Many were disturbed at a recent video of young Jews – the hope of the next generation – “occupying” a Birthright event and spewing noxious anti-Israel rhetoric in and outside the gathering. But considering the competition Birthright is up against, it’s not difficult to see how such a scene was produced. The fact is, not only have anti-Israel activist made 21st century blood libels fashionable, but they have found a way to turn a profit from them in the process. More and more, sojourners to the Holy Land are falling into the orbit of the growing “alternative travel” or “justice tourism” industry, which specializes in politicized tourism to Israel and adjacent territories. As the name indicates, alternative travel is entirely focused on exposing tourists, not with mainstream, commonly accepted information on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with an “alternative” account predicated on needless Palestinian suffering at the hands of their brutal Israeli oppressors.
The alternative tourism industry in and around Israel is a multifarious, interconnected web, whose many avenues invariably lead back to terrorists and their supporters. One of the trailblazers of the alternative tourism industry in Israel is the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), which is located in Beit Sahour, a hotbed of Palestinian activism, including during the murderous First and Second Intifadas. According to the ATG, the organization was formed as a “non-profit tourist agency” in 1995. Tours focus on a number of lies, including insinuations that “Palestine” was and is a “country”; that Israelis “steal” land and commit war crimes, and that Israel has erected a “segregation wall” for racist purposes. What the ATG refers to as the “segregation wall” is, of course, the defensive wall put into construction to stop terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians – which have been reduced by 90% since the construction of the wall began. Anti-Israel activists commonly demonize this barrier, despite its obvious necessity and effectiveness, deviously twisting the situation into a race issue, so that the killing spree may resume.
The ATG collaborates with a number of groups who are loosely joined in the Palestinian Initiative for Responsible Tourism (PIRT). PIRT, for which ATG is listed as a sponsor, is a consortium of local tourism entities joined together to help Palestinians benefit from the lucrative Holy Land travel industry. The purported objective of the initiative is to branch the tourism market into local Palestinian communities so that they may economically benefit from it, while at the same time cultivating an interest in Palestinian culture and building awareness among pilgrims of political problems in the area. Other groups in the initiative include the Arab Hotel Association, Bethlehem University, the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operator Association, the Holy Land Trust, the International Center of Bethlehem, the Jerusalem Inter-Church Center, the Joint Advocacy Initiative, the Network of Christian Organizations in Bethlehem and the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies.
Another initiative member is the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, which has reported a huge increase in tourism to the Holy Land. This translates to an increase in capital to the Palestinian territories and into the hands of “justice tourism” activists, not to mention an increase in the sheer number of travelers exposed to their propaganda. Honing in on the allure of travel to the Holy Land, it’s no surprise ATG and other PIRT members consort with the more virulently anti-Israel (and borderline anti-Jewish) Christian organizations like the World Council of Churches and the Kairos Palestine movement, which are connected to an enormous pipeline of Christian pilgrims.
Another prominent organization in PIRT is the Holy Land Trust. Based in Bethlehem, the Holy Land Trust (HLT) is a virulently anti-Israel organization that supports Palestinian terrorism. The organization’s executive director, Sami Awad, believes that non-violent demonstrations are “not a substitute for armed struggle.” HLT has also worked with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), which endorses and abets Palestinian terrorism. One of the board members of the HLT, Abu Aita, was a former member of a terrorist organization, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades (serving from 2000-2003) and was incarcerated in an Israeli prison on accusations that he was involved with shooting Israeli soldiers. The HLT offers a number of traveling programs, some of which are marketed specifically to students and Christian pilgrims.
Of particular note, the HLT features a travel program centered around indigenous olive cultivation called the Olive Harvest and Cuisine Tour. This is significant for the following reason: There are two well-known Palestinian activists, both named George Rishmawi, who have worked in the Palestinian alternative travel industry for many years. Both men are co-founders of the ISM. In the mid-2000s, one of the Rishmawis was involved in a HLT program similar in theme to the Olive Harvest and Cuisine Tour called the Olive Harvest encounter. This encounter offered tours of the Holy Land, which showcased alleged Palestinian suffering at the hands of the Israelis. Currently, one of the Rishmawis is a coordinator for the Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, based, like the ATG, in Beit Sahour. As coordinator, Rishmawi plays a large role in the alternative tourism functions of the Siraj Center, whose trips particularly appeal to Christian travelers.
It should be no surprise, then, that the Rishmawis have, for most of the years of its existence, played a large part in the Olive Tree Initiative (OTI), a student program now operating in several University of California schools that offers alternative tourism programing. Through the program, American students are taken on trips to Israel and adjacent areas where they are given tours by and commune with some mainstream individuals, but also a hugely disproportionate number of leading anti-Israel activists. The number of unseemly associations of the OTI is almost too extensive to list (click here for a draft of just the 2011 itinerary). They include: the Rishmawis; economic warfare (BDS) godfather Mazin Qumsiyeh; Sam Bahour; the terrorism-defending Muslim Public Affairs Council; B’Tselem; Al Haq; BDS supporter Zoughbi Zoughbi; ultra-wealthy Palestinian Munib R. Masri, who was a part of Yasser Arafat’s inner circle; and even a leader of the terrorist organization Hamas, Aziz Duwaik (students were also told to cover up this particular meeting). In at least one incident during an OTI trip, it was reported that one of the Rishmawis advocated violence and relayed a lie about Israelis shooting unprovoked at Palestinian civilians. This was reportedly demonstrated false onsite by one of the students. The technical auspices of the Olive Tree Initiative are unclear, as it is closely intertwined with UC Irvine, while also being claimed as a “project” by a Swedish-based NGO called the Centre for New Diplomacy (CfND). One of the board members for the CfND is a Swedish member of parliament who participated in the anti-Israel flotilla of 2010, which was designed to delegitimize Israel’s blockade of the terrorist safe heaven of Gaza.
Following the “olive” motif, there is another alternative travel company called “Green Olive Tours,” which used to go by the name “Tours in English.” As it happens, Green Olive Tours cooperates with the Siraj Center, which employs one of the Rishmawis, as well as the Alternative Tourism Group and the radical, ISM-linked Birthright Unplugged, the antithesis to the traditional Birthright travel program. Green Olive Tours was founded and is administered by activist Fred Schlomka, who formerly directed the highly controversial Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAH). The ICAH worked alongside the ISM in the groups’ mutual crusade against IDF housing demolition, claiming that houses are primarily destroyed for illegitimate purposes unrelated to defense. In fact, Schlomka worked for the committee at the time of infamous activist Rachel Corrie’s death, committed accidentally as Corrie was trying to prevent a bulldozer from destroying a “home” that concealed a weapons smuggling tunnel. The ICAHD promotes the idea that the Israeli government destroys these structures maliciously and arbitrarily because they are “built without a permit.” They also portray Israel as an “apartheid” state, or on the verge of becoming one. Like Green Olive Tours, ICAHD also conducts its own tours.
The prospect of Schlomka or the ICAHD overseeing tours is deeply troubling. NGO Monitor has criticized Schlomka and the ICAHD for supporting a one-state solution without Israel and appearing with Naim Ateek who heads Sabeel (which also offers tours) and “uses anti-Semitic themes, such as referring to ‘the Israeli government crucifixion system’.” Schlomka himself has said, “The world helped create this problem, the United Nations helped create this problem through helping establish the state of Israel” and “Anyone who still thinks that there will be a Palestinian state with contiguous territory free of Jews is indulging in some wishful thinking.”
Extremist rhetoric to be sure, but do not be lulled into the misconception that “alternative tourism” is sequestered to the anti-Israel fringe. Far from it. Simply explore the site Visit Palestine or their available literature and see how popular and mainstream-oriented the travel site seems. Indeed, the outfit seems to be primarily devoted to non-political, benign tourism and one can see how many ordinary travelers would be drawn to the site for vacation purposes. But scratching the surface, we see that not only does Visit Palestine exploit the “solidarity/alternative tourism” market, but the organization was in fact formed by extreme anti-Israel activists. Visit Palestine is the project of Alternative Business Solutions, the parent of ABS Tourism, whose primary associates include Yusef Daher, a Christian BDS advocate (an extremist movement proposing boycott, divestment and sanctions on racist, human rights-abusing Israel) and was also the former director of the Arab Hotel Association (a member of PIRT); and Rami Kassis, who worked as executive director of the ATG until at least 2010 and purports to be one of the founders of PIRT. Kassis’s interviews show that his interest in tourism is predominately political, and he spouts conspiracy theories about the Israeli government strangling the tourism sector in Palestine, and purposefully impoverishing Palestinians, as if the Israelis, not continuing Palestinian warfare, violence and instability, are responsible for Palestinian inability to break into the mainstream tourism market.
Enmeshed in a highly interconnected web of deception, the organizations outlined above are only the tip of the alternative tourism industry’s iceberg. For those activists engaged in it, and indeed, probably ever more dependent on it for their livelihoods, the objective is much more than “awareness building,” as their radical connections show, but the indoctrination of converts to the cause to dismantle the Jewish State. Millions of unwitting travelers, particularly religious pilgrims, are anxious to visit the Holy Land each year, and we must only expect that the movement’s ranks will continue to swell, while the industry grows in financing and influence.
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