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Why Israel? And why now?

- A New Immigrant’s Story by Emily Ruth -

In the Israeli Declaration of Independence it is written Israel ‘will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace… it will ensure complete equality…it will guarantee freedom of religion, race or sex…’

This is the vision the Zionist pioneers had for the State of Israel. Many of us outside Israel and Palestine can see how far Israel has strayed; thankfully, however, there are people within the country fighting for change.

I’m forty years old and happy. I’m a successful teacher, a successful emerging writer and, most importantly, my toddler is the greatest blessing that’s ever happened to me. We wake every morning to the glorious view of forests and rolling hills in our idyllic country cottage. We have lovely friends, great fun together, every single day. So what on earth has got into me? Israel? Now?

From a very young age, like many Jews all over the world, I was taught to love Israel. I learned its history and its language and its fierce battles; I learned how my grandma’s brother’s wife, a nurse, spent her time clearing out the disease infested swamps in the Hula Valley, and died of malaria doing it. I was told inspiring stories of my great uncle who left Austria in 1933, where he was fired for being Jewish. With friends from his Zionist Youth Movement, he fled his country and moved to Palestine. He wanted to be a pioneer on a Kibbutz, but when that didn’t work out, he moved to Kiryat Amal and was one of its founders. In the following few years, his side of the family still in Austria were almost all killed in the Death Camps. In Israel, my great Uncle’s family survived.
So it was no surprise Israel became for me the land of milk and honey.

And she didn’t let me down when I went on tour there with my Zionist Jewish Youth Movement. Every place we visited had its own magic. Ein Gedi with its paradisiacal waterfall. Jerusalem in all her walled glory. Yad Vashem and my terrible personal sadness. There was the glorious sunshine, the delicious food, the mountains, the sea, the kibbutzim, the crazy, feisty Jews, the wonder of the Bedouins in the Negev, the Druze in their villages…

There is something addictive about the country.

I went again, the next year, and the next... and in the back of mind was always: one day I’ll live here.

But I was training to be a teacher. Life got in the way. And politics too. Rabin was assassinated by a fellow Jew and Israel wasn’t the perfect idealistic utopian state I’d always imagined. Of course, it never had been.

Year after year, as my dreams for a peaceful Israel and Palestine became less and less of a reality, Israel and I became more distant. I spent more time with non-Jewish people. I understood how people saw the country from a non-Jewish perspective - as a racist, unequal state. I watched as violence and injustice was accepted there. And I asked myself: how could the Jews, of all people, allow oppression to be inflicted on another people? This was not the Israel I’d yearned for.

Nearly twenty years go past. I have far more non-Jewish friends than Jewish. And I’m very content. Yet I, in the essence of my being, feel desolate. I am anxious for my son, too, who is being taught to believe Santa will visit this Christmas and who knows nothing about his heritage. It’s my fault. Suddenly I wake up one day and know: I must do something about it.

But I don’t want only to live in the land of Israel. I want to make a difference. I want Israel to be egalitarian, to recognise Palestine as an equal state so it can thrive; I want for the kibbutzim to welcome all – Jew, Muslim, Christian – anyone who wants to join; I want no one to be oppressed and everyone to be welcomed. I want to be proud in front of my non-Jewish friends to say: I am going to live in the State of Israel and I am going to work with my Arab neighbours to bring peace.

Is this my arrogance? Am I insane enough to believe I can make change happen? Perhaps. But Israel is still a young, impressionable country. She needs a reminder from her most loyal fans how she was meant to be a place of peace, a holy place where all people could find refuge and hope and love.

In fact, in this wonderfully cyclical narrative, we will be living in my great uncle’s flat. And, just as he had, I’m hoping to live on a kibbutz where the community believes all people, men and women, Jews and non-Jews, are welcome and must be equal. Kibbutzim of the future could be places for all religions to co-exist in peace together. And through teaching English in the neighbouring Arab villages I know I can help make that happen.
And I’m even luckier. Through a crazy wonderful chance encounter on the ‘Tornado’ boat in Akko, I have got a job here with ‘Made in Peace’, which shares my political ideology and desire for a just peace.

Yes, I believe in Israel for the Jews. I also believe in Palestine for the Palestinians. And I believe in Israel for the Palestinians and Palestine for the Jews.

So why Israel? Why me? Why now?
It’s about time!


 - Emily Ruth is a writer and schoolteacher and lives in England.  She is ‘making Aliya’, to Israel. (– colloquial Hebrew - עלייה  - rising up, or Immigrating ). Emily was recently hired by the Green Olive Collective to manage Made In Peace, the e-commerce division of the organisation.


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New tourism: learning about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

- by Ksenia Svetlova -

Enjoying a Sabbath meal at a West Bank settlement, meeting Palestinian artists in Ramallah, popping over to Israel’s border to see the Gaza Strip from there — a growing number of tourists is interested in seeing more than just the regular tourist sites and attractions of the Holy Land. They want to hear about the people living here, Jews and Palestinians alike, and learn about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict from up close. These aren’t study groups that come to Israel and the West Bank with some specific educational objective. They are “ordinary” tourists, who are taking a break from their busy lives, and paying good money to boot, just to experience the complex realities of this land for themselves. What they find is light-years away from any glittery ad campaign.

Green Olive's very own Yahav Zohar explaining the complex geopolitics of Jerusalem

It is not just educational or political groups such as anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence that now offer alternative tours of contested areas such as Hebron. Various companies offer fascinating tours of Israel, the West Bank, and the Palestinian territories, bringing tourists to places that few Israelis have actually seen. For example, Green Olive Tours offers tourists a chance to participate in the olive harvest with Palestinians, visit the old city in Nablus and see street artist Banksy’s work in Ramallah as part of their daily tours. In contrast, Mejdi Tours takes tour groups to visit Jewish settlements and Palestinian villages, and offers a rich cultural program that focuses, among other things, on the works of Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish

Aziz Abu Sara, a Palestinian from East Jerusalem who founded Mejdi Tours 10 years ago, told Al-Monitor that this market of “more responsible and engaged tourism” is part of a growing international phenomenon. “Tourists want to see more than just the required sites. They also want to learn about real life in the places they visit,” he said. “It is impossible to understand the challenges of the people living here without talking to them and getting to know them. There used to be no companies that offered things like that. We were the first company to offer tours based on the two narratives. Our groups always have a Palestinian guide and an Israeli guide. People laughed at us at first and said that no one would come. But then we started to work with an large variety of groups, ranging from educational groups to tourists looking for exclusive tours. What they all had in common was a desire to understand what is really happening in Israel and [Palestine]. They wanted to learn about the impact of globalization and to connect with the situation on the ground locally.” 

Abu Sara noted that at first, there were few groups that came to hear both narratives and participate in a different kind of tour — one that was completely out of the box. Over the past decade, however, Israel has launched three military operations in the Gaza Strip — Operation Cast Lead in 2008, Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014 — and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have entered into a state of deep freeze. Because of this, he explained, many tourists do not want to make do with the usual visits to Jerusalem, Nazareth and Tel Aviv. They are interested in the locals, each of whom has a unique story. He added that hundreds of groups have taken part in these alternative tours in the past year alone.

Fred Schlomka, CEO of Green Olive Tours, was born in Scotland to parents with Palestinian roots. He told Al-Monitor that a growing number of tourists join alternative tours because there has been a significant increase in the number of tourists to Israel in general. He said that most tourists who visit Israel, also visit the Palestinian territories.

The Ministry of Tourism believes that Israel will break another record in 2019 by hosting about 5 million tourists. About half of them are independent tourists, who do not come to Israel on a package tour. Green Olive Tours offers visits to refugee camps in Ramallah and Bethlehem, and home hospitality with Israeli and Palestinian families. “We also have tourists who volunteer in refugee camps or in schools in Palestinian Authority areas,” Schlomka said. Abu Sara’s Mejdi Tours goes beyond Israel and Palestine by offering a wide variety of tours to regions of conflict, ranging from Iraqi Kurdistan to Ukraine.

In answer to the question whether they believe tourists get a different perspective as a result of these tours, Schlomka said, “That is certainly our goal. We want these tourists to go home as ambassadors of a just peace in this land. Nothing makes me happier than getting emails from visitors who tell me that when they returned home, they joined a group interested in promoting peace, or that they approached their member of Congress and asked exactly what he or she is doing to advance this objective.”

According to Abu Sara, there are precise figures about how these tours impact their guests. “A young doctoral student examined the impact of the tours we offer. When she interviewed tourists about one year after their trip, 83% of them told her that [following their trip] they had developed more compassion for the other side. In other words, those who arrived with pro-Israel leanings felt more compassion for the Palestinians, while those who were pro-Palestinian felt more compassion for the Israeli side. For us that means that we achieved our objective. We are different from other groups that offer political tours. Unlike them, we work very hard not to turn the experience into propaganda. We don’t do that. Our goal is to enrich the information for the tourists, so that they hear both sides and feel more compassion,” he said.

The reviews on TripAdvisor of Mejdi Tours and Green Olive Tours include several moving testimonies about experiences that changed these tourists’ perspectives on what happens in the region.

Since there is a global trend of more attentive tourism, it would be safe to assume that many more tourists who want to visit places off the beaten track will be arriving here in the next few years. They will want to get to know Israelis and Palestinians, and will end up going home with new insights. Encouraged as it is by this rise in tourist numbers, Israel should prepare for a new kind of tourism — visitors who are much more aware but also more critical.

Ksenia Svetlova, a former Knesset member for Hatnua, is currently a fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. She previously worked as a senior analyst and reporter on Middle East affairs for Israel's Channel 9. She covered Gaza and the West Bank and also reported from Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Tunisia and other Arab countries. She is an expert on Middle Eastern affairs and is fluent in Arabic, Russian, Hebrew and English. This article was orginially published by Al Monitor.


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