A WOMAN walks past campaign posters for the Arab-led Hadash party in the Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahm.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Look! The Jews are watching us!” shouted a child in the Arab town of Sakhnin as we passed a group of children who were launching a toy hot-air balloon. They were excited about the group of Jewish visitors who were strolling through the town that night, eager to experience the bustling streets and the stalls selling sweets after the end of the Ramadan fast and iftar meal.
The children were surprised, because Jewish tourists in an Arab town are, alas, a very rare sight.
But we can and should change this. There are two reasons why it is important to encourage internal tourism to Arab communities. First, it can serve as a strong catalyst for their economic development and help them deal with the problem of providing jobs, especially for women, which stems in part from their distance from the main centers of employment in the country.
Tourism is also a local enterprise that holds great potential for economic development.
Second, visits to Arab localities by Jewish tourists are an effective way to deal with the estrangement, alienation and fear that divide the Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel.
The unmediated encounter between Arab and Jewish citizens that these tours promote has managed to create a small breach in the walls of suspicion, hostility and prejudice.
The potential is immense, and there is much to see. Within a few minutes’ walk at the summit of Shefar’am there are beautiful churches, an impressive mosque, an ancient and well-preserved synagogue, a Crusader fortress and a stunning view that extends from the Mediterranean to the heart of the Galilee.
Umm al-Fahm has an excellent art gallery and breathtaking view from the top of Mount Iskander.
Many Arab localities in the Triangleand Galilee provide opportunities to meet people engaged in ancient crafts, visit small museums of local culture, and more.
You might think that in the present situation of conflict it is chimerical to believe that Jewish tourists can be attracted to Arab towns.
In fact, it’s no dream at all, but reality. In recent years, Sikkuy has run a project to develop tourism in the Arab localities, with funding from the United States government (USAID). We cooperate with local tourism associations, in which Jews and Arabs work together, to develop the tourism infrastructure and design tours of Arab towns and villages.
This past Ramadan, we were able to bring thousands of Jews for Ramadan night excursions to dozens of Arab localities, from Kafr Qassem and Tira in the southern Triangle, through Umm al-Fahm in Wadi Ara, and on to Sakhnin in the Galilee.
This is not culinary tourism. The tours include an encounter with the Arab citizens’ culture, religions, positions, and narratives. The memorials to the tragic encounters between the State and its Arab citizens are also on the tourist map and promote exposure to the Arabs’ narrative.
Indeed, the Jews who took part in tours of the Arab localities spoke of an enjoyable and interesting experience that challenged their previous attitudes about the Arab citizens. So there is no doubt that this project contributes to better relations between Jews and Arabs and can serve as the foundation for building a shared and more equal society for Jews and Arabs in Israel.
But it is really the government that should be developing tourism to Arab localities. For many years it invested in developing tourism to Jewish communities in the country, while discriminating against the Arabs and leaving them outside the domain of government investments and off the tourist map.
The last few years have witnessed a certain change in policy. The government has invested tens of millions of shekels in developing tourism to Druse villages and placing them on the Israeli tourist map. Recently it has begun to make similar investments in other Arab localities as well. During the past Ramadan, the Galilee Development Authority, in cooperation with the Tourism Ministry, sponsored Ramadan events in Arab towns, and the government launched a campaign encouraging people to visit Arab localities all over the country.
On the symbolic plane, this represents a significant step forward in government policy. But to rectify decades of discrimination in touristic development in the Arab sector, and to deal with the walls of fear and estrangement, the government needs to put an end to the budgetary inequity, significantly increase the budget for touristic development in Arab localities and invest in the preservation of historic sites, in signs, in training guides and local tourism agents, in advertising and more.
The experience of the past month shows that such investment would place the Arab localities on the Israeli tourism map. And that would be good for all the citizens of Israel, Arabs and Jews alike.The author is the co-executive director of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality.