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Stuart Katz

Crossing The T’s – Tourism, Terrorism and Trauma

Introduction:

The ongoing war in Israel, launched by the shocking terror events of October 7th, has given rise to a paradoxical scenario. As the region contends with the aftermath of these traumatic events and a continuous war, there’s been an unforeseen influx of tourists. This wave of visitors, numbering in the tens of thousands, appears to be motivated by a blend of factors ranging from a sincere desire to express solidarity,   to sheer curiosity and a sense of adventure. While this increase in tourism undoubtedly provides a much-needed boost to the local economy, it inadvertently poses complex questions about the timing and nature of such visits, especially considering the psychological impact on the visitors and the local populace who witnessed the terror firsthand.

On one hand, the expressions of love and support that have poured in from around the globe – in the form of financial aid, heartfelt messages, and tokens of solidarity – have been immensely appreciated by the Israeli people. These gestures signify a global community united against terror and offer comfort and a sense of shared humanity in the face of adversity. They play a vital role in the healing process and are a beacon of hope and resilience in difficult times.

However, the physical presence of tourists in these areas, particularly those engaging in the act of taking selfies at sites of recent violence, raises important ethical questions. It suggests a possible difference of opinion between the intention of showing support and the actual impact of such actions. The eagerness to witness and document these sites firsthand, though well-intentioned, might be perceived as insensitivity towards the gravity of the recent events. For those who have endured the trauma, seeing their pain and loss turned into a backdrop for tourist activities can feel like a trivialization of their experiences. It can reopen emotional wounds and serve as a stark reminder of the horror they wish to overcome.

This scenario underlines a critical need to re-evaluate how we express solidarity in times of crisis. While financial support and love messages are invaluable, physically visiting these sites should be approached with greater caution and consideration. Timing is essential; the immediacy of visiting post-conflict zones for tourism, especially for leisure activities like photography, might be premature and potentially insensitive. Potential visitors must assess the impact of their presence on a community still in mourning and recovery.

While the influx of tourists to Israel in the wake of the October 7th events underscores a global outpouring of support, it also invites us to reflect on the most appropriate and respectful ways to show solidarity. The support through financial contributions, messages, and cards is deeply valued. Still, we must consider whether turning sites of trauma into tourist attractions so soon after the events is in the best interest of those who are still dealing with the immediate aftermath. The path to healing is complex and requires a nuanced understanding of empathy, respect, and timing.

The Allure of Conflict Tourism:

The appeal of conflict or dark tourism, exemplified by the surge of visitors to Israel amidst recent conflicts, mirrors a global pattern where people are drawn to sites of historical tragedies. A poignant example of this is the visits to concentration camps from World War II, which offer a stark reminder of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Concentration camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek, and Sobibor in Poland, Dachau and Sachsenhausen in Germany, and others throughout Europe, have become solemn pilgrimage sites for millions worldwide. These visits are often motivated by witnessing the locations of unimaginable atrocities firsthand. The educational aspect is significant, as visitors seek to understand the scale of the Holocaust and its indelible impact on human history. For many, it’s a journey to pay respects to the millions who perished and to confront the chilling reality of human cruelty.

Similarly, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park in Japan, dedicated to the victims of the atomic bomb in World War II, attracts visitors for its historical significance and as a symbol of peace and the destructive power of nuclear warfare.

In the context of Israel, the motivations for visiting conflict zones are multifaceted and complex. For some, it’s about connecting with the historical and cultural roots of the ongoing conflict. Others are drawn by the desire to understand the contemporary implications of a long-standing dispute that has deep historical roots, including the Holocaust’s impact on the establishment of Israel and its subsequent conflicts.

Visiting these sites, whether concentration camps from World War II or the current locations of the October 7th barbaric launchings in Israel, carries a profound responsibility. It requires an understanding that these are not just tourist destinations but places of deep historical and human significance. They are people’s homes; they are the centers where trust was had and is now taken. Visitors must approach with respect and sensitivity, acknowledging the suffering endured and the resilience of those who survived. These sites serve as powerful reminders of the past, offering lessons on the consequences of hatred and the importance of peace and reconciliation. 

The Psychological Paradox:

The recent unexpected surge in tourism amidst the ongoing war in Israel presents a psychological paradox that resonates deeply both with the visitors and the residents. The journey is often emotionally charged for the visitors, particularly those from the Jewish diaspora, offering a tangible connection to the Jewish homeland. This experience, while enriching, can also be emotionally taxing as visitors witness firsthand the aftermath of terror attacks and the omnipresent resilience of their people. Such exposure can leave lasting impressions, sometimes leading to long-term trauma or stress disorders. Moreover, for these visitors, their presence in Israel might stir a complex inner dialogue, often touching upon feelings of guilt or questioning their decision not to live in the Jewish homeland. Witnessing the resilience of the people enduring the conflict can amplify these emotions, creating a mix of pride, guilt, and admiration.

For the residents of Israel, the influx of tourists can be a double-edged sword. While it brings much-needed economic relief and a sense of global solidarity, it can also be distressing. Seeing their lived experiences and struggles turned into a subject of curiosity can feel trivializing. This is particularly true for those whom terror has directly impacted – and what Israeli hasn’t? The presence of tourists in areas recently affected by violence can reopen emotional wounds or delay open wounds from healing and contribute to feelings of re-traumatization. It may also lead to a sense of alienation, as the daily realities of those living through the conflict might seem diminished or misunderstood by outsiders.

On a national level, while the economic benefits of tourism are clear, it also thrusts the country’s ongoing struggles into the international spotlight. This can shape global perceptions, sometimes oversimplifying the complex nature of the conflict.

This highlights the importance of sensitivity and understanding from tourists. Recognizing the impact of their presence and engaging with the local community respectfully is crucial. Tourists should be mindful that their temporary visit intersects with the continuing reality of those who live with the conflict’s consequences daily. The interplay of tourism in times of conflict is not just about the economic or cultural exchange; it’s deeply intertwined with the emotional and psychological well-being of all parties involved. 

Life As An Israeli:

As an Israeli living through this war, I feel it’s vital to convey the depth and breadth of how our lives are affected, aspects often unseen by the outside world, including tourists visiting our beloved homeland.

In our communities, the impacts of war and conflict are deeply personal and all-encompassing. We are a nation where nearly every family feels the direct effects. Many of us have sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, mothers, and fathers currently serving at the front, some of whom will tragically never return. The sorrow of losing these beloved family members is a profound and shared experience across our communities. We attend funerals, comfort grieving families, and collectively mourn our losses.

Simultaneously, many among us shoulder the burden of caring for injured loved ones. The path of rehabilitation – not only physical but mental –  is long and challenging, not just for the wounded but for their entire families. Our communities rally around these individuals, providing emotional support and practical assistance through cooking, baking, or helping with daily chores.

Additionally, the reality of having family members in the reserves adds another layer of complexity to our lives. We step in to care for the families of those called to serve, ensuring that their absence isn’t just a personal sacrifice but a communal responsibility.

Living under the constant threat of sirens and the need to seek shelter in bomb shelters is a stark reality that shapes our daily existence. The simplicity of routine activities, like driving, shopping and even just opening one’s front door, is now overloaded with new fears and anxieties. This general sense of vigilance and preparedness is a testament to our resilience and a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict’s toll on our collective psyche.

In light of this, sometimes well-meaning tourism during these times can sometimes feel tone-deaf. While we appreciate, encourage, and welcome the support and solidarity that many visitors bring, please understand the multi-layered impact of the conflict on our daily lives. The scenes visitors witness, and the stories they hear are not just news items but are our lived realities – our current day-to-day normalcy. We ask for mindfulness, respect, and a genuine effort to comprehend the depth of what it means to live in Israel during these challenging times.

Ethical Considerations and Sensitivity:

Visitors deciding to travel to Israel at this time, during a period marked by recent conflict, shoulder a significant responsibility to approach their journey with heightened sensitivity and awareness. This responsibility is multi-faceted, encompassing respect for the region’s complex historical and contemporary realities, as well as a deep consideration of the experiences and sentiments of the local population.

Firstly, visitors should endeavor to educate themselves about the conflict and its impacts beyond their bubbles or ghettos. This means going beyond superficial narratives to understand the diverse perspectives and historical context that shape the current situation. Such knowledge is crucial for appreciating the complexities and sensitivities of the region and its people.

Respect is another critical component. Tourists must recognize that they are entering a space where people have experienced profound trauma and loss. This awareness should translate into respectful behavior, particularly at sites with significant emotional and historical weight. For instance, avoiding trivializing or commodifying these locations for social media or personal mementos is a basic yet vital act of respect.

Empathy plays a crucial role as well. Visitors should be prepared for encounters with individuals whose lives have been directly affected by the conflict. This might involve listening to personal stories of hardship or witnessing the ongoing challenges the local community faces. In these interactions, showing empathy, offering support, and avoiding invasive or insensitive questions is essential.

Moreover, tourists have an opportunity to contribute positively to the local economy, which can be particularly beneficial in post-conflict recovery. By engaging with local businesses, helping the farmers on reserve duty by working their farms, staying in local accommodations, and purchasing local goods, visitors can provide tangible support to the community.

Understanding the psychological impact of their presence is also important. Tourists should be mindful that their mere presence in certain areas can evoke a range of emotions among the local population, from appreciation to distress. Navigating this requires a delicate balance, where the curiosity to explore and understand must always be tempered with consideration for the feelings and experiences of the locals.

Visitors who travel to Israel during these sensitive times are welcome and most appreciated but bear a significant responsibility. This responsibility encompasses educating themselves about the conflict, behaving respectfully, showing empathy, supporting the local economy, and being acutely aware of the psychological impact of their presence. By adhering to these principles, tourists can ensure that their visit is enriching for themselves and respectful and considerate towards the people and the place they are visiting.

Language Matters:

Certain phrases and actions, though well-intentioned, can inadvertently cause discomfort or pain. Here are examples of things that should be avoided:

  1. Avoid dismissive or cliché comfort phrases: Saying things like “It will be okay” or “This too shall pass” can come across as dismissive. Trauma and grief are complex emotions, and such phrases might imply a minimization of the person’s feelings and experiences.
  2. Don’t compare traumas: Avoid statements like “I understand how you feel” or “I had a similar situation.” Even if you have experienced trauma, each person’s experience is unique, and equating your situation with theirs can feel belittling or dismissive of their pain.
  3. Steer clear of oversimplifying complex situations: Phrases like “I remember when…” followed by a reference to a past event you deem similar can be problematic. It’s important to recognize that the historical and cultural context of the conflict in Israel is intricate and deeply personal to those involved.
  4. Refrain from making unwanted suggestions or assumptions: Suggestions about what the local population should or shouldn’t do to overcome their trauma can be presumptuous. It’s important to respect that healing is a personal journey and varies from one individual to another.
  5. Be thoughtful with gifts and donations: While bringing gifts or making donations can be a kind gesture, it’s crucial not to imply that these can replace what was lost or heal the trauma. Financial aid and gifts are appreciated, but they cannot substitute for the emotional healing process.
  6. Avoid unnecessary pity: Expressing pity can sometimes make people feel like victims, which may not be empowering or helpful. It’s better to show compassion and empathy, recognizing their strength and resilience.
  7. Be cautious with photography: Taking photos without permission of people or sites affected by the conflict can be intrusive and disrespectful. Always ask for consent and be sensitive to the context in which you are taking photos.
  8. Don’t expect a particular reaction: When offering support or conversation, understand that trauma can affect people in various ways. There’s no ‘correct’ way for someone to respond to your gestures or comments. Be prepared for a range of emotions and respect the individual’s response, even if it’s not what you anticipated.

Remember, the key is to approach interactions with humility, respect, and an understanding that while you are there as a visitor, the residents live with the realities of the conflict every day. Being a supportive, respectful, and empathetic presence is far more valuable than any material contribution you can offer.

Conclusion:

The intersection of terrorism, tourism, and trauma in Israel presents a complex narrative. While the economic benefits of tourism are undeniable, they come with a psychological cost that must not be overlooked. It’s essential for everyone involved – tourists, tour operators, and local residents – to navigate this landscape with empathy and understanding. Only then can tourism in these trying times be a bridge towards greater understanding and healing rather than an inadvertent source of further distress.   I’m confident that together we can achieve not only a physical victory but an emotional and psychological one as well.

About the Author
Stuart is a co-founder of the Nafshenu Alenu mental health educational initiative founded in 2022. He currently serves on the Board of Visitors of McLean Hospital, affiliated with Harvard University Medical School. He serves as Chairman of the Board of OGEN – Advancement of Mental Health Awareness in Israel; chairman of Mental Health First Aid Israel and a partner in “Deconstructing Stigma” in Israel. He is on the Board of Directors of the Religious Conference Management Association. He has counseled over 7,000 individuals and families in crisis
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