18 years of age for compulsory (Jews/Druzes) military service, 17 years of age for voluntary (Christians, Muslims, Circassians) military service, both sexes are obligated. Conscript service obligation – 36 months for enlisted men, 21 months for enlisted women, 48 months for officers, pilots commit to 9 years service, reserve obligation to age 41-51(men), 24 (women). Tracing it’s roots to the Jewish paramilitary organisations, the Israel Defence Forces or the IDF differ from most armed forces in the world in many ways. Differences include the mandatory conscription of women and its structure, which emphasizes close relations between the army, navy, and air force. Since its founding, the IDF has been specifically designed to match Israel’s unique security situation. It is one of Israeli society’s most prominent institutions, influencing the country’s economy, culture and political scene and with the number of wars and border conflicts it has been involved in its short history, the Israel defence Forces is one of the most battle-frequented armed forces in the world.
Through the haze of smoke rising out of hashish-laden chillums, Barak a young backpacker dressed in a bright shirt and shorts, looks up ‘need some full power. Of course he needs some. His friends, sprawled casually elsewhere around the room are already in the throes of ‘full power’ (a deep drag from a chillum) and ‘boom shiva’ the new- age mantras that are bringing peace and nirvana to the army of Israeli backpackers trooping into Kasol in Himachal pradesh -India looking for some quiet and some hashish. Bustling with hidden reggae bars the dense pinewood covered with little hamlets tucked in cozy corners, the fierce flowing Parvati river cutting through – this half hour’s diversion from Bhuntar make ‘haeven’ for the unending flocks of Israeli youth on longhalt freedom trips after their mandatory military stints. It’s easy to spot the typical Israeli backpacker in the crowd. Around 21 to 23 most are here on an extended holiday after completing their compulsory three-year stint in the army. They have heard of the Shangrila in India from their seniors who also travelled East and are merely following that tradition. Subjected to a regimented life in the barracks, the young men and women are waiting to cut loose and have a good time. A few come here for spiritual fulfilment but others go overboard in their pursuit of pleasure and end up as wrecks.
Their influence is beginning to tell on the placid environs of the region.The brash, young Israeli backpackers have literally taken over villages like Kasol. Their overwhelming presence has made tourists from other parts of the world wary of including Manali in their itinerary. Says Mansukh who runs a small guest house in Kasol ‘There was a time when we had tourists from Italy, England, Japan, Germany and sometimes US. Ever since the Israelis have come, many of the others avoid coming here. So much so that the word ‘firangi’ here is coming to mean exclusively Israeli’. Sharmaji still calls his restaurant ‘Little Italy’. But the food he serves in it is now Israeli. His pizzas have made way for the traditional pita bread and the tehina, labane, hatzilim and falafal, all borrowed from Israeli kitchens. ‘I had to learn how to make Italian food, but once the Israelis came in, they wanted only ‘home food so my chef quickly learnt new recipes.’ So particular are the backpackers about home food that one sees Israelis troop in and out of Sharma’s kitchen armed with ladles and a pressure-cooker. They obviously like to supervise the cooking.
No wonder local eatery owners are beginning to feel insecure. They feel those among the tourists with culinary skills will soon set up shop and run them out of business. Some of them have even signed up with locals and set up their restaurants in the process pushing local entrepreneurs towards a slow death. ‘We know this is illegal but what can we do?’ says Sharma ‘Once Little Italy was the dominant restaurant in Kasol. Now, the 500-metre stretch on the Kasol-Manikaran road boasts of seven restaurants and several smaller eating joints and cafes.’ The economics of the region has indeed undergone a sea change in the mid 90s when the first Israeli backpackers took to riding up the hills on those Enfield 350cc bikes. The old Manali village quickly turned into a favourite haunt only to be replaced soon enough by Kasol, Chalal, Malana and Manikaran. Hotels and restaurants have come up everywhere. Villagers who till the other day grew crops on terrace farms quickly set up shops selling souvenirs. Others like Sumit Mukherjee, who ran an agency that organised treks out of Manali, moved to Kasol and built a hotel that stays packed throughout the season.
In short, today everything in Kullu is now targeted at the Israeli tourist – the food, the clothes, the trance and the techno music. A shack adjacent to Sharmaji’s promises boom shiva (hash) and good music. Peep in and a blast – repetitive and cyclic- hits you. Breathe, and you can inhale Shiva all around. All across Kasol there are posters advertising the latest couple of rave parties on the coming full moon night. All of Kasol would head for the party. Resort-owner Mukherjee has seen the several changes tourists have brought over the years. With a note of regret, he says ‘The European tourist would come dressed in salwar-kameez and try to respect local customs. But the Israelis come and live as they please. As a result, you will see many among the youth here trying to ape them. I am not sure whether this is good for us in the long run.’ Outside, as the light of day fades into the dull hue of dusk, bright hoardings in Hebrew light up, offering a variety of Israeli eats. It’s party time in Kasol. It’s been a headache however, for the local administration and the Israeli government which has had to send several delegations to India to find out why their young countrymen are going astray and how to rescue them.
A member of one such delegation states ‘Marijuana’ is available everywhere. They grow under your guesthouse and come incredibly cheap.’ This man was asked to set up a commune at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast to detox and rehabilitate countrymen returning home from overseas with addiction-related problems. And most of those who have been through the commune have partied and over-indulged in India around this belt. It’s easy given that accommodation, food, smoke and a good time come cheap in our country. The Israeli government estimates that of the 70,000 young Israelis who travel abroad every year, nearly 45,000 head towards India, wander the hills of Kullu-Manali in the summer and head towards the beaches of Goa in winter. In Kullu, district officials anxiously monitor the influx of Israeli tourists each summer. Their number has been growing steadily by nearly 60 per cent annually in the last three years. Not just that , they are also the largest group among foreign tourists who seek visa extensions and are aggressive about it. ‘They usually come in and ask for visa extensions as a matter of right ’ says a senior police official. ‘One group even offered to fight it out when I refused them . The Israelis undoubtedly form the largest group of foreign tourists coming here and are a fairly aggressive lot.’ The problem can be compounded by the fact that nearly 4,000 acres of the land in the district is under hashish cultivation. The situation has gone so out of hand that district administration officials, unable to cope with the problem on their own, have written to the state and central governments to intervene with requests of demanding at least $5,000 from all Israelis before they are granted Indian visas.
A couple of years back, the DG of the Israeli Authority Against Drugs, took up the matter with the Israeli ambassador in India and decided to set up a Bayit Cham (Israeli home) in Old Manali run by a middle-aged Israeli couple who would advise and counsel those coming to the region. The authorities felt Israeli youth like to visit special places, and India being beautiful and very cheap is a great favourite. In Goa, Kasol, Manali and Mcleodganj (Dharamsala), they find themselves in an environment where drugs are cheap and readily available. With an Israeli couple stationed here councelling would be easy and available at the source so a couple came to Old Manali a little over a year ago to take charge of the home. ‘We ensure that when the kids come and spend time with us, they don’t do drugs. We also tell them to be polite to the locals and respect local customs. We see to it that the Israeli backpackers who come into the region make use of our library which has books in Hebrew on India to sensitise them to local mores. It’s usually the first-timers who have just come out of the army and are keen to experience new cultures who need us the most, stated the couple. While most of their efforts are centred in and around Manali, Kasol and Chalal, she also spends time at Bhagsu village near Mcleodganj (Dharamsala) where Israeli backpackers go in search of spiritual solace. Now though Jewish rabbis armed with the holy Torah too have set up camp in Old Manali and Kasol to bring the astray back into the fold. One rabbi has based himself in Kasol and functions out of a local restaurant that serves as a makeshift synagogue. While he goes about his task with great commitment, his flock is yet to grow, given that most Israeli backpackers still go for smokes rather than spirituality.
Good or bad the Israelis look like they are here to stay, by force, if necessary. The locals find them more demanding than the Europeans and Americans. They bargain for everything and usually get their price, they demand their food as a matter of right and even be ready to fight for what they want. Life isn’t the same anymore for the people of the Kullu Valley as the villages have been jolted out of their idyllic slumber witness to the hustle and bustle all summer and rave parties every full moon. The 35,000-strong Israeli backpackers mean good business. But the elation comes tinged with apprehension. The party may not last too long, with drugs becoming so rampant and the Israeli government getting worked up about it. If the police are forced to crack down severely on the trade, a heathen paradise would then be lost .