When National Narratives And Tourism Collide
Wed, 02/12/2014
Staff Writer
Fred Schlomka is founder of Green Olive Tours. Steve Lipman/JW
Fred Schlomka is founder of Green Olive Tours. Steve Lipman/JW

Jerusalem — This is not     a tale of two cities. It’s two tales of one city. Actually, of a part of one city:

It’s a recent afternoon, and Nathan Adler, a native of Far Rockaway, Queens, who made aliyah in 1979 and has served here as a tour guide for more than a decade, is leading a small group of visitors around the hilly area outside of the Old City walls near the Dung Gate. Standing on a wind-swept platform that overlooks a mostly empty slope and a mountainside across a valley crowded with small stone houses, he talks of 3,000 years of local Jewish history, quotes from the Torah and Talmud and describes what the group will next see.

“We’re going to be walking today with Jews from the Bible,” he declares.

For the next three hours he guides the group down steep stairs, through narrow tunnels and past archeological excavations of historical Jewish eras.

“How,” he asks, “can anyone deny that Jews were here?” The question alludes to Islamic assertions that dispute Jewish claims on ancient Jerusalem.

The next afternoon, Yahav Zohar, a Sabra and lifelong resident of Jerusalem who has served as a tour guide here for nearly a decade, leads a few people around the outskirts of the Old City. His tour begins inside the Muslim Quarter, and includes a car ride to an overlook a few miles away that offers a sweeping view of the hillside where Adler’s visitors had walked. Zohar takes his group to the heart of the populated (primarily with Arabs) mountainside that Adler’s had seen only from afar.

During a few hours, Zohar emphasizes recent history, talking of the area’s political history, of Arab-Israeli wars and the “Israeli occupation” and of Palestinians’ living conditions.

“The Palestinian life is not an easy one,” he says.

Both days’ tours — and the historical narratives that undergird them — took visitors to the area of Jerusalem known as the City of David (Ir David in Hebrew), located on a narrow ridge south of the Old City, where, according to Jewish belief, King David had lived and reigned.

But Adler’s tour, under the auspices of the Ir David Foundation that is affiliated with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, remained on the western side of the Kidron Valley adjacent to the Old City, the oldest settled neighborhood of Jerusalem; it offered a mostly nearly entirely Jewish perspective.

Zohar’s, offered by Green Olive Tours, an independent business launched seven years ago that calls itself a “Social Enterprise … specializing in alternative tours,” skipped the Jewish side; it ended up in Silwan, the Palestinian neighborhood of some 30,000 residents on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley, where only several dozen Jews live today. Zohar, unlike Adler, included the Palestinian perspective.

In roughly the same geographic territory (Silwan is part of the City of David), two strikingly different points of view emerge. The contrast is evidence of what some observers here call the politicization of tourism. Depending on the leanings of a tour’s guide or sponsoring organization, tourists are liable to hear entirely different stories, see entirely different sites, and come away with entirely different impressions of Israel.

Tourism, instead of being a neutral presentation of agreed-upon facts and a common perspective, has become a political tool —  sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally.

“We see part of out job as advocating on behalf of Israel,” Ariel Stolar, deputy chairman of the Israel Tour Guides Association, told The Jerusalem Post. “Every day when I go to work, I am an ambassador and try to represent my country in the best possible way.”

“Obviously, there will be differences, some political differences,” says Allan Rabinowitz, a New Jersey native who has worked as a guide here 25 years. He adds, “Most guides are not pushing their agenda.”

“Everyone tells the story a bit different,” says Pini Shani, director of the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s overseas department; he has worked in the department that trains and certifies Jewish and Arab guides in the country. But tourism, Shani says, is supposed to be apolitical. Its purpose, he says, “is pure economical” — bring people, and money, into Israel.

The ministry is not in the business of training politicians or polemicists, Shani says. “If we use tourism as a propaganda tool, we will lose our credibility.”

Representatives of the Palestinian Authority’s tourism ministry, and of several Palestinian tourism agencies, did not respond to requests from The Jewish Week for comment on this topic.

Some recent signs of the politicization of tourism:

♦ Knesset members sponsored a bill that would require guides of tourist groups of more 11 people to be Israeli citizens, in order “to ensure foreign tourists are exposed to the national Israeli viewpoint.” The legislation, which was not passed, would in effect have barred many of the 300 Palestinian tour guides who live in East Jerusalem from working at their jobs.

♦ then-Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar in 2012 proposed tours of the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron for Israeli schoolchildren, similar to the visits to death camps in Poland in which a growing number of Israeli students participate.

♦ The tourism ministry now allows a limited number of Jewish and Druze guides to lead tours in Bethlehem and Jericho, venues under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority where Israelis are usually barred from entering. The purpose of the change is to guarantee that visitors to those areas receive a more-positive view of Israel’s role there than they are likely to get from Arab guides.

The subjectivity of tour guides — a religious guide might naturally present Israel through a biblical spectrum; and a leftist guide, through a leftist one — is obvious to people familiar with the ways of Israeli, and in some cases, Arab tourism. But it’s not so obvious to the independent tourists, particularly first-timers who choose an agency or guide upon arriving in Israel. Unlike members of group tours whose leaders pick a known guide with a known bias, independent tourist, putting together his or her own itinerary, is likely to pick a guide whose services are advertised in a local newspaper or at a local hotel. There’s often no way for such a tourist to know, in advance, a guide’s or an agency’s affiliation or agenda.

Which can present a tourist — who might be an opinion leader such as a journalists, an academic or a member of the non-Jewish clergy — with starkly different views of Israel or the West Bank, especially in places like heavily Arab East Jerusalem, or Hebron, where the signs of the Arab-Palestinian dispute are most evident.

“These things really influence” visitors’ opinions, says David Bedein, founder of the Jerusalem-based Israel Resource News Agency. He has studied the competition among tourism providers. “Too many people don’t do their homework,” he says of independent tourists.

Do Arab guides — those licensed by Israel — offer propaganda in the guise of tourist information?

“Absolutely,” Bedein says.

“What propaganda is, is all in the eyes of the beholder,” says Fred Schlomka, the Scottish-born founder of Green Olive Tours (greenolivetours.com) who served for two years as operations manager of the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions.

His business, which employs both Jewish and Arab guides, offers what he calls a more-balanced picture of Israel and the territories than the standard, Zionist-oriented tour. Other tours, under strictly Arab aegis — several hotels and organizations in East Jerusalem sponsor their own tours, but advertise throughout the city — present a point of view, some Israeli guides say, that has a definite anti-Israel edge.

“The ethnic identity or religion of the guide is less relevant than their underlying set of values,” Schlomka says.

Green Olive Tours operates in many West Bank and traditional Israeli locations. “We tend to view our country and our problems through the prism of human rights and democratic values, not from a particularist ideology,” he says.

A growing number of tour businesses in Israel offer “dual narrative” tours, with Jewish and Palestinian guides each giving presentations at places like the Mount of Olives or Yad Vashem, one after the other.

How does the intelligent tourism consumer shop for a guide or agency? Do a Google search. Call the agency and ask if it is affiliated with a political or religious organization. Ask what sites or meetings are part of the itinerary. Ask around — natives and people who work at hotels or hostels are familiar with many of the tourism providers. Contact the Israel Tourism Bureau.

Maynard and Laura Thomson, tourists from New Hampshire, experienced two views of one West Bank city during a visit to Israel a few years ago. They went to Hebron, on successive days, with an Arab and Jewish guide. “Two days, two narratives,” Maynard says.

The couple’s Arab guide, a Christian, took the couple only to Arab homes and Arab shops, railing “during the course of the day” against injustices committed by Israeli soldiers and Israeli settlers, he says. The guide, “always polite and soft-spoken … had a tendency to slide into allegations of bizarre Israeli perfidy so gradually that it sometimes took a few beats to realize that we were in delusional narrative territory.” Many of the guide’s claims of Israeli abuses of Hebron’s Arab population contradicted each other, Maynard tells The Jewish Week.

The next day, on a Jewish-led tour of Hebron, Maynard and his wife were taken only to Jewish homes and Jewish shops, and heard stories about conditions in the mostly Arab-Muslim city that were greatly varied from what they had heard the day before. “We heard two different stories in two different physical settings,” Maynard says.

He says he would urge other visitors to Israel to follow his and his wife’s footsteps, going to the same place — in Arab parts of Jerusalem, or the West Bank — with both Jewish and Arab guides. Neither, says Maynard, is likely to offer a balanced perspective. “It’s important to hear both sides.” ◆

steve@jewishweek.org