Last year (2010), 3.45 million people traveled to Israel from all over the world.
69% of global tourists were Christian.
19% (645,000) of global tourists were from The United States.
The most popular tour in Israel is called “The Gospel Trail” and includes the streets of Nazareth, the ruins of Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee (by foot, bike, car, or sailboat), the Church of Transfiguration, the antiquities of Migdal, and the Church on the Mount of Beatitudes. For those who make their way south to Jerusalem, their pilgrimage would include the amphitheater on the Mount of Olives, the chapel at the Garden of Gethsemane, one or all of the four churches where various traditions say Jesus ascended from, and the Church of the Holy Seplechure where various traditions say Jesus was crucified. For those who dare make their way into the West Bank, their only stop will be the Church of Nativity where various traditions say Jesus was born.
For an American Christian to “walk where Jesus walked” is a remarkable experience through an expertly designed and well manicured route guided by Israeli or, sparingly, Palestinian guides who are on the payroll of Israel’s Department of Tourism.
Tourism is a BIG deal to Israel. As of 2010, Israel ranked only 49th of 222 in global exporting. They export $54.31 billion (USD). 3.45 million tourists per year translates into billions of dollars.
I didn’t see this as problematic until I met a woman from Oklahoma.
Three friends and I were taking our lunch in a Druze restaurant in the Galilee. We ate in a large restaurant that was already quite full with a coach bus of American tourists from Oklahoma. I observed them interact with each other and with the staff of the the restaurant. They did nothing out of the ordinary for American tourists, but yet, from a distance, I willed them to be gracious and generous with those who served them. I know that American Christians have a reputation as being rude and horribly stingy and imagined that this carried over to American Christian tourists as well.
After a delicious meal of falafel and kabobs, I washed up and began to make my way through the crowded room. Simultaneously, an Oklahoman woman stood and began her own journey to the door. We arrived at the door at the same moment.
“Delicious Druze falafel wouldn’t you agree?” I asked, followed by “How are you?”
“What is Druze falafel?” she asked, obviously confused.
“The Druze are the people that live here.” I answered. “I think they have the best falafel! I’m Jeremy.” I stuck out my hand to shake hers.
“Deborah.” she responding taking my hand.
“A pleasure to meet you. So, where have you guys been?” I inquired.
Her answer mirrored the path of “The Gospel Trail” that they had toured for the past 12 days and continued with how beautiful this place was and how grateful she was to have gotten the opportunity to “walk where Jesus walked.”
“Where have ya’ll been?” she reciprocated.
“Jerusalem, the West Bank, Ramallah, and Hebron. We just arrived to the Galilee this afternoon.”
Eyes wide, she asked, “What were you doing in the West Bank?”
“Building friendships and listening to stories.” I responded. “We’re not so much a tourist group as a learning community. We’re focusing our work on conflict resolution and peace-building.”
What she said next will fuel my work with the American Church in regards to our ignorance and apathy toward what is actually happening on the ground in Israel & Palestine for years to come.
“Oh my!” she began. “Isn’t it something how these two people groups live in such peace with one another?”
How is it possible that a group of American tourists could spend twelve days in Israel and describe the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians as “peaceful”?
It is quite easy, actually. By focusing the tours on where Jesus “walked” the tourists are conveniently routed around and away from where Jesus would most certainly “walk” today. By leveraging the tourists’ intoxication with the the ancient narrative, the tour guides hardly have to give mention to the contemporary narrative. Tourism caters to the American Christian Zionist paradigm which blindly celebrates and supports Israel as an ethnic state by showing the tourists that their dollars are being well spent: Israel is thriving as a Jewish state! Tourism in Israel accomplishes two objectives: it generates cash and it disseminates propaganda.
What do I mean by propaganda? 645,000 Americans returning home and narrating their experience of Israel with: “Isn’t it something how these two people groups live in such peace with one another?”