Way Off the Beaten Path: These Tours Could Change Your Way of Thinking About Israel-Palestine

From a meal in an Arab village to a political discussion in the West Bank, there are excursions to match everyone’s interests. And you might just learn something about yourself

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A guide from Ir Amim talks about the separation barrier in Jerusalem.
A guide from Ir Amim talks about the separation barrier in Jerusalem.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

Raid Abu-Riyah, an executive at a large bank in Tel Aviv, lives in Jaljulya. Everyone there knows him and he knows everybody. Over the four hours that Abu-Riyah leads a group of 39 Jews through the town, many of the residents stop to greet him and us, the tourists. People wave and honk from their cars, and some of them shout things in Arabic that I don’t understand. Some laugh – we really stick out in the street. During the tour, which takes place on a very hot afternoon, several young people offer us cold water from their balconies. They come down to the street with bottles and cups and implore us to drink.

The new mosque in Jaljulya, a short drive from Tel Aviv.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

It’s embarrassing: I’ve lived a 15-minute drive from Jaljulya all my life and have never been there. Abu-Riyah explains that the town, which is about 25 kilometers northeast of Tel Aviv, is one of the oldest and most interesting communities in Israel, with remnants dating back to the Bronze Age. In the past it was one of the largest and most important cities on the Via Maris ancient trading route, which connected Egypt and Turkey. Today it’s a local council with about 10,000 residents. Abu-Riyah opens with these words as we stand next to the remnants of an old and impressive stone khan – an inn for travelers. Later we roam the village’s historic center and then drive to the other end, to the huge mosque, which opened recently. The imam blesses us and says he is happy we have come and that the future lies in peace between the nations.

The tour is organized by Shared Paths (“Drachim Shluvot” in Hebrew), and everyone in the group paid 135 shekels to attend. The price includes a meal in Abu-Riyah’s home, prepared by his wife and mother. His children serve the food on long tables set up in the back yard. It’s tasty. After the meal we hold a discussion. Several people from the group thank Abu-Riyah for his tour and the hospitality, and then someone asks: “So really, why don’t you serve in the army?”

A participant in the Jaljulya tour walks out of village's new mosque.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum


Abu-Riyah calls over his 18-year-old son, and when the abashed youth stands next to him, he puts a hand on his shoulder and says: “He has just registered for computer studies and I told him, ‘If you were to go into 8200 [the prestigious Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Directorate], it would be easier for you to find work.’ But he has an aunt in Nablus. It’s a problem.”

Then we eat watermelon and drive home. Some of the embarrassment accompanies us down the road.

The convincers are convinced

Tours for Jewish groups to Arab locales are thriving. Organizers of such tours explain to me that groups fill up quickly: The demand is greater than the supply. There are closed groups – for pre-army preparatory course participants, companies, colleges, schools and various organizations. And then there are open groups, like the one I joined in Jaljulya.

Shared Paths is a Jewish-Arab organization whose goal is “to promote a shared and strong society.” It offers activities that include social tourism for Jews to Arab communities. The goal is “to bring together Arab and Jewish Israeli citizens, while promoting a shared society without prejudice and based on acquaintance and mutual respect.” The organization’s website states: “Through the tours, we aspire to expose our tourist groups to the history of Arab society and the challenges it is facing today, and to enable them to become familiar with its variety and its cultural wealth.”

All the tours are conducted by local guides, who, like Abu-Riyah, also tell their personal story. In addition to Jaljulya, they organize tours in Kafr Qasem, Tira, Shfaram, Taibeh and Sakhnin.

Uri Kandel, the director of Shared Paths, tells me that the tours offer an opportunity for people to get to know a place near their homes that they don’t usually go to. Why not? Usually due to fear. Fear of the unknown.

“There’s a geographical map and a cognitive map. In Israel they’re totally separate,” says Kandel. “The cognitive map can change even during a two-hour tour.”

He says that the tours are not political in nature. The clientele is varied and the participants want to get to know Arab society and hear things on a personal level, without mediation. He is sure that some of the people who sign up for the tours are not left-wingers.

The organization doesn’t initiate tours in Jaffa or Haifa. “People don’t need us in order to go there,” explains Kandel. “We choose communities that aren’t on the tourist map. And the most important element is the people in the field, those who guide the tours. In every community there are things to see and things to tell.”

“The benefit is two-way,” emphasizes Kendal. “The fact that a large group of people come of their own free will to visit Jaljulya, which doesn’t have a great reputation, makes the residents happy and flatters them. It creates local pride. Suddenly they’re getting respect. They realize that there’s a cultural asset in the place where they live. We don’t try to prettify the reality, but to reflect it. It’s not hummus and knafeh [a popular Arab pastry] tourism, and it’s not political tourism. It’s about getting acquainted.”

A woman prepares food for a Jewish group visiting Kafr Qasem during Ramadan, 2018.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Ilanit Haramati, who organizes tours for Shared Paths in the Sharon area and attended the one in Jaljulya, explains that the number of registrants is constantly growing, and she believes that the curiosity about them is on the rise. “We encounter the optimistic side of Jewish-Arab relations in Israel,” she says, adding that developing this type of social tourism requires only a small investment, and has a great impact.

“This is tourism based on people rather than stones,” says Haramati. “You don’t need monuments. Every such tour is subsidized by donations. The price of the tour pays for half of its cost. The contributions come from Israel and abroad, but not from political groups.” Haramati says that Jaljulya is especially attractive because it’s near the center of the country and people are curios about it.

When I ask if these tours designed to preach to the converted, Haramati and Kandel insist that it’s quite the opposite: Many come on the tours because they want to get to know the places with their own eyes and form an independent opinion about their nature, and the residents’ attitude toward Jewish visitors.

Is it divorced from the present Israeli reality? Kendal and Haramati think that on the contrary, this is actually more crucial now than ever.

Every year the peak period of activity for organizations like Shared Paths (which started out as part of Sikkuy – The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality) is during Ramadan. There are many tours over the course of the holy Islamic month, which is usually in the summertime. Almost all of them take place on Thursday, Friday or Saturday evening, allowing the visitors to join the iftar – the meal for breaking the fast, which takes place at sunset. The organizers say that even during Ramadan, the tour participants don’t come only for the food.

To visit a village

A government initiative to acquaint Jews with the Druze and Circassian communities in Israel (and not Muslim or Christian ones) was launched in 2010. The project, called “Visited a village yet?,” is problematic in many respects, but most notably over the fact that Druze villages are given preference over other Arab locales. The name itself pokes fun of Arabic speakers’ pronunciation of Hebrew – which is disrespectful, especially coming from a government organization.

Its declared goal was “to increase the demand for tourism in the Druze and Circassian villages, to increase the number of visitors and overnight stays, to showcase culture and events.” The initiative was funded by the Tourism Ministry, the prime minister and the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry.

The campaign has existed for a decade, mainly focusing on the Druze villages of Beit Jann, Hurfeish and Peki’in. It includes substantial advertising, recommended touring routes in the villages and their surroundings, and explanations about the Druze and Circassian traditions. All the tours cost between 50 and 150 shekels per person.

A survey conducted on the initiative in 2017 by the TAK Institute, in cooperation with the official Government Advertising Agency, revealed the following: There is broad legitimacy among the Israeli public for visiting Druze and Circassian villages. These villages are also largely related to “an authentic experience.” However, the survey also demonstrated two reasons for opposition: a sense of danger and a lack of personal security, which according to the authors of the survey “may stem from an emotional generalization about the Druze-Circassian village that are seen as ‘Arab villages,’ which for some of those interviewed generate such feelings,” and from a fear of non-kosher food. In other words, the survey authors believe that Israeli tourists mistakenly fear for their personal security in Druze villages because they don’t distinguish between them and Arab villages.

Lifestyles of the Jaffa elites

Doris Haifawi pours coffee from her family's business for visitors to her home in Jaffa.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Doris Haifawi welcomes us into her home on Meor Einayim Street in Jaffa with a broad smile. She is an attractive woman and walks briskly in high heels over the carpets in her home. She starts out the tour of her home with a greeting in Arabic – Sabah al-khair (Good morning) – and speaks only Hebrew afterward. In the living room, for over an hour, she talks about her life as a Christian Arab who was born and grew up in Jaffa.

She describes a happy childhood and speaks mainly about her marriage to her husband – the scion of a wealthy old Jaffa family which has owned a successful coffee business for over 100 years. Haifawi and her husband are the fourth generation managing it. “We, the Jaffa Christians, live in a village within a city,” she says. She then talks about participating in a beauty queen contest in the Arab community, and how when she was 16, representatives of families were already knocking on her parents’ door with marriage proposals. “I agreed to marry at the age of 18, because I wanted to be allowed to wear high heels,” she explains with a big smile.

Doris Haifawi hosts a group of visitors in her home in Jaffa. Her husband is the scion of a wealthy old Jaffa family which has owned a successful coffee business for over 100 years.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Haifawi’s monologue is a successful combination of personal information, which the participants of the group I join are eager to hear, and historical and more general information about the Arabs of Jaffa and the significance of belonging to a small minority in the country. Nobody in the group is particularly interested in politics or Jewish-Arab relations. The most intriguing subject is the lifestyle of the Jaffa elite, whom Haifawi refers to several times as “our aristocratic families.”

Most of the groups she hosts have between 20 and 50 participants. They drink tasty coffee, nibble on baklava and hear an entertaining life story with lots of smiles, almost devoid of politics. Among other things, Haifawi proudly says that a few months ago she hosted Sarah Jessica Parker of “Sex and the City.”

The three-story house is lovely, but the visit takes place only on the ground floor. The hostess looks like someone who has heard every possible remark from her two-hour visitors. She smiles and lightly skips over the embarrassing questions. Blatant advertising for the family coffee brand is part of the tour.

At Doris Haifawi's Jaffa home, visitors drink tasty coffee, nibble on baklava and hear an entertaining life story with lots of smiles, almost devoid of politics.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Politics now

Breaking the Silence, an anti-occupation veterans organization, regularly organizes tours in the West Bank. The group is currently offering a tour in the South Hebron Hills in mid-October. According to their website: “The tour to the South Hebron Hills under the guidance of soldiers who have broken their silence about their service in the territories reveals the injustice in the reality of the occupation in which we have taken part.”

The tour includes a view of the southernmost part of the West Bank: east and south to the land of the villages of Jenba, Garitan and the training areas of the IDF Krayot army base; north and west to Yatta and Palestinian Susiya and Israeli Susya; and west to Beit Yatir (also known as Metzudat Yehuda) and Emanzel. Participants pay 50 shekels per person and are asked to bring their own lunch.

The Jerusalem nonprofit Ir Amim also offers a wide range of tours. The purpose, according to Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the organization, is “to arouse awareness of the Israeli policy in East Jerusalem.” He says that this policy creates endless problems and there is nothing like seeing with your own eyes on a tour in order to understand them.

The apolitical Ir Amim deals with the complexity of life in Jerusalem in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the political future of the city. The organization conducts two open tours each month in Hebrew and English, and tours reserved in advance for groups. Tatarsky explains: “With our help the participants in the tours can get to places that they wouldn’t reach in any other way. We are the their only option for reaching these sites in East Jerusalem.” The tours include the Silwan neighborhood, Sheikh Jarrah, the separation barrier, national parks, the Temple Mount and al-Walaja.

Tatarsky admits that most of those who come to the open tours identify with Ir Amim’s activities. But he says that it should be seen in a broader perspective: “The situation here is challenging enough. It makes no difference what your starting point is. In the course of the tour you’ll understand the complexity and the challenge represented by Jerusalem. The participants ask themselves: What am I willing to sacrifice so that it will be better here?”

Participants on the Ir Amim tour in Jerusalem. The guides don’t preach; they present facts.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Kessem Adiv, the coordinator of Ir Amim’s tours, explains that although many “convinced” people come to the tours, the organization’s main activities actually center on tours reserved by groups. These groups have varied backgrounds, she says, and don’t necessarily lean toward the left side of the political map at all. “Most of our tours are for pre-army preparatory institutes, high schools all over the country, students, and joint seminars for Israelis and students from abroad,” she says. “During most of the year we conduct three to four tours a week.”

At the end of each such tour there is a discussion. The guides, explains Adiv, are experienced at passing on information. They don’t preach; they present facts. “The guides will never say, ‘It’s shocking.’ They’ll say: ‘That’s the wall. Since it was built, the percentages of unemployment and poverty have soared.’ People will reach the conclusions by themselves.”

Adiv has no doubt that the participants’ opinion changes as a result of what they’ve seen on the tour. She believes that Jewish Israelis don’t understand the reality in which they’re living, and especially the complicated reality of Jerusalem. “All our tours end with a lot of question marks, and that’s a good thing,” she says.

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