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“Socially Responsible Tourism” Comes to Israel

Israel is trying to sex up its image. The July issue of Maxim led with a spicy photo spread of the “Women of the Israel Defense Force“—an idea pitched to the magazine by the Israeli consulate in New York. And Kobi Israel‘s homoerotic photographs of Israeli male soldiers have helped give the country a sexy, queer image around the world.

Recent statistics show that these efforts to sex-up Israel’s image are working. Tourism to Israel, which virtually ceased for a few years during the height of the Second Intifada, has returned to normal.

But many of these new tourists want their itinerary to include a glimpse of Israel’s decidedly unsexy side, too. Two colleagues of mine recently made a trip to Hebron, the city in the West Bank in which Palestinians and Israeli settlers live with their hair standing on end, baring teeth at one another ready for attack. The trip was organized by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers, who show tourists what the Israeli army is being asked to do to protect the settlers and cow the local Palestinian residents into submission. One person described it as a twisted Disneyland, another as a zoo, watching people live their lives sealed off behind barbed wire.

By far the most popular stop on the socially responsible travel itinerary is the Separation Barrier dividing Israelis from Palestinians. In the past three years I have been invited dozens of times to
participate in these trips.

The separation barrier, or “wall” as it is often referred to, runs much of the length of the West Bank, weaving in and out of the Green Line that serves as the internationally recognized border of Israel. Building of the wall began with Ariel Sharon’s government as a response to the Second Intifada, ostensibly to protect Israelis from violent Palestinian incursions. For most Israelis and Palestinians, the barrier has become its own de facto border, despite insistent denials from the Israeli government that the barrier is intended to mark a border.

In Jerusalem, the wall is at its most notorious as it scars the landscape with huge twenty foot slabs of concrete. One can see the wall from many parts of the city, and several different political groups have created tours of the wall for visitors.

The number of organizations getting involved in “socially responsible tourism” grows each time I return. Almost all the tours are led by left-of-center social change organizations who try to shake the complacency of travelers who only experience Israel as a normal tourist destination with its ancient ruins, museums, good restaurants, hotels and beaches.

The feminist group Machsom Watch, which monitors the checkpoints for Israeli human rights’ violations, takes visitors to see the checkpoints that regulate Palestinian movement. Breaking the Silence takes visitors to the Wall and to Hebron. Ir Amim (City of Nations), Women in Black, Rabbis for Human Rights, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, and others all offer their own tours of the effects of the Israeli occupation.

Israelis, on both the right and the left ends of the political spectrum, take the tours to better understand what is happening within their own country. Most of the international tourists who participate are like me, people who spend much time in Israel, who engage the country deeply, and are troubled by some of its politics and

There are also one-time tourists, of all religious and ethnic backgrounds, sometimes Europeans, sometimes American Jews, who have seen the standard tourist sites like the Old City and historic ruins, but who now want to see in person the places which they read about on a regular basis in their local newspapers.

And for American Jews who usually see travel to Israel as a form of identity travel, the tours are a way of showing them the implications of racialized occupation, as well as the harsh reality of what Israel as a state does in the name of the Jews.

The best, most sophisticated tours show not just the hardships that the wall imposes on Palestinian residents—who are now on occasion separated from their jobs, schools, and family by concrete—but also what motivated the Israeli government to put up the wall in the first place: very real fears about violence carried out by Palestinians living just miles away.

Socially responsible travel recognizes that tourism is too often about not engaging the place to which one travels. It’s instead about searching out fantasies like those in the photo spreads of Maxim. But tourists have power: they can support or destroy local economies, and support or resist political and social situations that a traveler might find reprehensible at home. When tourists spend their dollars in countries like China visiting the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, should they also be invested in encouraging political change by meeting dissident journalists and Falun Gong members?

Separation barrier tourists, both Jewish and not, are choosing to engage, to see political realities that are usually masked by the tour guides on their overly air conditioned buses that zoom from place to place. In the future, as people become more sensitive to the political implications of their travel choices, perhaps a visit to the separation wall will become a standard stop on the average tourist’s visit to Israel.

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