Thursday, April 26, 2012 is Yom Ha'atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day. I visited Israel three times between the mid-80s and early 90s and have many fond memories of places like Mitzpe Ramon, the Negev
and the Dead Sea. Israel has changed a lot since then but it still mesmerizes visitors and natives alike with an array of cultural, religious and geological wonders. Since its formation in 1948, the Jewish state has made many contributions to human progress. Here are 18 awesome reasons why you should buy one thousand nine hundred and forty eight bottles of kosher wine and drink it until you wake up feeling miraculous on Friday morning.
1. Jesus lived there.
One of few Jews almost as famous as Albert Einstein (but probably not as clever; he got caught and executed by the Romans, after all), Magic Jesus
, to use a term made famous by a noted Sarah Silverman show
, lived in Israel. Magic Jesus died ages ago but people still talk about his amazing tricks.
2. The Kibbutz System.
Ever dreamed of a paradisaical wonderland where the sun always shines, the wine always flows, the girls are all beautiful hippies who love outdoor festivals
, and everyone does their share? Then the Israeli Kibbutzim is for you! There are around 270 kibbutzim in Israel, from rocket-battered Misgav Am in the cooler north to Sde Boker in the blazing Negev desert. The expression "Making the desert bloom" is a well-known one in Israel, and during the time I spent on Sde Boker I saw plenty of evidence that the Israelis had indeed succeeded in this endeavor, as David Ben Gurion had intended.
3. Braille bank notes.
Blind people in Israel can identify how much each bill is worth, so no taking advantage of the non-sighted in Israel. Not very likely anyway, though, given that Israelis tend to function like one big family, and a generous streak means that approximately 1 in 3 Israelis volunteer in their free time. How cool is that?
4. The glue on Israeli stamps is kosher (my favourite).
It really doesn't get much better than this.
5. Environmentally Progressive.
Israel is the only country on the planet that began the 21st century with a net gain in its number of trees. Their excellence in mastering irrigation in a hostile arid land has led to breakthroughs in agricultural that leave the rest of the world far behind. Do you know that, despite upping their produce output by over 700% in the last quarter century, Israel doesn't consume significantly more water than it did in 1986 (when I was there!...wow, that makes me feel old).
6. The Haoman 17 Nightclub.
After a supper of hummus and falafel and a quickie dance to Hava Nagila
, Israelis like to head out and dance it up at the world famous Haoman 17. Renowned as one of the world's premier rave spots, Haoman 17 has seen DJs like Paul Oakenfold appear at its top locations in Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. The Tel-Aviv location was the site of a serious attack in August 2011, when a man hijacked an Israeli taxi, drove it into the guards outside the club and embarked on a stabbing rampage. A bit like a normal Friday night at Manchester's Hacienda, really.
7. The Mossad/Special Forces.
Several famous episodes in which the Israelis rescued Jews in danger in Africa occurred from the 1960s to the 1990s. 1976's famous Operation Entebbe saw the Mossad provide intelligence to the Israeli Special Forces, who flew at an astonishing altitude of just 100 feet across much of Africa all the way to Uganda to evade radar. Once in Uganda, home of feared maniac Idi Amin, the Special Forces troops stormed an airport where almost 100 Israelis were being held hostage by PLO hijackers. Operation Entebbe took just 90 minutes. The commander of the elite unit, Yonatan Netanyahu (brother of current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin), was killed in the raid that saw Israelis brought back to their homeland for the most part safe and sound. In 1984 and 1991, Israel airlifted a total 22,000 Ethiopian Jews from Ethiopia to safety in Israel, after they were found to be in danger in their home country. There was also the amazing Operation Yakhin, a secret emmigration plan for 80,000 Moroccan Jews spanning two and half years that utilized both air and sea. On top of all this, the shady but effective Mossad has been responsible for (or suspected of) abducting, sentencing and even killing umpteen enemies of Israel and Nazi war criminals on foreign soil and just not giving a hoot. Among the suspected methods used are poisoned chocolate, letter bombs, shooting, exploding telephones, car bombs, piano wire and knives. Basically, don't mess with the Mossad.
8. "The size of the fight in the dog."
Despite Israel composing just 1/6 of 1% of the landmass of the Middle East, they still kick some major ass, including the 6-Day War, when Israel defeated neighboring states Egypt, Jordan and Syria simultaneously using surprise air attacks that crippled their enemies.
9. Agricultural Innovators.
The Israelis have mastered the hybridization of numerous plant species in order to obtain the maximum yield per hectare. When I was there, I worked on genetically engineered melons that were able to produce several crops per season, rather than just one. And while the average date palm produces just 17kg of dates a year, the Israeli super palm trees can put out over ten times as much – around 182kg a year!
10. All-Round Clever Clogs.
There is even a name for the elevated IQ of some Jews: Ashkenazi Jewish intelligence. This is derived from the fact that Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ of 107 to 115, well above the average for human beings. Many reasons have been postulated for this, including how very difficult proper study of the Torah is, and how those who couldn't hack it simply defecting to the Gentile side and chilled out. Other hypotheses include the fact that Ashkenazi Jews lived under very strict and focused conditions in medieval Europe. In an environment where they were barred from practicing crafts and agriculture, Ashkenazis were forced into the more challenging areas of finance and trade. This coupled with the intense study of their religious literature, possibly led to their undoubted braininess (is that even a word?).
Magic Jesus turned water into wine, as we know, but these days Israelis don't need miracles, as there's over 200 wineries in Israel producing every kind of wine you can think of. I still look back with fondness on Friday evenings at Kibbutz Sde Boker, when the sweet red was flowing, songs were being sung, and the desert stars were blazing like they'd just been created.
12. The Dead Sea.
The water at the world's lowest-altitude spot tastes like spicy curry, such is the saline concentration, but copping a mouthful of this lifeless broth is worth it to experience the amazing buoyancy it provides a body.
13. Tech Savvy.
Israel's history may span all the way back to the very beginnings of civilization, but they're no slouches in the tech sector. There are over 3,000 high-tech companies and start-ups in Israel today, and the nation has traditionally been a testing ground for pioneering technologies such as Windows operating systems, cellphones, voicemail technology, Pentium Chip technology, PC anti-virus programs, internet firewall safety systems, and AOL's instant message programs. Tech giants Microsoft and Cisco also sited their only R&D facilities outside the USA in Israel, probably to take advantage of those high IQs!
14. Einstein is buried there.
That's right, the world's best scientist is buried on the Mount of Olives. Actually, I made that up, but I'm positive I read it somewhere a long time ago. Help me, Google!
15. Pig Farming is illegal.
Do you love bacon? If not, why not? Well one quirky thing about ol' Israel is that it is totally illegal to raise or breed hogs, which leaves more for the rest of us! Only one Jewish place defies this rule, Kibbutz Lahav, where they breed pigs like they're going out of fashion (10,000+ porkers). The piggies on Lahav are said to be used for "research". Who knows, maybe those Israeli scientists are gonna invent the tastiest bacon the world has ever seen. That'd be awesome.
16. Flying High.
Israel is the smallest nation on earth with the capability of launching domestic rockets and satellites. Israel also owns more than 250 F-16s, more than any nation outside the USA. Ground Control to Major Itzhak, oy vey!
17. They have a tennis player called Anna SMASHNOVA!
No, honest, they do! She isn't even made up by Sasha Baron Cohen, she's real!
18. The Number Eighteen.
The number 18 is considered the "Gematria of Chai" ("numerical value of life"), which makes it a very important number in the Jewish world.
I grew up in the UK’s second-largest Jewish neighbourhood
and was frequently regaled with tales from those who’d lived on an Israeli kibbutz. Kibbutz life appealed greatly to me; a non-capitalistic co-op – a tribe, if you will – where people enjoyed the balmy climate and manipulated the surrounding desert in ways that the rest of the Middle East could never dream. I’ve been to Israel three times and spent about 18 months there in total. Kibbutz life really was fantastic; honest toil, party hearty with lots of lovely Jewish girls whose DNA had been drawn from all corners of the world, and incredible desert scenery. Every Friday we had a Shabat feast. The food and wine flowed as we dined on a huge variety of meat and produce, mostly produced right there or exchanged with other Kibbutzim. Now, raise yer glass, start the video below, shout "L'chaim!" and kiss an Israeli 18 times today!