Sweet Jesus! How Israel Is Missing Out on a Huge Tourist Opportunity With Christians

A new Bible museum in Washington expects to attract 8 million visitors a year, so why isn’t Israel doing more to capitalize on being the birthplace of Jesus? It’s complicated, say tourism experts

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"Christ Crucified" by Velázquez (1632)
"Christ Crucified" by Velázquez (1632)Credit: Prado Museum
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Over 30 buses stood next to the museum in Kibbutz Ginosar last week, where a small, wooden, 2,000-year-old boat was the main attraction. Hundreds of tourists crowded into the spacious museum, built around the remains of the boat that has been dubbed “the Jesus boat” – though the “ancient Galilee boat from Jesus’ time” would perhaps be more accurate. Its owners were allegedly fishermen from the time of the Christian messiah.

The huge thirst of Christian tourists to see something of the man whom they believe walked on water arouses the simplest and most obvious of questions: How is it possible that the most famous person in the Western world – some might say the most famous Jew ever – doesn’t have a museum of his own in Israel? And why are we not taking advantage of the fact that the Christian messiah was born and lived here, and turning that into a tourist attraction?

After all, we want as many tourists to visit Israel as possible, and there are some 2 billion Christian believers worldwide. A visitor center devoted to their messiah would presumably attract millions, so how is it possible we decided to relinquish this natural asset?

Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem, and lived and worked in the Galilee and Jerusalem some 2,000 years ago. There are prominent traces of him at many local sites: Nazareth; the shores of Lake Kinneret; the Galilee region; Kafr Kana; Capernaum; Mount Tabor; the Mount of Beatitudes; Jerusalem; the banks of the Jordan.

And though it would seem pretty obvious that a museum would tell the story of Jesus accessibly and for popular consumption, there is no such significant institution in Israel. No one has risen to the challenge.

Last month, the Museum of the Bible was dedicated in Washington. The billionaire Green family, evangelical Christians, invested a reported $500 million in the construction of this huge, nine-story museum. One of the wings is devoted to the story of Jesus in Galilee, and tourists are invited to walk in his footsteps in halls filled with archaeological findings and sophisticated electronic exhibits. Some of the findings even came from the Israel Antiquities Authority.

According to American tourism experts, the museum will attract 8 million visitors a year. Israel, by comparison, expects 3.5 million tourist visits for the entire country this year.

There are attractions in Israel, of course: Nazareth Village was built in 2000 as an initiative by Dr. Nakhle Bishara and with a $1-million donation from U.S. millionaire Sherry Herschend (of the Herschend Family Entertainment Corp.). The site recreates the way of life in the Galilee at the beginning of the Roman period and shows everyday life in Jesus’ time. The people behind the Nazareth Village also worked on the World of Jesus of Nazareth exhibit at Washington’s Museum of the Bible. The Mary International Center, which was established by the French religious community of Chemin Neuf, is located next to the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It offers an introduction to the biblical landscapes and lifestyle of Jesus and his mother, Mary. And the Terra Sancta Museum, from the Franciscan friars of the Custody of the Holy Land, can be found on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem’s Old City. It is devoted to archaeological discoveries and findings from the years of the Christian communities’ development in Israel.

But none of these sites is a significant tourist attraction. Experts on Christian tourism, archaeology, preservation, museology, architecture, development and entrepreneurship have lots of thoughts on how it’s possible there’s no major museum devoted to Jesus – in Jerusalem, Nazareth or anywhere else. But there’s no consensus.

Your own personal Jesus

Prof. Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological digs and research division at the Antiquities Authority, explains that there are countless differences of opinion among Christian denominations regarding the story of Jesus and his life in Israel.

“Everyone has his own Jesus,” says Avni. “Even his place of burial was disputed for hundreds of years between the Catholics – who believe the tomb is in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre [in the Old City] – and the Protestants, who pointed to the Garden Tomb.

“Building a Jesus museum is dangerous because it would force us to choose one ‘story’ and favor it over the others,” he continues. “That is liable to arouse anger among the various Christian denominations. In the current situation there are way stations – a kind of route throughout the country. The pilgrims pass among these way stations and each matches the route to his own story.”

Providing an example of the problematic nature of choosing one narrative, Avni points to the current exhibition “Tomb of Christ: The Church of the Holy Sepulchre Experience,” at the National Geographic Museum in Washington. The curators adopted the Greek version (the tomb restoration was conducted by a team from Athens) and many communities were angered by this choice. Avni says building a Jesus museum in Israel would create a similar problem because of internal Christian disputes.

When asked what might be displayed in a Jesus museum, Avni says you could “present the Jewish way of life in Second Temple times – that was Jesus’ way of life. And that is especially true for Jerusalem. We know next-to-nothing about Nazareth in Jesus’ time because it was a very small place. Nor do we have any findings related to the man himself.”

According to Avni, the question of building a museum in the Galilee never arose. On the other hand, he notes, there is a constant demand to illustrate what life was like in the Galilee and Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. This need is met by conventional exhibitions or displays that show the country in Second Temple times, Avni says.

The entire country is a museum

Father Juan Solana is a Catholic priest, director of Jerusalem’s Notre Dame Center and head of the Legionaries of Christ congregation in Israel. He has invested great efforts in recent years in the development of the Christian site at Magdala, on the shores of the Kinneret. He believes that the entire Holy Land is a “Jesus museum” and therefore there’s no need to build another site. “When you come to Israel as a pilgrim and visit the holy sites – the entire country is your museum,” he says. “Such a visit provides pilgrims with the necessary insights about Jesus’ life. They experience Jesus’ life in the places where he walked.”

Solana also wonders what could be displayed in such a museum if it were to be built. He says there is no single item that can be attributed to Jesus that would constitute part of a concrete and dignified display. At the same time, it’s important to him to explain that just because he sees the entire country as a Jesus museum, the sites sacred to Christianity still need to be properly developed. The existing infrastructure is far from satisfactory, he notes.

Hana Bendcowsky, a tour guide on Christian issues and program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, points to the Israeli fear of dealing with Christianity as a central problem. She says that sensitivity is both political and religious, and, because of it, Israel is not realizing its tourism potential.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.Credit: Joe Greer

“For thousands of years, Christianity was our ultimate enemy – and now it’s hard for us to make the change,” she says. “There’s a genuine difficulty and complexity here that is also reflected in the activity of the Tourism Ministry. They don’t invest in Christian tourism, they have no experts who understand the subject, and their main marketing effort is now in other directions – beaches, cities, entertainment, sports, etc. The word ‘resurrection’ – a central concept in Christianity – doesn’t appear in official publications at all.”

Bendcowsky offers several examples she believes prove Israel’s tremendous and unexploited potential for Christian tourism: the museum in Ginosar; the Qumran Caves in the Judean Desert, which attract hundreds of thousands of tourists each year; and Yardenit (aka the Yardenit Baptismal Site), next to Lake Kinneret, which is visited by over 250,000 tourists annually.

At the same time, Bendcowsky also wonders whether there is a need for a Jesus museum. “Anyone who comes here as a pilgrim doesn’t need a museum. He already arrives with the story from home. It may be preferable to concentrate on the development of the Christian sites, which are not in good shape.”

‘Jesus of Nazareth’ brand

About 10 years ago, Maoz Yinon – a co-owner of the Abraham Hostels chain – conceived and marked the Jesus Trail in the Galilee, from Nazareth to Lake Kinneret. He tells Haaretz that the teachings of Jesus contradict the Zionist narrative. “Here, we’re supposed to be familiar with the Maccabees and Samson the mighty hero. A person who tells people to turn the other cheek doesn’t suit us.”

Yinon sees this attitude as a big cultural mistake that causes tremendous damage to the Israeli economy. He says there is wilful ignorance here, which is cultivated to assume huge dimensions.

“The heritage of Jesus has tremendous tourism potential, none of which is being exploited at present,” he says. “It has no connection to the question of the faith of most of the population here. Every year, tens of thousands of tourists walk in the path of the Incas in Peru – and none of them is Incan. Lots of people could make a living from it regardless of whether or not he is the messiah – something billions of people believe – and we decide to ignore that due to fanaticism.”

Yinon believes Nazareth would be the best place for a Jesus museum: Jerusalem is too sensitive, and the entire world is familiar with the “Jesus of Nazareth” brand. He thinks it should become a government policy, which would bring prosperity to the residents of Nazareth and the Galilee.

He laughs when asked if, as a successful businessman, he might tackle such a project. “After my experience with the Israeli establishment, I wouldn’t go near such a project! I have no doubt that even if private entrepreneurs come and try to promote the initiative, everything possible will be done to make them fail. You have to be really obsessed with the idea, and then maybe it will succeed.”

David Gafni is a veteran architect who specializes in building museums. Among other things, he worked on the design of the Yad Mordechai Museum, the visitor center in Timna Park and Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum. He says a Jesus museum hasn’t been built until now, either through public or private funding, because nobody has initiated such a thing. He believes the religious circles in Israel wouldn’t allow such a thing and would stop it at the earliest stage. “A museum that will present the life of Jesus and the characteristics of the period objectively can only be built through independent entrepreneurs and financiers,” he says.

At the same time, Gafni is skeptical about the justification for building a museum around one person, as famous and important as he may be. As an example, he cites the museum in memory of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in Ramat Aviv – a large and impressive museum that shortly after its inception became the Israeli Museum at the Yitzhak Rabin Center.

Gafni adds that many churches have “information centers” and “museum-like visitor centers” around the figure of Jesus. These include Gethsemane (at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem), the Church of the Nativity (in Bethlehem), the Church of the Loaves and Fishes (on the shores of Lake Kinneret), Capernaum (also Lake Kinneret), the Mount of Beatitudes (northern Israel), the Church of the Annunciation, and more. Each church has its own special atmosphere, he notes: from the archaeological and historical surroundings and unique façade, to the statues, stained-glass windows and music, choirs, candles and spices. All these combine to create an exalted experience for many of the visitors.

Fear of Christianity

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem has several exhibits dealing with Jesus’ life and times. The museum recently issued a detailed brochure that offers a “Christian route” to tour guides visiting the museum with groups of Christian tourists. This is a route along which you can view a dozen findings and works of importance to the history of Christianity in the Holy Land.

Dudi Mevorach is a senior curator at the Israel Museum for the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, and he also curated the 2013 Herod exhibition there. He says there is a concerted effort to convey to the Christian world and tourists that the museum offers a large number of exhibits that are relevant to the first moments of Christianity.

The outstanding exhibits on the museum’s Christian route include a model of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period; the Dead Sea Scrolls; the House of David inscription; the ossuary of the high priest Caiaphas (who arrested and investigated Jesus before he was handed over to the Romans); the Latin dedicatory inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate (the prefect who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion), and more.

Mevorach explains that until now, no Christian or Jesus wing has been established in the museum because it’s important to see things in their overall context. “The context is important when you come to tell the story of Jesus’ times. That’s why we chose to display several exhibits in what we call the ‘Christian corner,’ but no more than that.”

Dr. Amitai Mendelsohn’s doctorate and a large exhibit he curated at the Israel Museum were devoted to Jesus’ place in Israeli art. He explains that the country is full of hundreds of Christian sites, but this is purposefully ignored in Israeli society and the Israeli educational system. “There is a great fear in Judaism of any appearance of Christianity – and yet the figure of Jesus has become present in art and Hebrew literature,” he says, adding that the exhibition he curated on the subject aroused much curiosity and interest.

Mendelsohn adds that while the contemporary Catholic Church has great respect for the state and Judaism, the chances of a Jesus museum being established in Israel are slim. He says it is a sensitive political question. And though Christian sites in Israel are popular among tourists, they receive very few Israeli visitors, he notes. “The question is the extent to which we, the Jews, who built the state as a refuge from the Christian world, are capable of accepting the presentation of Jesus here and containing this tribute. And the answer is still in the negative.”

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