Israel and the Palestinian Territories Lonely Planet: Systematic Erasure and Casual Racism

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Originally published on Jadaliyya.

Haifa is a picturesque city of hills, gardens, and trendy cafes perched along the slopes of Mount Carmel in northern Israel. If the Lonely Planetguidebook is to be believed, Haifa is notable because Arabs and Jews live in “visible harmony,” and residents consider themselves a “model of tolerance” for the region (158). In Israel/Palestine, it seems, all it takes for harmony to prevail is for Arabs and Jews to sip lattes together—or at least close to each other, while speaking in Hebrew of course.

After reading this description, the first image one encounters when entering Haifa, then, is a bit of a shock. At the entrance to the city, an impressive collection of ruined, empty, but still quite beautiful houses tower over the main highway. The decrepit homes pass away from view almost as quickly they appear, replaced by steel skyscrapers and winding boulevards.

The keen observer, however, will notice other buildings similar to those ruined houses scattered around Haifa’s center—an Ottoman-era tower and a church stuck in a downtown parking lot, or a shuttered stone mosque just around the corner from Haifa’s equivalent of the Burj al-Arab, the nineteen-floor Sail Tower. But an extensive search through the Lonely Planet will turn up no information about this neighborhood of empty, elegant homes, nor about their relationship to the model of coexistence that we are supposed to find in Haifa. Admittedly, one map does offer the reader the name of the area—Wadi Salib—and the author manages to describe a nearby mosque as “dilapidated,” but provides no further details. A trek through the area reveals that no Israeli authority has found it fit to label the homes or to provide an explanation for the curious visitor. The Lonely Planet authors similarly expect us to ignore the area, or at least not ask too many questions.

These homes—belonging to some of the nearly sixty-thousand Palestinians who were expelled from their homes by Zionist militias in 1948, and never allowed to return—are not meant to be seen, or at least not meant to be understood. They are at once present and absent, erased by the silence surrounding them even as their existence is obvious. This treatment of Palestinian lives and histories as irrelevant, intentionally banished from the story of modern Israel, is pervasive throughout the Israel and the Palestinian Territories Lonely Planet. Instead, the book adheres closely to Israeli government descriptions and labels.

By ignoring these histories and failing to provide any clear narrative, Lonely Planet leaves the discerning reader confused about how to understand what is visible. In the descriptions of a few Israeli towns, we are told that “Arabs fled,” as if willingly, and in other places the book refers to “abandoned” ruins. But the use of scare quotes around abandoned suggests that the writers are aware that one hundred thousand Palestinians did not just decide to go live in a refugee camp in a foreign country, as the official Israeli narrative would have the world believe. These erasures of the Palestinian past are not random or accidental; whenever we reach a place where a Jewish village might have existed two thousand years ago, we are provided with information about this fact, even if all that is left are a few stones.

Lonely Planet, of course, does not claim to offer an authoritative history of the region, and is meant only to guide a visitor’s holiday. But at the very least, the book should provide a balanced historical narrative, and not ignore the ruins that are constantly confronting the reader around every corner. These omissions are misleading, and when combined with historical overviews that give little or no explanations for Palestinian actions throughout history, they offer a thoroughly distorted, confusing, and deeply biased vision of history. As a self-styled alternative guidebook that seeks to “inform, educate, and amuse,” Israel and the Palestinian Territories Lonely Planet owes it to its readers a fuller, more even-handed picture of the lands it purports to explain.

“Knowing the Land”

The erasure of Palestinians in the Lonely Planet is by no means an anomaly, but rather emerges from a history of tourism in the region that makes their lives and histories invisible. Tourism has played a particularly important role in the history of Zionism, which called for the movement of Jewish people from Europe (and later, across the Middle East and North Africa) to what became British Mandate Palestine. Confronted by a land they had never seen before that was inconveniently filled with people who were not supposed to be there, the early Zionist settlers desperately needed a way to come to “know” their homeland. As Rebecca L. Stein highlights in her book, Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Political Lives of Tourism, tourism—and the opportunity to acquaint oneself with the land—served a crucial role for these early pioneers, as well as for other Jews who would become Israelis, to relate to a land that was still visibly recognizable as Palestine.

Touring the land necessitated a very specific reading of the places on view. Existing Palestinian villages and villagers were ignored in favor of the ancient ruins beside them. In hindsight, it is not hard to see how an entire generation of Zionist settlers, taught to believe that the Arabs in Palestine were mere interlopers living atop the evidence of an ancient Jewish homeland, had few qualms about expelling eighty percent of the residents of what would become Israel in 1948. The erasure of Palestinian villages in Zionist tourist itineraries was transformed into the physical annihilation of these villages in the months before and after the declaration of the state of Israel. By the time the fighting had drawn to an armistice in late 1949, only one hundre thousand Palestinians had managed to stay inside Israel. The rest were never allowed to return to their homes, and many of their descendants remain refugees—around seven million scattered around the world.

Today, the tours designed to help visitors “know” Israel continue in a variety of guises. The most notorious, Birthright Israel, has, since 1999, attracted more than 350,000 young Jews from around the world to visit Israel for free. These extremely regimented, whirlwind itineraries feature the Holy Land’s Jewish history, Holocaust museums, sexy soldiers, and a few friendly hash-smoking Bedouins, seasoned with a hearty dose of indoctrination.

Erasure is an integral part of Birthright Israel trips. One participant who came on the trip with a general sense of the geography of the Israeli occupation told me that on her group’s visit to the Dead Sea (in the occupied West Bank), the entire bus was told to wear blindfolds so that the view would be a “surprise.” My friend wore her blindfold in such a way that she could see outside, and realized that the real “surprise” was that the group was passing the Israeli separation wall, a ten-foot high concrete structure that cuts through the West Bank to envelope Jewish settlements built largely on confiscated Palestinian lands. Understandably, seeing the wall might have raised some uncomfortable questions for the group’s upbeat tour guide.

A Systematic Erasure

These erasures are not limited to Israeli-government funded tours. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism maintains strict controls on the entire tourism industry throughout Israel and the Palestinian territories, ensuring that Israeli tour guides are given access to West Bank sites while limiting the ability of Palestinian tour guides to move freely. Independent English-language guidebooks intended for visitors, meanwhile, are often rife with casual racism, bias, and the pervasive denial of Palestinian history, a sign of how common the uncritical adoption of the Israeli narrative and the dehumanization of Palestinians has become.

In Israel and the Palestinian Territories Lonely Planet, these erasures are accomplished through two primary means. The first is the lack of descriptions or partial and misleading descriptions, and the second is through a decidedly biased historical narrative in which Israeli narratives about Palestinians and the land are included while Palestinian narratives are all but absent.

The Lonely Planet’s lack of descriptions of Palestinian sites is systematic. The example of Wadi Salib in Haifa is hardly unique in this regard; there are about 530 demolished Palestinian villages, and the Jewish National Fund has systematically built parks over their ruins. Almost every single pine forest in Israel is built on top of these villages, with the tree itself being a dead giveaway—it is an invasive species, not native to most of the areas where it has been planted. Instead, the Lonely Planet offers descriptions of parks without giving any indications that the ruins one encounters inside these parks are Palestinian homes. In Beit Guvrin National Park, for example, we are told about the Jewish, Greek, Crusader, and Byzantine histories of the site (just as the official Israeli descriptions do)—even though when one stands on the site of the ruins and looks straight ahead, what is visible are the ruins of the Palestinian village of Beit Jibreen (106).

In the “Environment” section, we learn that Arab-Israelis (i.e., Palestinian citizens of Israel) see the parks as “symbols of Jewish domination” with no explanation of why they might think that; apparently, the Lonely Planetauthors think—or want readers to think—that Palestinians just reflexively hate Jews, even when they plant trees (417).

These sections of the book that purport to offer the history of the region are baldly imbalanced. Every other paragraph in the West Bank section includes the narrative of the more than five hundred thousand Jewish Israeli settlers who have moved into the region in violation of international law since the start of Israel’s occupation in 1967, stressing the historical presence of a (tiny number of) Jews throughout history, introducing the area using the name used by right-wing pro-settler politicians, “Judea and Samaria,” and referring to the entire territory as a “staging post” for suicide bombings during the Second Intifada (257). Of course, the Israeli settler narrative is key to understand the ideological basis for the continued violence in the West Bank. But why is the Palestinian narrative not also presented for those places in Israel from which Palestinians were violently expelled in 1948, and why is there no mention of the right of return of the refugees which is still very much a central part of Palestinian understanding of history?

Indeed, the only time the refugee issue emerges is when we read about Arabs who “fled.” The myth of “Arab flight” has been debunked repeatedly, first by Palestinian refugees themselves, and later by Israeli scholars who began re-assessing the Israeli military’s own records following declassification and found that the expulsions had been undertaken as part of a systematic plan of ethnic cleansing (much as Palestinians had been saying for decades).

The Lonely Planet holds to the myth of “fleeing Arabs” as dearly as the most right-wing of Israeli politicians do. In Ein Kerem we are told that the “1948 Arab-Israeli war caused local residents to flee the town” (85). In “Ein Hod” we read that the village was miraculously “abandoned” (174). Akhziv National Park is referred to as an “‘abandoned’ Arab village” 188).

The only time the Lonely Planet authors ever attempt to answer the question of why some 750,000 Palestinians went away appears around page 380 in a history section: “Though Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion frequently said that ‘Israel did not expel a single Arab,’ it’s clear that while many Palestinian Arabs fled their homes to escape fighting, others were forced out of their town and villages by Israeli military units.” The authors than continue to say that “other factors that contributed to the Arab exodus were the early flight of the economic elite to neighboring countries,” as well as a lack of “national solidarity” and “nationalist consciousness among the largely illiterate rural population.”

Not only is the central historical moment of the Palestinian experience in the twentieth century reduced to a couple of sentences, it is introduced with a quote denying reality by the Israeli leader who helped devise the plan of ethnic cleansing himself. To top it off, Palestinians apparently fled because they did not have a national consciousness due to their illiteracy—as if a more well-established idea of Palestinian or Arab nationalism would have convinced farmers not to flee their homes. Given that the Nakba involved killings, rape, and pillaging by Israeli military units, the suggestion that Palestinians were flighty country bumpkins is particularly insulting. It is hard to imagine the authors similarly dismissing the major catastrophes that have befallen Jews or Israelis by introducing them with emphatic denials by their perpetrators, or so easily shifting the blame on to the victims. Palestinians’ right of return, a central desire and wish of nine million Palestinians worldwide, is never explained, not even in a special section dedicated to West Bank refugee camps (275). This omission stands in stark contrast to the detail and explanations given the “Jewish Diaspora” and “Zionism” regarding the “return” of Jewish immigrants to a land they never lived in.

In the Lonely Planet’s discussion of the conflict, while Israelis experience war and pain individually, Palestinians seem to be affected only in vague, general terms. We are told, for example, that the Jordanians “demolished” the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948, sending many Jews fleeing into the West side (49). We are not told, however, that Israel expelled 28,000 Palestinians from West Jerusalem (although they admit that many neighborhoods are full of “Arab houses”). The history of the “Arabs” only shows up in relationship to Jewish and Israeli history, and usually in some apparently incomprehensible “anti-Jewish riot.” These riots are rarely explained, and the motives and reasoning of Palestinian protests are only briefly discussed. Once, for example, we are told that the 1929 “riot” was in anger at increasing Jewish immigration, which was a “threat to Arab interests” because Palestinians were “beginning to see themselves in Arab nationalist terms” (378). In fact, Jewish settlers were not just immigrating but were engaging in a process of systematic land purchase from absentee landowners and insisting only on employing Jews, thus creating a massive population of unemployed and newly impoverished Palestinian peasants. The specific motivations and reasoning that drive Palestinian revolts for work and freedom from a Zionist project that explicitly discriminates against them, are instead imputed to a racist and violent Arabness that instinctively hates Jews.

If you decide to read beyond the book using the news sources Lonely Planet recommends, you will not learn much more about Palestinians and their history: in the “Need To Know” section on page sixteen only Israeli and American sites are included, whereas Palestinian news sites do not get so much as a mention.

Why Does It Matter?

Travel guidebooks have become one of the primary means by which millions of people become acquainted with the world. As the tourism industry has exploded, so has the tourist guide industry, and today Lonely Planet, Fodor’s, Le Routard, and others are a crucial means of interpreting places, history, and politics for travelers. Lonely Planet is the largest travel guide publisher in the world, and has published more than one hundred million books translated into nine languages. The website gets six million hits a month.

For all of the clichés about how traveling acquaints one with other cultures, it remains one of the most important and popular ways of experiencing the world. More than ever, travel books have become a primary medium through which history and geography are learned. As a result, the burden of explaining complex political narratives has fallen increasingly into the hands of an industry that often seeks to provide the least politicized narratives possible. But travel is not removed from the world of politics or power relations.

In a conflict zone like Israel/Palestine, where Western powers and publics are deeply complicit in Israeli policies, it would behoove the Lonely Planet to present conflicting narratives evenhandedly rather than adapting a simplifying—and deeply political—bias. This would not be that difficult; it could be accomplished by adding a few sentences in individual entries to explain the presence of the homes of expelled Palestinians, and to ensure that Palestinian perspectives and historical narratives are as thoroughly presented as their Israeli counterparts.