When our kids were young, we managed to scrape together enough money for a few off-season trips to Florida. Neither my wife nor I are big fans of theme parks, so we never visited Disney World. In fact, we never even mentioned Disney World to our kids. For all they knew, it didn’t exist.
Organized travel to the Holy Land often reminds me of those trips to Florida. Millions of Christian pilgrims land at the airport in Tel Aviv, board buses run by Israeli-based tour companies and spend the ensuing days visiting the holy sites under the care of Israeli guides, shuttling back and forth to Israeli hotels, eating in Israeli restaurants and shopping in Israeli stores. The pilgrims see almost nothing of the 2.7 million Palestinians clustered in the West Bank, despite the fact that some of the most popular holy places — Bethlehem, Jericho and Hebron, to name three — are located there. Currently, about 95 percent of Holy Land tours originate in Israel; for most of them, it’s as if the Palestinians barely exist.
I’m sure there are lots of Holy Land pilgrims who don’t really care who drives the bus or serves them breakfast; they’ve come to see places, not people. That’s okay, but I also suspect there are visitors who would welcome a chance to brush up against both the Israeli and Palestinian realities in the Holy Land today, or spread their travel dollars more equitably. I’m confident many of our readers are among them.
That is why we have lent our name to a Holy Land tour departing next May and operated by Craig Travel, a Toronto-based group-travel specialist whose relationship with this magazine goes back decades. The idea was born during a discussion with company president David Craig a few years ago, after I’d returned from an exposure tour of the Holy Land. I expressed my dismay at the sight of lovely world-class hotels in the Palestinian territories sitting all but empty. They’d been built during the wave of optimism that followed the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, but now their employees were mournfully idle. I was also chagrined by Israeli efforts to stifle the fledgling Palestinian tourism industry — for example, licensing a grand total of 42 Palestinian tour guides compared to 8,000 Israelis. Craig, who has journeyed to the Holy Land many times, wondered aloud if The Observer would be interested in supporting a project designed to bring a little more balance to Holy Land travel.
The result is a guided tour called “One Land, Two Peoples, Three Religions." We’re supporting it because it promises a more complete experience of the Holy Land than is typically the case. Some nights, participants will stay in Palestinian-operated hotels; other times, they’ll check into hotels on the Israeli side. They’ll eat in both Palestinian- and Israeli-run restaurants. They’ll stop at all the key religious sites in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, but also visit non-religious locations that have great historical and symbolic importance to both peoples. Along the way, they’ll meet representatives of the three great faiths rooted in the region.
This project is an initiative of The Observer and Craig Travel. The United Church of Canada is not involved, nor is the tour related to any of the denomination’s policies or programs. It simply reflects a shared sense of fairness and the conviction that the more we learn about each other, the better the chances that someday the barriers that divide us can be broken down. The magazine will realize no financial gain from this project. But we will have profited if participants return home able to share not only a deeper understanding of their faith, but also a deeper appreciation of the present-day realities in the land where Jesus walked so long ago.