A Crisis in Holy Land Pilgrimages

In 2014, I visited the Holy Land when Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) and the Catholic Press Association hosted a trip for seven journalists.  Six months later, I visited Israel as a travel writer with a pilgrimage company.  This time, the guide was a Palestinian Christian, and we enjoyed a meal in the homes of Bethlehem Christians.

I was still angling for free travel to the Holy Land, so I accepted a position with IMOT.  When not traveling with a pilgrimage company or IMOT, I fly solo and travel Israel in a rented car or by public transit.

The Peace of Jerusalem

There is a growing crisis in Holy Land travel.  Pilgrims arrive in Tel Aviv as blank slates and leave ten days later convinced that Israeli Jews oppress Palestinians.  The message goes unchallenged because the pilgrim rides on a bus with a guide at the microphone.  The pilgrim walks the land with listening systems that pump anti-Israel messaging straight into cheap ear buds.  The guide drops the pilgrims off at day's end, weary and ready for sleep.  Pilgrims experience hospitality from Christian hoteliers and eat at Arab-owned restaurants.  Limiting encounters with Israelis creates a perfect storm in which the pilgrim returns without having had one meaningful (or superficial) conversation with an Israeli Jew.

Weeping Over Jerusalem

Temple and Ark gone, the Jewish people look to the land and the Mosaic Law as the link to their salvation.  Whether or not Muslims and Christians agree with the Jewish claim to the land, we must recognize that, for most Jewish people, the land is their inheritance.

The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back

In May 2023, my final pilgrimage to the Holy Land began.  We met our tour operator and travel guide.  The first morning, we visited Mount Carmel and heard about Elijah, without reference to the Hebrew people.  We made our way to Galilee and visited sites around the Sea of Galilee.  Again, there was no reference to the Hebrew people.  The guide rebranded stories to eliminate any connection to the people who now live on the land.

In Nazareth, the guide paused at a mural of an American-Palestinian.  The guide said the woman in the painted mural was a member of the press and that an Israel Defense Force soldier (IDF) shot her point-blank.  She was with members of the press, he said, but she was targeted.  One of the pilgrims made her way to the front and asked why the IDF would execute a journalist.  "They didn't like what she said."  The pilgrim asked the guide what the journalist had said.  Our guide turned angry: "It doesn't matter what she said.  Israel is a democracy.  She can say anything she wants."

When I returned home, I researched Shireen Abu Akleh.  She was a journalist with Al Jazeera.  The day of her death, she was wearing a vest and helmet marked "Press," but she was not murdered execution-style.  Two hundred meters in front of her, IDF soldiers engaged in a skirmish with Palestinian militants positioned farther in the distance from both Abu Akleh and the IDF.  In the year that has elapsed, Palestinians still believe that an IDF soldier turned from engaging the Palestinian militants to shoot in the other direction, deliberately killing Abu Akleh.  Israel claimed that a Palestinian militant firing in their direction landed shots beyond the IDF, killing the journalist.  Israel offered to launch a joint investigation with the Palestinians, but the Palestinian Authority declined, calling instead for an international investigation and appealing to the American president.  A year later, the United States has not found grounds for an international investigation.

Later, the guide brushed away Gaza's missile strikes, saying Israel will be fine because she has the Iron Dome.  He failed to mention that Gaza sends two or three hundred missiles a day sometimes, and the Iron Dome cannot intercept every missile.

What would the United States do if Mexico or Native Americans demanded "their lands" back through violent means?

Early in the pilgrimage, our guide said Palestinians are beginning to prefer the title Canaanites.  I pondered this and realized that Palestinians may want to change the appearance of who arrived in the land first.  Canaanites predate Abraham.

We spent a day in Bethlehem and enjoyed a lovely evening meal with amazing dancers, aged twelve to twenty.  We ate late and piled into the bus to return to our hotel in Jerusalem.  Traffic was stop-and-go.  I overheard a couple say, "No wonder they hate Israel."

My mind jumped to the situation at the U.S. southern border.  Would we think Mexico should hate the U.S. if it takes a couple of hours to pass through border control when returning to El Paso after an evening in Juárez?  I remembered hearing stories in junior high current events class of the PLO bombing Israeli buses.  Israeli schoolchildren died, their bodies bleeding in the streets.  The checkpoints were a direct result of those events.

The day before, the pilgrimage gathered in the Upper Room and exited through the doorway and stairs leading to the courtyard of the Tomb of David.  A woman wanted to take a photo of some Orthodox Jewish young men but worried she might cause offense.  I said it would be okay, that I had taken photos of them before, and they were always agreeable.  Suddenly, the youngest of the boys yelled at her in Hebrew.  "Lo!  Shabbat!"  Our tour guide began yelling back at the young man in Hebrew.

I remembered a trip to Tiberias.  Needing to catch the elevator quickly, I dashed toward the Shabbat elevator, which opens automatically on every floor, saving the observant Jew the need to push buttons.  The Orthodox Jewish man on the elevator raised his forefinger and said the same thing.  "Lo!  Shabbat."

I stepped back; lowered my head; and said, "Ani mitz ta 'er."  I'm sorry.  The doors closed.  I took the next elevator.

Why wasn't the tour guide trying to de-escalate the situation?  I made my way around the perimeter of the group and walked closer to the Jewish boy.  He was barely beyond the age of his bar mitzvah.  I realized that it was Shabbat, and we were standing in the courtyard of the Tomb of David.  This was his holy ground.  This was his holy day.  This was his holy city.

I tried to remember how to say I'm sorry in Hebrew.  All I could think of was sliha.  Excuse me.  The boy said Shabbat over and over.  Our tour guide screamed back.

A number of women saw my tears and asked if I was okay, saying things like, "That was terrible."  "I am upset, too, by that kid yelling at [our guide] the way he did."

"No.  That is not it.  He is a 40-year-old grown man — yelling at a child."  I looked at the pilgrims and had another reason to be sad.

Had we helped the pilgrims grow in Christ?  Or had this journey taught the travelers why to be anti-Israel and how to be antisemitic?  I left Israel convinced that there is a battle for the heart of the faith-based traveler.

Image via Pxfuel.

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