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

Stuck: mental health and future perspectives of undocumented refugees & migrants in the Netherlands

Photo: Bas Baltus
Photo: Bas Baltus

Photo: Bas Baltus, ASKV/Steunpunt Vluchtelingen, Amsterdam

 

By Arja Oomkens -

 

“Before I was afraid to die, now I am afraid to go crazy.” 

 

During the Basic Rights Festival for undocumented refugees and other migrants I hosted a workshop about the right to education. Many people who fled their country of origin and did not (yet) receive a residence permit, joined in with expectations of learning more about their rights. Because in practice the right to education is difficult to access, we focused instead on their obstacles and possibilities in the Netherlands. One young woman, I will call her Igna, who has been here for more than 6 years, summed up the feeling of many people around the table: “We have been here for years, feeling frustrated because we can do nothing with our talents, so we stay in bed, anxious for what the future holds for us.”

 

In the Netherlands, tens of thousands undocumented refugees and other migrants are currently stuck in similar situations as Igna, without a clear future perspective. Among them are people whose residence permit has expired, refused asylum-seekers, victims of human trafficking who are afraid to press charges, or stateless people who cannot return to their country of origin. They have either lost or have not received a residence permit. Theoretically speaking, these people have three options: obtain a residence permit; return to the country of origin; or migrate to another country. In practice, though, many people remain undocumented, and, unable to work or study, become increasingly frustrated, anxious, and stuck.

 

This stuckness, as Igna lamented, often increases the occurrence of stress, anxiety, and depression, which is complicated by the often already traumatic pasts many undocumented people face. In an interview, the Dutch psychiatrist Rembrant Aarts, who works with undocumented people, points out that:

 

“Psychiatric complications impede on the ability of people to make clear choices about the future, such as a decision to start a new asylum procedure, to return to the country of origin or to migrate to another country.”

 

Another study by Faiza Siddiqui, Ulf Lindblad and Louise Bennet indicates that these symptoms actively rise among refugees and migrants due to economic insecurity and physical inactivity. This study is relevant for the Netherlands, because a specific Dutch law (the 1998 Koppelingswet) inhibits undocumented people from doing any kind of (volunteer-) work, and restricts access to education for anyone over eighteen. With this law, the government tried to discourage undocumented people from staying illegally in the Netherlands. In practice, the effect is contradictory to the purposes of the government, since most undocumented people remain stuck precisely because they cannot do anything, instead of leaving because they cannot do anything. Due to insecurity and inactivity, they face increased anxiety and stress, which obstruct the ability to think constructively about their future options, prompting many to ‘stay in bed’ as Igna put it.

 

Recently, research by Amnesty International and Stichting LOS (May 2017) into the lives of undocumented people in the Netherlands sought to address the socio-psychological issues around the lack of security and activity. Sabine Koppes points out that the specific conditions in The Netherlands, in the form of having nowhere to go and having nothing to do, leads to many different forms of stress and mental health problems. Koppes interviewed 84 refugees and migrants about their experience of being undocumented in the Netherlands. The quoted reactions by the interviewees form vivid examples of the hardship of undocumented existence:

 

“Boredom, having no idea about future living conditions, makes you crazy.”

 

The human dignity and future perspective of undocumented people in the Netherlands is closely linked to the trauma, stress, and anxiety they experience. Mental health issues that arise because of inactivity cannot be left unaddressed. Providing basic shelter simply is not enough, if the pressing issue of mental health because of inactivity looms ever larger.

 

ASKV/Refugee support focuses on activation through education (based on personal talents) and entrepreneurial skill-development for undocumented people. There are a variety of courses to follow, such as furniture building, web-design, and hairdressing. As a project coordinator, I have experienced several attitudinal and behavioral changes among participants. For example, one student found renewed energy to start a new legal procedure for a residence permit, and another felt renewed self-confidence to start his own barber shop in his country of origin. If a lack of access to security and physical activities leads to anxiety, depression, and a general inability to think about the future, activation through education and entrepreneurial skill-development can increase the ability to consider the future and to get a grip on daily life.

 

It is clear that the official prohibition on work and education for people over eighteen does not support return, but creates a situation in which undocumented people become stuck – exhausted by the idea that the future is unsafe and insecure. To protect human dignity, and to truly provide perspective for those who are stuck, like Igna and so many others in the Netherlands, their ability to actively think for themselves about their own future must be the leading principle.

 

 

 

 

Exposing “Ghosts” – An Online Hunt for Assad’s Thugs in Europe

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm
A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

A member of the Shabiha, with a tattoo of President Assad on his disproportionately large left arm

By Koen Kluessien -

 

“We love Assad because the government gave us all the power – if I wanted to take something, kill a person or rape a girl I could […]. The government gave me 30,000 Syrian pounds per month and an extra 10,000 per person that I captured or killed. I raped one girl, and my commander raped many times. It was normal.” This confession describes only one of many atrocities perpetrated by the Shabiha. According to a 2016 country report on Human Rights Practices conducted by the US State Department, these militias systematically perpetrated rape and other attacks on civilian populations. At least 7,672 incidents of sexual abuse were perpetrated since the beginning of the conflict. These predominantly Alawite pro-Assad death squads intimidate, rape, and kill Syrians who oppose the regime. It is no coincidence that Shabiha is Arabic for “ghost” or “shadow”. The militias feel untouchable. Some of these “ghosts” have now found their way to Europe, while their crimes have remained unpunished.

The Shabiha have been around for a long time. In the 1980s and 90s they smuggled food, cigarettes, and other commodities into Lebanon, selling these products with a huge profit. The smuggling was state sponsored and seemingly innocent. However, on the other side of the border luxury cars, guns, and drugs were smuggled from Lebanon into Syria’s state controlled economy. The Shabiha were nothing short of Syrian mobsters and were known for their brutal way of protecting their own business. When Bashar al-Assad came to power, the group was said to be disbanded. However, when the Syrian protestors took to the streets, the Shabiha gangs evolved into militia groups. This time not simply to smuggle products from and to Syria, but also to beat civilians into submission.

The Shabiha are Assad’s militia on steroids, literally. The members of the death squads are often described as wearing trainers and civilians clothes, added with a military style crew cut. What stands out most is their physique. According to one physician many of the members are recruited from bodybuilding gyms and are given steroids. This results in the militiamen resembling a somewhat chubbier and far more scarier version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. It must be added that many of the current Shabiha do not resemble this stereotypical look anymore. Still, they are far from ordinary men.

One question that immediately arises is: why are these fighters granted asylum? And more importantly, what are they doing here? There is not yet a clear cut answer to both questions, but open source research by human rights activists provides us with some answers. Humanitarian asylum is only granted to civilians, not to fighters. UNHCR clearly states that “military activity is incompatible with the very institution of asylum. Persons who pursue military activities in a country of asylum cannot be asylum-seekers or refugees.” Still, government militants are often not seen as a threat to the European way of life. Shabiha smoke and drink, are not devout Muslims, and wear Western clothes. With the authorities unaware of the crimes these militias committed, they are generally seen as people who would integrate into our society easily.

The militiamen are under close scrutiny of a special team within the Dutch police force. Still, even the police often has to rely on anonymous tips from refugees who have recognized war criminals. Militias have also been located by open source researchers in European countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Still, they feel untouchable, even when they are not directly protected by the Syrian government. The alleged war criminals carelessly post photos of their whereabouts on Facebook and other social media. Luckily, this makes it easier for researches to locate them and link them to photos and videos of them wearing combat uniforms and committing war crimes. Already a number of researchers and organizations are posting the names and details of foreign fighters who have been geolocated in European cities. Combined with eyewitness accounts from victims who are now asylum seekers and human rights reports this information can counter impunity. More importantly, human rights activists have received intelligence that a number of Shabiha have been sent by Syrian regime intelligence (the Mukhabarat) to spy on refugees.

Layth Ayman Munshdi is one example of a fighter that sought refuge in Europe and was tracked down by open source researcher Ben Davies, simply using social media. Munshdi joined a pro-regime militia to fight in the armed conflict Moreover, he took part in executions. He also posted photos of himself standing on the bodies of the dead Sunni men he most likely murdered. Later he was located in Neustadt, Germany simply because he uploaded photos from his new life in Europe. He remained there for several months, until Syrians started posting about the crimes he committed. Munshdi consequently deleted his account, he was then lost out of sight for a while. He now resides in Damascus and rejoined the Shi’a militias in Damascus.

 

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

Layth Ayman Munshdi as a fighter and as an “asylum seeker” in Greece

 

The human rights activists conducting the much needed open source research are often Syrian refugees themselves. Needless to say, these researchers are biased in one way or another. When one researchers was asked if he would also publish articles on war criminals from the Syrian opposition he stated that he had not yet found any. It is clear that there is a margin of error to the research. Still, they analyze every detail there is to be found about the individuals. The information is then corroborated with human rights organizations on the ground.

Much of the open source research is conducted by human rights activists that are not part of a police force. They provide us with some much needed awareness on the crimes of the Syrian regime, but they lack any form of judicial power. Luckily, some of the pro-Assad militias residing in Europe are now on the radar of police forces and intelligence agencies. Special war crimes units have started interviewing eyewitnesses and victims, in case a Syrian tribunal is ever established. This pro-active attitude is essential to build a case against war criminals. Still, it is unclear if such a war crimes tribunal will ever come to fruition. Many countries see Assad as the lesser of two evils, arguing that to fight ISIL they must maintain diplomatic relations with the Assad regime. Consequently ignoring that the atrocities committed by the regime forces are often as atrocious as those committed by the Islamic State. If the Shabiha escape any form of sentencing, they will forever haunt the minds of their victims.

 

Longing for a Lost Ideal: The Historic Struggle for Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

Dome of the Rock

 

Dome of the Rock

Dome of the Rock, April 2017. Picture by Laurien Vastenhout

 

By Laurien Vastenhout

 

During last month’s Pesach, tensions raised in the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. Religious Jews had sacrificed a lamb close to the Temple Mount, an area administered by a Muslim religious trust. A few weeks before, the Israeli High Court had upheld the police decision to block a Passover reenactment on the archeological site close to the Temple Mount. Instead, the group was allowed to have the ceremony at the heart of the Jewish Quarter, outside the Hurva Synagogue, only a few hundred meters way from the Temple Mount. Despite some setbacks– the electricity went out for more than two hours, no famous rabbis attended, and the priests ‘ran out’ of blood from the lamb even before they reached the specially prepared vessels – the activists still rejoiced. This was the first time the reenactment had taken place so close to the Temple Mount. At the end of the same month during Yom HaShoah. Jewish Temple Mount activists hung a protest placard at the entrance to the Temple Mount, protesting against its closure to Jews on Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day. This article examines why the Temple Mount continues to be a recurring source for controversy and struggle, both to Jews and Muslims.

 

Wandering around the area of the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, one can find Jews who are collecting money for ‘the reconstruction of the Temple’. After they have donated money, tourists receive a small red bracelet in return. However, it seems as if many of these tourists do now know that a reconstruction of the Temple unequivocally means that the Dome of the Rock, the Islamic shrine with its characteristic golden cupola, has to be removed first. The Dome of the Rock dates from the 7th century when Caliph Abd al-Malik erected the glorious octagonal building (by then not yet capped by the golden dome). The building is said to house the rock on which Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice. Also, this was the place where the prophet Mohammed rose from the earth on a winged steed to meet Abraham, Moses and Jesus in heaven. The rock, as the story goes, wanted to follow, but as Mohammed pushed it back to earth, he left a footprint on it which is still to be seen today.

 

The construction of the Islamic shrine followed centuries of power struggles within the city between, amongst others, Christians, Romans, Jews and Ottoman Muslims. On the exact same place, Herod’s Temple had been standing centuries before, which in turn had replaced the First Temple, Salomon’s Temple. Salomon’s Temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. In 70 C.E. Herod’s ‘second’ Temple*, by then the largest and most awe-inspiring religious monument in the world – glittering with gold and shining white stone –, was destroyed by Titus, the Roman Supreme Military Commander. After two destructions, the Temple would never be resurrected again. To Jews, similar to Muslims, the site is a Holy place. Inside the first Temple, in Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant was located, constructed during the Israelites’ wandering in the Sinaï desert and an important symbol of the Jewish faith. The Ark symbolises the only physical manifestation of God on earth as its construction had been commanded by God to Moses. Although the contents of the Ark have been debated, there is a general consensus that it contained the tablets with the Ten Commandments. To Jews, the Temple is therefore much more than just a building. As a result, the last destruction in 70 C.E. has incited an unprecedented sense of longing and feeling of religious loss.

 

The destruction of the last Temple has become a symbol of human search for a lost ideal. The rituals that have taken place at this site are recorded in an extraordinary level of detail and show the religious importance and centrality of the site. No wonder that the capture of Jerusalem during the Six-Day-War in 1967 and the subsequent capture of the Temple Mount by the Israelis aroused feelings of excitement. Up until then, the site had been ‘lost’ to the Jews. At the end of this war, Israeli Minister of Defence Moshe Dayan proclaimed that the Israeli government wanted to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem, handing over administrative control of the Temple Mount compound to the Jordanian Waqf – a Jordanian appointed Islamic body – while the overall security of the area was maintained by Israel. Jews could visit the Temple Mount, but were not allowed to have religious services at the site as this is now considered a prayer site for Muslims. This is still the reality today. It should be noted here that Orthodox Jews are not allowed enter the site until the Messias comes **. This is why the Rabbi has forbidden them to enter the site, as a sign at the entrance to the Mount indicates. This clearly illustrates the different ways in which the Temple Mount is approached by various Jewish groups in Israeli society.

 

Throughout history, the site has incited actions that experts refer to as ‘the Jerusalem Syndrom’ – a religious madness which comes to a head in the shadow of the Temple Mount. In 1969, a non-Jewish Australian tourist set fire to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, situated on the Temple Mount, claiming he was ‘the Lord’s Missionary’. In 1982, an Israeli soldier went on a shooting rampage in the Al-Aqsa mosque because he hoped to become King of the Jews by liberating the spot. The recent actions can be seen in this light as well – extremist groups try to enlarge their authority on the site and feel it is their right to use the site as a place of religious enactment and remembrance. Despite, or because of, their perseverance, rules at the Temple Mount are strict and seem to have become even stricter over the past years – one is not allowed to bring any religious objects to the site, nor to pray on the Temple Mount.

 

The longing for the lost Temple has resulted in the establishment of Talmud Schools, where scholars are being trained in the rituals of priesthood in case a new Temple is built. Some Rabbis also claim they know the whereabouts of the Ark of the Covenant which was located in the First Temple until its destruction. Although organisations such as the “Jerusalem Temple Foundation” or “the Temple Institute” have been in a constant battle with the state of Israel, the recent acquittal of the youngsters who protested at the closure of the site during Yom Hashoah, might indicate that government policies are shifting.

 

Without doubt, the Temple mount is a symbol that goes to the heart of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Over the past years, the Israeli government has at times closed the entrance to the Temple Mount, claiming that the atmosphere was too tense. In doing so, they withheld Arabs to pray at the site which, in turn, led to serious political tensions and protests. Far more than a physical site, the Temple Mount, on which the Temple itself is ironically absent, has become a spiritual and political site, loaded with meaning. It is a monument of the imagination for the Jews and a the oldest existing religious Islamic monument which is, after Mecca and Medina, the third important religious site to Muslims.

 

*  Depending on whether your count Zerubbabel’s Temple a building in its own right. In 538 BC, Zerubbabel, the leader of the tribe of Judah, was part of the first wave of Jewish captives to return to Jerusalem. He immediately began with the rebuilding of the lost Temple of Solomon. However, he had much fewer resources.  There was a group of Jews in Jerusalem who were rather disappointed with the Temple. To their minds, it did not even begin to compare with the splendor of Solomon’s temple.

** Religious Jews do not consider Jesus as the Messias and are still waiting for the coming of the Messias.