Jerusalem skyline
View of Jerusalem from Mt. Olives, on a border tour with the Geneva Initiative

Recently there was a travel post over at about the archaeological City of David site in Jerusalem. Because Matt refuses to post the entirety of my comments on his post** (understandably it’s his blog, his rules) I figured I better write about it too so that any tourist who wants to visit Israel could be a little better informed. Lucky for me, I’ve got a travel blog myself and I might as well use my soapbox while I’ve got it. I’ve been meaning to write about traveling responsibly in Israel for a while, and this just reminded me to get on it.

So, what is the City of David?

The City of David ”is the oldest settled neighborhood of Jerusalem and a major archaeological site,” according to Wikipedia. It is believed to be the place where King David built his palace and where Biblical kings and prophets lived and visited. Today it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Israel and a site of major archaeological excavations.

Where exactly is the City of David located and who is it run by?

The City of David is located in the Palestinian village of Silwan, just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Silwan is home to over 40,000 Palestinians, and was annexed by Israel in 1967, following the Six Day War, along with other Palestinian villages and neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

The City of David tourist site, as well as the archaeological excavations, are run by the Elad Foundation, whose goal is to achieve Jewish presence in Palestinian areas in Jerusalem.

Why is the City of David a controversial tourist site?

The consensus today is that if there’s ever a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, it will recognize a Palestinian state whose capital is East Jerusalem (that is, the parts of Jerusalem whose major population is Palestinian). So the dividing of Jerusalem will be based on demographics, and changing the demographics means more areas will be part of an Israeli Jerusalem city.

The Elad foundation not only runs the excavations, but also is constantly attaining more and more houses in Silwan, driving the Palestinians out of their homes and inhabiting them with Jews. Some houses were simply bought, but others were attained by allegedly using fraudulent documents. Jews residing in the midst of a Palestinian population also require the presence of military and police forces to guard now Jewish homes. Many Palestinians see this as a provocation; it stirs up the sensitive situation and escalates the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Silwan—City of David situation is very complex, and a lot more could be written about it, but the point is this: by visiting the City of David you are supporting and funding Jewish settlements, the deportation of Palestinians and the destruction of the prospect of a peace settlement that will end the conflict. I’m not saying this makes you a bad person, but I believe, as a responsible tourist you should be aware of the effects of your actions.

60 Minutes did an excellent piece about Silwan and the City of David site last October. It’s well worth 15 minutes of your time and I’ve embedded the link to the video below. The increasingly popular Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement also recently created a flyer, explaining why the “Israeli” City of David site is controversial for tourism. Some people wrongly view the Sheikh Jarrah nonviolent protests as “extrreme” but this is an incredibly incorrect assumption. In fact, many others have lauded the movement’s ability to promote peace and make a difference using nonviolence. (Watch a great TED video in support of nonviolent, peaceful protests in Israel.)

What can I do?

The best part about being a responsible traveler is not that you can make informed decisions, but that you can make informed decisions *and then* do something with what you’ve learned.

For example, there are a lot of travel blogs writing about Burma and a lot of them touch on the subject of responsible travel because of the travel restrictions and controversial government. The Guardian wrote about traveling responsibly in Burma and I think that article provides a good guide of how you can visit controversial sites and places (even ones whose policies you—or the international community—do not believe in) and still come away as a decent human being. It’s just about understanding what you’re doing, learning about what’s happening where you’re visiting (from as many perspectives as you can gather) and then from sharing your personal truth.

Burma was a country I understood very little about before I started reading about it on other travelers’ travel blogs. Because it’s such a popular topic (and discussed prominently on a plethora of travel websites), I now know a hell of a lot more about the Burmese government and the Burmese people. And though I haven’t visited the country, I’d like to think I’m much better informed than I was six months ago. See what sharing what you learn can do? Words have power.

So, back to Israel and responsible travel.

One of the most insightful travel tips I got upon first arriving in Israel was from my Couchsurfing host in Jerusalem, an independent journalist in Israel. I was interested in learning more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his advice to me was simply to visit the places and talk to the people. He suggested I visit Palestinian cities and Israeli settlements. To talk to the people and hear what they had to say. To listen and to learn. And then to come up with my own conclusions.

That was one hell of a travel tip.

So, if you’re planning to travel and visit 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. Ir Amim offers tours around Jerusalem (in Hebrew and in English), where they discuss some of the many conflicts happening in and around the city. If you decide to see & visit controversial places for yourself, be sure to get as much understanding out of it as possible. And if you’ve got your own soapbox, for God’s sake, use it responsibly and use it fairly.

**UPDATE 29-04-11: Though Matt published my comments as soon as this post went live, it seems he changed his mind a day later and removed all my comments from his posts on Israel. He’s notified me that he won’t include links to certain websites in comments on his site, though he assures me he continues to encourage discussion on his posts. However, he has also blocked all forms of communication from me, despite the fact that we once were friendly.

Also, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity movement just started a Letter Campaign to have the entry for the City of David either removed or amended from the Lonely Planet Israel guidebook to include information about the actions of the Elad organization. You can find information on the petition here: Letter Campaign: Exposing ELAD – Revealing the Truth. It was also recently reported by the Jerusalem Post in this article: To Lonely Planet: Include Arab history on City of David



  1. I met Matt from Landlopers while he was in Israel on his one week holiday last October. We visited the holocaust memorial together and I even showed him my favorite Jerusalem cafe. He’s a nice guy and I have a lot of respect for him and his travel website. This post is not meant to be an attack on his beliefs or his travels in Israel, just a response.
  2. While I may be critical of particular Israelis and the Israeli government, I do in fact believe in Israel’s current right to exist as a state.
  3. During my four months in Tel Aviv, I did a volunteer-internship with the Geneva Initiative. The Geneva Initiative is an Israeli-Palestinian nonprofit organization that promotes a two-state solution: Israel as a Jewish state and Palestine as a demilitarized Arab state; with Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state and West Jerusalem (with blocs of the surrounding largest Jewish settlements) as the capital of an Israeli state. My beliefs for an Israeli/Palestinian peace solution is (like most people’s) a little more complicated than could be summarized in a few sentences, so if you’d like to discuss this personally just give me a shout.

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