They wanted to see where Jesus lived and died, or to visit an exotic location not too far from home, or to reconnect with Israelis they had met previously. Some took brief vacations from work; others were on a world trip. One said he was called here by God to explore his Jewish roots, although he’s a Christian. Another was fulfilling a 35-year dream to walk from France to Jerusalem. But whether in Jerusalem, Nazareth or Tel Aviv, every backpacker had his own impression of Israel and Israelis.
When Pablo Cañete and Irene Esteban arrived from Spain to the Airbnb apartment they had rented in Jaffa, “We thought we’d come to Morocco, not Israel,” said Cañete, 26, a business administration student living in Germany. “It wasn’t the idea we had in mind. We thought there were only Jews in the city.”
“We thought there were no Arabs in Israel,” added Esteban, 25, who works as an academic in the field of food safety.
Carina Reiter, 28, of Germany was similarly surprised to discover that Jews, Muslims and Christians live side by side in Jerusalem’s Old City. “It’s amazing,” she said. “They don’t have to; they respect each other.”
“Many people in Europe think Israel is no good because there are problems between Jews and Muslims – and then you come here and think it isn’t true,” said Cañete.
But Christoph Schiewer, 34, who has been here several times before, had a different impression. “Even in Tel Aviv, which is very open and not racist, it’s very rare to find mixed groups of Jews and Arabs together,” the German said.
Cañete was also surprised by Israel because he thought Israelis “were just religious, serious, not funny, with no parties, busy only with politics, synagogues and being wary of Muslims. But we discovered that it’s false: They’re happy. There are always parties – people are always in the streets.”
Moreover, he added, “there’s really good wine here. I don’t understand why there’s no Israeli wine in Europe.”
Several backpackers complained about the difficulty of traveling around Israel on Shabbat, when most public transportation doesn’t run. But even when the buses are running, they said, they find the system confusing.
“It’s impossible to find a bus here without asking people,” said Heidi Mettler, 50, of Switzerland. “In Switzerland, first you read, check, look at the schedule. Here, you ask immediately – there’s a lot of interpersonal contact. It’s very different from Switzerland.”
But she said she likes Israel because it’s a little bit “oriental – but closer to what we’re used to” than Egypt or Turkey. “Israel is more like us, but still full of life,” she added. “Israel is a good mix.”
Reiter and Anja Keitmann, 31, also of Germany, came here after meeting Israelis in South America. Both quit their jobs to travel around the world. Reiter was invited to spend Yom Kippur in Ashkelon by an Israeli she met in South America, while Keitmann was invited to spend it in Tel Aviv by an Israeli she met a few days earlier in Eilat.
“It’s amazing that people are so open they’ll invite someone they met just a few days ago to their home,” Keitmann said. “I could never go to my family and say, ‘I met this guy and he’s spending Christmas with us.’”
Asked what it was like for single women to tour Israel on their own, Reiter and Keitmann said they hadn’t had any problems with sexual harassment. They were both a bit embarrassed by an encounter with an ultra-Orthodox man: They didn’t know whether to shake his hand or not when they parted, but Reiter found the ultra-Orthodox fascinating. “I feel like a child; I have to look at them,” she said.
The day of the interview with the two German women in Jerusalem, there was a terror attack. They learned about it only when the worried phone calls started arriving from home. “I got goose bumps,” Reiter admitted. Still, she added, terror can happen anywhere; her hometown of Munich suffered a shooting attack in July.
Betty Li, 30, of Australia, came here for two days en route from Amman to Istanbul. She visited Jerusalem and Hebron, and found the latter a particularly emotional experience. “It evoked lots of thoughts and feelings to see two ethnic groups feel so connected to the same land. I’m a traveler, I love to move from place to place, and I have never felt such a connection to the land. It was interesting to see how important the land is for them, how religious. It was like entering a bubble that represents the entire conflict.”
Francois Tilman, a 32-year-old chef from France who lives in England, felt called by God to come here and search out his Jewish roots, even though he’s Christian. This isn’t his first visit and he’s enthusiastic about Israel.
“Israelis are an example to the world,” he said, declaring that Muslims don’t understand that they’ll never take Israel “because God has a plan. This is a wonderful country, politically and religiously, and despite all the danger it’s still safe. In Europe, everyone’s scared of the Muslims. They have no idea, they have no God, they just trust in politics. But here, they don’t just trust in politics; religion plays a significant role.”
Jonas and Eva Wanner of Germany said they are religious Christians who came here to see where Jesus lived and died. He’s a 26-year-old engineer and she’s a 27-year-old medical student. They said Jerusalem reminded them of Rome, “except we hated Rome and loved Jerusalem because of the history.”
But they did have a few complaints. “It seems Israelis like to do things that are forbidden right behind the signs that forbid it,” they said. “And there are too many signs here.”
In addition, they were surprised to see so many people with guns – “not soldiers, but groups of teenagers with rifles,” said Jonas Wanner, though presumably what he saw was a group of soldiers on leave. “You don’t see this in Germany. ... We didn’t know Israelis go into the army.” He said it made him feel safe, but Eva was afraid of a gun accident.
The Wanners also found the restaurants too expensive, so they prepared their own food throughout the trip. Lukas Pasman, a 20-year-old sound engineer from the Netherlands, had the same complaint.
“We were surprised by how expensive it is here,” said Pasman, who was here with his girlfriend, Niki Jonker, 17. “We thought it would be like in the Netherlands, but it’s much more expensive.”
For 61-year-old French Catholic Pierre Boutet, this trip was the fulfillment of a 35-year dream. He left his house in France on March 25 to embark on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by foot, carrying 30 kilograms (66 pounds) of equipment, a navigation device and 60 euros (about $66) for emergencies, but no other source of money, and not even a cell phone. He walked through Italy and Greece, traveling around 25 kilometers (about 15 miles) a day and sleeping in monasteries, a tent or with kindhearted people who invited him in. He had planned to go from Greece to Turkey, but after being advised that it was too dangerous, last month he flew to Israel from Athens.
Once in Israel, he was joined by his wife – who came bearing a credit card. He had hoped she would hike with him from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, but she refused. And since he wanted his wife to be with him in Jerusalem, he agreed to go by bus. “I’m not an extremist,” he said.
Then, upon arriving in Jerusalem, he finally realized his dream: He prostrated himself and kissed the ground.
“Jerusalem is very beautiful,” he said. “There are so many things to see.” He went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and other Christian sites; he also visited the Western Wall and planned to go to the Dome of the Rock.
But after a month in Israel, he said he had “trouble saying what my impression is.” He’s against violence and was concerned to see so many people with guns. “I pray a lot for peace,” he added.
His wife returned to France after seeing Jerusalem and walking with him from Nazareth to Tiberias, but he stayed on to spend a few weeks volunteering at a monastery in Nazareth. Then he plans to hike from Nazareth back to Jerusalem.
Why did he make most of his journey on foot? “So many religious people, like priests and monks, give their whole lives to God,” he explained. “I’m giving my life for just one year and saying, ‘God, this year is for you. Thank you very much.’”
And why without money? “For me, it’s a way of making contact, of relying on other people,” he said. “I think that if you believe in people, then slowly you come to believe in God.”