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Why Israel Tour Books Are for Tourists

A ‘Haaretz’ writer finds them cringeworthy

Hadara Graubart
September 30, 2009

Haaretz’s Yotam Feldman takes a “voyeuristic” perusal of guide books for tourists to Israel, and discovers the reason why “[t]hese books are translated into every language but the one spoken in the country being described.” He finds a portrait of his home country that makes him uncomfortable—but we confess that as recent travelers to the holy land, and thus part of the books’ target audience, we don’t find them as far off the mark as Feldman might like to believe.

While the suggestion that curious travelers ask a Palestinian woman “about her embroidery and its significance” might sound silly or condescending, it’s hard to think of a better suggestion; chances are, she won’t want to discuss last week’s episode of Mad Men or the rush hour traffic in your home town. And if, as Feldman says, the books “stop just short of explaining one should chew food moderately yet persistently in order to avoid indigestion,” that’s probably because overwhelmed travelers can get flummoxed by mundane things such as buying toothpaste or making a phone call from their hotel. He takes umbrage at one book’s assertion that “Israelis prefer to drink instant or Turkish coffee, and when they drink alcohol, they prefer Goldstar beer”—but, well, that jives with our recent experience. If he wants to change Israel’s reputation regarding beverages, he might want to start with a letter to whomever plans hotel buffets.

Feldman does strike on something disturbing in the way these guides treat the Palestinian territories, which they present as “ideal sites for the danger enthusiast,” apologizing that Gaza doesn’t quite measure up to Iraq or Afghanistan. But his idea of what kind of book the average traveler might be looking for—“The one I would put together for visitors to Israel would bring them to places that are not very different from the ones where they live: residential neighborhoods, city parks and suburbs. It would help them understand public transportation, and let them sit in on court hearings and university lectures”—proves that not only is it better for locals not to read the books, but probably not to write them either.

Hadara Graubart was formerly a writer and editor for Tablet Magazine.