Passengers clap and cheer when the wheels touch down at Ben Gurion International Airport - Israel inspires that sort of emotion. It's been 16 years since my last visit, and in that time the country has evolved through a tech boom, the Second Intifada, various political crises and several years of relative peace.
For all the news Israel gets, it's still just a sliver of land in the Middle East, and for all its cosmopolitan edge, Tel Aviv-Yafo is only the size of a sleepy American city. I wouldn't think 400,000 people were enough for a 24/7 city, with cracking bars, clubs and all-night restaurants. Still, jetlagged, I make my way to The Minzar, which never closes. Here I find an eclectic clientele chatting, drinking and smoking, big issues are grappled with in raised voices and hand movements as classic rock bounces off the walls. It's 2 a.m. on a weeknight, and I wonder when people sleep.
Hotel Dan Tel Aviv has seen its share of celebrities: the Clintons, Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio and his Israeli supermodel girlfriend Bar Refaeli. My room faces the beach - big, clean and sugar sandy, with a Copacabana-like promenade. A heron watches men fish, while surfers run about looking for the best breaks.
Removed from borders and settlements, Tel Aviv is its own world within a country. Old parts of the city have been transformed into entertainment districts like the Old Port, or renewed as trendy neighbourhoods, like arty Neve Tzedek. The city also has the world's largest collection of Bauhaus buildings, now a UNESCO Heritage Site, running up leafy Rothschild Boulevard. I pop into Shampina, a hipster champagne lounge, then enjoy the wild art at Nanushka, a Georgian bar, and wind up at an underground speakeasy called IGPG Radio, where I chat with a beautiful girl who is half Czech, half Yemeni. Jews from 125 countries have made Israel their home, and the pot seems to melt over in Tel Aviv.
North, the Sea of Galilee is casting a purple glow across the sky, its fresh waters reflecting the Golan Heights. During a college break in 1993, I spent two months on a kibbutz nearby called Hukuk. It's a cheap escape to a different way of life, together with volunteers from 15 countries. The sleepy lakeside resort town of Tiberius looks much as it did then, a destination for tourists and pilgrims following the footsteps of Jesus. The church at the Mount of Beatitudes looks over the site where Jesus is said to have walked on water.
The entire country is a biblical theme park, laced with Roman and Crusader ruins like those found at Ceasarea, Acre and Bet She'an. At the Scot Hotel in Tiberius, Christian Bible groups, Jewish tourists, students and hikers make an interesting mix. We gather in the bar, where a Russian bartender serves us excellent single malts.
The Dead Sea is dying. The spot where I first entered its salty embrace 16 years ago is 16 metres away from the beach today. Water levels continue to drop due to dry winters and declining sources. Walking in up to my knees, I turn around and gently fall back, letting the water envelope me like a liquid pillow. The only life in this sea (8 1/2 times saltier than the ocean) are the tourists enjoying its renowned healing properties. The Dead Sea is a finalist in the New Seven Natural Wonders promotion being decided in November, and while its rich mineral mud is said to work miracles, consider the fact that its entry into the contest is a joint effort by the Israelis, Jordanians and the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps its mud can heal more than just skin problems.
Jerusalem Syndrome is an affliction that strikes hundreds of visitors to the holiest city in the Holy Land. Some people get swept up in a messianic rapture, inspired by the names and places so familiar in the Bible. Jerusalem's yellow stone and old city resonates, no matter your beliefs. Jews around the world pray in its direction, and in Jerusalem, they pray toward the Temple Mount. The Dome of the Rock gleams in the late afternoon sun. It sits on the exact site of the Holy of Holies, the most important site of the First and Second Temples. Rain has cleared away the plaza, where Jews gather to pray at the Western Wall. A fragile, skinny man rocks back and forth, among small notes bearing wishes stuffed into the cracks.
It's a short walk from Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I pass Christian tourists carrying a large wooden cross to the Stations of the Cross. It takes them through the narrow streets of the Arab Quarter, lined with souvenir shops. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains the site of Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. Just steps away is the Stone of Anointing, where he was prepared for burial. People place their foreheads on the stone, along with bags containing souvenirs to be blessed. I take a few steps to the Tomb of Jesus, where I light a candle in respect. For devout Christians this is ground zero, and many break down in tears. It doesn't matter what religion you follow. Walk aimlessly through the quarters and history of Old Jerusalem and saviour its ambience. There's nowhere in the world quite like it.
Not far from the Knesset, where political parties scrape together ruling coalitions, are two defining sites of the nation. The Israel Museum, which houses the Dead Sea Scrolls, displays the earliest Bible texts ever discovered, and is a physical link stretching back more than 2,000 years. On the Mount of Remembrance is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum. I walk through a maze of cement rooms, following the explanation of the rise of Hitler, the rot of Anti-Semitism, the ghettos, the death camps.
"We have to personify what happened," explains our guide. "Only then can we begin to understand the numbers." Concluding at the Hall of Faces, a spiral of photos and tragedy, Yad Vashem is not an easy place to visit, but an essential experience.
Throughout the country, I see miracles. People somehow survived the Holocaust, rebuilt their lives and created a future in their Promised Land. Modern Israel, a prosperous nation, is a testament to what dreams and hard work can accomplish.
Still, there are many challenges. No other democracy has foreign presidents and voting citizens openly calling for its annihilation. The country's neighbours are going through a remarkable transformation. Yet I think about the moderates I met, of every faith, who simply want the Holy Land to move forward in peace. Israel and its Palestinian neighbours deserve a calm future. When that time finally comes - Baruch HaShem, Insha'Allah and please God - there will be clapping and cheering on runways around the world.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.