Guide Book Maps Out Emerging Judea and Samaria Tourism Industry
JNS.org – When Haaretz approved writer Karni Eldad’s idea for an article on B&Bs (bed and breakfasts) in Judea and Samaria, the left-leaning Israeli newspaper probably didn’t envision that the assignment would be the precursor to an entire book on the subject.
But after Eldad discovered the abundance of boutique tourist attractions in the area, that’s exactly what happened. While Judea and Samaria are often scapegoated by the international community—and by media outlets just like Haaretz—for being a territorial “obstacle” to peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Eldad’s Yesha is Fun: The good life guide to Judea and Samaria explores a largely unknown dimension of the Jewish communities beyond the so-called “Green Line” (the 1949 armistice line). “Yesha” is a Hebrew acronym for Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, the latter of which has been Palestinian-controlled territory since August 2005.
“Haaretz is probably hating themselves for doing that,” Eldad tells JNS.org, looking back on the B&B article assignment. “The book has succeeded so much that they didn’t really know what they did when they agreed to let me write this piece.”
Published six years ago in Hebrew but not until last year in English, Yesha is Fun (edited by Shlomo Bashan and with art by designer Amasa Menachem) provides a tourist’s guide to the areas of Samaria, Binyamin, the Jordan Valley, the northern Dead Sea, the Etzion bloc and Har Hebron. Whether it be the medallion-encrusted wines in Binyamin, the branded olive oils in Samaria, a holiday cottage with a jacuzzi under the glow of the Judean desert’s sky, a restaurant on a farm in Gush Etzion, or the cheeses of the southern Hebron hills, Judea and Samaria’s treasures flew largely under the radar for foreign tourists and Israelis alike before Eldad published her book.
“There was no book dealing with tourism on the other side of the Green Line,” says Eldad. “No one had this information.”
In fact, Eldad—herself a resident of Judea, in the community of Tekoa—says she “didn’t know what was going on in the settlement next door” before undertaking the book project. At the same time, business owners in the area may not have been marketing themselves aggressively enough.
“Things are built all the time, and if you want to succeed in tourism you need to put yourself out there, to let people know about [what you offer],” Eldad says. “So I felt that I had to help these people that were very brave starting a business [in Judea and Samaria], so I wrote the book.”
A columnist for Ma’ariv and i24news, a musician, and a mother of two, Eldad had grown up in the Judean community of Kfar Adumim since age 10, but says she was “shocked” to discover the rest of what Judea and Samaria had to offer in the process of writing her book.
“[Judea and Samaria] is so much fun,” she says. “Just going around and drinking wine, and picking a restaurant, and having amazing massages,someone has to do that… Every time I found something, I was shocked by the high level of food and wine.”
When wines produced in Judea and Samaria vie for medals in competitions abroad, they often win because “you don’t know where the wine you’re tasting comes from, so no politics is involved in the tasting,” says Eldad.
The book can never completely cover Judea and Samaria tourism because “things open all the time,” according to Eldad. In fact, she says she is “ashamed” that a number of attractions in her own community of Tekoa—including a restaurant, a horse farm, a vineyard, and a live-music venue—are not featured in “Yesha is Fun” because they opened after the book’s publication.
From a security perspective, the book says that “responsibility for security is incumbent upon the tourists.” Since public transportation is slow and infrequent in Judea and Samaria, hitchhiking is a popular mode of transport. But last summer, Hamas’s abduction and murder of three Jewish teenagers who were hitchhiking in Judea and Samaria put the hitchhiking practice under the microscope.
“Every time there’s an increase of terrorism, there is a decrease in tourism,” Eldad says. “That’s all over the world, and here [in Israel] especially. It’s not about Judea and Samaria. There are more terrorist attacks in Jerusalem. But, the fact that I didn’t take responsibility [in the book] and say, ‘Ok, don’t go there without a gun,’ it’s because [the security situation] changes daily. For the past six years since the book was out, we had very peaceful times. So I can’t generalize and say, ‘Everywhere is dangerous and don’t go without any platoon with you.’ Do what you know, be responsible… but it’s not all dangerous and this is Israel, this is how we live here.”
Whether they are Israelis or visitors from abroad, travelers “can spend weeks” in Judea and Samaria, Eldad says. For instance, she says that Gush Etzion “can be like [the Italian region of] Tuscany”—with a possible itinerary including restaurants, vineyards, many activities for children, swimming in springs, and goat cheese tasting.
Another unique aspect of Judea and Samaria is its abundance of sites with biblical significance.
“I just spoke to someone that came from Tennessee, and he said, ‘I read the bible over and over again, and the only thing that happened in Tennessee was the flood. I want to be where stuff really happened, and that’s why I came to Samaria,'” Eldad says.
While residents of Judea and Samaria might be “used to it,” the area’s biblical character doesn’t cease to amaze foreign tourists, the author says.
“This is where Rachel is buried, and this is where our forefathers grew wines,” says Eldad. “It’s not a fairy tale, this is it.”
At the same time, while the Judea and Samaria region is indeed biblically infused, its population is often incorrectly stereotyped as being exclusively religious.
“I’m not really religious at all, and I’m not secular,” Eldad says. “We live in a mixed village… we feel very comfortable because we don’t have to define ourselves.”
“Even people in Israel, if they never visited settlements, the stereotype of a settler is an extreme right-wing person carrying a very big rifle around, and very religious. And that is very wrong,” she adds.
What ever happened to the B&B article for Haaretz? Eldad says she believes the story was over-edited, and that the newspaper “spiced it up.” From that point on, Eldad decided to only write opinion pieces for Haaretz.
As far as “Yesha is Fun” goes, the author measures the book’s success not necessarily by sales, but instead by its impact on tourism in Judea and Samaria.
“People that are featured in the guide changed their business to be able to host more crowds, more tourism,” Eldad says. “They made bigger parking lots, created better access for people with disabilities, more tables, more chairs. They had to build more because people came with the book and said, ‘Hey, we want that! We read that in the book, and we want to try that!’ I hear that all the time, and that really warms my heart, I didn’t know it would have such an effect.”