Israel for the Perplexed

2 minute read

I’m often asked to recommend things to do for tourists visiting Israel. One one hand, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel:

  • Go Israel: official site, recently updated, surprisingly varied and interesting.
  • Wikivoyage: useful crowdsourced travel site under the Wikimedia umbrella.
  • tripadvisor: widely-used portal with rankings, reviews, and lots of useful data.
  • Yelp isn’t a thing here, yet.
  • Netflix is, but it’s severely limited.
  • Chill is too.

This page is an introduction. See the sidebar links for more detail on specific topics.


Israel is a small country in the Middle East, surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt, home to 8.6 million people. It is a synergy of a rich historic past, with ambition and optimism for the future.

Formed in 1948, and fighting for its survival ever since day one, Israel is a global leader in many areas, including science, technology, defence, and innovation. Dan Senor’s book, Start-Up Nation goes some way to explaining how a tiny country surrounded by enemies, has not only survived, but actually thrived.

Israel also leads in inverse relationship between physical and population size, and the number of:


Israel is much more diverse than the casual observer might expect. Around 73% of the population is Jewish, mostly of Mizrachi and Ashkenazi descent. Of these, around:

  • 42% identify as secular.
  • 38% are traditional.
  • 20% Orthodox, made up of:
    • 12% are “religious Zionist”
    • 8% are “ultra-Orthodox”.

Keeping up? Another 20% is Arab, mostly Muslim, Christian and Druze.

The rest is divided between other Semitic and non-Semitic groups, such as the Samaritans, Black Hebrews, and foreign workers, many of whom come from China, the Philippines, and Sudan.

This macro diversity is also reflected locally. Let’s take the two largest cities as an example. It’s easy to characterize:

  • Jerusalem, a religious time-warp, walls dripping with legendary stories of war and peace.
  • Tel Aviv, thinks it’s NYC and Berlin, unaware of its real location, 200km from Damascus and Beirut.

In fact, songs have been written about the contrast between the two, which reflect different sides of our psyche. Yet, Jerusalem boasts a buzzing, intimate nightlife, and if you know where to look in Tel Aviv, there are many reminders that you’re in the Middle East.

So, it’s pointless to try and stereotype the “typical” Israeli, but be prepared for a:

  • Dry sense of humour, equally fuelled by hopefulness and helplessness.
  • Straightforward, robust, non-politically-correct attitude.
  • “Seize the day”, live-for-the-moment approach.
  • Curiosity and interest in outsiders.

Even the climate varies, from the green, hilly north to the desert in the south. This is a place of contrast.


Like every country, Israel is proud of its culinary culture, which is decidedly Middle-Eastern with little influence from Ashkenazi Jewry. You can find chopped liver and gefilte fish, but it’s not the norm. From the most basic street food to the complex and contemporary.


  • Use sunblock when outside, and respect the dangers of the sun. Skin cancer is a big killer in Israel.
  • From dusk, mosquito repellent is highly recommended, the amazing little gits can really annoy. Or you could just take me with you in which case they’ll leave you alone and devour me.
  • Title inspired by the Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed.

(Header image: Camel near Kfar Kassem.)