Israel is well known for many things: our shawarma and falafel were famous decades before Adam Sandler's movie,
, made hummus an American household staple; our booming high-tech industry continues to bring innovation and technology to the world, improving the lives of hundreds of millions worldwide; our athletes are reaping medals in judo, sailing, and gymnastics (not exactly your typical Jewish sports); and our apps allow billions to communicate while arriving safely to their destination.
But Israel is also a leader in migration, and not only of the human variety. In 2018, we welcomed record numbers of foreign investment ($22 billion) and tourists (over 4 million). We warmly welcome both even if most of the tourists seemed to flock to my favorite falafel stand making it impossible for me to grab my daily pita. But another kind of visitor arrived in even greater numbers: half a billion birds pass (visa-free) through our skies not once, but twice a year.
Israel is strategically located on the intersection of three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Our unique position has made our land desirable for dozens of conquering empires over the past four millennia, all desirous of controlling the only land passage linking these important trade routes-and migration roads-which connected the known globe until the discovery of the Americas. No wonder we were conquered by the ancient Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Sumerians, the Mongols, the Mamelukes, the Greeks, the Macedonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Muslims, the Turks, the British, and just about every other military power that wielded a sword.
Today, we are flush both with foreign capital and tourists looking not only for the Wailing Wall but also for Moshiko's falafel, the Jerusalem market's Marzipan bakery, and the hotspots of Tel Aviv nightlife. With the number of incoming tourists roughly half the size of our population, we host proportionately twice as many tourists as the United States. As varied as the dozens of species of birds coming through our skies, they enjoy the openness and freedom that Israel provides its guests (along with a sometimes-overcharged cab ride).
But the birds who visit us enjoy a different kind of freedom: they see no borders, no international tension, no animosity among human beings. They soar to the skies, fly over Lebanon and Syria, and come to land at Israel's Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee as they flee the European autumn on their way south, towards the warmth of Africa. Israel's autumn skies are awash with 500 million eagles, cranes, storks, owls, pelicans, flamingoes, buzzards, and dozens of bird species whose names I never heard. Frankly it sounds to me like they were invented by an overly imaginative child with a dictionary and a box of watercolors. The "Blue-Spotted Fritzenhammer Proust" and the "Red-Bellied White-Tailed Huffalump," are names I just made up, but you get the idea.
Recently, my family and I visited the Hula Valley, betraying my childhood solemn pledge to never engage in anything as "mundane" as watching birds. Yet there I was, armed with binoculars no less. And we enjoyed it! There were thousands of birds swooping in at sundown, coming to rest for the night at the reconstituted Hula Swamp, their resting place on their long intercontinental journey. Along with birdwatchers from all over the world, we saw flocks of unfathomable numbers converge on a small field. Forty-five thousand cranes had arrived the previous day and everywhere you looked, thousands of them were flapping their wings and screaming. The noise was deafening; the sight marvelous. There they were, standing in the shallow waters next to flamingoes and to a dozen other species which I will never be able to tell apart but apparently mean a lot to real birdwatchers.
In the next few weeks, still millions more will flock to the Hula Valley, their required rest stop in Israel where they are not only protected-they are actually fed by Israeli Park Rangers. They will spend the winter months in Africa, some flying as far south as the southern tip of the continent, only to return to us in the spring as they make their way back to Europe. With the help of high-tech monitoring devices attached unobtrusively to their legs, we can trace their origin and their paths, and conduct research on their migration and habits for their and humanity's benefit. They will make more noise than the average tourist. But they will take fewer selfies and visit fewer of our holy sites. All told, they are very welcome guests and a tourist attraction of a unique kind-even if I can't remember their names and have broken a solemn childhood oath.
Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office.