A Jewish Guide in the Holy Land: How Christian Pilgrims Made Me Israeli

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For many Evangelical Christians, a trip to the Holy Land is an integral part of practicing their faith. Arriving in groups, most of these pilgrims are guided by Jewish Israeli tour guides. For more than three decades, Jackie Feldman-born into an Orthodox Jewish family in New York, now an Israeli citizen, scholar, and licensed guide-has been leading tours, interpreting Biblical landscapes, and fielding questions about religion and current politics. In this book, he draws on pilgrimage and tourism studies, his own experiences, and interviews with other guides, Palestinian drivers and travel agents, and Christian pastors to examine the complex interactions through which guides and tourists "co-produce" the Bible Land. He uncovers the implicit politics of travel brochures and religious souvenirs. Feldman asks what it means when Jewish-Israeli guides get caught up in their own performances or participate in Christian rituals, and reflects on how his interactions with Christian tourists have changed his understanding of himself and his views of religion.

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1 How Guiding Christians Made Me Israeli

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ITS ALMOST 6 o’clock and still over 90 degrees outside. I’m guiding a British charismatic ministry through the sites of Jesus’s ministry around the Sea of Galilee. The packed tour bus jiggles and bounces over the patched road on its way back to the hotel. I take the microphone and turn to the group: “Ladies and gentlemen, if you have any questions, about anything whatsoever that I might have explained today, please feel free to ask.”

A middle-aged Salvation Army guy with an Irish brogue pipes up: “Why don’t you Jews accept Jesus Christ as your true Lord and Savior?” I launch into a five-minute explanation on conflicting messianic expectations, varying interpretations of Isaiah, the plurality of Jewish sects in Jesus’s day, and how the contingencies of history formed deniers and followers of Jesus into Jews and Christians. After five minutes, I put down the microphone. Dead silence. Fifty-five people crammed into the bus and not a sound but the drone of the motor.

 

2 Guided Holy Land Pilgrimage—Sharing the Road

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THE HOLY LAND exerts tremendous force on the Christian imagination. In 2010, of the approximately 3.5 million tourists to Israel, about half were Christian pilgrims. Whether they refer to it as the Holy Land, the Bible Land, Palestine, Israel, or Zion, more and more Christians are coming to visit the sites where Jesus walked, preached, died on the cross, and was resurrected from the dead. Post-Soviet pilgrims now crowd the Holy Sepulchre. Three popes have come on pilgrimage in the course of fifteen years, encouraging flocks of Catholic faithful to follow. For Evangelicals – from the United States but also from Brazil and Nigeria – a voyage to the Holy Land is becoming an integral part of Christian practice and discourse. Most of these pilgrims come in organized groups and are guided by government-licensed Jewish-Israeli tour guides.

I have been a licensed guide for more than three decades; for more than twenty years, such groups provided me with my daily bread. The pilgrims I guided and studied came with their Bibles, their hymnals, and their faith but also with the images of conflict and violence broadcast on the evening news. Thus, at the outset, Israel/Palestine is not only the “cradle of civilization” and birthplace of Christianity but also the bloody battleground of Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, and, for some, the church and the forces of the Antichrist. The guided group pilgrimage provides an environmental bubble that shelters pilgrims from the inconveniences and many of the conflicted quotidian realities of Israel/Palestine.1 While it “keeps their eyes on Jesus,” this protective bubble encloses not only the Christian pilgrim and his pastor but also the Jewish-Israeli guide, and the Palestinian (Muslim or Christian) driver. It creates a hothouse effect in which, over the course of an eight- to twelve-day tour, charged identity issues of participants and their guides ripen and ferment.

 

3 Opening Their Eyes: Performance of a Shared Protestant-Israeli Bible Land

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EARLY IN THE morning of their first day in Jerusalem, the guide Galia takes her Protestant pilgrims to view the panorama from atop the Mount of Olives. Choosing a spot overlooking the Muslim Dome of the Rock, Arab East Jerusalem, and the Old City but out of earshot of the Palestinian vendors of postcards and camel rides, she begins her orientation to the city. In an interview, she explained her approach: “I start with Abraham and Melchizedek and go through the Six-Day War. . . . I deal with the view, the Temple, what you see there – the Valley of Jehosaphat and the Gate of Mercy. . . . For me, this is a mission. I aim to open their eyes, so they ask questions. Nothing is the way it seems” (interview, June 2001).

How do Jewish guides enable Protestant pilgrims to see the Bible Land? What is effaced from view? What makes these ways of seeing natural and comfortable for all participants? In this chapter, I will show how Jewish-Israeli tour guides and Protestant pastors and pilgrims become coproducers of a mutually satisfying performance that transforms the often-contested terrain of Israel-Palestine into Bible Land. Through listening to guides’ narrations of biblical sites as they view them and move through them, visitors are constituted as pilgrims and assert a claim to the landscape, and the guide is granted place-making authority as biblical witness, native, and professional.

 

4 Christianizing the Conflict: Bethlehem and the Separation Wall

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Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none
of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.
That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not
only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas,
about forms, about images and imaginings.1

THROUGHOUT THE CONTENTIOUS history of the Holy Land, the sacralization of places through scriptural attributions, reproduced images, and liturgical performance has been the common currency of political claims to space.2 Insofar as pilgrimages often take place in contested public space, they serve not only as an affirmation of faith and belonging but also as a manifestation of presence to others, a staking of a claim to territory.

In this chapter, I will investigate how sites of violent conflict in Israel/Palestine become sacralized and imbued with transcendent meaning. What narrative and performative strategies make certain understandings of violence natural, and how do actors shape biblical landscapes and narratives in order to make their understandings of the conflict self-evident and justified to others – whose moral and political support they seek? I will focus on a recent but already canonical manifestation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the “Separation Wall” and the passage between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, as experienced by Western Christian pilgrims.

 

5 The Goods of Pilgrimage: Tips, Souvenirs, and the Moralities of Exchange

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Second tithe may not be sold, nor given as pledge, nor exchanged, nor
used for reckoning weights. . . . One may not say to his neighbor in
Jerusalem, “Here is wine and give me oil (in exchange),” or “Here is oil,
give me wine (in exchange).” But one may say, “Here is wine for you,
for I have no oil,” “Here is oil for you, for I have no wine”. . . .
But they give each other free gifts (Mishna. Ma’aser Sheni 1:1).1

DURING THE SECOND Temple Period, in four years of each seven-year cycle, second tithe, a tenth of the agricultural bounty, was set aside for expenditure by pilgrims on food, drink, and anointing oil during their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nearly 2,000 years ago, rabbis struggled with the contradictory tensions of the material and the sacred: how was one to enable pilgrims to make the exchanges that would give them variety and nourishment so that they could be joyous before the Lord, without turning consecrated foodstuffs into market commodities? The rabbis’ regulations show that, in order to achieve a sense of fellowship among pilgrims and between pilgrims and spiritual goals, transparency is not necessary. Indeed, a certain amount of ambiguity and multivocality is almost essential. The teasing, hinting nature of the noncontractual exchange, the elusiveness of the boundary, the reciprocal quality of the declarative performance – “Here is wine, for I have no oil,” “Here is oil, for I have no wine” – mark the trade as not totally determined, thus preserving something of the communitas of pilgrims, as “Consequently, they exchange and yet do not exchange, and do each other kindness” (Tosefta. Ma’aser Sheni 1:1–2).2 Through such performances (to quote Victor Turner) “the other becomes a brother.”3

 

6 The Seductions of Guiding Christians

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SHORTLY AFTER I switched from guiding pilgrims to lecturing in anthropology, my wife remarked, “As a lecturer, your first responsibility is to instruct; as a guide it is to seduce.” She was referring to the role of tour guides to convey the proper impression, to ferret out the desires and beliefs of the pilgrims, and “play the game” – le jeu de la seduction – in ways that would win their confidence, engage their emotions, satisfy their expectations, and yield compliments, requests for future services, and generous tips.1

The use of the term of “seduction” with respect to Christian pilgrimage may seem surprising.2 For religion, “seduction was a strategy of the devil, whether in the guise of witchcraft or love.”3 Seduction was generally seen as evil, a sin, a diversion of mankind from its spiritual goal by the temptations of the flesh. Fornication, unfaithfulness, and idolatry are frequently linked in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Hosea 2, Ezekiel 15). Numbers 15:39 commands the children of Israel to remember and perform the commandments of the Lord and “not seek after your own hearts and your own eyes, after which you prostitute (Hebrew: zonim) yourselves.”

 

7 Conclusion: Pilgrimage, Performance, and the Suspension of Disbelief

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JERUSALEM. MIDNIGHT, AUGUST 2014. Another round of fighting between Israel and Gaza. I sit typing on my terrace, opposite the Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood of Sur Baher. The rocket warning sirens blare; someone in Sur Baher fires off a string of firecrackers, I assume as a sign of solidarity. I wish the rocket would fall on his head. Two weeks ago, my neighbors marched to the edge of the Palestinian village, waving huge Israeli flags and shouting “Death to the Arabs.” On the hillside opposite, Palestinian youths have burned tires each evening in protest against Israeli actions in Gaza. Bumper stickers on cars in my street proclaimed God’s blessing on the Israeli army in defeating their enemies. Hamas rockets continued to fall on Sderot and Ashkelon. Israeli fear and loathing of Arabs bubbled up to new levels, as some voices encouraged the Israeli army to smash their heads and level Gaza to the ground. The Friday muezzin sermons, blasting from the loudspeakers across the wadi sounded angrier than ever.

 

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