The secret life of the free-living Israeli traveller

By Michal Levertov, October 3, 2008

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

It was in Nepal at 17,700ft, high up on the Himalayan Annapurna ridge, when 25-year-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 conclusions: "I found that women felt that the masculine, militarist culture 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 image was so strong, Dr Segev adds. "It took 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 reasonable 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, who are usually older than the Israeli ones, tend to mingle with each other, the Israelis stick together. "It's a result of the Israeli socialisation, the 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 only Hebrew is spoken and Israeli music 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."

Last updated: 4:38pm, September 23 2009