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 Vastenhoutby