3.5 million tourists travel to Israel each year, and Israelis themselves are known to take leisurely day trips inside the country. Though it is 2017, with all of the innovation of Internet technology, travel habits remain old-fashioned, especially on this well-worn path. The sounds and smells of the Old City and the market in Jerusalem, a walk through Tel Aviv’s hipster urban jungle, a visit to a “Bedouin” tent and a camel ride. These evoke memories for many from their days as young travellers in Israel, certainly for all birthright and teen tour alum — but also for Jewish baby boomers.
While I wouldn’t suggest passing on a visit to the Western Wall or the Temple Mount, Israel can offer so much more to its visitors — Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Travelers have so much more to gain from a real, socially conscious Israel experience, than they typically see from bus window on a drive between Masada and Ein Gedi. Israel is rich with historical and natural sites, but it is also rich with culture, diversity, conflict and creation. Israel has challenges that are worthy of exploration and likewise, provides hope and solutions that offer more value than shopping in Eilat. And thats saying a lot, because, believe me, I love shopping in Eilat as much as the next girl.
Social tourism: This new field is populated by grassroots-based organizations for social change that start up small businesses with two general goals:
1. Raise awareness
2. Bring in revenue to the cause
These are registered nonprofits, active in the field, but offering tourists a glimpse into their lives, their story and their strategies for change.
Though social tourism opportunities can be found all over Israel, as a proud citizen of the Negev, I will go on record as saying that I believe that the Beer Sheva/Rahat area is well worth a tourist’s time. It is a relatively undiscovered Israeli gem that boasts museums, outdoor festivals all year round, great food and diverse populations.
DON’T TAKE YOUR GROUP TO YET ANOTHER FALAFEL STAND!
Looking for a place to eat with delicious food, a comfortable atmosphere and that little something extra? You will never forget a visit to Beer Sova’s Community Kitchen. A community restaurant (previously known as a soup kitchen) until noon providing meals to 100+ people each day, the space is transformed into family-style cafe for groups to rest, enjoy a delicious meat meal and learn about the great work of Beer Sova. Beer Sova is the only organization in Beer Sheva providing food and services to people in need in the region and they are leaders in the struggle for nutritional security in Israel.
Read more here, but suffice it to say that when you meet a community activist, hear their story and fill up on Chef Chaim’s delicious, nutritiously balanced meals — you will know that your money was well spent and the experience will last a lifetime.
GET THE REAL BEDOUIN EXPERIENCE
There is so much more to see, taste, feel and learn than is usually provided at the typical birthright Bedouin tent experience. A New Dawn in the Negev provides tours of modern day Rahat and an open discussion with young Bedouin leaders on the changes and challenges of Bedouin life in the Negev. The Joe Alon Museum of Bedouin Culture has one of the largest collections of Bedouin artefacts, and tells a story rarely if ever told of the traditional nomadic, tribal Bedouin and its transition to modernity.
It is time for us all to realize that as Jews and Arabs our histories, as well as our futures, are intertwined and interdependent. Nowhere can this be felt stronger than in the Negev. When travelers come to Israel but are denied access to the less traveled paths, they miss out on the hopeful, shared spaces that create the Israel that I know and love.
MEET THE CHILDREN
Through all of these opportunities mentioned above you will meet leaders making great waves in Israel, but I encourage you to look down, too. Meet the children of Hagar, Arab-Jewish Education for Equality (brand new website coming soon). Learning together in both Arabic and Hebrew from the age of 6 months to middle school, Hagar’s kids are uniquely exposed to each other and to a curriculum focused on pluralism. You will be moved by the sight and sounds of the school in full swing, Jewish and Muslim students playing, teachers sharing their days and careers, and families spending their free time together- all as the world should be. Located in the heart of Beer Sheva, Hagar is a shining example of the great potential of a small group of people to make great change.
So, if you are traveling Israel, you love Israel and want to be a part of its strong future, travel consciously. You have to eat — so eat with meaning. Sick of museums? Go visit a school and meet the Israel’s next generation. Put your money where your mouth is and spend a day (or two) getting to know the real Israel, in the Negev.