From Yad Vashem to Tel Aviv's Real Beauty: Israel Through German Eyes

Two guidebooks to Israel and Palestine, sans Gaza, give insight into what interests German visitors.

"Israel und Palaestina"

Wil Tondok and Burghard Bock. Reise Know-How, 480 pages

"Israel/Palaestina"

Andrea Wurth and Michel Rauch. Baedeker, 436 pages

Two German guidebooks to Israel and Palestine that I recently read, published by Baedeker and Reise, respectively, are designed and structured very differently. Although Reise's guide emerges in a few places as more pro-Palestinian (for example, it refers readers to a website that calls for the liberation of Gaza from the Israeli siege), both guides don't dwell too much on Palestinian sites.

As Baedeker's guide states simply, "Gaza today is not a suitable tourist destination."

One of the focal points of German tourists who come to Israel is the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, and both guides devote quite a bit of space to describing the museum and its archives.

Reise notes laconically that a visit there will be particularly hard on German tourists. Baedeker states that a Holocaust survivor lives on the hill right across from the train car positioned on the edge of the museum compound - one of the train carriages that carried Jews to their eventual end in the crematoria. Because the survivor couldn't handle the sight, she planted a tall tree in her yard to block her view of it. Whether the story is true or not, it demonstrates the awareness of the guide's authors that the deep wound in German-Jewish relations remains open and isn't reflected merely in archives and collections of artifacts.

The White City of Tel Aviv interests today's German tourist almost as much as Jerusalem and is given detailed consideration. Neither guide particularly praises the city's appearance: "Tel Aviv is not the embodiment of beauty," declared Baedeker emphatically. Reise echoes this and even attempts to explain it by saying that the city was expanded hastily to accommodate the masses of immigrants, and that except for the impressive Bauhaus buildings (which, according to the authors, are often neglected and crumbling ), it looks like a uniform mass of concrete.

Tel Aviv's newer constructions, by contrast, win praise for offering original and interesting building solutions, and the Neveh Tzedek neighborhood is also commended.

It seems, however, that the women of the first Hebrew city attracted the attention of the Reise guide far more than the architecture, leading them to wax almost poetic: "The girls, the most beautiful in the world, stroll calmly with cat-like steps in high heels along the sidewalks, displaying their charms along the endless beaches so the surfers wouldn't dare go too far into the sea."

Reise's critique of Israeli society is focused on Israeli-Palestinian relations, and it calls readers' attention to the poor living conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, and the denial of basic freedoms. Nor does Baedeker spare Israeli society, though it mainly addresses the discrimination and exclusion of different population groups within Israel. For example, it cites the refusal of the Israeli Rabbinate to recognize some Ethiopian immigrants as Jews, as well as the "racist superstitions" they must confront.

Israel's Arabs are "second-class citizens," according to Baedeker, whose education and housing conditions are worse than those of the Jewish population, while the Bedouin are faced with the highest poverty and unemployment rates in Israel. Alongside that, though, Israelis get high marks from both guides for their friendly attitude toward tourists.

Regarding the conflicts in Israeli society, the Reise guide is the more conventional of the two. It briefly describes the fissures as expressed first and foremost between secular, religious Zionist, traditional and ultra-Orthodox (addressing to some degree the division between right and left ).

Baedeker, however, tells a different story. According to its authors, the primary division among Israel's Jews is by country of origin - those of Europe vs. those who come from Asia and Africa - and that all the other fissures are derived from that. The Baedeker guide believes that, at least with regard to Israelis' daily life, Mizrahi Jews have the upper hand, attributing this to the higher birthrate among Sephardic Jews.

The writer is a comparative literature scholar.

Daniel Bar-On
David Bachar