The Magazine

The Med's Best-Kept Secret

Had a Thai herbal massage in Israel lately?

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By WILLY STERN
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Rosh Pina, Israel

Perhaps nowhere else on the globe does there exist a greater discrepancy between perception and reality than Israel. The press portrays the country as a savage land racked by war and terrorism, and many outsiders have the impression that Israelis live their daily lives cowering amongst endless cycles of violence. The reality, though, is a country of 7.4 million people whose stock market and economy are humming along quite nicely (at least in contrast to the rest of the globe) and whose citizens revel in their chic Mediterranean lifestyle.

Anita Blum can't remember the last time her deluxe 100-room resort wasn't fully booked for the weekend. The Hotel Mizpe Hayamim is a well-appointed spa in the Galilee, two hours north of Tel Aviv, and suites go for $500-plus-a-night. Blum charges extra for the therapies--a Thai herbal massage runs $100--and enjoys a 75 percent occupancy rate year-round unchanged by the recent hostilities in Gaza and the world economic crisis.

As you wander around the luxurious grounds and drop $75 on a lunch of beef carpaccio and veal entrecôte with organic vegetables, it's hard to think of Israel as a nation at war. And the guests aren't just the latest batch of Israeli high-tech millionaires. While Blum sees her share of the very rich--she has a helicopter pad, after all--she counts soldiers, schoolteachers, and university students, among her legions of happy clients.

In Israel, life goes on. The Western newspapers just don't notice. They follow instead on a few hackneyed storylines:

n Policemen dragging unwilling Israeli settlers out of their homes.

n Hamas (or Hezbollah) terrorists in menacing black scarves waving machine guns, a subset to the lingering "Palestinian issue."

n Yet another rocket landing near a primary school in Sderot.

n Noisy--and often corrupt--politicians trying to form a coalition amidst a dysfunctional, if vibrantly democratic, government system.

These narratives are real, important, and poignant, but they are only part of the story of a country that has seen 20 years of uninterrupted economic expansion. (Well, mostly uninterrupted. The 2001-02 Intifada and the current economic meltdown took their toll.)

Israel, of course, faces tremendous obstacles. It's tiny, surrounded by enemies, and lacking in natural resources. It has a growing and undereducated Arab population of some 1.45 million whose meager earnings add little to Israel's annual GDP of $199 billion. (Even with its mostly unskilled Arab workforce, Israel's per capita income is around $27,000, on par with those of New Zealand and South Korea.) And there are the 700,000 or so in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community who generally don't pay much in taxes or serve in the army but shamelessly mooch off government welfare. Then there are Israel's major trade partners, who have taken a beating in the global economic crisis, exacerbating Israel's chronic trade deficit. There's also been a notable slowing in Israel's high-tech sector in the last two years. And, with Iran threatening to go nuclear, Israelis fret about their very existence.

But these stories miss the bigger point: Israel today has become a vibrant, functioning jewel of a nation tucked into the eastern flank of the Mediterranean. Tel Aviv looks more like San Diego or Barcelona than Baghdad or Kabul. On a recent five-mile run along Tel Aviv's Gordon Beach, I saw Israeli yuppies cycling the boardwalk on $1,500 Italian mountain bikes, teenagers in full-body wetsuits surfing the breakers, a deep-cleavaged Russian model (nobody seemed to know her name) doing a photo shoot in a skimpy bikini whilst middle-aged Israeli men with potbellies and hairy chests shamelessly gawked, rows of high-priced yachts docked at the Tel Aviv marina, an endless stream of private planes on final approach to small Sde Dov Airport, and two Israeli soldiers in drab green uniforms making out in the sand and drinking Heineken. A nation at war? It seemed more like high season at Coney Island.

"Some first-time visitors are certainly surprised when they don't find tanks and camels in the streets," reports Hanna Munitz, general director of the Israeli Opera. Israel has a world class cultural scene. Want to see Franco Zeffirelli and Daniel Barenboim? No problem. The Alvin Ailey Dance Company visits. The opera plays to audiences at 97 percent capacity. "Just once, another opera manager told me she wouldn't bring her company to Israel because we were 'babykillers' or some nonsense," says Munitz, "but, even at lower pay, we attract the best talents from around the globe. They love coming here!"