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When Israel planned 'fantasy' tours to Arab villages under martial law

New documents reveal how Israel’s leaders prepared to celebrate the country’s 10-year anniversary: by bringing tourists to participate in orientalist ‘fantasy’ tours to Arab villages, then under military rule.

Arab citizens of Israel seen dancing in the village of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. (Moshe Pridan)

Arab citizens of Israel seen dancing in the village of Baqa al-Gharbiyye, April 1, 1958. (Moshe Pridan)

If you’re a young Jewish person, chances are you or someone you know has gone on a Birthright trip. If you have gone on Birthright, chances are that as part of the program’s attempt to provide an “authentic” and pluralistic “Israel experience” you spent the night in a Bedouin tent and posed on a camel in the Negev Desert. In short, young Jews are sold a fantasy.

That fantasy did not begin with Birthright. A new trove of documents recently released by the Israel State Archives shows how that Birthright mentality — which exoticizes and puts on display Israel’s Arab citizens — goes as far back as the 1950s, when Israel was preparing to celebrate 10 years of independence.

In 1957, Israeli authorities established a committee to organize Independence Day celebrations for the nascent state’s “minorities” — the official term for Israel’s Arab population at the time — across the country. The documents are full of correspondences between committee members and officials in Israel’s military government, which imposed martial law on the country’s Arab citizens between 1949 and 1966.

The documents are mostly procedural correspondences between various committee members, civilian government officials, and officers in the military government. The correspondences, for the most part, reveal an attempt on the part of the authorities to use the 10-year anniversary as an opportunity to simultaneously better the conditions of the country’s Arab population and show them the benefits of being citizens of the Jewish state.

An Arab choir sings at Independence Day celebrations, held in Umm al-Fahm, April 29, 1958 (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

An Arab choir sings at Independence Day celebrations, held in Umm al-Fahm, April 29, 1958 (Moshe Pridan/GPO)

One letter, dated February 2, 1958, from the Health Ministry to Yaakov Agmon, head of the planning committee, announced the opening of five new health clinics in Arab villages, which were to be inaugurated in honor of the decennial. In a different letter, Agmon himself demands that roads be paved between isolated Arab villages in honor of the anniversary.

But it is a letter from January 6, 1958 from M. Golan of the “Rallies Department” to Agmon that best evinces the hormonal teenage years of the Israeli Orientalist fantasy. In that letter, Golan writes to Agmon about the possibility of tourists joining the festivities in areas under military rule, and how civilian and military authorities can facilitate their enjoyment:

I suggest we plan a ‘fantasy’ once, at most twice a month, with a different tribe (in accordance with the suggestion of the military governor) which will include horses, a camel race, and prizes for winners. This will be announced a week ahead of time to the military governor, the military governor will check and announce today how many tourists (as well as the Israelis that will somehow inevitably show up) can be brought to such an event.

Golan goes on to write that “in the case in which we know of a wedding or ‘sulha’ (a traditional Arab practice of conflict resolution, often between families – E.K.), we should help with funding and bringing tourists to such an event.”

It’s not clear from the archive documents if the “fantasy” tours ever took place.

An internal correspondence from 1957 in the run-up to Israel's 10th anniversary celebrations, according to which tourists should be able to visit Arab areas under military rule, where separate celebrations are set to take place. (Israel State Archives)

An internal correspondence from 1957 in the run-up to Israel’s 10th anniversary celebrations, according to which tourists should be able to visit Arab areas under military rule, where separate celebrations are set to take place. (Israel State Archives)

Like the Bedouin whom Jewish tourists meet on Birthright today, Palestinian citizens of Israel were viewed as props in Israel’s attempts to present itself to tourists — and thus to the world — as inclusive and democratic. And while building roads to connect isolated villages is praiseworthy, it is precisely the fact that Arabs were — and continue to be — viewed as the perpetual “other” of Israeli society that kept them dependent on the state’s good graces for something as basic as electricity. (In one document, a local mukhtar says that while he would be happy to take part in the anniversary, his town lacks connection to electricity and thus the celebrations would need to take place with kerosene lamps.)

Tourists, of course, were not invited to see how Palestinian citizens —15 percent of the population at the time — found their civil rights, including their ability to travel and work freely, hampered by a restrictive and often brutal military regime.

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Sixty years ago the Orientalist displays and attempts to present itself as a democracy that respects the rights of minorities, was an entire apparatus used to subjugate Palestinian citizens and take their land. Any tourists or Jewish Israelis who came to celebrate 10 years of Israeli statehood with the Arab community likely had no idea that such an apparatus even existed.

Tourists coming to Israel today on programs like Birthright, of course, still don’t learn about the home demolitions, land expropriations, and wholesale evictions that affect entire Bedouin communities in the Negev. Instead, just like in 1958, they are sold a fantasy of a nomadic people who live in tents, waiting to usher in their Western guests with plates of food, pots of Arabic coffee, and scenic camel rides.

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    1. Ben

      “Instead, just like in 1958, they are sold a fantasy”

      Indeed. The occupation of the West Bank seems to me much like an ersatz Disneyland kitsch theme park recreation of the Wild Wild West and Manifest Destiny for American Jewish transplants who get to play Cowboys and Indians, but when the “indians” resist, the “cowboys” get to hide behind Mama IDF’s skirts and have Mama wallop the Indians.

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