International Air Cadet Exchange
Israel 2009

by

Instructor, Cadet Warrant Officer (ICWO) Luke HARRISON
358 Welling Squadron
Air Training Corps

The International Air Cadet Exchange programme (IACE) brings together cadets from 21 different countries across the globe, in exchanges that aim to improve international relations and co-operation, build understanding and trust, and give each a taste of the other’s culture.

Having being selected via a rigorous interview process, I found it a massive honour to be part of the program for 2009. The country I would be visiting was Israel, the Jewish State, a land steeped in history and legend, of religion and conflict.

The day before departure, the other 8 cadets and 2 members of staff met at Brunel University. I found that our thoughts on the country were all similar: Israel was practically a war zone in the middle of the desert. Over the next couple of weeks we were to discover just how wrong we were...

After a 4-hour flight from Heathrow, we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport, named after Israel’s first Prime Minister. It was at the airport that we got our first taste of modern Israel; the terminal was state-of-the-art, with much better facilities than Heathrow! It was here that we met the man who was organising and running our visit, an Israeli Air Force Colonel called Yinon, who briefed us on our accommodation arrangements.

We would each be staying with a ‘host family’ in Tel Aviv, a family that has volunteered to have a cadet stay in their home for the duration of the trip. As Israel is a relatively small country you can drive to almost any point in a reasonable amount of time, so on most days we would be driven back to our host families in the evenings after our travels for the day.

We were driven by coach to the area where our host families live and dropped off one by one. When it was my turn to be dropped off I was very surprised to be met by a woman with a Yorkshire accent! My host family were a Jewish family who used to live in Leeds, Jon and Roanna and their 4 young children. They were very nice and incredibly welcoming and generous, and made me feel right at home!
The next morning we were picked up by the coach from our host families, and it was now that we met the cadets from the other countries who were participating in the exchange, from France, Holland, Germany, Canada and Hong Kong. We were driven to an Israeli Air Force conference centre where we had a chance to get to know each other a little better. We also met the team of Israeli personnel who would be our guides and escorts for the trip.

Over the next couple of days we visited a mixture of military facilities and historical sites that began to give us an insight into both the history of Israel and life in modern Israel, particularly the military. We visited 2 Air Force Bases, the first is the home of Israel’s UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), unmanned reconnaissance aircraft, and the other a fighter jet base. For me this was particularly interesting, as it is my ambition to be a fighter pilot, and seeing Israel’s F-16s (bought from the USA) was awesome!

One of the historical sites we visited remains to this day one of the most amazing sites I have ever seen. It was Masada, the desert mountain-top Fortress of Ancient Legend in which the Jewish people made their last stand in their war against the Romans. The Romans besieged the fortress and eventually battled their way into it. Rather than suffer surrendering to them, the Jews sacrificed themselves before the Romans got to them. Even today Israeli soldiers are sworn to defend this site from invasion.

We climbed Masada in the early hours of the morning and reached the top in time to watch the sunrise. Seeing the sun coming up over the mountains in the desert was a breath-taking, awe-inspiring sight that I will never forget! We also visited the Dead Sea. The high salt content makes swimming virtually impossible and it was an experience to try!

The next day was Friday, a very important day for Jewish people as the Sabbath begins at sunset on this day. During the Sabbath, Jews are not allowed to do any form of work and must rest until sunset on Saturday, so we were taken back to our hosting families well before sunset. With my hosting family I had a traditional meal, involving the rituals that celebrate the beginning of the Sabbath. It was a very interesting experience and taught me a great deal about the Jewish Faith.

After Sabbath, we spent the whole day in Jerusalem, the place I was most looking forward to visiting. The Old City, known widely as the centre of religion, was like being transported back thousands of years in time, visiting the most sacred places not just of the Jewish Religion, but of Christianity and Islam. The wailing wall, all that remains of the temple of King Soloman, the place of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection, and the Temple of the Mount. It was simply amazing.
 
We were allowed into the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament building, and given a guided tour of the building. During this special visit our tour guide explained about the origins of Israeli government and how it functions.

The latter part of the day was very sobering and emotional, as we visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Seeing how the Jewish people were treated during those times is just indescribable, and it really makes you think how lucky you are and to value life more. The museum tried to give the six million murdered Jews a human face. It is so vivid that the names of the 500,000 murdered children are read aloud, and some find this so emotional that they burst into tears. Interestingly in an attempt at balance, the museum often portrayed the German perpetrators as victims of their actions. The coach was very quiet on the way back.
 
The next day was spent at Hazerim Air Force Base, where Israeli Air Force pilots do most of their training as Officer Cadets. Seeing how their training compares to the RAF’s training and talking to some of the cadets training there was intriguing, and I made some friends there that I’m still in contact with today. Also, at this Air Base was the Israeli Air Force Museum, where we learnt of the history of Israel’s much reputed Air Force, and saw some of their old aircraft including an ex-British Spitfire that was Israel’s first ever military aircraft.

Over the next few days we travelled around the north of the country. We visited some Druze People, desert dwellers whose way of life has barely changed in the last thousand years, who still live in tents and ride around the desert on camels. We also visited one of Israel’s Kibbutz settlements, which are self-sufficient traditionally Socialist communities that follow Zionism, a branch of Judaism.
 
We travelled to the city of Haifa and went to the Bahai Gardens, the second holiest sight to the Bahai Faith, a young religion that believes in the unity of all humankind and that all religions mean the same thing. Our travels in the north of the country concluded with a visit to the Golan Heights, a historical place for modern Israel as it was where they repelled the attacks of Syria in the 1967 war, defeating them and successfully defending Israel from the alliance of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan.
 
On Friday before the Sabbath began we had a tour of Tel Aviv and the ancient city of Jaffa, two very contrasting cities that lye alongside each other; Tel Aviv representing modern Israel and Jaffa representing the Israel of old. Then it was back to our hosting families for the Sabbath.
 
For the last few days of the trip we would be travelling to the southern-most point of the country, the port city of Eilat. We flew to the city in an Israeli Air Force C-130 Hercules and allowed for a little 'R&R', rest and re-cooperation. However, a reception with the Mayor of the city, reinforced how we were ambassadors of our respective countries and how seriously Israel took the IACE programme. It is an important part of the country as it is where a lot of Israel’s exports and imports come through and to either side of it has an Egyptian and Jordanian city, so there is no choice but for the two Arab countries to co-operate with Israel. The time in Eilat enabled us to swim with Dolphins in the Red Sea.

We returned to our original base for the final part of our trip, and the farewell gala dinner. The formal dinner was held at the same conference facility that we had all met each other when we first arrived. Our host families were invited, as well as the military attaches from each of the countries participating. We were also joined by the head of the Israeli Air Force, and there was live music provided by the Air Force’s band.

It was a very fitting end to the trip, and quite emotional as well as we’d all become very close over the last two weeks and didn’t really want to go home! Each of the countries were flying out at different times so we said our goodbyes before travelling back with our hosting families for our last night in Israel, before flying home.

My trip to Israel was one of the best experiences of my life and it taught me so much, particularly about religion and the differences between cultures. After my experience in Israel I think of myself as being so narrow-minded before it! My knowledge of different religions and beliefs was increased greatly from visiting Israel. One of the most important things I learnt was that you should not form strong opinions without any basis, and not to be ignorant. There are a lot of strong opinions on Israel and Judaism, a lot are bad, but most of these in my opinion are ill-informed. The people of Israel were some of the nicest I have ever met and I have made some very good friends that I believe will remain my friends for life!

I cannot thank enough the people who helped make this trip-of-a-lifetime possible for me, I truly believe it was a life-changing experience and one that I will never forget. Thank you!