Eastern avenues

Tourists are now likely to see both the Western Wall and the security wall.

fence 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
fence 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jerusalem is an indisputable must on the itinerary of every tourist who comes through Israel. Historically, religiously and culturally, the city is bursting with sites to be seen, rituals to experience and monuments to view. Traditional tours of the city generally focus on these elements, largely within the Old City walls. A relatively new and popular tour is that of the tunnels which have been excavated underneath the Western Wall. But despite all its rich offerings, or perhaps because of them, Jerusalem is also an intensely conflicted city, historically divided and while politically reunited, perpetually straddling lines. It is difficult to travel through the city without feeling the history and tension, bearing witness to struggles both physical and metaphysical. While some visitors and residents of Jerusalem absorb these conflicts peripherally and indirectly, others explicitly seek them out, trying to understand and explain the situation and challenges of the Holy City. In line with this type of thinking, a different kind of tourist has emerged, not only in Israel, but throughout the Middle East and in other parts of the world. This is the politically-minded tourist, one who is looking to see world conflicts up-close and seeking to gain greater understanding through travel. To meet this demand, a new breed of "alternative tours" has become increasingly popular, aiming to show visitors (as well as locals) a different side of Jerusalem, somewhat off the beaten track and rife with questions, challenges and politics. In Israel, specifically in Jerusalem, many tourists want to see both the Western Wall and the security wall, Jerusalem both east and west, and to hear multiple perspectives of life in the capital. The supply and demand for this type of tourism goes both ways. Both in response to this demand and in line with their own mission statements, organizations such as B'Tselem, Ir Amim, Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions offer alternative tours of Jerusalem. Additionally, some of these organizations actively seek out tour participants, both international and domestic, to raise awareness and publicity about certain political and municipal issues.. According to Rebecca Polivy, candidate for a masters in conflict transformation at the School for International Training in Brattleboro, Vermont, who is writing her thesis on alternative tours of Jerusalem and their prospects for peacebuilding, "Alternative tourism has become an important tool in the work of peace and activist organizations in Israel, especially in and around Jerusalem" because "Jerusalem remains one of the most contentious issues of the conflict." One expression of that contention is the range of Jerusalem tours offered. An organization that runs alternative tours on the Right side of the ideological spectrum, for example, is the nonprofit Ateret Cohanim, also known as the Jerusalem Reclamation Project. While the form its tours take - a combination of walking and bus tours - is similar to its left-wing counterparts, the content of its tours differs. With Ateret Cohanim, tourists explore the "revival of Jewish life" and the "reclamation of old Jewish property" in east Jerusalem, explains spokesman Daniel Luria. An Ateret Cohanim walking tour of the Old City will take you primarily into the old Jewish quarter, today's Muslim quarter. And an on-and-off bus tour will weave you through Jewish neighborhoods just outside the Old City, like Abu Tor, Kidmat Zion (the part of Abu Dis that falls within city limits) and Ma'aleh Hazeitim, which is located in the Arab neighborhood of Ras el-Amud. These tours, said Luria, have as their audience "any Jew who wants to understand what's going on in the battle for Jerusalem." Meanwhile, the left-wing tours, while also looking at the entwined mix of Jewish and Arab communities within municipal boundaries, tend to highlight segments of the security fence that are opposed by specific communities, restrictions on movement for Palestinians, separation of people from their lands or communities, citizenship and differences in social service provision. The terms of the route and sites visited with these tours is similar, even as their focus, goals and approach may vary. B'Tselem works to educate the Israeli public about and document human rights violations in the West Bank and Gaza. While its projects cover multiple issues, the organization devotes much energy to matters affecting east Jerusalem and the construction of the security fence, working to change Israeli policy in the Palestinian Authority-controlled territories. Their tours use a collection of first-hand accounts to illustrate the challenges the fence poses to human rights. Stops along the tour often include Abu Dis, Sheikh Sa'id, and the Jerusalem side of Beit Jala/Bethlehem. While these locations are not unique to B'Tselem tours, the personal emphasis is. At each stop, the group hears from a designated individual, arranged by the tour guide in advance, who shares his/her personal story and sometimes a cup of tea, which complements the history, background and larger picture presented by the guide throughout the tour. Founded in 2004 to focus solely on issues related to Jerusalem, Ir Amim has given tours to nearly 10,000 participants. With a mission statement of promoting an "equitable and stable future with an agreed political future" for Jerusalem, its main aim is to expose as many people as possible to the reality at hand without affiliation to any specific political party or institution. At the beginning, Ir Amim tours catered to high-ranking ambassadors, officials, journalists, community leaders and other influential figures. However, beginning in February 2006 it opened up its tours to the public to reach a wider audience. Tours discuss security concerns, humanitarian concerns and long-term implications of the security fence on Jerusalem and its residents. Aiming to promote and protect the Jewish tradition of human rights, Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) has added alternative tours of east Jerusalem and the security fence to its repertoire of diverse projects and programs. RHR gives tours to organized groups, but depending on scheduling, will not always arrange private tours. As is evident from its name, the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, or ICAHD, was established to promote non-violent opposition to the demolition of Palestinian homes. However, on a broader level the organization strives to promote a "just and sustainable peace" and uses alternative tours as one method of disseminating information. ICAHD describes its tours as critical and issue-based, and designed to present "the facts on the ground." Through these tours and other activities, they work to raise awareness about issues of house demolitions, the security fence, land expropriation, settlement expansion and more. Depending on your individual background, these tours may be in line with your thinking or could challenge your beliefs to the core. After an Ir Amim tour one participant commented, "Now I can connect what I hear from politicians, television and newspapers to the actual situation. This tour gives basis and context and a critical lens through which to process different opinions about the conflict and the city." Luria disagrees. For him, tours led by left-wing organizations "are only trying to divide and put up walls between people," whereas tours offered by organizations such as his, he said, are "working to improve relations with Arab neighbors through coexistence and understanding." Doron Spielman, of the Ir David Foundation, whose immensely popular tours of the City of David drew 300,000 visitors last year, perhaps summed it up best: "No matter where anyone stands politically, ethnically or religiously, someone will find a tour to make them happy." With contributions from Tamar LaFontaine.