Hiking in Israel: Why Are These Trails Different?

Shay Rabineau

Hiker-fighters of the Palmach on a masa, or long-distance trek, across the Judean Desert in the 1940s. Courtesy of the Palmach Photo Gallery.
Hiker-fighters of the Palmach on a masa, or long-distance trek, across the Judean Desert in the 1940s. Courtesy of the
Palmach Photo Gallery.
I srael is known for its culture of hiking. Ten thousand kilometers of marked and mapped hiking trails crisscross pre-1967 Israel, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank. Chains of backpacking stores cover Israeli territory from Kiryat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south. In secular and national-religious schools, extended long-distance hikes are part of the yearly curriculum. Some schools organize their annual hikes along the border-to-border Israel National Trail so that by the time their students graduate, they will have walked the entire length and breadth of the country.

However, Israel's robust culture of hiking is almost completely unknown to non-Hebrew speakers, including the millions of foreign tourists who visit the country every year. In countries like Germany and Switzerland, where modern hiking became popular during the late nineteenth century, maps and guidebooks have long been translated into English and other languages, and hiking has become a major source of tourism revenue. Maps and guidebooks to Israel's trails, on the other hand, are still published almost exclusively in Hebrew, and no serious efforts have ever been made to integrate Israel's trail system into the country's larger tourist infrastructure.

Israeli hiking is deeply indebted to the European hiking tradition, yet took a different course. From the moment European-style hiking arrived in Palestine during the early twentieth century, it assumed a character all its own. Jewish hikers described their journeys across the country in Hebrew, using words that brought old ideas of pilgrimage to life. The land across which they journeyed was not just any land, but the land—the mythic Land of Israel. Hiking represented more than just walking outdoors; it was an act that connected Zionist youth with their ancient Jewish forebears, and which became burdened with existential, and even salvific, import.


"Each word which is not newly created, but is taken from the good old treasures, is ready to burst," Gershom Scholem wrote regarding the resurrection of the Hebrew language in a 1926 letter to Franz Rosenzweig. While secular Zionists believed they could decouple ancient Hebrew words from their religious meanings and use such words to describe mundane objects and tasks in the present, Scholem feared that everyday life in 'Erez . Yisra'el would instead become dangerously infused with mythic significance. He compared the Land to a volcano that appeared stable on the surface, but was ready to erupt. "May it not come to pass," Scholem concluded, "that the imprudence which has led us on this apocalyptic road ends in ruin."

More than two decades before Scholem wrote his famous letter, Zionist educators had already begun using the Hebrew language to bind the act of walking in Palestine to mythic ideas. The first European-style hikes in Palestine were organized during the late First Aliyah period by the same teachers who promoted the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. Influenced by European pedagogical methods, they used outdoor excursions as inexpensive tools for geography education, and they gave hiking a whole vocabulary drawn from "the good old treasures." Under their watch, the word tiyul, which is used in the Talmud to describe the movements of the righteous in Paradise, became the modern Hebrew word for "hike." Similarly, words for different types of walking routes—shvil, netiv, derekh—were all drawn from the Bible, in which such terms had been used literally, but had also been used as metaphors for right conduct, and for the actions of God and man.

Early on, the idea of taking a walk outdoors in 'Erez Yisra'el became linked through the Hebrew language to spiritual and eternal themes. It was difficult to formulate any concept of Jewish walking without considering the first words spoken by God to Abraham—the striking Lech Lecha that spurred the patriarch to leave his home and journey to the Promised Land (Genesis 12:1). Those who dared to travel through the expanses of the Judean and Negev Deserts could hardly do so without reflecting on the wanderings of the children of Israel during the Exodus. It was practically impossible to walk toward Jerusalem without thinking of 'aliyah le-regel, the thrice-annual pilgrimage to the holy city mandated in the Torah.

When the Labor Zionist immigrants of the Second Aliyah began arriving in Palestine from eastern Europe in 1904, they brought with them an outlook on the Land of Israel that further burdened the act of walking with existential significance. The haluzim, or "pioneers," were deeply committed to speaking Hebrew whenever possible, and also to working and walking the Land of Israel. In keeping with the writings of Labor Zionist thinkers like Martin Buber and A.D. Gordon, the pioneers believed that the Jewish people could actualize their existence by reuniting with the Jewish homeland. Through hiking, they pursued a "knowledge of homeland" that was similar to the German Heimatkunde, but whose translation into Hebrew effected powerful transformations. To "know the Land" through yedi'at ha-'arez was to know it in the biblical sense, as Adam knew Eve, and to become one with it.


The influence of the Hebrew language on hiking in the Yishuv eventually became overshadowed by other influences. In the wake of the country-wide violence associated with the Arab Revolt in the late 1930s, the Jewish Haganah militia assumed an offensive posture and began creating specially trained strike forces. By the time the Palmach was formally established in 1941, its ranks were filled with elite hikers from the kibbutz and youth movements. Hiking served as a useful cover for training and reconnaissance activities, which were illegal in British Mandate Palestine. The Palmach scout came to embody the "new Jewish identity"—the person of action who knew every corner of the Land and was willing to fight for it. After the War of Independence, when Israel's boundaries still were not secure, and control over outlying areas was still contested, the intrepid hiker exploring the country's frontiers remained a Zionist culture hero.

Israeli hikers and guides continued to look back to ancient texts for inspiration. In his 1950 book entitled The Hike and Its Educational Value, Ze'ev Vilnai sought to trace the Jewish emphasis on walking the Land of Israel back to its foundations. Starting in the Bible, Vilnai describes a continuous historical thread that passes through a wide range of Jewish sources. He quotes the talmudic dictum that anyone who walks three or four cubits through 'Erez Yisra'el merits a place in the World to Come (Ketubot 111a), and describes the itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela. Other texts are more arcane, such as Rabbi Ishtori ha-Parhi's Kaftor va-ferah . , which describes the Land's physical character; and Rabbi Moshe ben Ya'akov Cordovero's Sefer gerushin, which describes mystical journeys through the mountains near Safed. Vilnai also cites Rabbi Nah man of Bratslav's admonitions to journey to 'Erez Yisra'el. "It's like God said to Abraham our father," he sums up, "Lech—lech davka!"

Vilnai was not the only person making such connections. The veteran Palmach scout Menashe Harel wrote a guidebook during the 1960s entitled These Are the Journeys in the Land. Although the book is thoroughly secular, its title comes from the Torah's description of the stages of the Israelites' journeys through the desert (Numbers 33:1). Harel's rationale for hiking in Israel is similar to Vilnai's: through walking, Jewish Israelis can literally follow in the footsteps of the Land's ancient Jewish inhabitants. As much as Harel himself embodied the ideal of the Israeli hiker, he did not make his case in pragmatic or utilitarian terms. For him and many others, the act of walking the Land went much deeper than asserting Israeli presence on far-flung frontiers. It was an existential act, a way of realizing one's true self.


Over the decades, the glamour of hiking in Israeli popular culture has waxed and waned. In the late 1960s, many Israeli youth lost interest in exploring their country and instead began traveling in South America and the Far East. Even though the size of Israel's trail network and the number of Israelis using it grew every year, the image of the overseas backpacker supplanted that of the desert hiker, and remained dominant through the 1980s. Israeli hiking only began regaining its mystique in the 1990s with the opening of the Israel National Trail, which was inspired by the Appalachian Trail in the United States. Today, the border-to-border route is famous as a rite of passage for young men and women completing high school or military service, and it appears frequently in Israeli media, from newspaper articles to best-selling novels.

Unlike its American counterpart, though, and despite being a world-class route in terms of scenery and difficulty, the Israel National Trail has never become popular on the international level—largely because many Israelis still have difficulty imagining that non-Jews from overseas would have any interest in exploring the Land of Israel on foot. Modern hiking in Palestine, after all, began within the framework of the Zionist movement, and was conceived from the beginning as a means of articulating the relationship between the Jewish people and the Jewish homeland. Even after hiking in Israel lost many of its overt nationalist emblems, the underlying reasons for walking the Land continued to be expressed in terms of ancient ideas that were brought to life through the Hebrew language. Lech Lecha, the Exodus, and pilgrimage to Jerusalem are all tropes that still resonate with the act of walking the Land of Israel.

Today, all of the official maps for Israel's trails are printed exclusively in Hebrew, as are most guidebooks to Israeli hiking. Some hiking guidebooks have been published in other languages, including English, in an effort to render Israeli hiking accessible to foreigners. Some of these guidebooks even quote some of the same texts that early Zionist hikers quoted as they sought to establish roots in the ancient Jewish homeland. Translated out of Hebrew, however, such texts lose their vitality and immediacy. Translated out of Hebrew, and with Scholem's "apocalyptic thorn" removed, the very encounter with the Land loses its existential power. Walking the Land of Israel simply becomes hiking, and the Land simply becomes land. Perhaps for this very reason, Israel's culture of hiking marches on predominantly in Hebrew—the language within which 'Erez Yisra'el remains volcanic and mysterious and unstable, and within which the experience of being in the Land of Israel can be fully felt.