The market in Jenin. (photo by Dave Gordon)
Everything is political in Israel; there’s no escaping it. Pick a corner, a street sign, a building, there’s potential for argument. So, you can imagine what it’s like to take a tour of an area as contentious as the West Bank, which, thankfully, was quiet with respect to violence when we visited. Not surprisingly, our guide almost took on the role of spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority.
Abraham Hostel, in the heart of Jerusalem, offers a three-day West Bank tour. The tours include Nablus (biblical Schechem), Jenin and the refugee camp that borders it, Jericho, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
It was eye-opening for me. For one, the media frequently portrays Palestinians in the West Bank as living in squalor, often involved in conflicts with the Israel Defence Forces. We saw bustling markets, shopping centres, corporate plazas, sports cars, and plenty of American restaurant franchises, such as KFC and Pizza Hut.
Our tour guide was a wannabe biblical scholar and archeologist. “Personally,” he told us, “there could never have been a Jewish Temple.” It’s impossible, apparently, to build on top of solid rock, he explained.
He gave a brief history of the term Palestine, correctly stating that Roman invaders, Vespasian and Titus, in the first century, renamed the region from Israel/Judah. But why, particularly, call it Palestine? “Hmm,” he said, taking a moment to think. “Because they liked the name.” Not, as many scholars believe, because the Romans sought to call the area after the Jews’ sworn enemy, Philistines, to rub salt in the wounds.
While at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity, our guide gave his take on the Gospels, contending that it wasn’t the case that Jesus’s mother, Mary, couldn’t find a room at an inn – rather, the Jews forbade Mary to have a room because she was ritually unclean after childbirth. And that, he said, was the unwritten explanation of the manger/barn scenario.
He then proffered his views on Jews. “Since anyone can become a Jew,” he said, “they’re not really tied to the land.” Meaning that anyone who has converted, or was born to converts, has no connection to Israel.
And, he added, since the parcel of land called Judah, from which the name “Jew” was derived, was only a fraction of modern Israel, today’s Jews should only have rights to those ancient borders.
Quoting the Torah – “if you bless Israel, you are blessed; if you curse Israel, you will be cursed” (Genesis 12) – our guide insisted that the “Israel” referred to in this verse has never meant “the nation of Israel” (which it does), but only refers to the patriarch Jacob, who was later named Israel. The underlying message was that there was no concern about being cursed if you curse Jews.
For good measure, he asked, pointing toward the refugee camp, “Doesn’t it say ‘love your fellow’ in the Torah? That’s one of the top commandments.”
Almost no tour anywhere is complete without the commercial aspect – wandering through the souvenir shops and markets.
At the ice cream shop, our guide claimed, “Palestinian ice cream is made with real cream, not like the Israeli version!” At the spice store, he spoke about how Israelis use cheap ingredients in their Zaatar, but not Palestinians. And, he said, “Even Israelis agree that Palestinian beer is better than the sewer water in a can they make.”
The hero worship of Yasser Arafat was astounding. Virtually every street corner in Ramallah had a wall-sized poster of him. My trip was in November, so these displays were likely timed for the anniversary of his death. Schoolchildren took a field trip to his tomb in Ramallah for a commemoration and photo opportunities.
Our guide made every effort to politicize the tour, down to the free lunch. He said there wasn’t such thing as “Israeli couscous,” only co-opted “Arab-Palestinian couscous.” Scholars and culinary experts differ, saying that Israeli couscous was created in the 1950s in response to food rationing. Alas, more was still to come from our guide.
While he had our attention, he showed us illustrations of how Palestine in 1947 comprised modern Israel and the West Bank, while today, the Palestinians only have small, scattered autonomous dots in the Palestinian Authority. As for the Palestinian part in this development, he said, “just a couple of bus bombs” derailed the peace process, but only temporarily.
Dave Gordon is a Toronto-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in more than 100 publications around the world.