City of Peoples, City of Nations
According to TripAdvisor, the City of David National Park is the 7th best reviewed tourist destination in Jerusalem - a significant archeological site where visitors can “rediscover the holy city’s biblical past.” It is positioned at the foot of Silwan, a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem located just across the street from the walls of the Old City. Most people who wander over from the Western Wall Plaza are unaware they are in East Jerusalem, the portion of the city which, according to international law, is part of the Palestinian territories and was illegally annexed in 1967. Given the sensitivity of its location, and the intrinsically political nature of archeology – ever open to historical interpretation – along with being one of the city’s most popular tourist sites, City of David is also one of the most provocative in a city which itself serves as a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Blurring the lines
Certainly, most people would not equate tourist sites with settlement. In fact, the daily operations of many of the tourist sites and national parks in and around the Old City of East-Jerusalem are managed by Israeli settlers. As such, they become vehicles which blur the multi-religious and multi-cultural nature of the space, primarily to the detriment of the Muslim sites and presence. Ultimately, this use of national parks and tourist sites serves the goal of transforming the Palestinian neighborhoods in and around the Old City from a densely populated Palestinian area into one sprawling Israeli tourist site.
Since its founding in 2000, the Israeli Non Government Organization Ir Amim has taken more than 40,000 people – mostly Israelis – on complementary alternative tours that provide a ground level exposure to East Jerusalem, creating a platform for critically assessing how such touristic trends can play a fundamental role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These tours provide a balanced alternative exposure to Jerusalem as a political space that is both a microcosm of the conflict and often a trigger for it. They offer a launch point for educating Israelis about the impact of settlements and touristic sites inside the hearts of Palestinian neighborhoods and they provide critical context for understanding how developing facts on the ground impact not only the residents of the city but also the future of a secure, democratic Israeli state.
The staple of its public outreach and education programming, Ir Amim’s tours continue to attract an ever widening spectrum of participants. Two key new groups have reached out for tours over the past year. For the first time in its history, Ir Amim guided a tour for soldiers in the Israeli army – in this case, 60 women soldiers, as part of their external education program. In another first, Hebrew-language teachers from a college in the Tel Aviv area requested a tour to increase their understanding of issues impacting daily life for Palestinian students from East Jerusalem. Ir Amim is now building on this exciting development by cultivating contacts with additional colleges throughout Israel. In 2019, an emphasis will be placed on increasing cooperation with East Jerusalem residents and businesses. A recent tour, for example, included lunch provided by a cooperative of women chefs in East Jerusalem, which elicited extremely positive feedback from both participants and cooperative members.
Participants’ responses reflect the profound influence that just one tour can have on those who are sheltered from the reality of the conflict, a designation that applies to many Israelis as well as tourists from abroad.
A university student pondered: “Yesterday we participated in a tour of East Jerusalem. We are a group of young women and men who live in Jerusalem, and until the tour we wrongly believed that we deeply understand the essence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We thought we knew the history of Jerusalem, and the magic in this amazing city. That was true until we met Yaniv, the wonderful tour guide who led our tour. We were amazed to hear what was new information for us, and information from such an important perspective. We were left speechless from what he showed us.” One participant on one of Ir Amim’s complementary Friday tours remarked: “Although I left the tour with painful feelings - the situation itself is painful - but I also had a feeling of hope because knowledge is power and can motivate people. If ignorance leads to more anger and racism, then information must have the potential to lead to more understanding, compassion and even hope, especially since we Israelis know so little before your tour.” Another one came to the conclusion that “The tour was excellent and eye-opening, especially since for one year I lived in Jerusalem, only a five minute walk from East Jerusalem, and was completely oblivious of it.”
And finally the kind of quote that keeps our field researchers and policy advocates, public outreach and development staff driven to advance the mission of Ir Amim: “Your precious work makes me a bit more optimistic about the future of this land.”
Betty Herschman is director of international advocacy at Ir Amim, Israel’s longest standing NGO focused exclusively on Jerusalem and its role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ir Amim is internationally recognized for its monitoring, reporting, and legal and public advocacy to create a more viable and sustainable Jerusalem, toward an agreed upon resolution on the city.