Why Israelis Shouldn't Read Travel Guides to Their Country

The most comprehensive guide to Israel is by Lonely Planet, which depicts Tel Aviv residents as idle and relaxed.

Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman
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Yotam Feldman
Yotam Feldman

What's a good way to start a conversation with a Palestinian in the West Bank? Show an interest in curing olives. Ask how to prepare and spice a certain dish, and whose mother makes it better. Ask about life under occupation, or closure. Talk to a woman about her embroidery and its significance. Ask why people sometimes decorate their cars with wreaths of flowers.

This is what "Lonely Planet Israel & the Palestinian Territories Travel Guide" advises the perplexed traveler in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, along with many other pearls of wisdom. The writers take a professional, almost scientific approach to traveling. They don't merely delineate geographic borders and provide routes, but also budget them into finely elaborated blocs of time. And they explain the various components of the journey down to the last detail.

The guide's contributors list books worth reading before and during the trip, advise the visitor on appropriate behavior in private and public places, and suggest ways to overcome moments of embarrassment or boredom. They stop just short of explaining one should chew food moderately yet persistently in order to avoid indigestion.

Travel guides are fun to read, not necessarily due to their content, but because they enable a comparison between the description and real life. It is nice to see when the descriptions reflect the reality. It is also pleasant to be reminded of what was, places that have deteriorated, disappeared or turned into something else since the books were published.

But the most interesting travel books are apparently the least read. A glance at one about your own country is by nature voyeuristic, because it is meant for everyone but you. These books are translated into every language but the one spoken in the country being described, and alert border guards make sure they won't fall into the wrong hands by mistake.

"It's not for you, is it? Who's it for?" asked the saleswoman at a travel store in Tel Aviv when I asked for a guide to Israel. "A present for a friend," I said to calm her, which worked. Reading the guide, I understood why it would be best to limit access by locals. Like many of the books recommended by these guides (the misanthropic Mark Twain's "Innocents Abroad" heads the list), the authors practice the anthropology of amateur enthusiasts. Each traveler who has mastered the basic assumptions about the locals is invited to examine and refine them, and develop new ones of his or her own.

There are not many outright insults in these books (although they are not completely absent either), but even non-judgmental remarks swathed in irony are likely to be misunderstood by the wrong reader. The authors of the French guide "Israel" (published by Petit Fute) do not hide their enthusiasm for Israelis and their laws, even if the approach is sometimes condescending and Orientalist. The writers summon up a young Israeli, Sephardic and religiously observant, striding on a path between his traditional roots and progress: "more than once you may run into a young man with a skullcap and body piercings." And, "Israelis are pleasant, and it's easy to establish a connection with them ... but they are more like Europeans than Arabs; they will not invite you to a meal immediately after the first encounter." The book seems to be a little out of date regarding Israeli customs: It says Israelis prefer to drink instant or Turkish coffee, and when they drink alcohol, they prefer Goldstar beer.

The Lonely Planet guide depicts residents of Tel Aviv as idle and relaxed: "After a few days in Tel Aviv (or TA as it's affectionately known by expats) you may start to wonder if there is such a thing as a weekend. The city seems to be on permanent holiday, and at any time of day or night you can saunter down a main street and find crowded cafes, joggers, beach bums and dog walkers."

The biggest problem for travel guides and their users stems from the tension between the tourist's hunt for the authentic, pre-tourist reality, and the fact that in most cases, it is far from inspiring.

Yet some guides are becoming more and more post-modern, and praise the artificial and the touristy as well. Take, for example, Lonely Planet on the tourist and entertainment industry in Eilat: "Eilat is a resort town where glitzy, ziggurat-like hotels line an artificial lagoon and glass-bottomed boats ply deteriorating coral reefs." But Lonely Planet does not neglect its commitment to provide something really and truly genuine, so it recommends that tourists looking for local culture go to the Drum (Chinky) Beach in Tel Aviv on Friday to dance, join host-family picnics on Saturday in Safed or Jerusalem (also recommended by the French guide), spend a night with the Black Hebrews in Dimona, or work with Palestinian children on the West Bank.

One big playground

The Lonely Planet guide to Israel appears to be the most comprehensive. The authors of the company's first book ("Across Asia on the Cheap") are Tony Wheeler of England and his wife, Maureen Wheeler of Australia, who detailed their trek from Turkey to India via Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1973. Since then they have published hundreds of books mapping nearly every country in the world and offering different types of trips (bicycle, diving and hiking, for example).

The Lonely Planet guide to Israel is exhaustive. It is aimed at different types of tourists, and in comparison with other guides, it embraces a wide range of areas and activities. It includes most spots a tourist is likely to reach, and the recommendations will easily fill an extended visit, even for an Israeli.

Nonetheless, it is possible to imagine a different type of guide book. The one I would put together for visitors to Israel would bring them to places that are not very different from the ones where they live: residential neighborhoods, city parks and suburbs. It would help them understand public transportation, and let them sit in on court hearings and university lectures.

The main strength of guides is how they rank the relative importance of the various sites. It's not only the nature of things that most parts of Israel and the territories don't appear at all in the Lonely Planet, but also that other sites discussed are not presented as especially attractive. "There's no denying that Be'er Sheva ... is a hot and ugly town" is how the Lonely Planet begins its section on that city. They depict Ramat Gan laconically as the capital of Israel's diamond industry and note that Donald Trump is building a 70-story tower there; Rishon Letzion is described as "sleepy" and Rehovot simply as "unspectacular." They like Netanya for some reason (as does the French guide, of course), and maintain that all of Israel flocks to its "famous" beaches.

Some places surveyed in the Lonely Planet guide are just appendages to more important siblings: a visit to Jaffa is presented as a day trip from Tel Aviv, and the West Bank is only one chapter.

Much more intriguing are the new and unfamiliar routes mapped by this guide, each designed for a particular type of tourist. For the hiking and sports enthusiast, the guide recommends one trip that twists and turns from Mitzpe Ramon, Tel Aviv and Caesarea to the Banias Park. For the adventurous tourist, the guide suggests imagining Israel and the Palestinian territories as "one big playground." Travelers with historical and religious sentiments may choose a wholly "Holy Land" route.

A tour of Tel Aviv accompanied by the Lonely Planet guide includes not only an array of neighborhoods and sites. City residents do not escape the guide's amateur anthropologists. Most of the citizens, it turns out, are involved in some kind of exercise: rollerblading to parks, bicycling to beaches, or "making their way to a gym with a gym bag in hand."

The Wild West (Bank)

Lonely Planet offers the broadest treatment of the Palestinian territories as a tourist site. The magazine "Time Out" makes do with two pages on the Bethlehem area, and the French guide offers just a little more. Lonely Planet includes fairly comprehensive political information on Israeli-Palestinian relations and the situation of the Palestinians, but more than anything else, the West Bank and Gaza are presented as ideal sites for danger enthusiast: fans of a challenge, the book's authors say, "will choose the 'Wild West Bank,'" for an adventurous trip to a place visited by few.

However, the promise of adventure is not really kept in the guide's 30 pages on the Palestinian territories. The background of the Second Intifada is sketched in the historical preface to each area, but it appears that local struggles serve as settings for rather routine trips. In Bethlehem, the writers recommend Rachel's Tomb and the Church of the Nativity; in Ramallah, high-priced restaurants and bars; and in Hebron, a visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs. Even in Gaza, the tourist is invited to take a route featuring a Napoleonic fortress and a Turkish bath. Refugee camps, road blocks and lands expropriated by Israel to build the separation fence are surveyed briefly on the margins of a historic-archaeological tour of the Palestinian territories.

The promise of adventure is offered in brief at the head of each section: threats that may attract adventurous travelers. Gaza does not compare to Afghanistan and Iraq, the writers apologize, in terms of the amount of danger posed to foreigners. They do point out that foreign visitors are kidnapped with worrying regularity, though most are released unhurt. Other foreigners, they add, are hurt or killed as a result of errors the Israeli army, they say.

In effect, the Lonely Planet recommends that visitors to the Palestinian territories look like tourists and not like Palestinians, journalists or activists in any place where there are guns or bulldozers. At the same time it warns that membership in the International Solidarity Movement, which supports the Palestinian struggle against Israel, is a good way to turn a tourist into a deportee or a cripple.



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