Should you visit Israel?

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Maybe you’ve heard great things about Tel Aviv’s nightlife (even here on this blog). Or you’re interested in Middle Eastern history & culture. Or maybe you’re religious and interested in the religious history of a controversial and culturally important land. Israel and the Palestinian territories catch a lot of attention in the media so it’s natural to be curious about visiting or travelling to Israel.

But, should you visit Israel? Should you visit the Palestinian territories?

My own answer to this question hasn’t been an easy decision. When I was living in Tel Aviv, Israel last year, I tried to convince a friend to visit me in Tel Aviv. Her answer: no. Not because she didn’t want to see me, but because she’d read and researched enough about the region to make a decision to not support the country with her tourism. At the time, I thought that was a silly cop-out. How could she know what Israel is like if she’s never been?

Since that time, I myself have had the chance to learn and see a lot more. Over time, I’ve increasingly been more vocal about my political beliefs regarding Israel and the Palestinian territories. I wrote the following a few months ago:

If you’re planning to be a tourist in Israel, I hope you’ll take the time to read about the places you might visit. There are lots of Israeli and Palestinian organizations that run study tours around the country. If you decide to see & visit controversial places for yourself, be sure to get as much understanding out of it as possible.

Many people visit Israel because of religious reasons, or because they’ve heard about how European of a city Tel Aviv is, or because they’re interested in the Middle East, or sometimes for very little reason other than an affordable flight. Those indeed are all reasons to visit a place, but as a firm believer in responsible travel, visiting Israel (and most countries) requires a little bit more of an effort.

Packing a bag and boarding a plane is easy. Making an informed decision on whether or not to visit a place is not. So if you’re considering a trip to Israel, I urge you to take the time to read the news from both sides of the political conflict, to get to know where you’re going. But don’t just stop there. When travelling in Israel, it’s important to speak to the people, to see the places. It’s important to visit Israeli and Palestinian cities, to visit demonstrations. The more you see, the more you learn.

Politics matters while (and where) you travel

There’s a new TED talk from Julia Bacha, the director of Budrus (a documentary film about nonviolent protests in the West Bank). While her talk doesn’t necessarily have to do with visiting Israel, I think it’s worth watching. In her speech and this subsequent editorial on CNN.com, she touches on how media can and does provide a limited view of much of the world. That’s why I believe it’s important to seek out alternate sources, to see things for yourself.

There is a lot of misconception when it comes to Israel and the Palestinian territories. If you ignore the conflict when travelling in Israel, you’re not really seeing what the country deals with. Plenty of people can and do ignore it, but plenty of people are also affected by it every single day.

Many people will claim you can never know a place unless you’ve lived there, and therefore you cannot reasonably speak on the matter nor have an opinion. While I may have once believed this to be true, I know it isn’t an ultimatum. Let’s revisit the story of my friend who wouldn’t visit me in Israel. She’s a smart, intelligent and informed person. She wasn’t interested in visiting Israel for fear of “supporting” Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and the Palestinian territories. Her support wouldn’t have been implicit, simply just a fact of her being there and of spending her money there. But she made a conscious, informed & deliberate decision to not visit Israel based on the information available to her. For this, I cannot blame her. In fact, I admire her. Packing a bag and boarding a plane is easy. Making an informed decision on whether or not to visit a place is not.

I won’t say whether or not you should visit Israel. But I will say that if you do visit Israel, you should deliberately consider what types of repercussions your actions might have on a bigger picture. Because so much of the travel and tourism industry in Israel is controversial for so many people, be careful where your feet land.

And don’t forget that there’s more to Israel than just Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Palestinian territories, as it is today, falls under Israeli control. And within the West Bank alone are some incredible tourist sites, whether the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem or nightclubs in Ramallah.

Blogs published by Adam Groffman • Please note some posts do make me some money, but I never sacrifice my integrity in exchange for a favorable review. Read the full disclosure policy.

41 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. Thank you for this post.  I’ve always wanted to visit Jerusalem but have had a hard time getting a tour company to take me there as I am Muslim.  I agree that everyone should definitely do their research when going anywhere but at the same time, travel in itself is all about taking that chance.  I guess it’s all about being careful yet being fearless all at the same time.  Great post Adam:)

    • Hi Azzah,
      Thanks for your comment. That’s an interesting way to sum up travel: being fearless & careful at the same time. If you really want to visit Jerusalem, I hope you’re eventually able to find a way to visit at some point – it’s an incredible city with such an interesting history. Good luck and thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  2. Great post, and I love that you included something from TED! I don’t know if I would or wouldn’t visit Israel.

    • I think I believe in TED more than I believe in most things. There are some truly inspirational speeches on there. This one was no exception.

  3. It is refreshing to hear the opinion that you should actually RESEARCH where you are going and go through the whys. While it came be glamorous to pick a point on a map and go, there really should be a purpose behind traveling, especially to more controversial places and their polices.

    • Thanks so much Suzy. I think a lot of travellers forget to ask “why” they want to visit somewhere. Travel for travel’s sake doesn’t do much for me, and I expect many feel similarly.

  4. Oh, and I just watched the Julia Bacha video.  She seems like such a lovely person, but her clip showing the compassionate Hamas member made me a little nauseous. I guess Julia’s sweet disposition is not bothered by the fact that Hamas officially calls for GENOCIDE against the Jews in their Charter (online for all to read).  She fails to mention that the security barrier has all but stopped suicide bombings. Her sweet voice is not bothered by the lungs of young Israeli girls being blow apart by Palestinian bombs and rockets. I wish her all the best in her advocacy and know that her dishonest narrative will appeal to many who don’t know better or who don’t think Jews (like Palestinians) deserve self-determination.

    • Thank you for your comments Estreeet (I’d appreciate if you used your name next time you commented, though, and perhaps limit your thoughts to one main comment).

  5. “Criticizing
    Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out
    Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — is anti-Semitic, and
    not saying so is dishonest.” —-Thomas Friedmad, NY TIMES

  6. Though
    Israel may often be deserving of criticism, what is missing is the
    comparable criticism of equal or greater violations by other countries
    and other groups. This constant, often legitimate criticism of Israel
    for every one of its deviations, when coupled with the absence of
    legitimate criticism of others, creates the impression currently
    prevalent on university campuses and in the press that Israel is among
    the worst human rights violators in the world….it is not true, but if
    it is repeated often enough, it takes on a reality of its own.

  7. Hmmm, I really hope you’re friend refused to visit every other country in the ME too, not just the one Jewish country in the world. Very curious indeed how people seem to overlook the atrocities in other countries and single out Israel as one of the worst human rights violators in the world…when in fact their record, while imperfect, is impressive compared to every other country in the Middle East and every other country in the world that is/has been faced with comparable threats.

  8. What an excellent article you have here Adam. I have yet to visit Israel/Palestine but I hope to at some point in my life. I really like how you worded the article because as we both know, it’s an extremely controversial topic. I’m also a firm believer of researching and learning before traveling to certain destinations. Keep up the good work…

  9. It was all because of the issues between territories that made my brother cancelled our trip to Israel. It was supposed to be last year. Now, he does not have any plans to pursue the trip there. While me, I would love to be there.

    • The problems in Israel are, generally speaking, confined to certain areas. And even then much of it is exaggerated. And certainly most of it is only targeted to extremists by extremists, rather than at tourists.

  10. It is really very refreshing Adam to read a travel article that controversially
    discusses wether traveling to a country or not can also be a political
    statement. I find it very helpful that you advise to really inform yourself
    about the places you visit and to be aware of the overall context you are
    traveling in. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  11. It is really very refreshing Adam to read a travel article that controversially
    discusses wether traveling to a country or not can also be a political
    statement. I find it very helpful that you advise to really inform yourself
    about the places you visit and to be aware of the overall context you are
    traveling in. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Thanks Carina. I think it’s important for people to be aware of their surroundings – especially as a visitor to a country.

  12. It is really very refreshing Adam to read a travel article that controversially
    discusses wether traveling to a country or not can also be a political
    statement. I find it very helpful that you advise to really inform yourself
    about the places you visit and to be aware of the overall context you are
    traveling in. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  13. It is really very refreshing Adam to read a travel article that controversially
    discusses wether traveling to a country or not can also be a political
    statement. I find it very helpful that you advise to really inform yourself
    about the places you visit and to be aware of the overall context you are
    traveling in. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  14. It is really very refreshing Adam to read a travel article that controversially
    discusses wether traveling to a country or not can also be a political
    statement. I find it very helpful that you advise to really inform yourself
    about the places you visit and to be aware of the overall context you are
    traveling in. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  15. Really interesting topic. I can understand a bit why your friend was a bit concerned about not wanting to be seen as ‘supporting’ Israel through tourism. We’ve been subjected to some criticism about the fact that we’ve been to Tibet and it’s not nice to be on the receiving end of comments like “you’re supporting Chinese brutality towards Tibetans” – which clearly, we aren’t! Tibet, for us, was simply a beautiful, amazing place that we felt we had to visit.

    It’s a shame that political issues have clouded people’s desires to see and experience fascinating parts of the world.

    Personally I’d love to go to Jerusalem and Bethleham because they are both hugely important places in the history of Christianity and I love being given the opportunity to delve into the history of everywhere I visit – i think so long as people make themselves aware of the issues surrounding particular regions before they visit, they shouldn’t feel bad about going there. We were in Pakistan too, not long before they found Osama and the media started portraying Pakistan as ‘terrorist’ friendly again, but the part of Pakistan we loved the most was getting to know the ‘real’ people there – who couldn’t have been more hospitable to us if they’d tried! There are always too sides to every story, and it’s not always necessary to believe in one side or the other.

    - sorry for the long comment :-)

    • Hey, thanks for your comment! While I agree that there are always two (or more) sides to every story, I still believe political issues should play a role in seeing and experiencing places around the world. That doesn’t mean I think you should avoid those places, it’s just important to be aware of the political situation there.

      I definitely understand the desire and interest for seeing places like Tibet and Pakistan for yourself…I’ve wanted to visit those places as well.

  16. We talked about this the other night at Travel Massive and I was happy to read more about the topic here. I still would like to visit Israel so I can be more informed of the issues and understand the different sides from the mouths of locals. As mentioned, I’d love to spend time in the Palestinian areas as well as the settlements – it’s important to see all sides to get a balanced perspective. 

    • Hi Audrey, thanks for letting me talk about this with you the other day. It helps to speak out loud my opinions and I was glad to get the chance to talk to you about it. As I know you’re aware, you’re spot on with the idea of talking to locals from each and every side of a situation. It’s one of the best ways to get to know a place.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  17. I dont think I would visit israel right now

    • Actually, come to think of it, I was in Israel this time last year – just as the peace negotiations started with President Obama (and then quickly failed). With the Palestinians’ expected bid for recognition at the UN this week, I’m not sure what to expect.

  18. For me it’s about seeing both sides of any story. Visit Jerusalem by all means… it’s uniquely amazing. But go see Bethelhem too. Cross the wall. See life on both sides of it. I have no issue with your friend’s decision either, but personally I’d say go see for yourself if you can. Then you can really make up your mind in a more informed way. Something I wrote ages back…
    http://www.travelweekly.co.uk/Articles/2005/10/28/21344/middle-east-plenty-of-room-at-the-inn.html

    • Hi Jeremy, Thanks for the link to your story about tourism in Bethlehem. I remember reading last winter in The Guardian about a lot of Palestinian tourism companies and hotels in Bethlehm being neglected because of tourists’ “fear” of visiting the Palestinian city, so most tourists end up just going on a day trip with an Israeli tour company.

      Thanks for adding to the conversation.

  19. The answer is yes, you should visit Israel.

    Any other answer requires you to make a long list of other countries you shouldn’t visit. If you don’t have such a long list, but you are not willing to visit Israel- you need to check your logic, or your integrity.

    • Hi David,
      Like I mentioned above, visiting any controversial country should require some legwork and research on the part of the tourist. I also just want to reiterate that any visit to Israel should include a visit to the Palestinian territories – not just to visit, but also to learn about the conflict there.

      • David, you say if I visit Israel I should also visit the Palestinian territories…really??   I happen to be Jewish and Jews are not allowed in Gaza according to laws enacted by Hamas, and even if they were, as with many Arab villages in the West Bank, it is not safe for Jews to visit. Take for example, Juliano Mer-Khamis was born to a Jewish mother and an Arab-Christian father (and identified as a pro-Palestinian peace activist) who was just murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

        • There is actually quite a rather large misconception about the “safety” for Jews in the West Bank. I, for one, personally know many Israelis and Jews who have visited the West Bank against warning by their country.

          I’m familiar with Julian Mer-Kahmis and that was a terrible tragedy.

          • Adam, thanks for your reply.  As per your instructions, my name is David (and I was addressing what you said Adam, not the David above).  Sorry for the multiple posts.  As a human rights activist, Zionist, and believer in the two-state solution, I feel very passionate about this topic…also because my cousin lives in Sderot under constant rocket fire from Palestinian terrorists.  As for what you said, about what you call a misconception, I must respectfully disagree in part. The only way I could have any degree of personal safety in most Arab villages in the West Bank would be if I was to hide who I am and not wear my yarmulke.  I am a proud Jew and refuse to do that out of principle.  Also, in all honestly, I am haunted/scarred by what happened to Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami, two Jews who mistakenly drove into Ramallah.   These two non-combatant Israeli reservists (like all Israelis since military service is required), were beaten, stabbed, had their eyes gouged out, and were
            disemboweled while a huge crowd of Palestinians cheered them on. One of the
            soldier’s bodies was then thrown out the window of a police station and stamped and beaten
            by the enraged mob. One of the bodies was set on fire. Then the
            mob dragged the two mutilated bodies to Al-Manara Square in the city
            center (wiki 2000 Ramallah lynching).  Sorry if I’m being graphic, but we need to be honest about the brutality of average Palestinians towards Jews.  And make no mistake about it, the 1000+ people who engaged in this mob and celebrations were average Palestinians (not a small minority of crazy radicals).    Just like when the Fogel family, including their young children were butchered while sleeping, average Palestinians passed out candy in Al-Manara Square to celebrate.  This is the ugly truth.  I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but if we are to be honest we need to talk about it and not sweep it under the table.  And I am not one of those people who think Israel is 100% right and the Palestinians are 100% wrong….I think there is injustice on both sides and many shades of gray to this conflict. But I don’t want to end up like Gilad Shalit and will not take irresponsible risks that could end in my murder or kidnapping (as Hamas has promised to do). Nor would I ever want to put Israel in a position where she would have to release over 1,000 terrorists (people who have blown up entire families at pizzerias and young hipsters at night clubs), to secure my return.  On a lighter note, enjoy your travels and stay safe.

      • David, you say if I visit Israel I should also visit the Palestinian territories…really??   I happen to be Jewish and Jews are not allowed in Gaza according to laws enacted by Hamas, and even if they were, as with many Arab villages in the West Bank, it is not safe for Jews to visit. Take for example, Juliano Mer-Khamis was born to a Jewish mother and an Arab-Christian father (and identified as a pro-Palestinian peace activist) who was just murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

  20. Very good points that you make. It is important for everyone to make their own informed decisions and then decide whether to visit a country or not. Travel to a place can shred light on issues that are misrepresented by the Western Media.

    • Thanks for your comment. It is indeed important for tourists and visitors to make educated decisions before visiting particuarly controversial places, wherever in the world. Travelling to a particular place can shed some light, but it’s often the people you meet who will shed even more light and understanding on a controversial situation. In Israel, this means visiting more than just Israeli sites and talking with more than just Israelis, something I think many tourists don’t end up doing.

  21. Thanks for writing this. I’ve only thought really hard about what my money was supporting in regards to Myanmar. I think in some cases of travel it is important to think about it. 

    • It’s true – a lot of travellers spend serious time researching Myanmar/Burma before a trip. If you’re travelling in the Middle East, there are many countries you should equally try to research before planning a trip.

  22. FInally a fresh approach to the idea of Israeli tourism.. Appreciated. 

    • Thanks for your comment Trish.

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