I am a Jewish backpacker from Australia traveling through Israel as part of a round-the-world adventure, and have been having the most wonderful time in your country. However, now that I am here, I would like to have a heart-to-heart conversation with you, my backpacker friend from Israel.
Yossi, Yonni, Yael … I'm not sure of your name, but I think you know who you are. You have a pair of Shoresh sandals on your feet, a big black backpack cover on your pack, and you like to check out Lametayel's website for travel tips. Maybe you have just finished the army and are feeling tough enough to take on the world. At least, I hope you are, because you might not like some of the things I have to say. But what I am going to tell you, I assure you, is out of love.
Trip of a lifetime
My own adventures began about 9 months ago on the "gringo" trail in Guatemala. After an epic journey by airplane, rickety second-hand American school bus, and over-crowded boat, I finally found myself in San Pedro on Lake Atitlan. It was an exciting end to two years of planning, saving and counting down, and the start of a year-long trip of a lifetime.
I was especially excited to meet Israeli travelers – I was looking forward to practicing my rusty Hebrew and discussing the current situation in the Holy Land. And, although my Jewish friends had warned me that the Israelis they met abroad had been rude and reluctant to mix with non-Israelis, I remained optimistic.
Arriving in San Pedro, I found myself a five-dollar-a-night hotel room with fabulous views of the lake, and a hammock outside my bedroom. However, any hopes of actually lying in my hammock were quickly dashed when I opened the door to discover almost every guest of the hotel sprawled on top of the hammock, yelling at each other in Hebrew. They looked me up and down, grunted, and begrudgingly stepped aside to let me pass through the door.
Now, we Aussies may have some stuffy notions of "manners" and "polite behavior"… but generally, I think we are a pretty easy-going lot. We are not fussed by a bit of chutzpah, and when we have fun we like to make some noise.
But we are certainly not impressed by early-rising hammock thieves trying to win an argument at full volume outside our door. Even if we don't tell you so at the time.
The next day I was on a mini-bus traveling between remote villages. On the way back, the driver was flagged down by an American mother and son who had missed their ride home and were stranded. While the rest of us shuffled over to make room, the Israeli contingent erupted in outrage.
"This is not fair. We have paid full price for the tour so why should we be uncomfortable?" they yelled. When the driver took the stranded pair anyway, the complaints continued in Hebrew. Much to my amusement and the red-faced shame of the Israelis, the pair turned out to be Jewish and the son spoke fluent Hebrew.
My initial optimism about Israeli travelers began to fade.
Then, as my journey wore on, I recognized that there were in fact two types of Israelis: the good kind, and the bad. The "good" kind were incredibly friendly, funny and interesting. They also liked to go undercover – wear brands of sandals other than Shoresh and mix with the general backpacker community; whereas the "bad" kind were the ones yelling across hotels and making jokes at others' expense.
Problem was, I realized, it was the loud, obnoxious type who were immediately identifiable as Israeli and giving the whole country a bad name.
Enough bad press
With tens of thousands of you out there backpacking at any one time and interacting with countless other backpackers (who are all writing home to their friends), a lot of people are getting the wrong impression about this country. The amazing thing about Israel is that everyone, from all walks of life, seems to make the effort to travel. In other places, only the rich and well-educated tend to do that.
And those travelers may well go on to be the next politicians or business leaders of their countries – people who we all hope will adopt a positive stance towards Israel.
So, Yossi, Yonni, Yael… or whatever your name is, next time you walk over to someone else's hammock, or open your mouth to yell at someone else out there who is just trying to make a living, please think about the impression you are creating and the potential impact on your country. There is enough negative press out there without Israelis giving themselves a bad reputation.