Tour Companies That Give Both An Israeli And Palestinian Perspective

To provide tourists with a diverse perspective of the region, some tour companies are starting to include both Israeli and Palestinian guides, who see cities like Tel Aviv through very different eyes.

Hanan Isachar/Getty

JAFFA, ISRAEL—Israeli tour guide Yuval Ben-Ami, 37, waves his arm down the shore towards Tel Aviv. From the Jewish-Israeli perspective, he says, the new city was built entirely on empty sand dunes.

Ben-Ami’s fellow guide, 33-year-old Aziz Abu-Sarah, laughs. The Arab neighborhoods that existed before Tel Aviv’s construction are what Palestinians remember, he says.

It isn’t every day that Israeli and Palestinian guides lead a tour of the area together, offering different perspectives on the sites and stories at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But this recent morning at the ancient Port of Jaffa, a group of 40 Israeli and international tourists gather to see the city through new eyes.

Known in Hebrew as “the beautiful” and in Arabic as “bride of the sea,” Jaffa is full of tourists—about 120 tour buses daily—who visit the lively flea market, antiquities, holy sites, galleries and cafes. Few Israeli tours, however, tell history from the perspective of Jaffa’s Arabs—numbering 16,000 today and 100,000 or so until the 1948 war.

But in recent years, some Israeli tours have started to include the Palestinian narrative, and—even rarer—both Palestinian and Israeli narratives. Mejdi Tours includes both perspectives on their tour. Abu-Sarah launched the company in 2009 with conflict-resolution expert Rabbi Marc Gopin and Scott Cooper, who designs socially-responsible businesses. We want “to honor the vast cultural diversity” and “have positive intercultural exchanges,” Cooper says.

Mejdi’s Israeli and Palestinian guides lead the excursions together, discussing political, cultural and religious history and their own life stories. Tours, which typically run for 10 days and are tailored to a range of budgets and interests, have included synagogue, church and mosque groups; university students; and a member of The Black Eyed Peas. Mejdi also runs National Geographic multi-narrative tours in conflict zones worldwide.

In Jaffa, Ben-Ami tells how he grew up in a Jerusalem neighborhood that international law defines as a settlement. Abu-Sarah shares that he briefly led the youth wing of a Palestinian resistance movement before pursuing a career of nonviolent conflict resolution.

They see their work now as a bridge. “When you listen to someone you disagree with,” explains Abu-Sarah, “he feels respect; then a dialogue starts.”

The two finish each other sentences and jokes, and occasionally drape their arms around each other’s shoulders.

Ben-Ami explains how in the late 19th century, the predominantly Arab city became prosperous and cosmopolitan, with a train to Jerusalem, Beirut, and Alexandria. Turkish, Arabic, Hebrew, Ladino and French echoed in the alleyways.

Though Jaffa remains a mixed Jewish-Arab city, Ben-Ami says the city center is long devoid of its Arab character and inhabitants. In the city’s artist’s colony, signs behind him are written in English and Hebrew, not Arabic. A century ago, Arabs and Jews—especially the native Arabic-speaking Jews—lived peacefully together. But animosity started in the1920s, with Jewish-Arab clashes.

“The 1929 and 1936 revolts didn’t come out of nowhere,” Abu-Sarah says. Jews heard of Arab attacks and Jewish deaths; Arabs heard of Jewish attacks and Arab deaths and deportations, and didn’t understand the massive Jewish immigration, he says. The revolts “were not seen as anti-Jewish but anti-British, for colonizing Palestine…training Jews to attack Palestinians…allowing Jews to smuggle weapons.” The Jews and British were blamed for working together against Arabs, he says, and Arab countries were blamed for not helping.

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But the British were to blame for provoking the Jews and Arabs to fight each other, the two tour guides agree, laughing.

Miki Indyk, an Australian-Israeli living in Tel Aviv, was happy to hear the two banter. “The Palestinian narrative is not known by the Israeli Jew,” she says. “Israeli tour guides are brought up on the Jewish Israeli education. I wanted to see how a Palestinian presented his side.”

Near the mostly Arab Ajami neighborhood, the tour group sits on a beach-side plateau built over torn-off shutters from old Arab homes.

When Jewish militias attacked Jaffa following a 1947 UN resolution recommending two separate states, with Jaffa on the Arab side, tens of thousands of residents fled. They scrambled onto boats to Lebanon, Jordan or Gaza, or raced inland. Thousands also fled the 1948 war. Empty homes in Jaffa—and nationwide—were claimed by the new Israeli state as “absentee property” and re-inhabited, typically, by Jewish refugees.

The city moved the 4,000 remaining Arabs into empty Ajami homes, under military rule. Residents called the neighborhood “the ghetto.” Today’s Arab citizens of Jaffa and the Jaffa refugees never received compensation or rights to their old homes, a memory that hangs over Ajami, Abu-Sarah says.

Ben-Ami explains how the Jewish psyche has been influenced from Arab revolts and attacks through the 20s, 30s and 40s, as well as witnessing what the Holocaust survivors had been through.

“Our sense of vulnerability, we still carry in our identity from that,” he says.

Walking in Ajami, where tourists rarely tread, Ben-Ami remembers his three years living there.

The new Jewish residents, he says, are those who engage with the Arab communities and learn Arabic; professionals who come for the charm but are disconnected from Arabs; and those who buy buildings, displacing Arabs settled there in 1948 without deeds.

“I lived in harmony with my neighbors,” he says. “Then one night at 2am the downstairs neighbor was hammering…I asked him to be quiet. He shouted, ‘This is Jaffa! If you don’t like it, go back to Ramat Gan [a Tel Aviv suburb].’ I told him, ‘I don’t know anyone in Ramat Gan; I just want to sleep’!”

When quiet, he realized that the quarrel was a metaphor for the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The Palestinian was saying ‘go back to [Europe]’;[the Jew] was saying ‘Everyone I knew in [Europe] is dead; this is my home and I want quiet’. The next morning I brought him coffee…asked him if he had had a hard day yesterday….he said yes! …we ended up going out for breakfast.”

The Mejdi tour was the first time Tel Aviv University student Tamar Elman had heard guides debate such contentious issues. “When I was a tour guide in the army, I was taught not to say my opinion,” she says. “Israelis don’t know enough about the other religions.”

A church coordinator on the tour, who says he was not permitted to give his name, says that just as Jews need to know the Palestinian narrative, Christians and Muslims “need to know the Jewish story, to understand how Israelis feel, even if they don’t agree.”

Tourism in Jaffa reflects Israel’s education system, teaching Jewish, not Arab, narratives, says Tel Aviv University researcher Chemi Shiff, who studies the use of Jaffa’s historical sites in city planning. He cites one example: a plaque on Jaffa’s Saraya building that describes the place as a former terrorist headquarters.

There is no mention of the Arab claim that it was a municipal building in 1948, when a Jewish militia blew up a truck in front, killing kindergarten children inside, says Shiff.

“Tour groups don’t go to Ajami,” he added, “transforming Palestinian culture in to a relic.”

“Israel is a Jewish state that memorializes all its citizens murdered in terror attacks or wars without consideration to religion or affiliations,” a city spokesperson says. “In the last decade all of the signs are at least in Hebrew, Arabic and English.”

She added, “As a free country, we do not control what the tourists learn and see.”

But Abu-Sarah thinks tourism and tourists should take more initiative to see all sides. “Before you go forward to talk about the future,” he says, “you must understand where your adversary comes from.”