Standing in the Cardo, the ancient market street in the heart of Jerusalem’s Old City, Israeli tour guide Shai Goren asked for a volunteer from his group to hold out his hand, representing the Jews who dominated the city in the days of King Herod and the Second Temple. Then Goren got another volunteer to place her hand on top, symbolizing the Romans who destroyed the city. After this, at least a dozen more people stacked their hands to represent subsequent layers of occupation in the city, including the Byzantines, the Mamluks, the Crusaders, all the way up to the present-day Israelis, who ultimately solidified control over all of Jerusalem after capturing the eastern half of the city—including the Old City—from Jordan in 1967 during the Six-Day War.
“For Israelis, this is our city to begin with,” Goren said. “That’s why we say we liberated it in 1967.”
Goren’s co-guide, Noor Awad, a Palestinian from Bethlehem, exclaimed, “I cannot listen to this! Look at this, the Israelis are using this history to justify what they are doing today. For Palestinians, the ancient Jewish period in Jerusalem is not such a big deal, it’s just another part of the history, like the Romans, or Byzantines, or Mamluks.”
Some of the 20 people in the group, including locals and tourists, laughed nervously. This was just one of many polite disagreements that emerged recently between Goren and Awad, who were leading a recent dual-narrative tour of Jerusalem, offered each Monday by MEJDI Tours, a Florida-based company jointly owned by an American Jew and a Palestinian. While MEJDI and a handful of other companies have for years been offering customized multiday trips specifically for groups that are here to examine the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, this new weekly tour, launched in October, is unique because it’s open to the public and doesn’t require advance planning (although it is recommended to sign up online). The 4 1/2-hour tour, led jointly by licensed Israeli and Palestinian guides, costs $50, and includes the Old City’s main sites, like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, and the Al-Aqsa Mosque area on the Temple Mount, as well as residential streets and markets.
“We felt the need to make this type of tour more accessible,” said Aziz Abu Sarah, co-founder of MEJDI. “Not everyone visits in tour groups, but this way they can still hear different points of view.”
Abu Sarah sees the tour as part of a growing trend of immersive tourism that is affecting Jerusalem and the whole world, with visitors now more eager for activities like cooking classes, geopolitical tours, and in-home meals with locals. But it still stands out among day-trip offerings; the only other dual-narrative option leaving from Jerusalem is a twice-weekly joint Israeli-Palestinian tour of Hebron.
“These types of tours are complex,” said Eliyahu McLean, who oversees the content of the Hebron trip, organized through Abraham Tours. “But I think it’s really important and would love to see it grow.”
On a recent MEJDI tour of Jerusalem, the members of the tour group—including American Jews, European Christians, British Muslims, as well as a few local Israelis and Palestinians—introduced themselves to each other after meeting at the Jaffa Gate. Goren and Awad then took turns giving a brief introduction.
“In this land, there are many narratives and we will try to give you a broader picture,” said Awad, who added that he is a 28-year-old resident of Bethlehem in the West Bank, where his family fled after being kicked out of Malcha in West Jerusalem by Israeli troops in 1948.
Goren then introduced himself as a 32-year-old native Jerusalemite, who now lives in Tel Aviv. “If you want to understand Israel nowadays, you have to go to the past, and to hear how different groups see the past very differently,” he said.
Entering the ancient walls though the Jaffa Gate, the group stopped at the Tower of David, a citadel-cum-museum. Both guides agreed that this tower has nothing to do with King David, as it was built at least 1,000 years after he would have lived. But then their narratives began to diverge.
Goren explained that one of the groups who used this citadel was the Umayyad caliphate, a Damascus-based Muslim empire that conquered Jerusalem in the seventh century CE. “I don’t want to complicate things,” Awad interjected with a smile. “But he just said the Arabs came in the seventh century, but the reality is many Arab tribes were already living in this area before that.”
To keep things moving, they dropped the emerging debate, and focused on the Jewish connection to the city. Goren talked about how even though this tower came into existence long after King David would have lived, many see the biblical king as the builder of the city. This ancient connection to Jerusalem is part of what Zionism is based on, he said, and part of why Jerusalem is so important to Israel.
“We are not talking about colonialism or imperialism, we are talking about going back to our roots, to our homeland,” Goren said.
Awad said that for most Palestinians, “the Zionist movement is a colonial movement, and all that 2,000-year-old history and narrative about Jerusalem is used to justify colonialism.” He said that many Arab residents of Jerusalem and the West Bank suffer from Israel’s policies, and desire equal rights, if not their own state.
Their brief but often loaded and contradicting statements continued throughout the tour.
“Maybe we don’t solve our problems, but we present our views in a really honest way,” Goren said later.
Passing an Armenian Orthodox convent, the guides explained that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority officially recognizes the Ottoman Turkish genocide against the Armenians—an event that caused many to flee to Jerusalem—partly due to complex political relations with modern Turkey. Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe Jesus was crucified and buried, Awad talked about how Palestinians see this church as a national symbol, even though Christians make up less than 2 percent of their population. Goren said that for Israel, it’s often a symbol of democracy and freedom of religion, as 61 percent of tourists to the Jewish state in 2018 were Christian, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Even though the debates between the tour guides remained unresolved, tour participants said the experience was eye-opening, bringing up new aspects of the city and the conflict.
“I’ve heard of the Armenian Quarter, but I knew nothing about it, I had no idea of the complexity,” said Ibrahim Hayat, a 19-year-old Muslim from England who was visiting Jerusalem for the first time, with plans to volunteer with an Israeli-Palestinian nonprofit organization. “Many of the issues here are swept under the rug in the media, not really discussed.”
Ulrika Hofmann, a German Christian on her third visit to Jerusalem, said the tour was the first time she saw a local Israeli and Palestinian discussing history and politics. “It makes me think that the people who live here can solve the conflict among themselves, they don’t need the Americans or the Europeans,” she said.
A few locals who joined the tour said it was a window into the perspectives of others in the city.
“There are always new things to learn and to think about,” said Malkon Marizian, a 31-year-old Armenian resident of Jerusalem’s Old City who considers himself Palestinian. He joined the tour during a break from his work, which often takes him to Lebanon and Armenia, where he works with refugees as a psychologist. “I especially want to hear more the Jewish perspective on things, because I have heard the Palestinian perspective over and over.”
Yael Moav, an Israeli tour guide from Jerusalem, joined to learn more about MEJDI and its tours, saying she was thinking about working for them, and wanted to learn how to incorporate more perspectives into her own work as a tour guide. “It’s so important, even for people who live here, to hear different perspectives,” she said, adding that she was deeply Zionist, with her grandparents immigrating here from Europe and her son currently serving in the army. “But I am also a leftist.”
After visiting the Western Wall, the group passed a security check and walked up to the Temple Mount, an area most Palestinians informally refer to as Al Aqsa, the name of one mosque here. Standing outside the blue-tiled Dome of the Rock Islamic shrine, Goren and Awad both said this has increasingly become a focal point of the conflict. In recent years more Jewish Israelis, especially right-wing Zionists, have been visiting the Temple Mount, Goren explained, and increasingly breaking the rules against Jewish prayer here, put in place by both Israeli and Islamic religious officials to reduce tension. Awad said that many Palestinians see the increased Jewish presence here as a threat to any chance of Palestinian sovereignty in Jerusalem, and so often respond in extreme ways, including with violence.
“Ideally I think everyone should be praying here, even Jews,” Awad said. Goren agreed with him, saying he thought that would happen once Palestinians feel their rights are recognized by Israel.
For Yitzi Gittelsohn, a 22-year-old from Vermont who has become more religiously observant in recent years, the tour was part of a bigger journey exploring his Jewish identity. “I never thought much about it before, but now the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become something for me to grapple with now that my Jewish identity is more important to me,” said Gittelsohn, who, along with his parents, was visiting for the first time. He said the tour, and watching the interactions between the guides, who clearly had different perspectives was “inspiring,” and made him realize that perhaps he didn’t need clear opinions.
“It’s really tempting to lean to one side or the other,” Gittelsohn said. “But there are so many layers.”
The tour is also a personal journey for the guides, often pushing them out of their comfort zones.
Goren told the group that when he walks around certain areas of the Old City, he puts his tour guide license, which contains his name and the logo of the Israeli tourism ministry, in his pocket. “And I don’t like to speak Hebrew around here, it’s not so easy,” he said, adding that the armed Israeli soldiers make him feel safe. Awad said he often faces criticism back in Bethlehem for working with Israelis.
“Many people accuse me of legitimizing the occupation by working with Israelis,” Awad told me after the tour ended near the Damascus Gate. “But my doing this could mean a lot to the world. Doing these grassroots efforts helps everyone understand the problems and builds trust. We need trust before any political plan can be made. It also widens my perspective.”
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