The Socially Aware Tourist's Guide to Traveling in the Israeli Desert

The under-visited Negev offers some eye-opening alternatives, whether learning about traditional Bedouin crafts from local women, preparing ethnic dishes with immigrants, or overnight stays with kibbutz families.

Gabe Axler, a Be’er Sheva resident and entrepreneur
Eli Hershovitz

Old City of Jerusalem. Check. Yad Vashem. Check. Masada. Check. Dead Sea. Check. Tel Aviv. Check. Galilee. Check.

That doesn’t leave much room for a trip to the Negev desert. So although this part of the country – also known as the “south” – covers a vast amount of territory (about 55 percent of the land within Israel’s internationally recognized borders), it tends to get skipped over on most first-time visitor itineraries.

“It’s barely an hour-and-a-half drive from Tel Aviv, but the Negev often seems like a big schlepp,” observes Joe Perlov, former president of Israel Experts, a leading tour operator. “Jesus never walked there, so for Christian pilgrimage tours there’s not a whole lot of interest in the area.”

It doesn’t offer much in the way of ancient Jewish history either, notes Shahar Shilo, director of Negev Highlands, Israel’s desert tourism center. “Most of the Negev was simply not part of the biblical land of Israel,” he says.

But just because it’s a bit out of the way and less “Holyland-ish” than other parts of the country is no reason to write it off. Several recently launched grassroots initiatives are hoping to lure a different type of tourist to these parts: socially-minded visitors interested not only in learning about how Israelis cope with socioeconomic problems but also in contributing to their communities, whether through a few hours of volunteer work or by supporting local enterprises.

So, for example, they might visit the Bedouin town of Rahat and learn, over lunch with some locals, how these semi-nomadic people are dealing with the challenges of modernity. Their payment for the meal would obviously provide much-needed income for their hosts. They could then choose to spend an extra hour with local children painting an outdoor mural and in that way help the place look less gritty. Alternatively, they could limit themselves to an afternoon of learning about traditional Bedouin crafts from local women.

After spending a morning with the Bedouin, they might choose to spend an afternoon with Jews in Be’er Sheva who are trying to make ends meet. Rather than lunch at the mall, say at McDonald’s, they could stop at Be’er Sova – a soup-kitchen-turned-community-restaurant that offers ethnic dishes prepared by local women training to become professional cooks. There, they could meet and mingle with Israelis living below the poverty line, many of them Holocaust survivors, and hear first-hand about their struggles. They might also choose to participate in a cooking workshop with some of the chefs-in-training or simply throw on an apron themselves and help prepare the next day’s food.

After lunch, if they have the time, they could meet with members of the Kama Community, a group of young idealistic activists who moved to Be’er Sheva together out of a commitment to improving lives in this part of the country. They might tour one of the new projects they’ve launched in “Daled,” the city’s poorest neighborhood. That could include Café Ringelblum, a restaurant set up to provide employment and training to at-risk youth, where they might break for coffee.

If they venture a bit west, these tourists will hit Ofakim, a classic Israeli development town (residential hubs set up virtually overnight during the 1950s in remote parts of the country, like the Negev, to accommodate the huge numbers of immigrants arriving from North Africa). Rarely do foreign tourists stop at Ofakim, but quite a few have been making the detour recently to rent bikes and take advantage of the new 22-kilometer trail that circles the town, offering beautiful vistas along the way.

Most of these “social” or “experiential” tourism initiatives are less than a year old. In many cases, they are spin-offs of existing non-profits dedicated to social change, whose founders are deeply familiar with the struggles and needs of the local communities. To date, news of their existence has been shared mainly via word of mouth.

“It’s an opportunity to go beyond the typical tourist experience, to come in contact with people making a difference, to learn about the challenges facing locals and some of the unique solutions that have been found,” says Gabe Axler, a Be’er Sheva resident and entrepreneur. “In Israel, it’s a way to provide tourists with an understanding of the country that goes beyond the Mideast conflict and beyond sipping wine in Sarona [an upscale marketplace in central Tel Aviv].”

Axler, a Chicago transplant to the Negev, runs a new social or “experiential” tourism venture called Pnima that organizes trip to locations around Israel not often frequented by foreign visitors. Its main focus, however, is on the south. In addition to the bike rides in Ofakim, Pnima operates tours of an Ethiopian community garden in the southern town of Kiryat Gat, which include a workshop in writing Amharic, the language spoken by Ethiopian Jews. For something even more off-the-beaten-track, Pnima offers music workshops in Shuva, an agriculture community north of Be’er Sheva set up by a group of hippyish ba’lei teshuva, or newly observant Jews.

Most organized tours to Israel, says Axler, emphasize all that is “amazing” about the country. “The idea here is to present visitors with the issues that are challenging Israel,” he says.

“The point of these tours,” he adds, “is not to depress people but to get them to meet some of the amazing individuals creating solutions to these problems.”

The Desert Shanti House, a village for homeless children located near Kibbutz Sde Boker, began operations about 15 years ago. Last year, Raz Arbel, a tourism entrepreneur based in the Negev who also runs the facility, concluded that for social-minded travelers, a tour of the place could be an eye-opening experience. He turned out to be right. Since it began hosting visitors from abroad, the Shanti House has become a stopping point for many groups traveling through the Negev these days. But as Arbel notes, “It isn’t a zoo, and we definitely don’t put the kids on display.”

His most recent venture is the Negev Highland Trail – a trek that links together a bunch of diverse communities in the region. Launched this summer, it includes long and short treks (ranging from one to six days) as well as options for overnight stays and meals with local families at a kibbutz, a religious town, a development town, a university town and several Bedouin towns.

Another new initiative in Rahat, the largest Bedouin city in the Negev, is similarly focused on getting locals to open their homes and kitchens to tourists.

The driving force behind it is New Dawn in the Negev, an organization that promotes Jewish-Bedouin coexistence.

“Visitors who come to Rahat through our new tourism project are able to learn about Bedouin life and culture by simply hanging out with the locals,” says its founder and director Jamal Alkirnawi.

Many who have come to Rahat since the project was launched, he says, have also discovered their own common misconceptions about Bedouin life. “They expect to find all of us living in tents and riding camels. True, there are camels around, and there are people living in tents, but there are also many living in quite modern housing,” he says, pointing out some examples on the road as he gives a group of visitors a tour.

Over in Be’er Sheva, Erez Nagawker, the director of Be’er Sova, says he got the idea to open his community restaurant to outsiders once the kitchen started serving as a training ground for local housewives trying to break into the job market.

“So we brought in these women, and they began cooking up a storm here,” as Nagawker relays, “and I thought to myself that here was an opportunity to bring in tourists off the street and offer them not only a great authentic meal for a very good price, but also a chance to meet with locals, learn how to make some ethnic dishes from these women and even volunteer in the kitchen.”

The name of his recently launched project is “dining with meaning” – and as word gets out, he says, more and more organized groups coming through Be’er Sheva are stopping by.

A win-win situation for all, including himself.

“Now that I have some paying customers,” says Nagawker, “there’s less need for me to scrounge for funding to run this place.”