Politicised Tourism: What You Need to Know Before You Book a Tour to the Holy Land

Mourning at Jesus' grave

 

Mourning at Jesus' grave

Mourning at “Jesus’ grave”, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem). Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout -

 

 

The last time I visited Israel, and in particular the various religious sites throughout the country, I was once again struck by the vast number of organised group tours. Groups of people, singing religious songs, publicly reading from the Bible while sailing in small boats on the sea of Galilea – an area where Jesus is said to have spent a significant period of his life – are by no means an exception. Tourists who are exploring the country individually, either by car or public transport, have become a minority. Christians from all over the world organise themselves and follow a carefully planned out 10-day journey through the country, visiting the places referred to in the Bible.* Interestingly, the practical organisation of these kind of tours are in the hands of locals and the choice of sites depends on whether the group decides to take a Christian Zionist tour or a tour in support of Palestinian Christians. This article will outline the difference between these tours and argue that, 1) despite the seeming innocent nature of ‘Holy Land tourism’, organised tours are in fact highly politicised and, 2) that the confrontation between the tour guide and his/her Christian ‘clients’, although an interesting inter-religious encounter at first sight, also raises problems.**

 

One should realise that to many pilgrims, a visit to Israel is not the same as a summer holiday to Greece. The majority of Christians visit the Holy Land of Israel / Palestine as part of the experience and education of the Christian self. Christians cannot get closer to the ‘reality’ of the holy Bible than when they set foot in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the heart of the Old City of Jerusalem, where supposedly Jesus was crucified, or when they walk on the Via Dolorosa where Jesus is said to have carried the cross to the place of execution at Golgotha.*** Sitting on the rooftop terrace at the “Austrian hospice” in the center of the Old City, I was able to closely watch how people in groups of 20-30 walked the same path Jesus had done before he was crucified (see video below). These walks on the Via Dolorosa, with people alternately carrying the cross of Jesus – in doing so ‘reliving’ a fraction of his experience – are carefully organised. Every ten minutes a new group begins with this ‘last trail of Jesus’, halting at various stations of importance (14 in total). Every thirty minutes, Israeli buses bring these crosses back to the ‘starting point’ again, after which a whole new set of groups can commence with the same ritual. 

 

As said, the choice of tour through the land entirely predetermines the perspective these Christian groups get of the country. When you decide to participate in the Zionist Christian tour, the group visits the typically Jewish sites of Jerusalem and the country. Unsurprisingly, the Palestinian Christian tour centralises the Palestinian perspective and largely ignores the Jewish/Israeli element. The difference is highlighted in the make-up of the brochures. Whereas the former often shows the Western Wall in the Old City and emphasises the search for the Jewish roots of Christianity during the tour, the latter shows the Dome of the Rock (see previous article) and emphasises the Christian presence in the city, showing churches rather than paying attention to the Jewish history of the city. A closer analysis of two crucial days of the program of these two tours also shows a significant difference. Whereas the Christian Zionist tour visits the particular Jewish sites in the Holy City, passes Bethlehem (a Palestinian village and ‘birthplace’ of Jesus) and drives directly to Hebron – one of the major settlements in the West Bank – to have a festive evening with the local Jews there, the latter tour actually visits Bethlehem. Also, the choice to show the separation wall at its most problematic point (between two Palestinian villages that are entirely disrupted as a result of the wall) in the latter day-tour is telling. As a result, the tours become highly politicised. The choice of places to visit by these tour operators is crucial to the understanding and perspective of the Christian visitors on the history of the land. Also, their understanding of the nature and continuity of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is moulded. This is by no means a shock or surprise to the people attending the tour – they consciously choose one of the options with a reason, and are simply strengthened in their religious beliefs throughout their visit. Consequently, their political convictions are played upon as well. 

 

The inter-religious encounters between Jewish/Israeli immigrant guides and Christian pilgrims can become an additional complex and problematic factor. The personal story of Jackie Feldman, who worked for years as a tour-guide (for which a successful completion of a two-year course is obligatory) in Israel, is telling. Feldman was a recent American immigrant in Israel and by the time he started working as a guide, he had been disappointed with his arrival in his ‘homeland’ Israel. Raised in a traditional Jewish family in New York, he believed living in Israel would feel as ‘coming home’. By contrast, he was treated as any other immigrant and the difficult bureaucratic procedures made him feel less welcome than he had anticipated. However, during the tours, in which he mainly guided American Christians, he was the representative – or ‘ambassador’ – of Israeli Jews. Through these encounters, he felt more Jewish-Israeli than ever. As more than half of the tour guides are (recent) immigrants to Israel, the interactions with the Christian tourist groups can reaffirm and even strengthen their particular identity as Jewish inhabitant of Israel, while they in reality still struggle to find a place in Israeli society. In short, these interactions inform who they are and alter their identity. Many of the tour guides have come from countries where Jews are only a minority group, opposed to the majority group of Catholics/Christians who are now visiting and guided through ‘their’ land.

 

The resulting constellation of power is seemingly harmless. There is a spirit of harmony and softening between the Jewish tour guides and the Zionist Christians who, as turns out during the 10-day tour, share a similar background. Their religions are more closely connected than anticipated. At the same time, a shared claim against Muslims/Palestinians (in cases of antagonism, often referred to as being one) starts to unfold during this process. In fact, during these Christian Zionist tours, the Palestinian story is ignored through the particular choice of sites and the strong connection between the Jewish guide and Christian pilgrims. A Jewish/Christian commonality comes into existence and is created at the cost of the Palestinians. The same is done the other way around, where tours emphasise the Palestine side of the story. This creates a problematic situation in which the antagonisms between the two groups increases. Of course, the picture is not entirely black and white. There are tours aiming to show both sides of the Old city, paying attention to both the Jewish and Muslim historical roots to the land. As a result, these tours also pay attention to the many nuances of the current conflict. However, the number of these type of tours are small. My recent visit to the country and its many religious sites confronted me more than ever with the politicisation that is inherent to the organised group tours. Although innocent on the surface, ‘Holy Land tourism’ in this form therefore only increases the already immensely complicated situation of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. 

 

* Mostly, these tours have a duration of 8-15 days.

** This article is based on personal interactions when visiting Israel at various periods of time over the past years as well as the work of Jackie Feldman and his lecture at Spui 25 on October, 12 2017.

*** It should be noted that research has proven that, historically seen, Jesus can never have been buried at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Also, it is impossible that Jesus walked on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ as it is currently constructed. This also counts for the sites on the ‘Via Dolorosa’ pilgrims are nowadays worshipping.

 

Video by Laurien Vastenhout

The Future of Israel: The Impediments of the Upcoming Elections

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu

Photo: Israel/Flickr (CC-BY)

By Laurien Vastenhout –

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged European Jews to settle in Israel. Not only because he considered it to be their sole homeland but also because, due to increasing anti-semitism in Europe, the country provides the only safe haven to Jews. Despite the fact that European governments are most likely still better able to protect their Jewish citizens against (terrorist) attacks than the Israeli government, Jews are currently emigrating from Europe. The expectations are that around 10.000 Jews will emigrate from France this year. Benjamin – ‘Bibi’ – already anticipated on these immigrant Jews and unsurprisingly reasoned that more space was needed to house them. In doing so, he is indirectly justifying Israel’s expansion policies. Last January, the Israeli government published bids for the building of 450 new housing units in West Bank settlements, deepening Palestinian anger and eliciting criticism from the Unites States government which called the move illegitimate, counterproductive and likely to worsen Israel’s isolation. With the elections of the Knesset coming up, Netanyahu’s actions and decisions are increasingly scrutinised. What exactly is Bibi’s standpoint, for example vis-a-vis a two-state solution? What are his future perspectives for the country and does he still have the support of the citizens of Israel?

In his speech given at the University of Bar-Ilan in June 2009, Netanyahu made several concessions concerning the withdrawal from Palestinian territory. “In my vision of peace”, he stated, “in this small land of ours, two people live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.” Two and a half months before the speech, Netanyahu took the oath of office as the Prime Minister of Israel, pledging to establish a national unity government. These commitments do not really correspond to Bibi’s recent expansion policies and he seems to rather unsteady in his approach to the two-state solution. Recent investigation reports have indicated that there have been several instances over the past years in which Netanyahu was willing to make concessions in order to further a two-state solution. Apparently, there has been a moment Netanyahu agreed to conduct negotiations – in which the Unites States, the United nations, the European Union and Russia were involved – on the basis of Israel’s pre-Six-Day War 1967 borders. The West bank, The Gaza Strip and East-Jerusalem would then become independent Palestinian territories. This would also include territory swaps between Israel and Palestinian territories in order to account for the Jewish settlements in the West bank and in the Eastern part of Jerusalem. The first talks were made in 2011. In 2013 and the beginning of 2014, additional attempts were made to settle the territory issue.

On January, 6 of this year, Netanyahu indicated that the Palestinians have made the speech Bar-Ilan speech meaningless by pursuing unilateral action in the International Criminal Court in The Hague. In addition, the Likud party wrote in a published statement last Sunday that, in light of the situation the Middle East is currently confronted with, any evacuated territory would fall either into the hands of Islamic extremism, or terror organisations supported by Iran. As a result, the party officials argued, no concession or withdrawals will be made. With the national elections coming closer, Netanyahu makes a clear move to the political right. It is a strategically important move as recent polls in which respondents were asked how they characterise themselves politically, indicated that only 8 percent of the Israeli Jews said they considered themselves left-wing, while 35 percent indicated they sympathised with the political right. By making this strong and clear turn to the right, Netanyahu most likely hopes to win the majority of the right-wing voters for his cause.

Netanyahu’s move to the right clearly stems from tactical motives. In fact, everything Netanyahu says should be placed in the context of a particular moment and location – these recent statements are characteristic of his continuous movement from left to right. For a long time, it seemed as if this tactic was fruitful as it appeased several parties involved. However, with only three more days to go until the election day Netanyahu’s chameleonic attitude seems to be taking its toll. A universal fatigue of his changeable policies can be identified among the Israeli citizens. However, what are the alternatives? Although the current tendency seems to be that anyone but Netanyahu would suffice, the alternatives are plenty and the Israelis are divided.

For example, on the right one can choose between Naftali Bennett, Moshe Kahlon and Avigdor Liebermann. On the centre, there is the Yesh Atid party on the left the Zionist Union and Meretz.  In addition, there are some orthodox parties. As the situation in the Middle East is rather unsteady, many Israeli citizens want a rightist leader as recent polls have indicated. Thus, although the interest in Netanyahu may be fading, this does not mean that Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labor party and co-founder of the new center-left Zionist Union and currently mentioned as Netanyahu’s strongest opponent, will win. Besides, the expectation is that up to eleven parties are expected to gain at least one seat in the next Knesset, leading to ungovernable situation.  For example, if Netanyahu’s Likud wants to form a right-wing government, it most likely will have to cooperate with many different other parties – e.g. Habayit Hayehudi, Yisrael Beiteinu and Kulanu – in order to establish a majority in the Knesset. The same goes for Isaac Herzog; in fact his situation is even worse as he will have to cooperate with ultra-Orthodox parties in order to become prime minister. Even for some the leaders of parties belonging to the same side of the political spectrum, it will become rather difficult to cooperate – Lieberman, Netanyahu and Kahlon are everything but on friendly terms with one another.

Thus, whereas the current government has lasted for quite a few years, it is questionable whether the government after the election will be viable in the first place. In addition, as it has become clear that a cooperation between at least four or five different parties is necessary in order to establish a majority in the Knesset, there will most likely be a dysfunctional government after the elections. Therefore, the perspectives are dreary and, to complicate things further, external factors are playing a prominent role as well. United States officials, for example, have already indicated that whoever will become Prime-Minister of Israel, they expect him to be in favour of a two-state solution. With his recent claims that Jews are no longer safe in Europe and that they shall come to Israel, simultaneously justifying his settlements policy, Benjamin Netanyahu is increasingly isolating Israel from the rest of the world which is further expanded by his continuous tendency to underline that the country is threatened by many sides (Iran, IS, the Palestinians). This will make it difficult to improve the relation with the United States.

Although the most recent polls have indicated that the Likud party is four seats behind its centre-left rival the Zionist Union, it will be no surprise if Netanyahu wins again: overall, his ‘allies’ on the right are likely to win the most seats. In case the Zionist Union is able to establish a majority, it will become an unworkable situation as it has to cooperate with ultra-orthodox parties. Thus, it is unlikely that a more leftist government will govern the country after the elections. In order to give the Zionist Union a chance, the entire political system has to change. For example by reducing the number of parties, or by establishing a system which makes it easier for the party that has received the largest number of votes to form a well-functioning government. It seems unlikely, however, that these kind of fundamental changes will become reality for Israel´s political system in the short term.

“We Are You”: The Meaning of the Holocaust in Israeli Identity and Politics

IMG_1292
IMG_1292

Photo: Laurien Vastenhout

By Laurien Vastenhout

By After the ‘march of unity’ of world leaders in Paris on the 11th of January, which was a response to the terrorist attacks on both the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish grocery store in the city centre, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu visited the memorial ceremony at the Grand Synagogue of Paris. The ceremony was dedicated to the remembrance of those (Jewish) citizens who had been brutally murdered by Muslim terrorists a few days earlier. Rather than mourning for the lives lost, Netanyahu used the opportunity to spread his own message. He encouraged French Jews to come to Israel since this, in his view, is the only country where Jews can live safely. The French authorities were offended. Clearly, Netanyahu saw the attacks in Paris as an opportunity to promote his election campaigns at the expense of relations between Jewish and non-Jewish citizens of France. The Prime Minister of Israel even made a link between the horrendous attacks on innocent French Jews and his settlements policy, justifying the latter because he considers it a necessary policy in order to protect the Jewish citizens of Israel against any foreign threat.

Last year, during the Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day in Israel, Netanyahu acted in a similar way. While the entire evening was dedicated to the remembrance of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War, for example by reading poems and listening to survivor’s stories, he used the opportunity to give a lecture on the offensive policies of Iran and argued that Israelis should be aware that enemies are continuously trying to demolish the Holy land, Eretz Israel. The moment of national mourning was used to spread a highly political message. Rather than remembering the victims, Netanyahu used the Holocaust as an example of what might happen to the Jewish population in case they did not protect themselves to the maximum. 

When we take a closer look to the meaning or function of the Shoah in the politics of Israel and in the consciousness of the citizens of Israel, a particular development can be identified. In the years following the end of the Second World War, the idea that there had been many collaborators amongst the European Jews prevailed among citizens of Israel. Also, it was generally argued that Diaspora Jews had somehow contributed to their own suffering by easily submerging themselves to the German anti-Jewish measures. In short, the European Jews were considered to have been too weak. In this period, which lasted from around 1945 until the early 1960s, the Shoah hardly played a role in national consciousness of citizens of Israel; the establishment of the State was the sole focus of attention.

This altered with the changing of time.  As soon as the establishment of the State of Israel was no longer a ‘new’ reality, attention could be paid to more ‘peripheral’ topics. As a result, the story of the immigrant Jews whom had fled Europe either during or after the Second World War, surfaced on the agenda. Rather than arguing that European Jews had been too weak and collaborative, room was made for a more differentiated and compassionate attitude.  This tendency was reinvigorated by the Eichmann trial in 1961, during which the stories of the suffering of Jews in concentration camps in Eastern Europe and elsewhere played a central role. By then, 600.000 Jews living in Israel, out of the 2 million in total, were survivors of the Holocaust.  Because of the increasing tendency to pay attention to the traumatic experiences of Jews during the Second World War, this quarter of the population that had survived, began to fulfill a new social role. That was particularly true because, the Diaspora Jews were finally equalled with the autochthon Jews. As Shabbetai Keshev, a journalist of the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz stated in 1961: ‘we are you’, in which the ‘you’ referred to the Jews who had come from Europe to Israel either during or after the Second World War. In doing so, the burden of guilt of those who had lived through the Holocaust, was mitigated. The Diaspora Jews were now no longer seen as a marginal, weak and unimportant group, but rather as a bridge between Israelis and the Diaspora Jews that were still living in Europe. A new social reality was born.

This trend of increasingly incorporating the Shoah in the identity of Jews living in Israel has continued. As a result, the Shoah has become a key moment to which Israelis look back, and base their existential decisions on. Apart from the famous notion of ‘never again’, there exists in fact an additional view: ‘this will never happen again to us’. Currently, this notion plays a central role in Israeli identity and politics. Research has indicated that the large majority of Israelis consider the Shoah to be part of their core identity. Increasingly, the Jewish State is by now considered a safe haven, established in order to provide Jews all over the world with a country in which they can live safely. The Holocaust is an example used to illustrate of what will happen in case the Jews do not find protection in their Holy Land. The recent speeches of Benjamin Netanyahu re-emphasize this feeling in a clever way and take this notion even a step further. Not only is Eretz Israel a safe haven to Israelis, it is the only safe haven for Jews. In fact, the country should protect itself by all means against any foreign threat.

Strangely enough, with the changing of time the history of the Shoah has come to play a more central role in the identity to those Israeli citizens who have not personally experienced it. This is a good example of the way the meaning and importance of history and historical events can change, and can be reinterpreted, whether subconsciously or consciously. The increasing conscious approach of Netanyahu to use the Shoah as a justification for continuous repressive actions against Palestine is absolutely worrying. Not only because it is the view of one political leader, but because this concept is partly the result of an atmosphere that is reigning among the population as well.