The se­cret life of the free-liv­ing Is­raeli trav­eller

A study sug­gests why young Is­raeli back­pack­ers are un­wel­come in some coun­tries — and it’s noth­ing to do with Mid-East pol­i­tics.

The Jewish Chronicle - - Features -

IT WAS IN Nepal at 17,700ft, high up on the Hi­malayan An­na­purna ridge, when 25year-old Galit re­alised how deeply machismo cul­ture af­fected Is­raeli men. “I and my boyfriend were trekking with a group of fel­low Is­raelis, all of them ex-com­bat sol­diers,” she re­calls. The equip­ment they had with them was im­mensely heavy, but the men, in­clud­ing Galit’s boyfriend, in­sisted on car­ry­ing it them­selves.

“They were ea­ger to demon­strate their strength and in­de­pen­dence, rea­son­ing that it was ‘just like in the army’,” Galit says. “And they ex­pected me to do just the same.”

She re­fused. In­stead, she hired a pro­fes­sional moun­tain porter. “Which proved as the right de­ci­sion; some of the guys suf­fered af­ter the trek — se­vere knee pain.”

Galit is one of the par­tic­i­pants in a re­cently pub­lished study on how back­pack­ing — now an im­por­tant rite of pas­sage for young Is­raelis — af­fects their iden­tity. Her story, says the re­searcher, Ei­nav Segev, of the so­cial-work depart­ment at Ben-Gu­rion Uni­ver­sity in the Negev, re­flects one of the study’s main c o n c l u - s i o n s : “ I found that women felt t h a t t h e mas­cu­line, mil­i­tarist c u l t u r e took over,” she says.

Around 20-30,000 Is­raeli back­pack­ers travel to the Far East and South Amer­ica each year. Pro­fes­sor Natan Uriely at Ben-Gu­rion Uni­ver­sity ex­plains that a pe­riod of trav­el­ling eases the tran­si­tion from army to civil­ian life. He says that Is­raeli so­ci­ety recog­nises the im­por­tance of al­low­ing its twen­tysome­things time out, from which they can re­turn and “suc­cess­fully re­sume a life of am­bi­tion and pros­per­ity”.

Dr Segev’s study sought to as­sess the im­pact of trav­el­ling on an as­sort­ment of Is­raeli women. She ap­proached for­mer back­pack­ers, and man­aged to col­lect 20 di­aries writ­ten by Is­raeli women dur­ing trips con­ducted up to eight years ago, when the women were “at the ages of 20-25”. She then in­ter­viewed each woman.

She found that they re­turned from their life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence bur­dened by dark mem­o­ries they could not share with friends and fam­ily. “I can’t claim that all women suf­fered trau­mas,” says Dr Segev, “but I did hear of tough drugs ex­pe­ri­ences, of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, and of many dif­fi­cul­ties caused by hav­ing to deal with phys­i­cal hard­ships.

“The women felt ashamed — they felt that their body was, in com­par­i­son to their ma­cho male com­pan­ions, de­fi­cient. One of the di­aries had a poem in it, in which the back­packer had writ­ten: ‘I wish I was im­pec­ca­ble’.”

The dom­i­nance of the mas­cu­line im­age­was­sostrong,DrSegevadds.“It­took over their fem­i­nine self-im­age; many of th­ese women told me that they shaved their heads dur­ing their trav­els.”

He­brew Uni­ver­sity an­thro­pol­o­gist Darya Maoz has con­ducted ex­ten­sive re­search into the ex­pe­ri­ences of Is­raeli back­pack­ers in In­dia. She found that the men take their risk-tak­ing cul­ture, born of mil­i­tary ser­vice, di­rectly into the back­pack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, at­tempt­ing the most danger­ous treks, or abus­ing drugs. “It’s a test of courage, which, just as in an­cient so­ci­eties, is a part of the rite of pas­sage. This pat­tern takes over the whole back­pack­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, and most women adopt th­ese codes too. They feel that it em­pow­ers them.”

In­deed, Galit re­calls many scary mo­ments which she did not tell her fam­ily about. “There was al­ready enough pres­sure on me to go back home. And any­way, it’s not that they could help me when I was ill, or when I suf­fered phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties.”

She broke up with her boyfriend in Nepal, but car­ried on back­pack­ing, trav­el­ling by her­self. In time, she says, she learned how to avoid dan­gers. “Aban­don­ing fem­i­nine char­ac­ter­is­tics,” she ex­plains, “is in many cases sim­ply a pre­cau­tion adopted by women trav­el­ling alone, try­ing to avoid un­wanted at­ten­tion.”

Mika Ull­man, 28, a kib­butznik from north­ern Is­rael, agrees. She trav­elled for a year in South Amer­ica, and a cou­ple of years later spent three months in Nepal. “In con­ser­va­tive re­gions a demon­stra­tion of fem­i­nin­ity can put you at risk,” she says. “I avoided wear­ing dresses and wore my hair ex­tremely short.”

There are emo­tional dan­gers, too. One for­mer back­packer in her early 30s, who asked not to be named, re­called a re­la­tion­ship that went badly wrong. “I hooked up with an In­dian guy, and we prac­ti­cally be­came a cou­ple.” They lived to­gether in North In­dia for a few ideal weeks, “dur­ing which time I lent him, at his re­quest, dif­fer­ent sums of money. I was clearly in a bet­ter fi­nan­cial state than he was, and it seemed rea­son- able to trust the guy you love.” When the debt reached around £250, the boyfriend broke up with her, re­fus­ing to re­turn the money. It hap­pened a few years ago, yet she still feels un­able to tell her fam­ily or her friends about it.

The po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Is­rael seems to have lit­tle bear­ing on how Is­raelis are treated when they ven­ture abroad. If they are made un­wel­come by lo­cals, it ap­pears that their rep­u­ta­tion for boor­ish be­hav­iour may have a lot to do with it. Trav­el­ling in South Amer­ica, Ull­man left her big Is­raeli group as soon as she felt con­fi­dent enough to travel alone: “It was un­pleas­ant, loud and bur­den­some. All they wanted to do was go club­bing and drink­ing. So as soon as I learnt some Span­ish, I parted with them.”

Dr Maoz says that while Euro­pean back­pack­ers,whoareusu­al­ly­old­erthan the Is­raeli ones, tend to min­gle with each other, the Is­raelis s t i c k t o - gether. “It’s a re­sult of the Is­raeli s ociali s at i o n, t he idea that as a small na­tion we ought to be strong and united.” Sadly, she says, in many cases the out­come is an ag­gres­sive, over­bear­ing Is­raeli back­packer. “Since the group em­pow­ers its mem­bers, the Is­raelis can be in­sen­si­tive and some­times even vi­o­lent. Play­ing loud mu­sic in the mid­dle of the night, bla­tant drug use and even shout­ing at lo­cals, and some­times steal­ing.”

In some places in In­dia, she con­tin­ues, “you can find Is­raeli en­claves where on­lyHe­brewis­spo­ke­nand Is­rae­limu­sic played, and restau­rants with He­brew signs serv­ing only Is­raeli food.

“The Is­raelis are scorn­ful of the lo­cals, and, in­ter­est­ingly, in one of my stud­ies, I found that Is­raelis in In­dia com­pare the In­di­ans to Arabs, us­ing the same ori­en­tal stereotypes: both the neg­a­tive ones — of dirt, prim­i­tivism and stench; and the pos­i­tive ones — warmth and hos­pi­tal­ity.”

The com­par­i­son does not end there. In Dr Segev’s re­search, she found that the back­pack­ers tended to use mil­i­tary speech even in their most pri­vate di­aries. Trav­ellers write of “con­quer­ing an­other city and an­other site”. Even ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships had a whiff of khaki about them: one fe­male trav­eller de­scribed how a male back­packer had car­ried her as if evac­u­at­ing an in­jured sol­dier from the bat­tle­field.

Galit, to­day a 33-year-old math­e­mat­ics teacher, burned her di­ary af­ter the re­search was com­pleted. “I was sim­ply afraid that some­body else would find and read it,” she smiles. “It was too per­sonal. And any­way, it had no rel­e­vance to my life any more.”

PHOTO: FLASH 90

Back­pack­ers in In­dia, a pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tion for Is­raeli trav­ellers de­spite oc­ca­sional ten­sions with lo­cals

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