Israel – two Jews: three opinions
Day 1,801 since October 10th 2013: 155 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
You cannot demand respect…you have to earn it
So here’s a puzzle for you: you are in Oman. You need to reach Israel and flying is not an option. How would you solve it? Well if you had some sort of sway over the Saudi immigration authorities then you could get yourself a Saudi visa, cross into Jordan and enter Israel. I spent seven months applying for visas before getting my transit visa under unique circumstances. The chances would be slim to get another. With a Danish passport you could also apply for a visa to Iran and then transit through the UAE, Iran, Turkey, catch a ferry to Cyprus and hope to make your way from there. Or finally you can do what I did. See if you have friends that own a container ship, then board it from Oman (through the Red Sea and Suez Canal) to Egypt, find your way to Cairo, catch an overnight bus across Sinai and hope to reach the ferry from Nuweibaa to Aqaba in Jordan – then cross the bridge into Israel. That didn’t quite happen…
Do you think you can climb to the top of Mount Everest and come back down alive? Do you think you could become an astronaut? Do you think you could walk on the moon? Will in each of those cases it has been done more often than reaching every country in the world completely without flying. I am continuously perplexed to discover how ridiculously complex it is to accomplish. And I say that having the most complicated countries and challenges behind me and having completed over 75% of the project measured by countries. It just really seems like something one should be able to do? I mean: we have ships, busses, trains and there are only around 200 countries - so why wouldn’t it be possible. I even have a Danish passport which makes it infinitely easier although not as easy as the official number reveal. A lot of countries which offer visa on arrival only do that when you fly and not at land borders.
Cairo, while waiting for my bus.
And then the above would still only be the logistics. Because managing content and activity for social media which now counts over 40,000 followers is very demanding job. Especially when you are on the move and always generate new content. Getting in touch with the Red Cross and Red Crescent all around the world is also a lot of work. The structure of the movement means that the 191 National Societies operate highly independently and the news of this project doesn’t “spill over” from one country to the next. So that effectively means that although I have paid a visit to either the Red Cross or Red Crescent in more than 150 countries the remaining have never heard about the Saga which is easily history’s greatest attempt to unify the movement in a single journey.
I'm really exited to share THIS VIDEO with you!! Danish singer Jacob Dinesen has made a great song called "Never Run" and he along with reo RECORDS gave permission to use it! :)
With all of the above in mind I have often though about what could possibly be left out of the Saga to lesser the workload. And believe me, the workload has become substantial. I used to work as a logistical manager on large scale construction projects and I know how to count my hours. A slow week in the Saga would be fifty hours of work and in crazy periods it goes up above a hundred. And it really doesn’t seem to get easier as one would think it would. I can’t cut out the social media as that is a direct channel to showing people the world as I see it while connecting with people all around the world. The Saga’s social media has provided so much support over the years and a great deal of my solutions throughout the years is directly related to the Saga’s social media. And how the heck would I ever forgive myself if I cut the Red Cross Red Crescent out of the Saga? Having seen what I have seen and knowing what I today know about the importance and reach of the world’s largest humanitarian organization it would be a crime not to continue promoting it. And the movement has also been directly responsible for a few of the solutions, which solved various Gordian knots along our way. I especially think back at certain National Societies and smile.
I am also really exited to share THIS INTERVIEW with you. MBC has about 130 million viewers and Haya Yasmeen did a great job with her questions! :)
There is no money in the project. There is only debt. So there is no room for promoting posts on social media for greater reach or hiring an assistant to lessen the workload. It is what it is. I’m not financially concerned as I am quite resourceful and feel sure that the money will come back eventually. And anyone who thinks the Saga will finish the day I reach the final country is kidding themselves. The Saga will live on and grow as long as I live though social media, lectures, books and more. And I intend to age to at least a hundred :)
Yeah, yeah, but what about Israel? Alright – here it comes. Israel is a full bodied member of the United Nations and became a country in 1948. That is fairly undisputable whether people like it or not. And as I will get to in a moment I have found out first hand that there are strong emotions involved. As some nations completely oppose the idea of Israel’s existence, merely visiting Israel can be enough to ban you from entering other countries. It was no coincidence that I visited EVERY country in the Middle East before heading to Israel. You can avoid getting a stamp in your passport when you visit Israel as they are fully aware about the situation. Instead you will have a separate paper visa loosely inserted into your passport, which you hand over to the Israeli authorities when you leave the country. However if you cross into Israel from any other border other than the Jordan River border crossing (bridge), you will have an exit stamp from the country you are coming from. From the bridge your passport will not be stamped as you leave Jordan under a special mutual agreement between the countries. Thus if you enter Israel across the bridge then you leave no trace in your passport which would reveal that you entered Israel.
Sinai has endless beaches and no lack of mountains.
As I headed towards Nuweibaa in the overnight bus from Cairo we hit all the same checkpoints as I did the first time I came that way in April 2018. However it all took a lot more time and I reached Nuweibaa thirty minutes too late for the ferry. The next one left the following day. Not usually a problem but I had at least a full day’s worth of travel ahead of me in Jordan to reach the bridge and furthermore Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) was about to begin. That would possibly delay me further if I didn’t enter Israel before it began – and furthermore I would miss it. So I made the decision to continue an hour north and enter Israel directly from Taba in Egypt. If you don’t see the problem then it is because I will need to transit across Iran (which we already visited) in order to reach Afghanistan and enter Turkmenistan from the south. If the Iran authorities see the exit stamp from Taba then they will know that I could only have continued to Israel. Welcome to my world…
I crossed the border into Israel knowing that no matter where I would have crossed it would not be quick ordeal. The Israeli authorities are renowned for their efficiency and they certainly lived up to it. I had to leave my bags outside the first layer of security and empty my pockets as soon as they had a look at my passport: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia… Yup! Whoever was on guard that day had hit the jackpot with me. It took them about 4-5 hours to process me which included a parade of questions and a very physical massage (body search). I had decided to stay completely honest and not try to hide any information. They were all kind, professional and firm. Nothing was left to chance and my bags were COMEPLETELY taken apart. Anything which could be searched or disassembled was taken apart. I was not allowed to watch so had a moment of hopelessness when they called me over to pack my stuff. It was like looking at a teenager’s room! To begin with it looked impossible to assemble but as it is with a messy room it all begins when you pick up the first sock. I can generally pack my bags in a matter of five to six minutes if I take everything out. However THIS took me 30-40 minutes to reassemble. Welcome to Israel! Also I’d just like to mention that the initial scanner they used for the luggage looked like a canon from the year 3000. I’ve never seen x-ray or whatever it was like that before. However they had free wifi which I could enjoy the last hour I was there when I got my phone back and I was kindly offered water. My bags have only been emptied completely out like that twice before: at the Cameroon/Central African Republic border and in Ethiopia near Somalia. Israel, you are in great company ;)
By law buildings in Israel must be equipped with bomb shelters.
Nah, fair enough. I must be one of the stranger profiles on planet earth by now. And they were very professional. From the border I headed to a hostel in Eilat, where I had booked a bed for the night. When I arrived a group of Israelis were chilling outside and they offered me a beer (Goldstar). I sat down with them and we went through the standard “where are you from and what is your name” stuff. Interestingly I was also asked how old I was which doesn’t come up often. When they asked me where I was heading from Israel I replied Palestine. To this the reply was: “Palestine? Where is that?” At this point I had to assume that Israelis were not very good at geography as I had exactly the same response why answering questions at the border a few hours earlier. Or maybe there is just something I don’t understand? ;) To be fair it was said with a smile in both cases.
For a while we followewd the Egyptian border north. Israel is a small country.
As we came further north the desert changed to green.
The next morning I got ready to leave the hostel and one of the Israelis had helped me organize an online bus ticket on a Hebrew site. The bus would leave at 3pm and it would take five hours to reach Modi’in which is located right between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Around noon (three hours before departure) I was getting ready to find myself some lunch. That was when I met Dean who was also staying at the hostel. We began talking and it turned out that he had a car and was about to make his way home to Modi’in. Now what are the odds? And furthermore he sells skin care products for Danish MOL-B. So that worked out well? Dean helped me cancel the bus ticket and we set off to explore the highway north. In the south Israel looks a lot like Egypt and Jordan does in that region with a dry landscape, rocky surface and small mountains.
Good guy Dean! However not everyone liked this photo.
I was happy to be sharing a ride with Dean as it would get me to Modi’in a few hours earlier in time for Rosh Hashana with Trevor and his family. Trevor is a South African Jew whom I first met in Nairobi, Kenya, when my friend Steve Felder invited me for Shabbat (dinner). Back then he told me that when I reached Israel someday he would be happy to host me. That Shabbat was back in November 2016 when Kenya became country number 121. What did I remember about Trevor? Firm handshake, kind eyes, good energy…not much more to be honest. Although we had met just two years earlier that might as well have been a lifetime ago. The road Eilat was in great condition. Looking across the landscape it looked clean and well organized. Most houses looked to be western standard apart from the occasional Bedouin camp. There were signs warning about crossing camels but we never saw any.
There are requirements for how much of Modi'in needs to be green.
Modi’in is a modern city which for the most part is only twenty years old. However people have lived around these parts since the dawn of civilization. The modern city as it stands today is like a well played game of sim city. It is really well designed with large green spaces, linear parks, playgrounds, schools, an artificial lake and some small commercial centers. I read somewhere that Israel is the only country in the world which after fifty years has more trees than before. Modi’in is surely helping in keeping that excellent statistic. As we rolled into the city I said farewell to Dean whom I had enjoyed many great conversations with during our five hour long drive. And I said hello to Trevor, his wife Susan, daughter Sarah and two sons Jason and Daniel…and their two dogs of course. We didn’t have much time together before we set out to join some friends for Rosh Hashanah which marks the beginning of the Jewish year and is a two-day holiday where businesses are closed on both days.
Father and son reads out a prayer in Hebrew. One of many! Good food and lovely people.
I was told that this holiday marks the beginning of a judgment process in which everyone is observed for their behavior and personality. The following ten days leads to Yom Kippur at which spiritual judgment falls. As such the ten days from the beginning of Rosh Hashana is your personal chance to correct yourself and get your affairs in order. According to the Hebrew calendar we have just entered year 5779 since the creation of Adam and Eve. For an outsider like me it was a pleasure to observe and learn about the traditions such as eating symbolic foods such as apples dipped in honey, hoping to evoke a sweet new year. And really it was a lot about food and having a good time.
Roxy is the oldest of the two dogs. 17 years which is a million in dog years. She is both blind and deaf but keeps on keeping on! They call her the "White Walker".
At this point I had already uploaded my first photo to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter announcing that we had made it to country number 155 in a single unbroken journey completely without flight. And I combined the announcement with the friendly story about how I had met Dean and how he had given me a ride from Eilat to Modi’in. Little did I know the amount of grief such a post would costs me. About half the online comments which followed were kind and supportive while the rest were such as: “you mean Palestine, there is no Israel”, “Disappointed, visiting Israel is promoting their crimes”, "you visited a non-exiting country” and much more. And it continued with further comments on the Saga's social media posts with accusations from people I don't know stating that Israel allegedly kills a child every third day and has done so for the past eighteen years and other postulates? If people will venture to write such claims then just imagine the emotion? Also the Saga’s social media took an immediate dive in followers. Perhaps I should explain? First of all I count both Israel and Palestine as countries and plan to visit both. Israel is as mentioned earlier a member of the United Nations and Palestine is an observatory state along with the Vatican See. Who the heck knows the definition of what a country is? I’ve been living this project for nearly five years and I have not found a definition which suits all the countries we have in the United Nations (UN). People even have different opinions about how many countries there are in the world. If you can’t define a country then you have no business stating what is or isn’t a country. And here is how I go about it: the UN is the benchmark. It is a club with 193 members. Not every country is in the club but 193 is the baseline. If more than half of those countries agree that you are a country then I count you as a country within the Saga. As such 111 countries recognize Kosovo, 137 recognize Palestine and just for kicks I can tell you that 161 recognize Israel. Why I have also included Western Sahara, Taiwan, Greenland, Faroe Islands, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is another story.
Trevor took me around the neighborhood on electrical scooters. My first time. Am I cool now? ;)
Having been to every country in the Middle East and having found something nice to say about them all, the Saga has followers from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, UAE, Oman, Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. And Israel does not have the best political relations with all of those countries. And sometimes I can understand why and sometimes I feel it doesn’t matter. I’ve lately been up to three in the morning most nights doing research on what is what and why people have their opinions around this part of the world. I have researched history, buildings, people, religion, various claims and more. It is phenomenally complicated and as much as everybody is right nobody is right. My parents went through a divorce when I was fifteen. I remember my father said that he thought his mother-in-law would be upset with him and that she would take my mothers side. But my grandmother simply said: “it takes two to make it work and two to take it apart”. Damn I miss my grandmother. She passed away while I was out here busy with the Saga.
Susan, Trevor and I headed down to the Dead Sea. It drops a meter (three feet) every year. Trevor used to jump in the water from the dock when he was a kid.
I’ve always felt that it was somewhat strange when a fan takes credit for a national team after they won: “WE WON! WE WON! WEEEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS”. What exactly did YOU do? The players on the field won. They spent their lives training, getting better and surely sacrificing something to get to where they are. You sat on the sofa and watched TV. How can you take credit? Even more so when it relates to the past. How relevant can it be to anyone today that someone they never met achieved something in the past? Can you lay claim to something which belonged to someone in the past? This part of the Middle East has certainly been conquered many times. Can we lay claim to what those conquerors achievements and own them in 2018? It will drive you crazy to think about this! And with all which I have seen all around the world I can’t help to think that when push comes to shove most people don’t really want to get involved anyway. Most people are in my opinion just trying to cut out a part of the world for themselves and their loved ones where they can feel safe and secure.
Susan, Trevor and their three wonderful children (and the dogs) have been amazing! Susan is fantastic and works as an english teacher for studens after school hours. And Trevor and I have begun to look alike. Or what do you think?
One night Susan, Trevor and I drove to Jerusalem and went for a walk in the old town. It’s a magnificent sight and yet I feel I have seen similar in Valetta (Malta) and in Krakow (Poland). However perhaps not at such a scale. The walls protecting the old town are tall and look impregnable. And they have surely been reinforced over the years by Nights Templars, Ottomans and others. The amount of people which have walked those narrow streets over the years must have had everyday issues such as economy, family, sorrow, happiness and who knows what. Jerusalem. It is certainly a well-known city name. And yet in Arabic the city is most commonly known as al-Quds meaning “The Holy”. Oh well, this is as good a time as ever to reference William Shakespeare’s character Juliet as she ponders: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. A movie I rather like although it has some gaps within its story is Kingdom of Heaven which was directed by Ridley Scott. At one point the protagonist named Balian stands face to face with the great conqueror Saladin. Jerusalem is about to be destroyed and much has been lost for the cities control. As the city risks complete destruction Balian asks Saladin: “what is Jerusalem worth?” Saladin replies: “Nothing”. Then he walks away but turns around smiling as he says: “everything”.
The old narrow streets of Jerusalem.
I believe this should be understood as that the city as a geographic location, as cold stone, is almost worthless. This represents the rational secular view. When Saladin afterwards smiles and says "everything" I think he refers to the deeper more spiritual value of the city. Not only religious, but nationalistic as well. That is the emotional more spiritual view. The prevailing conflict that fuels the unrest in this region still continues to this day. I have spoken to both left winged and right winged Israelis and people’s views vary a lot. Is this piece of land worth all the trouble? To live in diaspora is a reference to a scattered population. As such the Jews have until 1948 lived all around the world and actually continue to do so today. About 6.5 million Jews live in Israel and represent some 120 different nationalities from around the world. Another 7-8 million Jews still live in other countries than Israel. Israel is the only country in the world with a Jewish majority and in which Hebrew is the national language and I can only imagine how wonderful it must be to have a country having lived in diaspora for so long. It does make me wonder about the decision those who come to live in Israel they take? There are literally rockets pointing at the nations from several sides and by law buildings are required to contain a bomb shelter.
The western wall aka the wailing wall is a sacred place for the Jews. Just a stone through away you have the Al-Aqsa Mosque which is sacred to the Muslims.
So imagine living in some country where you grew up, know the language, culture, have your friends and everything you know…and then someday moving to Israel, where you might not know anyone, your Hebrew might not be perfect and there is an external threat of elimination. You will even need to send your children to serve three years (two for women) in the military. That appears quite radical to me. And if you can get behind that thought then you may begin to comprehend some of the powerful emotions which run deep in people. And truly you have three opinions when you have two Jews! With a cultural blend of 120 nationalities and a rainbow from moderately to fanatical religious people in the country you can find whichever opinion you desire. In fact a great deal of Jews consider themselves as secular which is confusing when you first hear that. Because if you do not believe in the religious aspect of all of this then what is it all about? Then you quickly need to consider that Jewish people do not solely identify as a religious entity. If you remove religion from the equation then you are still left with language, history, culture and traditions. Especially the religious traditions are prevalent no matter if people believe in God or not.
I had a great time telling Maersk in Tel Aviv about the Saga. And it was great seeing David Golin (Managing Director) again. We first met in Instanbul a year earlier.
It does make you wonder what the country might look like if there was no external threat and Israel lived peacefully with all its neighbors. I would think that some of the more radical Jews from around the world would be in a greater hurry to make their way to the Promised Land compared to moderate Jews who would continue to live their lives in diaspora. After all you can continue living your life in some peaceful corner of the world and still remain proud that you now have a country. If this is true then there could be a disproportionate amount of highly strict and relatively radical Jews in the country over time. And would that then effect the Parliament and the very liberal lifestyle which exists today? Well, who knows? Israel is certainly by most measurements very liberal. Israel has annual pride parades which draws massive crowds. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze live side by side and mostly in harmony. You will not believe the amount of inventions this start up nation is behind! To mention some there is Waze (navigation), the USB flash key, Intel technology, drip irrigation and the iron dome are just some of the most well-known. Seriously try doing an internet search on the amount of inventions that Israel is behind. It is mind boggling. I’ve seen enough of Israel to say that it looks like a great country in terms of infrastructure. You can drink the water from the tap although most prefer not too, there are no power cuts, it is quite green and getting greener and it even ranks as the world’s 11th happiest country. There wasn’t much here in 1948 and yet Israel has managed to create what on the surface to me looks like a great country.
I also had a great time sharing the Saga with Seago in Ashdod. And it was great seeing Guy Wolf (Managing Director) again. We also met in Instanbul a year earlier.
I had a chance to meet with Magen David Adom (MaDA) in Tel Aviv. That is what they call the Red Cross here. It means the Shield of David and having sat down with Uri Shacham for a few hours I felt pretty convinced that they are doing a great job. I often meet people who think the Red Cross and Red Crescent emblems have religions connotations but in reality they are 100% neutral. Uri explained that the red David star is likewise completely neutral and is perceived as such as they operate across the country. We talked about a lot of stuff but a few things really stuck with me. One of them being that they have an end to end blood drive solution in which MaDA collects the blood, processes the blood, stores the blood and delivers the blood. And Uri and I both mused over how nobody ever asks who will get the blood when they donate or who the blood came from when they receive it. That is one of those things in life where politics and religion really plays no role. Isn’t that refreshing?
Tel Aviv, Israel.
Here you see and orthodox Jew, an Israeli settler and an Arab Muslim working together. And it is not uncommon.
Another thing I really liked is that MaDA has numerous ambulance teams which are mixed. And I mean like ‘the beginning of a joke’ mixed. In one case they have an Israeli settler, an Arab Muslim and an orthodox Jew working together as a team in an ambulance. And of course it works. It’s like when on one of the first days Susan, Trevor and I went to buy a bamboo fence. The salesman was Palestinian and Trevor is Israeli so you know it didn’t end well!! Rubbish!! In fact they ended up hugging each other. Trevor tried his best to haggle and at one point he questioned the quality of the bamboo. The salesman immediately stated that it would last at least ten years and if Trevor wanted a new one by then, he would get it for free. Trevor laughed, they shook hands, hugged and we left with two rolls of bamboo fence. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.
Trevor works at Max Security and invited me to come by and make a presentation for the team. I got no "what is your favorite country" questions. It was more like: "how did you manage South Sudan" and "wheredid you stay in Central African Republic?" Great team!! :)
Yesterday a friend of Trevor invited me to take another look at Jerusalem. Ivor is his name and he is likewise from South Africa. I met with Ivor at the Jaffa Gate and Ivor’s friend Iyad who is Arab and was born and raised in Jerusalem where he still lives. So there we were: a Danish Dane from Denmark, an Israeli Jew from South Africa and a Muslim from Jerusalem. And we all started fighting!!! Thankfully we didn’t because there were some serious biceps on those guys. Now I’m not at all saying that there are no violent attacks, that there are no stabbings and that there is no hate. Because there is. However I do feel that the media blows many things out of proportion and a lot of stories run with the wind even when they are not true. Perhaps especially when they are not true. And who wants to read about Arabs, Jews and Danes getting along. In fact it does seem like a bunch of holy sights on a small patch of land can easily be shared and that it would be great for tourism. The city already has a Jewish quarter, an Armenian quarter, a Christian quarter and a Muslim quarter. It bugs me that every human on the planet is so unbelievably nearly exactly the same! There are no populations where everyone has four arms or where babies are born out of the elbow. We are more than 99.9999% the same and yet somehow we manage to focus on the 0.0001% and ignore the rest. Why do we do that? I’ll leave you with something Ivor said as we looked across the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall: “neither the Jews nor the Arabs are going anywhere – so we might as well get along”.
Ivor in the centre and Iyad to the right.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - another Gordian knot.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga