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Holy Land pilgrims: in search of living stones. (alternative tours in Israel-Palestine)

From: The Christian Century - 17th July 1996 by Trudy Bush
While this article is more than a decade old, the issues raised are as relevant today as they were when it was written. Of course in the meanwhile there has also been the 2nd Intifada and the subsequent destruction of Palestinian infrastructure and the strangling of their economy.

Israeli/Jewish dominance of the Holy Land tourist trade is slowly being penetrated by Palestinian Christian firms. They are developing their own network of transport, lodging and restaurants. Contact numbers of 5 such alternative tour, and work-service organizations, are provided.

Medical personnel have long been aware of a strange form of hysteria that attacks some pilgrims to the Holy Land. "Jerusalem syndrome" manifests itself especially among American Protestants - people well rounded in the Bible - who suddenly shout prophecies or proclaim that they are Jesus, Mary Magdalene, John the Baptist or some other biblical figure. More than a hundred cases are treated each year at a government mental-health center in Jerusalem. The director of the center believes that the syndrome is triggered by the pilgrim's encounter with a reality that is dramatically different from his or her prior image of the Holy Land. These tourists are disappointed and frustrated, and their reaction is to try and lift their spirits by losing control. They do things they wouldn't do elsewhere."

Most visitors maintain their grip on reality, of course. But many deal with the dissonance between the biblical land of their imaginations and the bustling, conflict-ridden place they actually encounter by distancing themselves from the contemporary reality.

Unfortunately, the standard tour to Israel can encourage such an approach by keeping visitors at a distance from the political, social and religious realities. It gives people almost no sense that an indigenous Christian community still flourishes in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Many Christian travelers never meet any of the local Christians or worship with local congregations. Often they are not even aware of the churches from their own traditions in cities like Jerusalem. The groups stay in Israeli hotels and are led by Israeli guides who have a great deal of book knowledge about Christian holy places, but regard the Christian Holy Land as a kind of theme park.

Opportunities for visiting the Holy land are plentiful, especially for pastors, who can often receive a free trip in exchange for recruiting and hosting a certain number of people. Tour companies have these kinds of tour down pat: they are smoothly organized and easy to host. But in such tours the political and economic situation is presented entirely from the Israeli point of view. Tourists are told not to speak about political matters with the Palestinian shopkeepers and service workers they encounter. Tourists are often unaware that many of these Arab shopkeepers and bus drivers are fellow Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Quakers and Episcopalians. And since tour members are discouraged from speaking with these Arabs, Muslim and Christian alike, they learn nothing about their history or political and economic situation.

The frustration that indigenous Christians feel with such tourism is summed up by Father Elias Chacour, a Melkite priest who has founded a high school and a college in Ibillin, near Nazareth. "You Westeners have been coming to the Holy Land for centuries to visit the shrines, the dead stones. But you do not see the living stones - the human beings who live and struggle before your eyes. I say 'Wake up!' What matters are the living stones!"

As Palestinian Christians prepare for the time when they will be free of the Israeli occupation and have some control over their own land and tourist industry, they are working on plans for a new form of Holy Land tourism. Ghassan Andoni, a Palestinian Christian who heads the recently formed Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), is working to develop an environmentally sound tourism that would protect the character of Palestinian villages. The more than 800 small villages that dot the countryside of the West Bank were founded 500 to 800 years ago and still retain much of their ancient character. Here, Andoni says, people can experience a way of life no longer available in the Western world.

Andoni proposes to build small, comfortable hotels and open good restaurants, coffee shops and museums in such villages. Tourists can then visit the Holy Land's major religious and historical sites during the day and return to traditional village life in the evening. This kind of tourism, Andoni feels, is far better suited to this dry land of water shortages and inadequate sewage systems than is the kind of mass tourism Israel promotes. Andoni worries that the environment can't sustain Israel's plans to triple the number of tourists by the year 2000 - a number that would double the present population of the area.

But Israel has had almost 30 years to develop its tourist industry, and its political and military dominance has made things difficult for Palestinians who want to work in tourism. Since 1968 Israel has licensed only three new Palestinian guides. It has developed huge tourist hotels and transport companies, created a sophisticated marketing organization in Europe and the U.S. and put together with tour operators travel packages that are profitable and demand little effort to organize. Control of access to airports and highways has for 28 years given Israel the power to discourage Palestinians from trying to enter this lucrative tourism market.

Palestinians hope that even the limited autonomy they have received under the peace process will help them break into the trade. Much of the infrastructure is already in place. Four new hotels are being built in Bethlehem. East Jerusalem has many four-star, Palestinian-owned hotels, such as the National Palace, the Ritz, the Meridian and the Ambassador. Israel has indicated some openness to recognizing Palestinian-licensed guides, and both Andoni's group and Bethlehem University have begun tour-training programs. Many Palestinian tour agents have been in business for years and know how to arrange economical tours for Christian travelers.

Andoni is focusing on niche marketing, developing special tours for the 30-40 percent of visitors who have been in the Holy Land before and don't want to repeat the always-the-same packaged tour or who are sympathetic to Palestinians and interested in their culture. He is taking groups on day trips to places not on the standard itinerary, such as Hebron and Nablus. "When I first proposed going there," he states, "people told me it was impossible. They said, "There's no organization there, no security. Tourists would feel uneasy there.' But local people volunteered to help. Every group we have sent has been invited into people's homes. Nothing unpleasant has ever happened. We take people to the old city and to the tomb of the patriarchs in Hebron and to the old marketplaces in Nablus. We go to the bazaar, we visit the Turkish bath, and everywhere we go we meet gentle, hospitable people."

Andoni doesn't want people to hear only the Palestinian Christian point of view, either. ATG tours include meetings with Palestinian Muslims, Jewish settlers and Israeli peace groups. Word of the success of the tours has spread. More than 40 groups have asked him to plan such trips.

To break the Israeli advantage in mass tourism, Andoni and other Palestinian promoters will have to establish their own network of hotels, restaurants and transportation companies so that a tour operator can set up a tour with no more than a couple of phone calls, yet have an itinerary that will do a better job of educating and challenging tourists. Such tours will have to be both smaller and more individual than today's standard package. Andoni's organization has begun marketing in such European countries as Holland and Sweden. He does not yet have a liaison in the U.S., but will work directly with American groups.

There are other alternatives for American Christians. Since the late '70s, the Middle East Council of Churches's Ecumenical Travel Office (ETO), located in Jerusalem, has been arranging tours and study opportunities for special groups, such as seminarians and other students. Recently the ETO expanded its staff to five, and it has begun to serve a wide variety of church-related groups. ETO has arranged for groups to meet with the last Samaritan Jews in the world, still living on Mt. Gerasim, and to visit more out-of-the-way sites, like the old palace ruins in Sebasti, Jacob's well, Abraham's tomb, and the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. It can also arrange tours of the refugee camps in Gaza and meetings and worship with Palestinian Christians.

Of growing importance for Christians seeking alternative tours are work camps. The ETO has worked with a number of denominations to set up 10- or 12-day touring and work-camp experiences. Each group takes a five-to six-day tour and then works on a project to benefit Palestinian Christians for another five to six days in Bethlehem or Ramallah or Jericho. An ETO Baptist group this summer is renovating El Khadar school, an alternative school that focuses on democracy and peace. A series of United Methodist groups have been working at the YMCA Vocational School in Jericho.

ETO is not the only Christian group organizing work camps. Bonnie Jones Gehweiler was spurred to action by a chance remark Bethlehem Mayor Elias Freij made about how Palestinian Christians were deeply saddened by the fact that they were too poor to host a proper celebration of Jesus' birth in 2000. Gehweiler has organized the Bethlehem 2000 Initiative of work-study teams with the help of the Alternative Travel Group and Bob and Peggy Hannum, formerly United Methodist liaisons in Jerusalem. For approximately $1,700 per person, groups can have a 16-day experience that includes meeting and working with (and in some cases living and eating with) local Christians. The groups work on a variety of projects, including a children's center, church-run schools, clinics, rehabilitation centers and the homes of the elderly. For those with a more political bent, the Church of the Brethren and the Mennonite churches sponsor Christian Peacemaker Teams that provide observation and mediation in areas of tension such as Hebron. Volunteers monitor human rights abuses, offer their services in conflict resolution and give public witness to peace.

Any church bodies, including the Lutheran Church, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and the United Methodist Church, have their own liaison in Jerusalem who can arrange a one- or two-day encounter with Palestinian Christians. John Melin, the Lutheran liaison, says that in the past much of his work consisted of arranging contacts at the last minute for church groups who happened to be in Jerusalem on a standard tour. But it wasn't easy Even if the visiting Lutheran group requested such an encounter, tour operators were often reluctant to oblige if it meant changing the already tight schedule. Melin is encouraging pastor-led tour groups to contact him well in advance and to work ahead of time with the tour operator to allow a day or two free for Christian touring." Working with a Presbyterian pastor, Melin recently set up a two-day trip for only $30 a day per person, including Sunday morning worship with Palestinian Christians, a follow-up dialogue, an afternoon trip to Hebron, and a second day trip to Gaza for half the group and to a Christian village in the West Bank for the other half.

"What was fascinating about that group," Melin reflected, "was that within a day they were thinking about the Holy Land in a whole new way. They thought that they were coming to Israel, but suddenly they realized they had come to Israel-Palestine. Even a day is worthwhile, and it doesn't matter at what point of their itinerary it comes." Melin provides this service for churches of any denomination, as do the ETO and many of the other denominational liaisons.

Motives for pilgrimage are probably always mixed, and many are admirable. By visiting the Holy Land people can increase knowledge and understanding of the Bible and of the faith. Visiting Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem makes the biblical geography become real and the Bible stories come alive. Traveling with other Christians to places important to the faith strengthens the bonds between church members. Reading the Beatitudes on the Mount where Jesus spoke them, sailing on the sea of Galilee, renewing baptismal vows at the Jordan River or taking communion at the garden tomb can enliven faith and renew commitment to the church.

Seldom mentioned but still animating the hearts of some pilgrims are such motives as giving thanks, seeking forgiveness or preparing for death - motives congruent with the Eastern Orthodox understanding of pilgrimage as a conversion experience, ushering one into a new life. And, of course, people have a natural longing to see strange places and encounter the exotic.

But since God also comes to us in and through other people, a journey to the Holy Land is not all it can and should be if it does not put the visitor in contact with the Christian communities living and worshiping there, and with the issues of justice with which they continue to struggle.