeing programme every day. We spent the first two nights with our guest family in Raanana near Tel Aviv. They gave us a very warm welcome and we had lively discussions about ourselves, our countries and cultures. Then we had two nights in Jerusalem, followed by three more nights in the Golan Heights. The whole event got started with an entertaining opening and welcome party on the first evening. As always, it was exciting to meet so many new people and to spend a whole week with them. Altogether we came from 12 different countries of the world, including (alongside Israel and Germany) Venezuela, South Korea, Columbia, India, Poland, the Ukraine, USA, Croatia, Italy and Australia.

The highlights, some of which we would never have seen as normal tourists, included: The largest cucumber plantation in the country; the world’s biggest sea water desalination plant in Ashkelon, which is used to produce drinking water so that less water needs to be taken from the Sea of Galilee, the water level of which has been rising again as a result; part of the Jordan where renaturation measures are in progress, and the place where Christians are baptised; Dschisr al-Zarqa, the poorest village in Israel where a young man has ventured into tourism by opening the first hotel; an historical kibbutz with a milk cow farm; historic and holy places around the Sea of Galilee; the Eshkol drinking water reservoir which is so important that it is guarded by the Israeli secret service.

We also visited a Druze family in Mejdal al-Shams, at the Syrian border, where probably the most delicious cherries in the world grow. I have never seen trees so full of juicy, delicious cherries.

The view across the border to Syria moved us all very much and gave us pause for thought. Together, we sang some peace songs (https://youtu.be/PnW24bj7jNs , https://youtu.be/Ruyg5sYNxo0) and prayed quietly.

Of course our programme also included a day in the fascinating city of Jerusalem visiting the historic part of town, excellently guided by the son of a long-standing Israeli Servas member.

We spent nearly half the time in the Golan Heights where we had the good fortune to spend great evenings on Adam’s farm, jogging together, swimming in the pool, singing, dancing, laughing and telling stories and having discussions. One memory that particularly stands out for me was the supper we all created with Indian, Australian, South American, Spanish, German, Israeli and other dishes (https://youtu.be/8xgivjXuELM , https://youtu.be/bJcYLYOCXFo). That was a real treat for the taste buds! Especially as the fruit and vegetables that grow in Israel are superb. In the evening everyone had an opportunity to present their country or region in any way they wanted. The presentations ranged from factual through funny to downright eccentric. They were as diverse as the people who had come together for the week.

In terms of countryside, Israel is a very dry country. The Negev Desert takes up about 60% of the whole area. This means that water is particularly important. We can’t judge whether the water is being divided fairly between Israeli, Palestinian and Syrian areas, as critical reports on the internet sometimes question. But the water and agriculture experts in our group were satisfied that Israel is equipped with state-of-the-art technology and uses its water relatively efficiently for agriculture and households, ensuring that natural water sources such as the Jordan and the Sea of Galilee are protected.

Whether we were travelling alone or in the group, the Israelis we met were always very welcoming. The one thing they long for more than people from other countries is a safe home they can call their own. They tend to be impatient at traffic lights and honk their horns if drivers don’t set off the moment the lights turn green. They’re proud of their country and want to show that it is progressive, cultivated and beautiful. And that is how it appeared to us.

At the end of the week together it was – as always – hard to say goodbye, and some of us shed a good many tears… But that’s life! Perhaps some of us will meet again. There was certainly no shortage of invitations on both sides. By organising this event, Servas Israel showed what wonderful things are possible. It was simply fantastic.

After this trip on „Water, Agriculture and Tourism“ and in view of the current situation with the continuing influx of refugees from Syria and other countries to Europe, we wish all people of the world peace and a safe home with enough food and water

Thank you to Servas Israel for this fantastic experience. We will come again. SEE YOU AGAIN SOON.