A history and heritage tour

Tiyul-Rihle takes Israelis and Palestinians to places they have never been - literally and figuratively.

Tour of Yad Vashem 521 (photo credit: Dara Frank)
Tour of Yad Vashem 521
(photo credit: Dara Frank)
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 Sepulchre.
“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 initiatives.
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 mosque.
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 Tiyul-Rihle.
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.”
A 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 drastically.
“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 changed me.”
Rawan said that following her first experience with Israelis, she encountered a lot of resistance from her community.
“Many 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 objectives.
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.
“To 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 informal manner.
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.
“We 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 work.”
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.”
“It’s 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 scared.
Ironically, the first people to say thankyou for the fence were actually Arabs who live in [a village] right by the fence.
Beforehand, 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 camps.
“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 Hashana.
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 my life.”
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.”
An Egyptian 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 minds.
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 spectrums.
Regarding the remarkable diversity of the group, Kalifon explains, “It isn’t just for leftists or for secular Jews and Muslims.
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 interesting.”
While the group went on a tour inside the church, some of the religious Israelis chose to remain outside – in accordance with Jewish law.
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 York.
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 Mount.
“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.
We 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 improved.”
For Muhammad from Kalkilya, it was his first encounter with Israelis.
“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.
Nir Boms 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.”