Tourism in Israel is thriving. And no wonder: the country is rich in cultural and historical attractions, it’s the cradle of three major religions, and it features magnificent landscapes ranging from Mount Hermon‘s snow-capped peaks, to Negev Desert’s dramatic craters, to the Mediterranean’s serene white-sand beaches. It boasts the highest concentration of museums per capita in the world, and even its culinary scene is flourishing, having achieved international renown.
But is it ethical to travel there? While the Israel-Palestine conflict is a complicated one, Israel has for the past half century been responsible for forced displacements, unlawful killings and torture of Palestinians, excessive detentions, illegal settlements, and other systematic abuses. Additionally, Israel controls travel to the West Bank, blocking Palestine’s ability to benefit from the influx of visitors, even as the Palestinian government is pushing to attract tourists to Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and other historic religious sites.
On the other hand, Israel has a strong record on LGBTIQ rights—the most advanced and vibrant in the Middle East—and it pays close attention to environmental conservation, biodiversity, and climate change.
Despite this polarity, travel to Israel can be ethical, but it is important to be fully aware of the situation there, to balance your trip with a visit to the Palestinian territories, and to ensure that your visit doesn’t support the Israeli state but rather local communities and small businesses.
While the political complexities that have driven the Holy Land for the past half century are admittedly daunting, you can still familiarize yourself with the basic situation by reading guidebooks, travel accounts, and articles addressing current news and events. Contact organizations such as the Palestine Chamber of Commerce and the Israel Ministry of Tourism for up-to-date information about the political climate, safety, customs, and local history. Many Middle East travel websites also provide useful materials and links.
Educating yourself will help to dispel prejudices, enhance open-mindedness, and illustrate how both the Jews and the Arabs have their own stories to tell.
“Simply visiting Israel with an open mind is a good way to support the communities and environment here,” notes Flavia Sevald, CEO of the Jerusalem Institute of Justice. “Failing to explore the depths of the difficult choices in Israel’s past can lead to hasty generalizations that tend towards assigning complete blame to certain groups.”
The Palestinian Initiative for Responsible Tourism (PIRT) conveys a similar view on its website: “Travelling around the Holy Land with open eyes and minds allows both visitors and host communities to benefit from the tourism experience.”
To encourage such informed travel, many organizations incorporate an educational element into their tours. Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, for instance, promotes Fact Finding Programs that provide “safe and secure tours of West Bank conflict zones” and that facilitate dialogue with affected people as well as meetings with “peace activists, political officials, and human rights organizations from both sides.”
MEDJI Tours takes a multi-perspective approach, providing both Israeli and Palestinian tour conductors as well as arranging access to religious, tribal, ethnic, and other leaders whose diverse narratives aim to stimulate and promote peace among neighbors.
“Whether you explore history, archaeology, or the environment, you need all points of view, or you’ll go home with a distorted, one-dimensional picture,” says Aziz Abu Sarah, a founder and CEO of MEDJI.
The NGO Alternative Tourism Group specializes “in tours and pilgrimages that include critical examinations of the history, culture, and politics of the Holy Land,” while Operation Groundswell‘s program titled “Middle East: Behind the Headlines“ explores the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also includes meetings with Rabbis for Human Rights.
Some organizations take visitors deeper into the sobering reality of Israel and Palestine to witness the hardships and the peacekeeping struggles. Friends of Sabeel North America, a nonprofit Christian organization, helps plan Witness Trips that offer firsthand observation of life under occupation, including visits to refugee camps and communities subject to Israeli settlements.
Similarly, Global Exchange hosts Reality Tours, whereby tourists can examine a situation firsthand and see beyond what is communicated by the mass media. Ir Amim leads study tours that examine social, economic, and political issues impacting life in Jerusalem as well as Jerusalem’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Balance Your Visit
Including both Palestine and Israel on any visit is important because visitors will experience the cultures and the conflicts from both perspectives, thus honoring the great diversity of the region and fostering positive intercultural exchanges. Visiting Palestine also ensures that all communities benefit from the economic opportunities tourism affords, especially since Palestine has traditionally been marginalized.
“Normally, people book travel to Israel, and they don’t recognize Palestine,” says George S. Rishmawi, Promotion Coordinator for the Siraj Center. Rishmawi advises that visiting both countries is the route towards more fairness and justice.
“Tourism is the oil of Palestine,” he notes, “and developing opportunities and services will bring economic benefit and a better experience for visitors.”
Furthermore, a dual visit can help visitors to link the two countries, whose holy and historical places are, in the end, inextricably united. While a two-state solution may remain only a distant political hope, travelers can formulate their own vision of co-existence through visits to both regions.
As Abu-Sarah points out, “Travel is the best way to connect people. We don’t think enough about how we can use travel to overcome conflict.”
Additionally, while the Palestinian territories are small, they pack in a wealth of historical, religious, and cultural heritage, such as the Hellenic remnants of Sebastia, the Citadel and Al-Jazzar Mosque of Acre, and Jerusalem’s revered Temple Mount, a holy site for both Jews and Muslims.
Yet visitors usually spend only a few hours in Palestine, dashing in for a rushed visit to Bethlehem or a quick jaunt to the Dead Sea—often because the itinerary is controlled by the Israeli tourism industry.
Organizations such as PIRT aim to change that restriction, seeking to re-engage the tourist with the Palestinian land and people. Visitors are encouraged to take their time, chat with locals, and wander the open-air markets and cafes to gather personal impressions.
“People are extremely friendly, especially to tourists,” says Abu Sarah. “It’s much easier than you think.”
Rishmawi additionally notes that visitors can encourage this interaction by asking tour guides to allow time for meandering beyond the main attractions. Palestine also offers a wide range of outdoor activities, including walking trails, hiking, and camping. Masar Ibrahim al Khalil, or Abraham’s Path, for instance, extends from the Mediterranean olive groves to the silent deserts, leading deep into the memory and heritage of Palestinian people; in 2014, National Geographic ranked it the #1 Best New Trail. Walk Palestine features The Nativity Trail and Samaritan Walk, while Wadi Climbing offers climbing expeditions in Yabrud, Ein Qiniya, and other sites.
Engaging with and supporting the locals is another way to make travel ethical, funneling money into communities and small businesses rather than corporations or politically-driven agencies. Involvement with residents also assures visitors authentic insights into regional traditions, foods, and interests, as well as more meaningful relationships with people and a greater understanding of their cultural, social, political, and environmental concerns.
Travelers can stay with families, shop at area markets and stores, dine at neighborhood cafes, and use local transportation and guides to further this interaction. Patronize restaurants that have been awarded the Tav Chevrati or Social Seal of Approval, a certificate granted free of charge by the organization Bema’aglei Tzedek (“Circles of Justice“) to establishments that treat their workers ethically and are accessible to people with disabilities.
As Rishmawi says, “What makes a pilgrim is meeting the people.” Abu Sarah agrees. “Get off the beaten path,” he urges. “Go to pubs and markets. Talk to people.”
Unique options for exploring these byways abound. Visit the Sahara Desert through a group such as Bedouin Experience, featuring a day of women’s crafts, a visit to a village such as Drijat, or a walk to the remnants of the great Nabatean people.
The Israel Agricultural Technology Tour introduces you to Israel’s farming through visits to organic farms, agricultural technology companies, and individual farmers. You can help to harvest olives or almonds in Palestine, or learn to cook traditional dishes in local homes.
Visiting a kibbutz also provides distinctive insights into Israel’s foundations. “Visits to kibbutzim with innovative environmental practices, sessions with groups focusing on coexistence, etc. are possible events that one may be interested in,” Sevald said.
Travel to Israel can be ethical, but this goal is better achieved if visitors stay cognizant of the situation there, include the Palestinian territories on the itinerary, and subsidize local communities and businesses.
Additionally, as with any destination, visitors should show appreciation for regional beliefs and customs. Learn about the culture. Respect the environment; pick up your waste. Observe local dress codes, and ask permission before photographing people. Pay fair prices for products, and tip appropriately. Stay aware of people’s living conditions, and be sensitive about topics such as politics.
In the end, the traveler who has a desire to learn rather than just observe will gain the greatest benefit and implement the best ethical practices when visiting this inspiring and fascinating if complicated region.
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