Hi-tech Tel Aviv to old town Jerusalem, a whirlwind trip

Vinay Kamath | Updated on January 13, 2018

The Tel Aviv promenade

A restaurant in Tel Aviv

Ancient history, cutting-edge tech, great food and start-ups make for an exciting sojourn

Getting through security for a first-time visit to Israel can be a bit intimidating. One has heard of the Israeli paranoia about ensuring water-tight security, and it’s true. Even before one gets to the airline counter, you are grilled by a team with questions ranging from the purpose of your visit to what’s in your bag and if you packed it yourself. Check-in bags are opened and checked, you discover, with your neatly packed bag all higgledy-piggledy. Hand baggage, even after it’s put through a scanner is opened again and checked in your presence and, after all that, surprise, you’re given a pack of potato wafers and some juice for having gone through the ordeal. You heave a sigh of relief once you collapse into your seat in the aircraft!

Friendly lot

Once you’re in the country, you discover that the Israelis are friendly and courteous. Maybe it’s omnipresent, but you don’t get the feeling that big brother is watching you. We meet many Israelis who declare they love India and Indians! It’s also 25 years of diplomatic ties between the countries. We are told that once the mandatory military service is over — three years for men and two for women — many Israelis head to India for a long break. Perhaps after that orderly and structured training, India’s chaos and colour is a welcome relief! The Jewish diaspora from all over the world have made Israel their home. Our guide, Ezequiel, arrived in Israel just three years ago from Argentina and his Spanish is better than his Hebrew.

We meet a few who have emigrated from Mumbai and made Tel Aviv their home. Israel is a small country, with only 8.1 million people. When I tell an Israeli businessman that Chennai, the city I live in, has 8.2 million people, he rolls his eyes. At a weekend (Thursday) night market for artists in a central square in Jerusalem — teeming with youngsters — I bargain with an artist for a bell hanging on coloured glass work. “And what about my work?” he asks, with a smile. I tell him it’s too expensive for me but I want the pretty bell for a friend. “Okay, are you from India?” he asks. Surprised, I say yes, expecting him to launch into a diatribe about how Indians are cheapskates. He hands over the bell for 10 shekels, saying his wife is from Kochi!

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv, with its orderly and broad roads, buildings with gleaming glass façades and disciplined traffic, has a distinct European feel to it. Our hotel overlooks the calm, azure waters of the Mediterranean. A broad promenade skirting the sea has many fit-looking locals running and cycling in the morning. Maybe it’s the military service, but you don’t see too many overweight people around. In the distance are the ramparts of the old port town of Jaffa, the southern and oldest part of Tel Aviv.

Jaffa is famous for its association with the biblical stories of Jonah, Solomon and St Peter. In the night, from the Jaffa end, the lights along the promenade look magical and remind one of the Queen’s Necklace on Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Israel doesn’t have an auto industry, so we see all manner of imported cars on the roads of Tel Aviv, from top-end wheels to many brands of small cars. I’m excited to spot a Hyundai i10 on the roads and we also spot a Suzuki Swift and an Alto!

Start-up nation

Israel is the original start-up nation. And almost all are tech enterprises: from cyber security to artificial intelligence and robotics, Israel’s entrepreneurs are right up there. The numbers are mind-boggling. The country has something like 6,000 start-ups, 90 venture capital funds and 200 angel funds, 25 incubators and 70 accelerators, 16 tech transfer offices and 350 multinationals that have set up R&D centres in the country.

Avi Hasson, the Chief Scientist of Israel, who also heads the recently formed Israel Innovation Authority, says Israel’s ecosystem is tightly plugged into the global ecosystem. Most of the work is for corporations abroad as there is not much of a domestic market. Hasson says $4.8 billion of venture capital investment is in start-ups in the country, with 85 per cent of it from foreign investors.

Gourmet delight

Gourmets to gourmands, Israel has plenty to offer. Global cuisine is there for the taking and there’s enough for vegetarians as well. Exotic salads to kebabs, shawarma and falafel, you can take your pick from a blend of West Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. A variety of pita breads is on offer to tickle your palate. We taste community fare at Kibbutz Hatzerim, an Israeli agricultural settlement located in the Negev desert.

Netafim, which sprung out of this Kibbutz, and is a global company now, introduced the world’s first drip irrigation system in 1966. In the Kibbutz, everybody lives in similar housing and gets the same amount to spend, while basic needs are taken care of. Food is served in a large hall and the residents eat together. We get to taste a huge variety of fresh salads, and you can make your own falafel with your choice of fillings, with hummus. Israeli portions are large and, often, we saw that food got left over. A young Israeli waitress at a restaurant, fresh from her army stint, says Israelis like to eat with their eyes — so they want to see large portions, even if it means they can’t finish the food!

Old town Jerusalem

The visit to the old town of Jerusalem is a bit overwhelming. The modern city of Jerusalem has grown around this core; the city itself looks very different from Tel Aviv. Quaint, cobblestoned in most places and buildings with a white limestone façade, Jerusalem looks the historical city it is; the cradle of three world religions. Sleek trams with bells clanging away criss-cross the main streets. Thursday is the weekend and the streets have many young people partying through the night. The old town itself is just under a square kilometre; it is walled in and divided into Christian, Muslim, Armenian and Jewish quarters.

It’s difficult to absorb all that our guide explains rapidly amid the fading light of the old town and its long history. Walking through a colourful street market with stores on either side selling a variety of curios, we reach the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, also called the Church of the Resurrection, which contains two of the holiest sites in Christianity — where Christ was crucified and his empty tomb where he is said to have been buried and resurrected. We wind up by writing and placing our wishes on a small slip of paper in a crack of the Wailing Wall, or Western Wall, the holiest place of worship for Jews.

This writer was in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem at the invitation of the Israeli government.

Published on February 19, 2017

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