Picture this scene for a moment: An Israeli tour guide with a kippa on his head
leading a group of Muslim Palestinians around the Church of the Holy
“Incongruous” doesn’t even begin to describe it. Yet that is
exactly what happened two weeks ago when a group of 30 Israelis and Palestinians
participated in a project called “Tiyul-Rihle” (the Hebrew and Arabic words for
“trip.”) The concept behind Tiyul-Rihle was born in 2010 at a workshop sponsored
by the Center for Emerging Futures (CEF) which brings together Israeli and
Palestinian grassroots activists committed to building constructive peace
The idea came about when one of the Palestinian
participants, Rawan J., mentioned that she had never been to either the sea or
to Jerusalem. Rawan said that all her life she had dreamed of visiting Al-Aksa
Nir Boms, one of the organizers of the trip, invited Rawan to his
house in Jerusalem and promised to take her to the mosque. Being a devout
Muslim, Rawan explained that as a woman it is not permitted for her to travel
alone with a man to whom she is not related, and she asked if she might bring
along some relatives. The episode marked the inception of the idea of
As with many of the Palestinian participants interviewed,
Rawan asked that her last name remain anonymous. However, she is quick to add,
“You can keep my first name. I am proud of what I have done.”
22-year-old resident of the village of Beit Awwa, south of Hebron, Rawan
describes how she felt prior to attending her first CEF workshop – called Global
Village Square (GVS) – a little over two years ago.
“I was so, so afraid.
This was the first time I would really meet Jewish people. I thought, ‘Oh God,
what have I done?’ In my mind, when I thought about [Jews] I saw just the army.
All of them are soldiers.
I thought, ‘maybe they will kill us, they have
guns.’” Following the GVS workshop, Rawan’s attitude changed
“We had some amazing conversations there. They were normal.
I found myself asking, ‘Are these Israelis, are these Jews?’ They are really
amazing people. They want peace for us, they want a good life for us. Some of
them became my best friends. This was a major point in my life that totally
Rawan said that following her first experience with
Israelis, she encountered a lot of resistance from her community.
people said to me ‘You can’t do that.’ It was a challenge. But I said, I can do
it because I believe I can make peace with Israelis.”
She describes the
first Tiyul-Rihle, in which the group was taken to Jaffa.
“Some of [the
Palestinians] were 30 years old and had never seen the sea.
When we got
there, they went straight in with their clothes on. Oh God, it was such a happy
moment!” The concept behind Tiyul-Rihle differs from other peace and coexistence
projects in that none of the activities revolve around political discussions.
The main aim is to allow the two sides to learn about the history and heritage
of the other and to become more informed.
One of the participants, Dara
Frank, an immigrant from the US, explained it thus: “Israelis and Palestinians
have become so alienated from each other that they no longer understand who the
other is. They don’t understand each other’s history, culture, interests or
When groups of Israelis and Palestinians do meet to discuss
the conflict, dialogue is routinely stunted due to the fact that commonly used
terms don’t carry the same meaning for both sides. Most discussions that take
place revolve around politics or personal stories of pain and suffering but the
broader context is missing.
We believe that context is fundamental to
understanding current realities and seeing ahead to the future.
change this reality, Tiyul-Rihle takes a small step back in order to allow the
two sides to learn about the history and heritage of the other. Through an
interactive and educational visit to the other side, participants will better
understand the other’s point of view.”
The project aims to introduce the
land and its inhabitants through tourism and personal encounters. The tours,
though non-political by definition, aim to stimulate meaningful experiences. The
program is structured around sites of historical significance that trigger
conversations about both past and present. The composition of the group allows
both sides to meet, digest information, and continue their conversations in an
THE SECOND Tiyul-Rihle, which took place in December,
focused on educating Israelis about Palestinian heritage and history, and to
that end, a group of 25 Israelis, who had been given special permits, were taken
to Bethlehem and Jericho. Sarah Allen, a resident of Jerusalem who is also one
of the trip’s organizers, recalls her trepidation before going.
didn’t know what to expect. We had been told [by the Palestinian organizers] to
try and refrain from talking Hebrew in Jericho. But it was so obvious that we
were a group of Israelis. Yet when we met [the locals], they were all so
friendly. I remember one man saying, ‘Now you can go back home and tell your
friends that we are good people and that we want peace.’” Allen remembers being
amazed by some of the reactions from the Palestinians. Following a visit to the
Western Wall, one of the Palestinians remarked, “Now I know that the Kotel is
important to you.”
Allen said, “To me, that understatement says it all. I
remember thinking, ‘how come you don’t know that already? I know that Al-Aksa is
important to you.’ Perhaps the fact that I grew up in the a Western, Christian
society [the US], I had some level of awareness about the people who surrounded
me. I know about Christmas and what it means. So I was surprised by just how
much the societies in Israel are segregated. [The Palestinians] live and work in a Jewish land but
they don’t know anything about Jews. The only they know about Succot and Pessah,
for example, is that the shtahim [territories] get closed and they can’t go to
But Allen stresses that the thing that most surprised her was her
own lack of knowledge. Beforehand, Allen had prided herself with being open and
aware but she maintains that going on the trips allowed her to face her own
ignorance and say, “Oh, here are all the things I didn’t know.”
like an iceberg. All the obvious things are on top but the not-so-obvious things
remain below the surface,” Allen said.
Last month, Tiyul-Rihle’s
three-day excursion took participants to Haifa, Acre and Jerusalem. The first
day included a visit to the Bahai Gardens, the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Nisnas,
and Beit Hagefen, Haifa’s Arab-Jewish cultural center. The latter’s director,
Maher Mahamid, espoused the following sentiment: “You can choose not to agree
with someone, but it has to come from a place of understanding. We need to be
able to see people, not ‘the enemy.’ But in the end, we can change only
ourselves. And it’s a long process.”
Mahamid’s colleague, executive
director for Beit Hagefen Assaf Ron, discussed the importance of questioning
one’s preconceived notions. He ascertains that since things are not always as
they appear to be, every idea must be evaluated on its own.
“I live in
Gilboa, near Jenin,” he said.
“Since the [security] fence was built there
have been no incidents. Before [the fence], I couldn’t sleep, I was so
Ironically, the first people to say thankyou for the fence were
actually Arabs who live in [a village] right by the fence.
they were suffering from thieves and the like.”
The next day, the group
visited the Museum of Illegal Immigration in Atlit.
The Palestinians were
visibly shocked to learn about the hardships Jews went through at the hands of
the British when they attempted to smuggle themselves into Palestine before,
during and after the war and from Arab countries. They learned of the suffering
that some 122,000 ma’apilim (illegal immigrants) endured in detention
“Until today, I didn’t realize that the Jews really had nowhere to
go,” said Muhammad, a participant from Kalkilya.
After the museum, the
group visited the ancient Tunisian synagogue in Acre, and for many it was the
first time that they had ever been in one. For Allen, her experience in the
synagogue was the highlight of her trip.
“I blew the shofar for the group
in the synagogue. It was moving for me to be in such a beautiful place in Elul
where we are supposed to be waking up to ourselves in getting ready for Rosh
It was the kind of moment that is particularly Jewish, but the
sound of the shofar is quite universal. The sounds that emerged were loud, clear
and confident, and almost brought it home for me that meeting Palestinians and
planning trips like this is the right thing for me to be doing at this point in
THAT EVENING, the group traveled to Jerusalem and slept in a
hostel. For many, the visit to Jerusalem was the most eye-opening experience of
all. In the morning, an Arabic-language tour was arranged for the participants
at Yad Vashem. For most Palestinians, knowledge of the Holocaust is severely
limited and is only touched upon in school.
As Rawan remarked, “We know
Jews suffered by the Germans but that’s about it. In school, we focus on
national things about Palestine. About how the Jews stole our country and how
the Jewish people pushed the Palestinians out.”
Noor Amro, another Arab
from Jerusalem, agrees: “Going to Yad Vashem changed my thoughts. If someone
asks me about it, at least now I can answer them properly and not with the
information that I learned in school which was very shallow.”
journalist joined the group at Yad Vashem and asked them some pointed – and
rather provocative – questions. For instance, what do they think of the idea of
building a Nakba museum adjacent to Yad Vashem? Yovav Kalifon, another of the
trip’s organizers who lives in Jerusalem, was quick to point out that the
dangers of equating the Holocaust and Nakba (“disaster,” a term referring to the
establishment of the State of Israel).
“For the Egyptian journalist – and
indeed for many Palestinians – the Holocaust led to Nakba, so there is an
intrinsic link. But that isn’t so.
The word Nakba is not just about a
historical event, it has political connotations also. As such, Nakba isn’t just
about human suffering. Yad Vashem, on the other hand, does not attempt to make a
political, or Zionist, point.”
For many of the Palestinians however, the
link between the two events was already firmly embedded in their
As Mutasem H., an organizer from Wadi Joz, pointed out, “Before
going to Yad Vashem, I didn’t realize that the situation with the Jews was so
messed up. I didn’t know that there was only one solution: To come here. I now
have better connections with the other side and it makes me want to show them
the suffering on our side.”
Following the visit to Yad Vashem, the group
was taken on a tour around the Old City. They received strange looks from
passersby who were trying to figure out what they were seeing: a tour given half
in English and half in Hebrew by a religious Jew, with simultaneous translation
into Arabic by Mutasem. The group was a motley crew of Palestinians, Israeli
Arabs and Israelis from both ends of the political and religious
Regarding the remarkable diversity of the group, Kalifon
explains, “It isn’t just for leftists or for secular Jews and
The neutral approach means that [Tiyul- Rihle] appeals to people
with a wide range of political and religious views.
Because it’s balanced
and it’s about history, anybody should be able to find the trips
While the group went on a tour inside the church, some of
the religious Israelis chose to remain outside – in accordance with Jewish
Ibrahim, a resident of S h e i k h J a r r a h , serves as a prime
example of just how diverse the group was. Ibrahim is a selfconfessed atheist
from a Muslim home who dresses and talks like a gangsta rapper from New
Throughout the trip, Ibrahim provided comic relief for the group,
and didn’t bother censoring himself with his rather racist jokes. Ultimately,
though, Ibrahim’s somewhat tactless approach served as an ice-breaker and
allowed the others to freely speak their minds and to engage in heated debates
with one another.
Ibrahim expressed the importance of free speech during
the group’s wrap-up and reflection circle in the Old City overlooking the Temple
“We’re always scared of the other side.
We always fear what
we have to say. But [here] there were no limits to our conversation.
could talk about anything.”
Ibrahim, who also admitted his dire lack of
knowledge regarding “the suffering of the Jews,” concluded thus: “It is my dream
to see something different happening here.”
Mutasem added, “At the end of
the trip you are just full with thoughts about religion, history and people. But
you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge and you usually hate what you don’t
know or understand. It’s so important to go to the other and ask him about his
history and his religion as opposed to just judging or learning from people who
actually know nothing. Even though nothing really has changed, now that I
understand the conflict better at least my thoughts and ideas have
For Muhammad from Kalkilya, it was his first encounter with
“At the beginning, it was hard for me,” he said. “I didn’t know
how it would be.
I never, ever imagined that one day I would be sleeping,
eating and talking with Israelis.”
Going forward, the organizers
expressed their hope that Tiyul-Rihle would be further expanded, and perhaps one
day even those from the more extreme elements of society – such as the
settlements – could be convinced to join.
But in order to grow the
project, some key issues that put constraints on Tiyul- Rihle need ironing out.
First is the issue of funding: Although some of the expenses were covered by
private donors, a substantial portion of the costs was provided by the
participants themselves. For Palestinians – especially those from the West Bank
– even a nominal fee of NIS 350 was a hefty price to pay and as a result many
were forced to decline.
The second issue was arranging permits for those
travelling from the West Bank.
Many of those who applied were turned down
without any given reason.
However, there were two participants who
managed to obtain permits even though it was stipulated on the actual permits
that they shouldn’t have received them in the first place.
expressed his commitment to smooth out these issues and others in the future.
Quoting Robert Kennedy, he said: “I dream of things that never were and ask, why
not? We need to do our part and work hard. After all, this side – the side of
peace – needs to win.”