Using Israeli and Palestinian Guides, Tour Group Helps Visitors ‘Experience the People’
JNS.org – “Visits of condolence is all we get from them. They squat at the Holocaust Memorial, they put on grave faces at the Wailing Wall, and they laugh behind the heavy curtains in their hotels,” Israeli author Yehuda Amichai wrote in a poem about tourists visiting the Holy Land.
MEJDI Tours seeks to offer the antithesis of Amichai’s image.
“We want people to get out of their buses and experience the people,” says Aziz Abu Sarah, co-founder and CEO of Arlington, Va.-headquartered company.
MEJDI, whose name translates to “honor and respect,” was co-founded in 2009 by Abu Sarah, Scott Cooper, and Dr. Marc Gopin. Its mission is to change the face of tourism through a socially responsible business model that honors both clients and communities.
The group offers guided tours around the world, including in Washington, DC, which focus on conflict resolution through dialogue and understanding. In Washington, this means Republicans versus Democrats. In Israel, it means looking at the concurrent narratives of Israelis and Palestinians as a means of helping visitors understand the complexities of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Groups are paired with both Israeli and Palestinian tour guides for their trips, and they meet Jews and Arabs from across the country. In the same day, participants can meet with a Palestinian living in Hebron and a Jew from a Judea and Samaria community like Susya.
MEJDI’s founders have extensive experience in peace work and deep ties to the Holy Land. That, Abu Sarah tells JNS.org, enables them to connect travelers with anyone they want access to: activists, leaders of religious and secular organizations, journalists, academics, settlers, soldiers, refugees and Palestinian protesters.
“Between the three of us, we know anyone you want to know,” Abu Sarah says, noting that while all trips include culture and tourism fun and can involve high-end hotels and visits to the beach, they also include home hospitality and a snapshot of real life outside of the air-conditioned bus. Guides share their own stories, which adds a further dimension.
Liel Maghen, an Israeli tour guide from Jerusalem, says that since starting to work with MEJDI he has watched tourists open their minds, but also expanded his own knowledge.
“Every time I join a group, I learn something new about my life and my city,” Maghen says. “My identity is more complete when I hear about the other narrative.”
Maghen, who was raised in a staunchly pro-Israel family and then served in the Israeli army, said he offers an important perspective to tourists.
“If people are not Jewish, they often think Israelis are blinded, closed-mined,” he tells JNS.org. “But I can show them, there is a complex process going on in Israeli society. No one is really black or white here. There is sometimes an instant of defensiveness, of canceling out the other’s story, of not wanting to hear it. I think that is proof that there is a lack of confidence or security in your own narrative. When you are really confident, you can absorb and listen to other stories.”
Working with MEJDI “has given me the ability to question the things I want to improve, but also to be proud of my strengths,” adds Maghen.
Palestinian tour guide Tamer Omari has a similar perspective. He says a lot of people have already made up their minds about whose side they are on when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“That approach is flawed,” he says. “If you want to be pro anybody, you have to be pro everybody.”
Omari says the Israeli and Palestinian sides choose to focus on certain aspects of their history, and to ignore others.
“The narratives only collide because they choose not to stress the same things,” he tells JNS.org.
Tours run by MEJDI offer many “wow moments” for participants, says Omari, recalling one trip in which a Jewish group was hosted by a Druze family in Beit Jann.
“When participants arrived, they said the place looked like an Arab village,” he says. “They didn’t expect their hosts to be Zionistic or Israeli. But they were very Zionistic. All their children had been in the army. They lost two sons to war.”
Another group met with a woman living in a moshav near Gaza who talked about her relationship with an Arab woman on the other side of the border fence. During the tour, the Jewish woman called her Gazan friend, and they spoke together to the visiting group.
“It was very beautiful, very emotional,” Omari says.
Pastor John Moyle of Oakbrook Church in Reston, Va., who has gone on three trips with MEJDI, says that on a recent tour, he met with Israeli and Palestinian families through the Parents Circle Families Forum, which brings together Jews and Arabs who have lost family members through the conflict and want to use their losses to work toward a different future.
“This is one example of the power of hearing the narrative from both sides. They are both hurt, both of their lives have changed forever,” says Moyle, who since his first MEJDI tour has become deeply involved with Israel. He describes MEJDI Tours as “flexible,” its founders as “connected and networked,” and its concept as “world-changing.”
“They are not doing tours for the sake of people just having a great time—though you do have a great time,” Moyle says. “But there is something deeper and greater going on there. They are helping people understand that the world is deeper, more complex. And in the process, they are trying to make the world a better place.”
What do MEJDI tour guides think about the chances for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
“Of course there is a chance for peace. If not, I wouldn’t be doing this,” says Omari, who besides for working with MEJDI runs Heartbeat.fm, an initiative that unites Israeli and Palestinian youth musicians. “Freedom and equality will be here [in the Middle East], but we have to work toward it. … We have to remember, the truth is in the words of the people on the street, not the media.”
Maghen says, “The most important thing is to create interactions between people, to allow them to work together as equals. Peace does not happen between governments, but between people.”
Maayan Jaffe is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter, @MaayanJaffe.