Tourist tip #72 / Alternative tours
NGOs and other groups have gotten into the tourism game, offering English-language tours that are off the beaten path both geographically and ideologically.
For such a small country, Israel packs a rather large punch when it comes to tourist attractions: There's no shortage of holy sites, natural wonders, cultural venues, fine dining and drinking spots. There are also plenty of tours and guides – some offered by local municipalities – that help you navigate the country's hot spots in trips lasting from just a few hours to a day or more.
Mainstream tours cover Tel Aviv's Bauhaus architecture, holy sites in Jerusalem, mystical areas in Safed, or Masada and the Dead Sea, to name a few. But in recent years, NGOs and other groups have gotten into the game, offering English-language tours that are off the beaten path both geographically and ideologically, presenting an alternative take on the Zionist narrative or the goings-on in Israel/Palestine. These tours cater to travelers who want to dig a bit deeper into the politics of the region and gain a better understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Breaking the Silence offers tours to Hebron and the South Hebron Hills guided by former IDF combatants who served there. The guides share their personal experiences to help illustrate Israeli government policy in the West Bank and to provide what the group calls an "unmediated encounter with the reality of military occupation."
Machsomwatch, comprising Israeli women and peace activists who monitor IDF checkpoints across the West Bank, also offers guided tours in English, to get participants to "appreciate the situation on the ground that cries out for a peaceful solution." The tour group visits the separation barrier and examines its effect on the local population, stops by agricultural gates cutting off Palestinian farmers from their land, and also gives visitors a sense of Israeli soldiers' duties in the West Bank.
Another Israeli NGO, Zochrot (Remembering), aims to keep the memory of the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) alive in Israel and to familiarize the Israeli-Jewish public with the Palestinians' loss during the 1948 war. The group organizes tours for Jews and Arabs to sites of former Palestinian villages that were destroyed. (For those who can't take the tours physically, Zochrot also maintains an online database of Palestinian villages lost and the Israeli towns or cities built in their stead.)
Some groups, like Encounter, which was founded by American rabbis, offer tours rooted in Jewish tradition for Jewish leaders and professionals. The group's two-day trips introduce participants to Palestinian leaders in business, media, non-violent activism, education, and politics, in an effort to "seriously encounter" Palestinian narratives and perspectives.
The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, meanwhile, offers "coexistence tours" of Jaffa that explore the ethnically mixed city and its different historical narratives along with a Jewish and Arab tour guide.
Finally, Green Olive Tours dubs itself "a social enterprise tour agency" offering tours across Israel and Palestine that survey the history, culture and political geography of the area. Some of their tours offer more personal touches such as stays with Palestinian families, visits with social-justice groups, or trips to Bedouin villages that include lunch and a stopover at a women's weaving cooperative. Green Olive's newest tour is called "Meet the Settlers," and it introduces visitors to Jewish residents in the Tekoa settlement bloc in the West Bank.
For more information about scheduling, pricing and reservations, see the websites below, and please note: Some tours may require you to bring your passport.