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Israel’s political tourism black hole

Visitors who come to learn the real story behind news headlines are getting only one side -- and it's the wrong one

There’s a new trend in travel, and Israel is behind the eight ball.

Over the last few years I have arranged several tours to Israel for young Australian leaders. I wrote about the lessons of my first political tour in the Times of Israel in 2012. Since, I have founded International Political Seminars, a vehicle through which to run these programs, and have been privileged to meet many of Israel’s political, security and cultural experts. I have also discovered a new tourism trend, and just how far Israel lags behind.

Many Israelis are familiar with “activist” tourism — young, sometimes idealistic, often anti-Semitic self-proclaimed “human rights” activists arriving to harass the IDF by day, and drink beer in the comforts of western Tel Aviv or Jerusalem by night. Unfortunately Israelis often conflate these troublemakers, for whom they rightly have little time, with another far more nuanced traveller — the political tourist.

Political travel is a new phenomenon generally involving young people who have grown up in the age of the 24-hour news cycle. Driven by an interest in international affairs, they seek out destinations to learn about the political challenges they face. Unlike “activist tourists” they come to learn and are willing to listen. In Israel there is growing market, but because Israelis either turn a blind eye or wrongly conflate political travellers with trouble making activists, almost all providers convey a decidedly anti-Israel narrative.

Take for example the apparently Israeli owned Green Olive Tours. Billing itself as an “alternate form of tourism”, its Jerusalem tour focuses on “the centrality of the Old City of Jerusalem to the three monotheistic religions” — and what does it show with reference to the centrality of the Old City to the three monotheistic religions? “Visible icons of the Israeli Occupation” of course. Then there are a number of individual Palestinian guides advertising for the politically inclined traveler’s business. A quick survey reveals a focus on “Judiasation of the Land” and Zionist “colonization”.

Perhaps most comprehensive is a week-long political tour run by a company known as “Political Tours”. Founded by former journalist Nicholas Wood, the tour apparently takes participants to Palestinian homes surrounded by Israel’s security barrier on all sides, to Hebron (where a dual narrative tour does take place, but where even Israel’s strongest defenders will usually admit she may not come off looking best to foreigners), to East Jerusalem, Nablus and more. To its credit, this tour does also go to Haifa and Tel Aviv. However I find it incredible that anyone claiming to show both sides of this conflict can avoid travelling to Israel’s Gaza border and hearing the suffering of border residents which has provoked three wars in 8 years, or to the border with Lebanon, where Hezbollah poses an ever increasing danger.

Clearly there is a need for Israeli organisations to tap into this tourist demographic (and by Israeli organisations I do not mean Breaking the Silence and co, which has likely already found it). I have no issue with the Palestinian narrative being heard (indeed each program I have arranged through International Political Seminars has visited Palestinian refugee camps and met Palestinian officials). However the Israeli narrative needs to be heard too — and if Israel wants its story to be heard by the world, it cannot ignore travellers who come knocking on its door to hear that story.

About the Author
Joshua Koonin is an Australian lawyer, former political advisor and Jewish community activist seeking to bring politically minded people to Israel to gain a better understanding of the political issues that Israel faces. In 2013 he founded International Political Seminars to do this, and now runs political based leadership programs.