The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today
This hour-long special weaves together both the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives. In Israel, we go from the venerable ramparts of Jerusalem to the vibrant modern skyline of Tel Aviv. In Palestine, we harvest olives near Hebron, visit a home in Bethlehem, and pop into a university in Ramallah. We also learn about security walls, disputed settlements, and the persistent challenges facing the region.
Q&A with Rick Steves
In this Q&A, Rick talks about the reasons why he decided to produce the "Rick Steves' The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today" TV special, how he arrived at certain decisions he made, and what he learned from the experience.
Why did you want to make a program about the Holy Land?
All my life, I've heard experts talking about the Holy Land. But I'd had no personal experience there. I've also suspected that most well-educated, politically active Americans have never really had a chance to talk to an Israeli and to a Palestinian and sort through all the complexities of the region. So I thought it might be a good idea to go there with a travel writer's perspective, with open eyes and an honest curiosity. I wanted to talk to all kinds of people, and come away with some empathy and a better understanding for the different narratives.
Is this approach new for you?
Not at all. In my work I like to expose Americans to other ways of thinking, to help Americans get out of their comfort zone. As a travel writer, that's what I do. I go to places that are confusing to me. I go to places that are scary to me. And I realize that hey, when you talk to people, they become less confusing and less scary.
Did you feel you are as knowledgeable about the Holy Land as you are about Europe?
I don't try to be an expert. Viewers relate to me because I come at things from the perspective of someone who knows a little and is hungry to learn more. In doing this TV production, I was steep on the learning curve, just like our viewers. I didn't have opinions set in place by years of familiarity.
For this project, first I went to the Holy Land on my own just to scout the program, connect with some good local guides, and talk with many different people. This was a very exciting experience for me. And then the fun challenge was to go back with the TV crew a few months later and actually share what I learned.
We didn't intend to come home with any solutions. What we wanted to do was to share the "eurekas" and discoveries that any thoughtful traveler will pick up when they go to a place like the Holy Land in person. I'm a huge fan of people going to a complicated part of the world to talk to people and understand what's going on there.
Do you feel you started this project with any sort of a bias?
If I had a biased perspective, it was that I knew a lot about Israel, and almost nothing about Palestine. In preparation for this work, I did a lot of reading and documentary-viewing and so on. I also talked to a diverse bunch of people who are very committed to finding solutions to the challenges that the Holy Land presents us. They were all very helpful. But there's nothing like actually going there and standing with an Israeli on top of the Golan Heights to understand the importance of the high ground, and to go through a refugee camp and talk with somebody who is still holding a rusty key that their parents fled with 60 years ago, and whose family still dreams of going back.
Is the program either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli?
Fundamental to our mission was to be neither "pro-Palestinian" nor "pro-Israeli." I wanted to share the narratives from Israel and from Palestine in a balanced way. Our goal as TV producers was to produce a show that people would enjoy watching from beginning to end without slamming the door and thinking we are just "agenda" journalists.
At the same time, we didn't want to be clinically detached. Good travel is about opening one's self to empathy. I envisioned writing things in a way where if you took me out of context in a little snatch of the show here and there, you might think I was pro-this or pro-that. That's what happens when you learn to empathize with people. "Rick Steves is having dinner with our enemies!" Out of context, it can be made to look like bias.
I wanted to do a show that was balanced and showed both narratives. I believe that's what we produced. I wanted a program that would encourage people to travel there themselves. Or at least enjoy the vicarious benefit of having traveled there with us so they can humanize the Holy Land and better understand that it's not as simple as black and white. One very clear lesson from all this travel: There are good people — very good people — on both sides of the divide.
Why did you choose to use the name "Palestine" for the region?
We had a lot of discussions about what we should name the show, and especially what we should call the West Bank, Palestine, Occupied Territories, whatever you might want to call it. We decided not to go with the careful, the politically correct, or the least contentious name, but to go with what the local people want to be called, taking into consideration what the consensus is among the nations in the world. That's "Palestine." The fact that it's a controversial choice is an example of how this area is quite a challenge when you're writing a script. Every word is a potential minefield.
How did you decide on the terminology to use in the program?
When producing a show on the Holy Land, one of the big challenges is just simple terminology. Talk to a settler and you ask, "Are you a settler?" They'll say, "No, we're not settlers." You ask, "Do you live in a settlement?" "No, we're living in a city." Well, we refer to it as a settlement.
If you talk to an Orthodox Jew about Palestine, he or she — as a matter of principle — will call it "Judea and Samaria" because that group of people believes that's what it should be. The wall, is it a "wall"? Well, it depends on who you talk to. It's a "fence" to an Israeli and a "wall" to a Palestinian. These are all no-win areas, so we would try to use both terms, or, when possible, find a term that would be more acceptable to both sides.
How do you respond to potential criticism of the incomplete coverage or omissions?
A challenge in making this special was to be able to talk about complicated issues but work within our word and time limit. I wanted to talk about things that illustrated a certain point, but you could take any number of issues and start a very constructive debate on any of these. Take the refugee problem, for example. There are lots of refugees in Palestine who fled Israel after the state of Israel was created, but, of course, there were also a lot of Jewish refugees created during the tumult that brought along the modern state of Israel.
You know, we could have gotten into all of that, but it physically wasn't possible. What we wanted to do was introduce issues that were complicated, that most people didn't appreciate, and let people with a different narrative share their take on it. And there were a lot of cases when we found ourselves debating whether we should even bring up a particular topic, given the fact we wouldn't have time to cover it as thoroughly as we'd like to.
More often than not I would say yes, I want to broach this. I don't want to claim to be scholarly, and I don't want to claim to be complete. I really don't claim to have a scholarly or complete look at this.
I'm a traveler going over there with a wide-eyed curiosity and a passion for doing my best, to just get a handle on what is the reality of the people of the Holy Land. What's it like to live in a little country where there's no airport and you don't even have control over your water supply? What's it like to be a Jewish-Israeli person surrounded by millions of people who you think are your enemies? Living in the US, chances are we are more likely to hear one narrative over the other. I just love the opportunity to go over there and witness all the complexity and contradictions at close range.
How did you decide whom to interview in the program?
It was very important in our production to get local voices. Whenever I make a TV show, I want local voices — and that was particularly important here, because we wanted the Israeli narrative and we wanted the Palestinian narrative. And the only way to get that is to find Israelis and Palestinians to talk to you.
I didn't want to just talk to tour guides, and I didn't want to just talk to activists or people from the tourist board or the public-relations folks. Plenty of these people would have loved to talk to us. I wanted to just surprise people on the streets and see if they'd be willing to talk to us.
We found in Palestine and in Israel that people were generally very open and willing to talk with our camera rolling. We would drop in on people in cafes in Israel. We would talk to people in the markets in Jerusalem. It was very important for our show to shine a light on the settlements to find out why people live there. What's it like? Who are these half a million people who live in the West Bank in Israeli settlements?
We were impressed at how easily we could get into the settlements. We walked right in, and they wished us a good visit. And we were hanging out with the kids and the families in the parks. We were being invited into people's homes. We were having coffee in the mall, talking to people there. And people were very willing to talk about their personal story. Why are they living in this settlement? For political reasons, for religious reasons, for family reasons?
In Palestine, we also got a chance to talk to clerics in the mosque. We got a chance to talk to refugees. We had a chance to talk with people in the university. I just can't overstate the importance of actually physically going somewhere and talking to real people there.
Why didn't you speak with moderate Israelis or radical Palestinians?
I wish we'd had time in the program to talk with an even wider spectrum of voices. There are a lot of Israelis who don't support the settlements. We talked to three or four families in the settlements, but not with Israelis who disagree with them. But the people who are pro-settlements are calling the shots today, so it's especially important to understand what makes them tick.
We did not cover Gaza, which is run by or has been run by Hamas. I didn't want to politicize this show. I wanted to talk about the West Bank. To me, the future and the hope for peace rests with the people who live on either side of the wall — in Israel and the West Bank — who want to live together and who believe that violence is not an answer.
The consensus of the people we met in the West Bank, across the board, is that violence is a mistake. I felt very buoyed by the commitment to nonviolence that I felt from talking to Palestinians in the West Bank.
But that view isn't really newsworthy. Radicals get in the news easily. I wanted to talk to the everyday Joe.
Did you enlist the help of experts for the program?
For this one, yes. When I write TV scripts for shows all over Europe, I don't need much expert input. They are fun destinations, and there's not much quibbling over what you say about this place or that.
But trying to write a script for a one-hour special on the Holy Land — not dodging contemporary challenges and issues that are very complicated — I just couldn't do that without running it by experts who would bring in a very thoughtful take from both narratives.
To vet our script, we went to great lengths to run it by people in academia here in the United States and people who are leaders in the Holy Land, both from the Palestinian narrative and from the Israeli narrative.
These people were very helpful. I learned a lot about the sensitivities of the whole topic, and it helped us do a better job.
What do you mean by the United States being a "stakeholder" in the Holy Land?
When you travel to the Holy Land, you realize that the United States really is a stakeholder in this area. There are many people in the United States who care deeply about Israel, and there are also a lot of people in the United States — Palestinian Americans especially — who care deeply about the challenges of the Palestinian people.
America has spent a lot of money in the Middle East, and lots of military capital as well. So I just believe it's right and in our interest to not shirk the responsibility of staying involved and engaged in this challenging part of the world. We have an obligation to work very hard to help find solutions that enable people in the Holy Land to exist peaceably and with dignity.
Do you feel confident peace can be achieved in the Holy Land?
It was so interesting for me to be talking to Palestinians and Israelis. I would oftentimes ask them, "What do you hope for your children?" Everybody said, "We want peace." Everybody wants peace.
The way I see it, the key challenge is finding ways for the younger generation from both sides to get together. Because if they can't get together, they're saddled with the unfortunate baggage of their parents' struggles.
There is a passion for peace, and I think there is hope for peace. And that's why I'm so excited to bring this TV show to our viewing audience here in the United States.
Did you feel safe while traveling and working in the Holy Land?
I never felt at risk anywhere in the Holy Land during this production. I went into some tense areas where there was a lot of military security, and I felt bad for people on both sides of the issue who need to live with that.
But as an American visiting, I really felt I had almost a special status. As a curious traveler and a TV producer, I felt it was very comfortable, and honestly never once felt at risk.
Would you recommend traveling in the Holy Land?
My work is to go to places and report on them so people can be comfortable, traveling there smartly, efficiently, economically, and in a way that broadens their perspective. Having traveled in the last year at length in Israel and Palestine, I am very enthusiastic about people traveling there. I felt safe the whole time.
There is a wonderful infrastructure for tourism. I would remind travelers to not fall into the rut of just going to Israel and then making a little beeline into Bethlehem to see the Church of the Nativity and coming back. If you're going to go to the Holy Land, it's not a balanced experience without actually sleeping in Israel and actually sleeping in Palestine.
Even on a "Holy Land history" kind of sightseeing tour, you can add a lot of value to your experience by connecting with people who live there today. Get to know Israelis. Get to know Palestinians. If nothing else, you'll come home appreciating why the land is treasured by people on both sides of that wall. And you'll find it harder to ignore the challenges facing the Holy Land.
More from Rick About the Holy Land
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more travels. This time we're exploring the Holy Land — Israel and Palestine. It's harvest time! Our goal? To understand and enjoy the people who love this land and call it home. Thanks for joining us.
The land Israelis and Palestinians occupy is, for a third of humanity, literally holy land. And Jerusalem marks its sacred center. For Christians, this is where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. For Muslims, this is from where Muhammad journeyed to heaven. And for Jews, the Temple of Solomon stood right here. The crossroads of three great religions, the Holy Land has been coveted and fought over for centuries.
While Israelis and Palestinians have overlapping claims and struggle to share it peacefully, this land has a rich and fascinating heritage. We'll go beyond the sights, opening our minds to both narratives to better understand and empathize with the people. In Israel, we'll explore Jerusalem, and learn some of the religious customs and ideas that shape society here. And we'll walk the Golan Heights, where the importance of maintaining Israel's security is an enduring lesson.
Benny: …And now we have to make sure that we are on the high ground, never to let it happen again.
In Palestine, by harvesting olives, making a home visit, and popping into a university, we'll get to know a land few travelers visit, and a point of view few people consider.
Student: It's like I don't see the whole of my country; I don't know my country.
And, along the way, we'll hear a few of the many perspectives here. We'll learn about security walls, controversial settlements, and the persistent challenges facing the region.
At the east end of the Mediterranean Sea, the region west of the Jordan River is split between Israel (predominately Jewish), and Palestine (predominately Muslim and Arab), which is made up of the West Bank and Gaza. We'll start in Jerusalem, and in Israel we'll visit Tel Aviv, the Sea of Galilee, and the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Then, in the West Bank, we'll venture to Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, and finish in Ramallah.
The Muslims and Jews that call this region home share a family tree that goes back nearly 4,000 years. That's when the patriarch (or prophet) Abraham had two sons: From Isaac came the Israelites, and Ismael spawned the Arabs.
This ancient ethnic mix is complicated by religions. Israelites were Jewish. Christians worship Jesus, a Jew who brought his own message. And today, most Arabs here are Muslim — a religion that arrived much later with their prophet, Muhammad, in the seventh century.
Throughout the centuries, this region endured waves of conquerors, from ancient Romans…to Christian Crusaders…to Muslim Ottomans. Until the 20th century, the entire area was called Palestine — as it was in Roman times. While Muslims generally outnumbered Jews and Christians, the various communities generally got along peacefully. In the 20th century, the Jewish population grew — especially with the creation of the state of Israel after World War II. Today, the combined population of Israel and Palestine is about 12 million — roughly half Jews and half Muslim Arabs, and only a couple percent Christian. In 2012, the United Nations recognized Palestine as a state.
OK, I know, this is complicated and it's contentious…and I imagine some people on both sides are already upset with me. But I'm a travel writer, and the beauty for me is to come here with an open mind and learn. We'll visit each side and we'll do it in alphabetical order: first Israel, then Palestine. Let's go.
Israel is the size of New Jersey, with 8 million people — twice the population of Palestine. While the state of Israel is young, the Jewish people have a history here going back 4,000 years. There's history everywhere, and within a two-hour drive of Jerusalem you can take a sweeping tour of sites illustrating its tumultuous past.
Two thousand years ago, Caesarea was a mighty Roman seaport. Further up the coast is the 12th-century Crusader town of Akko. And, in the 16th century, after the return of Muslim dominance, the Ottoman Turks surrounded Jerusalem with this mighty wall.
And the 20th century has left reminders of a determined struggle that built today's modern Jewish state.
In 1947, after the Holocaust and the end of World War II, the United Nations helped found the modern state of Israel. And Jews, long dispersed across the world, returned to their ancient homeland. In the process, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced. And, to this day, both people struggle to find an equitable and peaceful way to share what each consider their rightful homeland.
The dividing of the Holy Land hasn't been easy. The 1947 United Nations plan of partition, creating an independent Jewish state and an independent Arab state, was rejected by the Arabs. Civil war broke out, which led to the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. After a year of fighting, with Israel mostly victorious, a ceasefire was declared, and temporary borders known as the "Green Line" were established. In the 1960s, Arab-Israeli relations again deteriorated to the point where war broke out in 1967.
With a quick and decisive victory in the Six Days' War, Israel increased its territory substantially. Later, Palestinians — chafing at the loss of their land and freedom — staged two uprisings, or "intifadas." Approximately 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinian suicide bombers as violence intensified during the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2005. In response, Israel asserted itself more aggressively, building a controversial fence, or wall, around the West Bank in the name of "security from terrorism."
The epic stories of the world's three great monotheistic religions have played out on this tiny piece of real estate. It's been a difficult mix. And Jerusalem is the most contested city within this contested land.
Jerusalem is a sprawling and modern city of about 800,000 people. But its core, the Old City, is home to just 35,000. Its venerable walls corral a tangle of many of this planet's holiest sites. Within a 10-minute walk you can see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — so sacred to Christians, the Dome of the Rock — revered by Muslims, and the holiest place in Judaism: the Western Wall. For so many people, Jerusalem is the closest place on earth to heaven.
Much of Jerusalem's importance rests upon this holy site, which is both an inspiration and a flashpoint for the religions that share it. Muslims believe Muhammad journeyed to heaven from here, and they've worshipped on this spot for 1,300 years.
Jews teach that here, Abraham, as a test of his faith, was asked to sacrifice his son. God intervened and saved Isaac. They call this place Temple Mount, believe it to be the center of the earth, and have worshipped here for 3,000 years.
A thousand years before Christ, King David united the 12 tribes of Israel and captured Jerusalem. His son, Solomon, built the First Temple right here. It was later destroyed, and the Second Temple was built. Then came the catastrophic year for the Jews: 70 A.D., when the Romans destroyed their temple and ushered in the Diaspora. That's when the Jews became a people without a land and dispersed throughout the world.
The western foundation of this ancient temple complex survives. Here — at what's called the Western Wall — Jews mourn a horrible past, and pray for a better future. The square operates as an open-air synagogue, with men and women separated by a barrier. The faithful believe prayers left in cracks between the stones of the Western Wall will be answered.
Bar mitzvahs and festivals enliven the scene. Holding the Torah high, joyous families celebrate at the most holy place in Judaism.
Radiating out from Temple Mount is Jerusalem's Old City. It's divided into four quarters: Jewish, Muslim, Armenian, and Christian.
Through the Christian Quarter winds the Via Dolorosa — the route it's believed Jesus walked as he carried the cross. Pilgrims come from around Christendom to retrace his steps. Their journey culminates at the site of Jesus' crucifixion — marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Calvary Hill, or "Golgotha."
Today the dark, sprawling church is the most sacred site in Christendom. Built on the site believed to be where Jesus died and was resurrected, pilgrims line up to pray at the place of the crucifixion, and a few steps away, under a grand dome, they gather to enter Jesus' tomb, or "sepulchre," and place a candle where he was buried.
Exploring Jerusalem's Old City, with its tight quarters and religious passions, I was impressed by the diversity, the feeling of community, and how, all in all, things seem to work together.
The Jewish Quarter is more orderly and modern than the other quarters. Much of this area was destroyed during the 1948 fighting, or under the ensuing period of Jordanian occupation. After Israelis took control of Jerusalem in 1967, they rebuilt this quarter.
While it's not convenient or economic to live in this medieval tangle, devout Jews find great joy in living here and raising their families so close to the Western Wall.
The Muslim Quarter, with over half of the Old City's population, is Arab. Like the Jewish Quarter, it also stretches out from Temple Mount, which is crowned by that glittering Dome of the Rock. Like the Jews worship at the base of Temple Mount, Muslims worship on its top —- in the shadow of the dome, with its intricate geometric designs in stone and tile fitting regally within its pure and simple lines. Holy as this spot is for Muslims, it's controlled by Israel, and residents of Palestine are generally not allowed to worship here. Most of those praying here are Israeli citizens — part of Israel's Palestinian minority.
Here in the Muslim Quarter, a bustling and labyrinthine marketplace is popular with local Arabs. Today, on the eve of a Muslim holiday, the market is particularly busy.
While wandering the Muslim Quarter, you may see houses fortified and festooned with Israeli flags — homes of Zionist families determined to stake out this bit of the Old City for their Jewish community. Considering the rich historic heritage of each of these communities, it's understandable that both vie for this sacred real estate. This struggle over control of Jerusalem is a huge political challenge.
While complete Muslim control of Jerusalem is unrealistic, many Arabs envision an independent Palestinian state, with this part of Jerusalem — East Jerusalem — as their capital. It's a very contentious issue, and Israel seems determined to keep Jerusalem whole and in its control.
An icon of the tension is the wall that Israel has built between it and Palestine. What Israelis call a "security fence" Palestinians consider an affront to their dignity, and a land grab, as it often reaches over the internationally agreed-upon border and into Palestinian territory.
Just five miles from the Dome of the Rock is a checkpoint in the wall where I can walk from Jerusalem right into Bethlehem.
Like at border towns between rich and poor lands all over the world, each day workers with special passes cross the wall on their commute from the poor side for higher-paying jobs in the more affluent country.
As long as times are calm, the West Bank's wide open for the adventurous traveler. You don't need a visa, the currency's the same as Israel, good guidebooks lead the way, and you certainly won't find any tourist crowds.
Bethlehem, a leading Palestinian city, is the perfect first stop in the West Bank. For me, no Holy Land visit is complete or balanced without crossing the wall and learning from both narratives — Israeli and Palestinian. Suddenly, there's not a yarmulke in sight. Wandering Palestinian streets and markets, I kept thinking how easy it is to get here, how little I knew of it, and how rarely visited this land is.
While beloved among Christians as the place where Jesus was born, Bethlehem is now a mostly Muslim town. Its thriving market is a classic Arab souk. The main square bustles with commerce. And the main traffic circle comes with a memorial to locals doing time in Israeli prisons.
Bethlehem's skyline is a commotion of both crescents and crosses — a reminder that the town, while now mostly Muslim, still has many Christians. While all Palestinians are Arabs, not all Palestinians are Muslims. In fact, a small minority are Arab Christians.
Nativity Square marks the center of Bethlehem. Here, the Church of the Nativity is built upon the spot believed to be where Jesus was born.
Inside, you feel the history. Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, had this church built in 326.
A steady stream of pilgrims and tourists come here from all over Christendom to remember that first Christmas, and to pray on the spot where tradition says Jesus was born.
Many assume that Palestinian or Arab Christians were converted in modern times. But, in fact, their Christian roots go all the way back to the time of Christ. By the way, a century ago, about 20 percent of all Palestinians were Christian. Today, that number's down to less than 2 percent. And most of those live here in Bethlehem.
Along with Christians, Muslims also consider this a holy site. In fact, for over a thousand years, a mosque has also stood on Nativity Square. It's Friday and Muslims have gathered to pray.
Travel — especially here in Palestine — is filled with opportunities to learn. After prayer, I met a cleric and enjoyed a conversation about Islam.
Rick: What do you hope for? And what do you see in the future here in Palestine?
Imam: I hope in whole of the world to be one family, one family. Mainly it is for life, no fightings, no killings, no explosions, no violence, to be good people. Every Friday I say this message for everybody. So I hope for everybody and I say to you I like to come to take you, your hand from here to go with each other to heavens, not alone. I'm not selfish man. I love you. I love him, I love everybody. I like this is my religion.
When on the road, the more people I can talk to the better. To get the most out of this opportunity to better understand Palestine, we're joined by local guide Kamal Mukarkar.
Rick: So there's churches but there's mosques, also, in Bethlehem?
Kamal: Bethlehem is a very holy city for the Muslims as well as the Christians. For the Muslims, Jesus is their second important prophet. They also believe in Mary; they worship her. She has a whole section in the Koran just named after her.
Rick: A whole book in the Koran, named after Mary?
Kamal: Yes, exactly, and that's why she's very important for them.
We're dropping by Kamal's place to meet his family and enjoy an evening together. It's typical in Palestinian culture that many generations live under the same roof. We're meeting Kamal's mother, fiancée, his sister, and her children.
After some good conversation in the living room, Kamal's mother calls us to the dinner table. She's cooked up a classic tagine.
Rick: I think it's impossible for a traveler to be hungry in Palestine. The food just keeps on coming!
Woman: Yes, and you have to leave something on your plate, 'cause if you don't keep something in your plate — food — you'll get another kind food.
As anywhere, actually making friends and getting into a home gives an intimate insight into the everyday worlds of the people you meet.
Rick: I think this a beautiful, beautiful welcome here.
Kamal's mother: Sahtein.
Rick: And what does that…?
Kamal's mother: Bon appétit.
Kamal: Translated it's "cheers" — to your health — twice. Two times for your health.
Rick: Two times for your health. Sahtein.
Heading back across the wall to Jerusalem, the contrasts between the West Bank and Israel are immediately obvious. Outside the Old City, we're immersed in modern Jerusalem. Joining locals in an afternoon stroll down Ben Yehuda Street, in Jerusalem's New City, we appreciate this culture's compelling mix of east and west, secular and sacred, modern and traditional.
About three-quarters of all Israelis are Jewish. But most of these are secular Jews — non-practicing. About 15 percent of Israeli Jews are Orthodox — very religious, and living conservative lifestyles that require them to be apart in many ways. Entire districts of Jerusalem are known as "ultra-Orthodox." About 20 percent of the population are Arab citizens of Israel — generally Palestinians who never left after the formation of Israel. Christians, who are mostly Arabs, make up a small and shrinking minority.
Israel is a melting pot nation like none other. Nearly half the country is first-generation immigrants, evident in the cultural makeup of the soldiers who seem to be everywhere. Nearly all 18-year-olds do time in the military. This service is a kind of cultural boot camp, as even fresh-off-the-boat immigrants emerge as good Hebrew-speaking Israelis.
While I found most Israelis look and live as contemporary as any modern American, there are corners where traditions are very strong. This is especially evident in places of worship and in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. With the help of my Jewish guide, Abie Bresler, observing the way people dress comes with cultural insights:
Rick: Walking down the street there are so many different fashions, different ways people dress.
Abie: Well, that's because they express their belonging to a certain group and following a certain rabbi. Different rabbis set standards of how their followers should be dressed.
Rick: What does the block on the forehead indicate?
Abie: Well, in the Scripture, it says you should always have the love of God on your mind. So in that capsule they have a parchment with that Scripture.
Rick: What's the significance of the yarmulke?
Abie: Jews wear yarmulkes because they are constantly reminding themselves that God is above them.
Rick: Ah, so everybody who's wearing a yarmulke, it's a constant reminder the maker is up above.
Rick: Now you see a lot of Orthodox, even the little boys, with long ear locks.
Abie: Regarding the ear locks, the Torah is very specific: "Thou shalt not shave the sides of your face." And these people take those words as it is written.
Rick: You notice women are dressed quite modestly.
Abie: The Orthodox women are always dressed modestly. But when they get married they take it one step upwards, and they cover their hair in public. Regarding the hats, it's part of, actually, the uniform defining which movement you belong to. So, by looking at somebody, you can tell if he's Ashkenazi, and which movement amongst the Ashkenazi, or Sephardi, or Lithuanian, and so on and so forth.
Rick: So there are many different stripes of Orthodoxy in the Jewish faith.
Able: Definitely. In Jerusalem 19, amongst the ultra-Orthodox.
Rick: And it's like the rabbis are almost like pop stars — they have their own following. These are the great teachers.
Abie: Uh, more than pop stars.
Rick: More than?
Abie: More than pop stars, sure. Put it this way: They're spiritual stars, without the pop.
The state of Israel was born, in part, out of the Holocaust, a defining event in the long history of the Jews. To appreciate the impact of the Holocaust, critical in understanding the psyche of today's Israel, visit Yad Vashem. This powerful museum and memorial chronicles the systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany.
Its Hall of Names is a project designed to give every victim the dignity of simply being named and recorded. This archive aspires to catalog and therefore remember each of the 6 million victims.
Yad Vashem also celebrates the creation of modern Israel. It shows the spirit of Zionism — that determination of those who came both as concentration-camp survivors and refugees from Europe to forge for themselves a state for the Jewish people. Photographs of the first settlers show early Zionists returning to their ancestral homeland — starting as a trickle in the 19th century, and becoming a flood after World War II.
Today, just a couple generations later, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv stand like exclamation points declaring, "we've come a long way."
There was a popular slogan back then: "A land without a people for a people without a land." That was inspirational, but it ignored the reality of the Palestinians who actually lived here and were displaced with the creation of Israel. Still, it's impressive how the true grit of those early Jewish settlers turned sand dunes into Tel Aviv and built modern Israel.
The historic town of Jaffa — now consumed by the sprawl of Tel Aviv — was the Ellis Island of the new state. This was where new arrivals first set foot in Israel. Much of Jaffa — historically an important Arab town — was destroyed in 1948 — in what Israelis call their "War of Independence."
As in any war, there are winners and there are losers. And, while Israelis celebrate the birth of their nation, Palestinians call Israel's Independence Day the "Day of Catastrophe." They remember their loss — the destruction of many Arab villages that once thrived here, and how hundreds of thousands of those who fled ended up in refugee camps over a newly drawn border.
Just a 10-minute drive north of the old stone buildings of Jaffa are the new glass and steel buildings of modern Tel Aviv. Gleaming Tel Aviv feels as modern and busy as any American city its size. While its history only goes back a century, the original main drag, Rothschild Boulevard, is lined with venerable buildings. And Tel Aviv's beach scene is filled with a live-for-today vibrancy.
In this culture, food is love, and seems to celebrate the bounty of the land. We sat down with our Israeli guide Benny and driver Kobe to get an edible lesson in this part of their culture.
Benny: Hey, cheers. L'chaim.
Rick: L'chaim! Very good. So Benny, could you say this is typical Israeli?
Benny: Yeah — you can say it is typical Israeli. Everything that you see here is grown here locally.
Rick: Now, you could say this is Israeli, but it's also Arab cuisine.
Benny: Yes. We call it now Israeli food but you can find it in the Arab countries, you can find it Lebanon, you can find it all over the Middle East. Here we have eggplant with olive oil and tahini. Here we have the tahini itself. Here we have another eggplant salad with vegetables. That's the hummus; very famous hummus made from chickpeas. This is something special: This we call tabbouleh. It's made of bulgur and parsley and cucumbers. Very special, very tasty. It's OK to reach and dip your pita bread into it — you dip it in each of the salads, and that's the way to do it; no need for fork or a knife...
Rick: And Kobe how do you say bon appétit in Hebrew?
Rick: Beteavon.Thank you.
Israel is small, and laced by modern freeways. Getting around is easy. Road signs are in three languages and three scripts: Hebrew and Arabic for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and English for visitors.
A short drive up the coastline takes us to Haifa — a prosperous and open city famous for its tolerance. Many people here are part of Israel's Arab minority. I was impressed at the youthful and positive energy. It feels like young Israelis here — whether from Muslim or Jewish families — are most interested in living free from the religious and ethnic baggage of their parents. In a trendy café, it was hard to tell who's who.
Talking with a local Arab Israeli family we learned that, while problems persist, they consider this land their home.
Rick: Now what is it like socially if, in Haifa, if you're an Arab Israeli with Jewish Israelis? Is it separate or can you mix?
Woman: Well we mix in restaurants, at work; we socialize here and there. But…
Man: Some neighborhoods, some streets are mixed.
Rick: 'Cause some people —
Woman: Some streets, not, not a lot.
Daughter: I, I used to hear from her that once they were more together.
Daughter: Like if she had neighbors that used to…
Daughter: …to do everything together, now no.
Rick: And what do you see for the future, for your, for Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews together, your children — what do you hope for?
Woman: Everybody hopes for peace and a better life but I doubt it. I doubt it.
Rick: The reality is…?
Woman: The reality is not like that. Even with all the problems that there is here, this is our roots, you know, we'll never, never give it up. With everything that happens around us.
Rick: That's beautiful. I like to hear that.
Woman: Yes. We love it here.
Heading into the interior takes us down — 700 feet below sea level — to the Sea of Galilee. Israel's primary source of water, it's both fed and drained by the Jordan River. Galilee is popular among Christian pilgrims. It's famous as the place where Jesus did his three years of ministry, and where so many Bible stories were set — from loaves and fishes, and the Sermon on the Mount, to Christ walking on water.
When exploring the Holy Land, your sightseeing careens from ancient holy sites to reminders of 20th-century strife and wars. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee stands the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Taken from Syria in the 1967 war, and now firmly under Israeli control, a visit here helps explain Israel's commitment to holding the high ground.
Benny: See now, a former Syrian position…
Our guide, Benny, shows us the strategic significance of this area from an old Syrian pillbox.
Benny: Standing here, on a former Syrian position, one can understand how vulnerable was the settlements, the villages of the kibbutzim of Israel before 1967. For a whole generation the Syrians were — the Syrians were here on the Golan, on the edge of the cliff targeting and shooting every single village and kibbutz of ours. Every day they looked up to Golan saying, "Is it going to be a day of shelling today — "
Rick: Artillery from this little base? — Boom.
Benny: Mortar shells, artillery, tank shells, machine-gun fire.
Rick: And the Sea of Galilee was the source of the freshwater for Israel — and still is.
Benny: The Sea of Galilee was always and still is the most important water reservoir we have, and that's why today it's very difficult for us even to conceive leaving the Golan, allowing anyone to be here. Above all we must maintain our security. The security of the Israelis, the families, the children, then we can speak about all the other things.
Control of land is the crux of the problem between Israelis and Palestinians and occupying the high ground is more than a military issue — it's a civilian one as well.
Israel is developing settlements — fortified communities on the tops of hills — deep into the West Bank. Essentially Israeli towns, these controversial developments reach far into what Palestinians consider their territory.
Many Israelis make the case that developing this land is justified because the land was unused. And many Jews believe it's God's will that they occupy Biblical Judea and Samaria, which is what they call the West Bank.
Roughly half a million Israeli Jews now live in settlements in Palestine. These planned and gated communities come with all the comforts. And, with Israeli government subsidies for housing and transportation, young Jewish families can afford to live here and commute from West Bank settlements back into Israel.
As in other democracies, there are disagreements over government policy, and many moderate Israelis oppose construction of settlements in the West Bank. But government policies still allow the ongoing construction of these settlements.
I chatted with several settlers to get their perspectives. And, to get another narrative, I talked with my Palestinian guides — both residents of the West Bank.
Rick: Now, there's a lot of confusion in America about settlements and so on. Is this a "settlement," is this what you would consider a settlement?
Man in café: Well the word ‘settlement' has all kinds of connotations. We consider it a city. And just like Seattle's a city so is Ma'aleh Adumim a city. There is some dispute in the world as to what this should be and what its status is…
Rick: Are you "settlers"? Or what do you, how do you consider the name?
First man on balcony: I don't have name for that. We live in Israel, this is Israel.
Rick: Yeah, so this is your town.
First man on balcony: Yeah, this is my country.
Second man on balcony: Exactly.
First man on balcony: Now what is Ma'aleh, what is Jordan Valley? It's Israel; everything is Israel.
Rick: Israelis I've heard would say, "Well, the land is unused anyway, it sits on the top of the hills."
Husam: Yeah that's a good — a good excuse, but why it's unused — because we are not allowed to use it.
Kamal: I'm sure you have a thousand dollars in your bank account. And you're not using it, you know? So it's still your money, you know?
Rick: That's a good analogy.
Kamal: Yeah. I mean, whenever you want to use it, you want to use it. Whenever you don't want to use it, you don't want to use it. It's our land. It's our right.
Rick: What would you say to an Arab that says, "This is on the other side of the line defining the West Bank and it's Palestinian territory and you don't belong here" — what…what would you say to them?
Woman in café: I don't know. My history goes back not to the…to the line, whatever the line is, my history goes back thousands of years and in my history this is part of Israel.
Kamal: Why should I leave my country? I was born and raised here. My grandfather, his grandfather, his great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, and we still here. We didn't leave.
Second man on balcony: We do need to find a way to fix everything. But I don't know, I don't know how easy it's going to be. And if it's going to be possible now.
Kamal: You know that daily there are settlements [they] are building, there is, the wall is being built, and the Palestinians don't do anything about it. We don't fight it; we don't do anything against it. We just want to show the world that we are a people that want peace. We want to show them we, we're accepting this now because we want to show you this is not who we are. We are people who want to achieve something.
Rick: My hunch is they've learned that there [is] only one future and that is to respect Israel and not be violent.
Woman in café: I don't know if they've learned.
Rick: Maybe I'm naïve.
Man in café: You know I think they've learned —
Woman in café: I'm not convinced yet.
Rick: That's my hope. That's my hope.
Woman in café: I think we're all hopeful. I don't think we've seen it yet.
Kamal: Those settlements are making these, this, this idea of us building the states on that land impossible. If you want peace, if you want a two-state solution, help us achieving that, you know. The settlements for sure they don't help.
Rick: I know this is the big, million-dollar question, but do you think the future, the best future is a two-state solution or a one-state solution?
Man in café: You answer.
Woman in café: I don't know! I'm not in politics; I'm a computer programmer.
Husam: I'm hoping and that's part of the things I'm involved in, to create, plant seeds, hopefully maybe 10 years, 15 years from now people will realize the importance of living together and having one pluralistic democratic state.
First man on balcony: You can't do one country to Israeli and to Palestine. 'Cause it's not going to work, it's not going to work.
Second man on balcony: It's not going to work. It's going to make only war.
First man on balcony: Yes.
Being here, I can see the appeal of these neighborhoods — especially for young families. But, I've learned that these Israeli enclaves embitter the Palestinians as much as violent resistance embitters Israelis. And many fear that the more the West Bank is fragmented by Israeli settlements, the more elusive a mutually agreeable solution to this region's troubles will become.
The Palestinian perspective of the situation is illustrated by maps like this, showing how their land-holdings are shrinking, since the creation of Israel in 1948, with each passing decade.
And there's the wall — begun in 2003 by Israel to defend its border with the West Bank. Israelis say this is a security fence, built after losing a thousand of its citizens to suicide bombers in the previous decade. And they claim it's been effective — noting that since its construction, there's been almost no terrorism.
Palestinians counter by saying that the wall was built with the pretense of security. They say it's actually a land grab, designed to hobble a Palestinian state. The fence, or wall — which is over 300 miles long — generally runs well within Palestinian territory. And it's nearly twice as long as the border it claims to defend — redrawn in order to secure settlements, aquifers, good farm land, and holy places within the West Bank for Israel.
While it's landscaped, and can look attractive from the Israeli side, the wall is unfinished and feels demoralizing from the Palestinian side.
This struggle has been difficult — with killings and tragedy on both sides. While one man's terrorist may be another man's freedom fighter, the fact is, in recent decades, both sides have suffered terribly — Israeli Jews have been killed by Palestinians and Palestinians have been killed by Israelis.
I can certainly understand Israel's need for security. But walls are designed to keep people apart…and to me, that's part of the problem. I felt that young generations on both sides want to connect…but with this barrier — which many call the "separation wall"…people connecting to find common ground is not an option.
Beyond the infrastructure of conflict, it's the treasured land that defines Palestine. Rejoined by our Palestinian guide, Kamal, our first stop is Battir Natural Park — famed for its hikes through olives groves and ancient terraces.
Here in the Holy Land, the land itself is holy to its inhabitants. And for Palestinians, the olive tree is a kind of lifeblood for their culture.
Kamal: We are in Palestine. This is Palestine, Rick. These are the biblical terraces of Battir, and we call them "biblical" because they're over 2,000 years of age. My ancestors came here and carved these terraces into the mountains. It was the only way for them to survive. You know, the mountains are hilly; you need the terraces to plant on them. They did that at that time, and guess what? We exist to today. We're still here. Only though them. That's why I love this place. This tells me, this is where I belong. Tells me this is Palestine.
Rick: What do olives mean to the Palestinian people?
Kamal: Olives, they're the best trees. They're the poor man's tree. 'Cause the olive tree gives without taking. The olive tree gives us the olives without even needing us to do anything for it.
It's October, and across the land — as they have since ancient times — families gather in the olive groves for the harvest. Children are let out of school for the week so they can work the trees with their parents. In the West Bank, most of the trees are olive trees. To Palestinians the beloved olive tree represents their past and their future. They say, "It was planted by our grandfathers for us to eat and we plant it for our grandchildren to eat."
In nearby villages, families take their olives to the communal press to make oil. The traditional technique survives — though boosted by hard-working machinery — as a busy crew in oil-soaked shirts meets the demands of the harvest season. Rounds of olive paste are pressed into a weeping mass. The fresh oil, after filtering, becomes a golden liquid poured into jugs to be taken home.
As if rising out of those ancient olive groves, the ancient city of Hebron, with over 200,000 people, is the largest city in the West Bank. And it's the vibrant commercial capital, with nearly a third of the entire West Bank economy.
Just strolling the streets, dodging cars, and mixing with the people, I feel the energy of an economy that seems primed to grow. Commerce spills out everywhere. Exploring the market streets, I'm immersed in Palestinian life. Experiences like these are why we travel.
Along with all the market activity and commerce comes high security and tension. That's because this city has the tomb of Abraham, so sacred to both Israelis and Palestinians.
Here, Jews live literally atop Palestinian Muslims as the two communities struggle to be near the tomb of their common patriarch. While the city is mostly Palestinian, a determined and well-protected community of several hundred Israeli settlers has staked out the high ground. The tension between the communities is illustrated by a wire net that protects the Arab food and clothing market from the garbage of the Jewish residents above.
Israeli troops are posted here in the name of security. Turnstiles and checkpoints are a way of life. A no-man's-land with Jewish political art decorating closed buildings divides the two communities.
And it's all about this very sacred and complicated site: an ancient structure capped by a medieval church, which now functions both as a mosque and a synagogue, holding the Tombs of Abraham and his family.
The focal point for both faiths is this: the tomb of Abraham. Poignantly, access for the feuding descendants of Abraham is divided by a pane of bullet-proof glass.
On one side of the glass Jews worship in the synagogue — the second most holy place in Judaism. It's enlivened with singing, studying, and praying among the tombs of their great patriarchs.
And The other half is a mosque — where Muslims worship before their shared patriarch with equal fervor. Its exquisite mimber — where the imam stands to give sermons — is a rare original from the 12th century, with inlaid wood and no nails. Unfortunately, this holy place's history has a tragic aura.
For centuries, Jews were generally not allowed to worship here. Then, after the Israeli victory in the War of 1967, the space was shared by Jews and Muslims. But during a Muslim service in 1994, an Israeli settler entered here with his gun and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers. Since then, this holy space has been divided — emblematic of the difficult challenges that permeate the Holy Land.
As a visitor, traveling from Palestinian city to city on fine, modern freeways, it's easy to underestimate the complexity of the region and the extent of Israeli control. Palestinians living in the West Bank, while nominally autonomous, are living under an Israeli occupation. Israel has granted sections of the West Bank various degrees of autonomy.
Palestinian cities are generally Palestinian-run, with their own security forces. But these islands of relative independence are surrounded by zones controlled by Israeli military. Most of the West Bank population is in Palestinian-controlled cities, but Israel still controls most of the roads and most of the land.
If there's a problem or unrest, Israel can activate checkpoints like this all across the country and stop all traffic in the West Bank. Within minutes they can lock down and isolate every Palestinian city.
Palestinian cars have green plates. Israelis have yellow plates. Generally, most West Bank roads are open to all. But, when times are tense, checkpoints are manned, and only yellow plates are allowed. Things are pretty quiet during our visit and we're able to move fast and free, even with our green plates, throughout the West Bank.
Some of the most dramatic and evocative scenery here is in the vast and arid Judean Desert.
Hiding in folds of the desert are fabled monasteries, which, since ancient times, have given hermits the isolation of their dreams. Our ears pop as we continue deeper into the desert and drop below sea level. The road ends at the lowest place on earth, the fabled Dead Sea.
Palestinians living in the West Bank have no access to waterfront. Officially, there's no seaside, riverbank, or lake front in the West Bank. Israel adjusted the border to control the entire Dead Sea shoreline. But, when tensions are low, Palestinian families are allowed to enjoy some Israeli Dead Sea resorts.
Approaching any Palestinian city, a bold red sign makes it clear: You're leaving the realm of the Israeli military and entering the zone controlled by Palestinian security. This comes with a checkpoint — sometimes manned, sometimes unmanned and a simple drive-through. Regardless, there's always a watchtower, reminding those coming and going that Israel is keeping an eye on things.
Nablus is the second city of the West Bank in population, with a fine modern center and a long history. In ancient times the Roman Emperor named it the "New City" — that's "Neapolis," or "Nablus."
The people of Nablus are relatively conservative. And, immersed in this vibrant city's commercial commotion, I found simply being part of the scene a powerful experience.
Famed (or notorious) for its fighting spirit, the city has walls crusty with political posters. These young local men — considered terrorists, or freedom fighters, depending on your perspective — are mostly in Israeli prisons or dead. Yet, they live on with posters that celebrate their commitment to Palestinian independence. As these posters fade, I'm hoping that what seems to me like a new spirit of nonviolence to address the region's problems reflects a permanent shift in Palestinian strategy.
A recurring symbol throughout Palestine is the key. Many towns display a big key as a reminder of a big issue here: refugees, the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were displaced with the creation of Israel in 1948. Here in the West Bank — over 60 years later — many refugee camps are still filled with Palestinian families who fled when their land became "Israel."
To this day, these people — whose parents and grandparents, thinking they'd be returning home soon, grabbed their keys and fled back in 1948 — treasure those old keys and are happy to tell their story.
Man: Around the 19th of October, 1948, my family was forced to leave their village. They closed their house, and moved away, waiting for two weeks, and then they will be coming back. Sixty-five years later we are in refugee camp, still waiting for this return, which never happened. Two-thirds of Palestinian people became refuges in 1948, dispersed in 59 refugee camps, and most of them have these old, rusty keys for doors that do not exist anymore.
Among the many refugee camps in the West Bank, the biggest — with over 20,000 people — is Balata, just outside of Nablus. The 10-foot-by-10-foot platting — marking where tents were posted back in 1948 — survives. Only now, the tents are gone, replaced by multi-story cinderblock tenements.
Throughout the world, there are refugee camps like this. Wandering these lanes, I can't imagine living in such dense population…the lack of privacy…being a parent with children and little money…the frustration of an uncertain future.
For over 60 years, the United Nations has maintained a calming and helpful presence. When the UN-run and -funded school lets out, the streets flood with children happy to practice their English with a rare traveler venturing into their world.
A women's co-op provides training, and helps kick-start cottage industries run by traditional artisans.
And the commerce enlivening the main street of the camp is like that of a town. We're joining little Mustafa, who's been sent by his mother to get chicken for dinner.
Around here, pride can come in little triumphs…and Mustafa is heading home with dinner for the family.
Life goes on in these camps, as refugees wait for a resolution to their plight.
It's time to move onto our final stop in the West Bank. It's October, and the landscape is pretty brown after a scorching summer. Today's vistas feel timeless. In fact, I 'can imagine Abraham, Jesus, or Muhammad, each traversing these same valleys.
The city of Ramallah functions as the de facto capital of Palestine. While most Palestinians consider Jerusalem their rightful capital, so do the Israelis — and sharing the city seems unlikely for now. That leaves Ramallah to host the Palestinian government and international agencies.
Adjacent the president's headquarters stands the tomb of Yasser Arafat.
While he certainly has plenty of detractors, this Palestinian statesman, who led the PLO from 1969 until 2004, is without a doubt the father of modern Palestine.
Call him what you like, people here celebrate Arafat as the man who did more than anyone else to raise awareness of the Palestinian struggle for independence.
With its international professionals and university students, Ramallah has an almost cosmopolitan energy you feel nowhere else in Palestine. Whether coming together at the Square of the Lions…or browsing down a stylish shopping street…Ramallah helps me envision a peaceful and prosperous Palestine of the future.
Nearby, at Birzeit University, with its beautiful campus and 9,000 students, you feel a younger generation, working hard and engaged. A stroll through the campus gives me a chance to connect with students, and learn a bit about both their culture and their aspirations.
Rick: Now, in a university like this, are there more men or more women studying?
Second student: Women, I believe, women...
First student: I think more women, yes.
Rick: What is it like for a woman in Palestine?
First student: They live freely, like womens in the world.
Second student: Yes, we can do everything together. We can go out together and no judgment, nothing.
Rick: This feels so free and beautiful here, and you have such a future, but you're living behind a wall. What is that like?
First student: It is like I don't see the whole of my country. I can't go to Jerusalem also. I can't go to the — to the sea; I can'tsee the sea. I'm a refugee — I don't know my country.
Rick: 'Cause it's on the other side of the wall.
Rick: Yeah. There was a history of violence during different struggles. But I feel today that there's a recognition that violence is not a winning strategy. What is the thinking in Palestine about, about violent resistance now?
Second student: For all, for us to stick together. To be together, to be one unite, you know, and this our victory to us, for us to keep together, to stay together, and never let them make us feel at the end that — yes — to accept the idea that we are the bad guys. 'Cause we're not.
Rick: So what is the hope for…for the future?
Second student: Of course to live in peace. To have peace and to be, you know —
Third student: To have, to have all your family around, to go abroad whenever you want…
Second student: We're very happy that you're coming and give you this point and this thoughts about us, because we know that Americans and public in general, they know the bad idea about us. So it's our pleasure to have this opportunities to give our thoughts and who we really are.
Rick: Free women with a good future.
Students: Insha'Allah. Yes, thank you. Insha'Allah.
Traveling here humanizes the Holy Land. On both sides of the wall you feel the religious passion, the historical suffering, and the national pride. And you meet endearing people…good people motivated by fear and love. Land is treasured, land is disputed, and land is the basis of dreams. Both communities have inflicted pain, and both communities have endured pain. And peace is possible only when both sides move beyond the past and make real concessions. The United States is clearly a stakeholder, and it's hard to imagine a roadmap to peace in the Holy Land without American involvement.
There's no easy answer. Yet traveling here, I feel there's a growing realization that neither side is going away, violence is not the answer, and everyone will be better off when dignity, security, and economic justice are provided to all. I know the hurdles are high. But after hearing both narratives, I can envision a peaceful and prosperous Holy Land — with a secure Israel and a free Palestine. And I'm hopeful.
In this land, so treasured by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, I'm reminded that the prophets of each of these religions taught us to love our neighbors. And the lessons learned traveling here in in the Holy Land can inspire us all to strive for that ideal. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'. Shalom, salām, and peace.
Interviews with Israelis and Palestinians
One regret I had in producing "Rick Steves' The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today" was that a lot of fascinating material wound up on the cutting-room floor. We filmed several insightful interviews with both Israelis and Palestinians that have never seen the light of day…until now. Here are 10 different interviews with people I met in the Holy Land. Considering the impact of American policies on the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians, this is my attempt to introduce you to some people in both camps whose voices might otherwise not be heard.
While we ate a fast-food lunch in a West Bank settlement shopping mall, we met a smart, young, professional Jewish couple with a big family. They were not only willing to talk with our camera rolling, but they were well-spoken and expert at articulating the Israeli case. Watch the interview.
Old rusty keys are found in refugee camps throughout the West Bank. They are the keys the residents of hundreds of Arab villages took with them when they fled their homes in 1948, expecting to return shortly. In this clip, we meet the director of a Palestinian refugee camp discussing the symbolic power of the key. Land for Palestinians is a complicated and very human challenge that deserves a thoughtful response from American leaders. Watch the interview.
Benny Dagan, a former PR man for the Israeli military, was our guide in Israel. Benny is an expert on both historical and cultural issues, and gifted at explaining the Israeli perspective on the region's troubles. It was important for me to understand and share both narratives, and Benny was a big help in fairly presenting the Israeli point of view. As we sit in a pastoral kibbutz with birds tweeting all around, Benny explains what motivates Israelis to live as settlers in the West Bank. Watch the interview.
Kamal Mukarker was a wonderful guide and fixer for our film shoot — and is now a good friend. As we filmed in the lounge of our Lutheran-run hotel in Bethlehem, Kamal shared with us his take on life — and tourism — in the West Bank. Since working with Kamal, I've recommended many Americans to hire him for their own trips, and they've also had wonderful experiences. (I'd happily to pay the cost to hire Kamal for anyone in the Trump Administration who might like to balance their understanding of the challenges of this region by hearing the Palestinian narrative firsthand.) Watch the interview.
I roamed the residential streets of a well-fortified, hill-capping, modern Israeli settlement in the West Bank, looking for a family to interview. I came upon a young man celebrating the purchase of a new condo. Talking with him and his buddy, we learned of the special appeal of the Jordan Valley and how their community here is small and caring...like a big family. They explained how they manage the boredom of small-town fortified living as they proudly shared their strongly held beliefs. Watch the interview.
In this interview, Husam Jubran, a very well-established Palestinian tour guide, shares the joys and challenges of earning a living as a guide in the West Bank. Husam talks of the frustrations of living under what many Palestinians consider an Israeli occupation. Hassan helped me scout our television special and then, a year later, also helped me produce it. He's a young, modern, and well-educated Palestinian who believes in nonviolence and in dignity for Palestine. He shares how he has hope for peace in the Holy Land. After 30 minutes with Husam, you'll feel like you have a friend in Palestine. Knowing people like Husam, you become more tuned in to the ramifications America's policies in this region have on real people. Watch the interview.
We met this Muslim family in Haifa, a modern Israeli town well-known for a younger generation where Jewish and Arab Israelis live and work in relative peace. They were happy to let me join them at their restaurant table and discuss the reality of being an Arab Israeli (as opposed to an Arab living in the West Bank). Watch the interview.
We visited with students at Birzeit University, the leading university in Palestine, to discuss what it's like for a young person — particularly a young woman — to live in the West Bank. In my endeavor to talk to different people with different views in the Holy Land, I talked with three charming young women about their reality: Western popular influence; how and why they might wear a hijab to cover their heads; and a few fashion tips. Watch the interview.
Venturing into a simply fortified Israeli farming settlement in the West Bank, we met a young farmer who welcomed us with fresh-squeezed juice and a chance to film his thoughts. A young father, he was enjoying what he considers the good life: to be a farmer, back to nature, and raising his kids in an idyllic settlement in the West Bank. Watch the interview.
For a thousand years, there has been a mosque on Bethlehem's main square — commemorating the birthplace of Jesus (who is also an important figure in Islam). I enjoyed a conversation with a Muslim cleric at the Mosque of Omar in Bethlehem. This happy and talkative cleric shared a charming view of Islam. He explained the Muslim take on Jesus. He prayed. And when I asked him to repeat the prayer in English, his raw and simple love and acceptance that he was a child of God brought me to tears. As you listen to this discussion, realize that anyone can drop into a mosque, like we did, and get to know a cleric. Watch the interview.
Recommended Local Guides
I'm thrilled that my Holy Land TV program is inspiring many people to ask about travel to the region. While I wouldn't recommend traveling to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel are wide open.
I used local guides, and the Lonely Planet and Moon guidebooks to the region (both were excellent). Travel to Israel is like traveling in Europe and Americans are welcome to simply cross the wall and visit the West Bank almost as if it was just another part of Israel (no visa necessary, same currency). While many people travel on their own in the West Bank, a private guide is particularly helpful there (and there are many good private guides who'd love to take you around). A guide will charge about $200 per day.
My three guides were instrumental in the scouting and production of the Holy Land TV show. They are licensed guides and independent professionals who would love your business. — Rick
Kamal Mukarker, who guided Rick Steves and his TV crew around the West Bank, is a private, licensed guide who also rents five excellent rooms in his B&B in Bethlehem. Kamal's private guide service rates are $200 for a full day with a car (add $50 in and around Bethlehem), or $100 per day for anywhere in the West Bank (Jericho/Judean Desert/Hebron/Ramallah/Nablus). His B&B nightly rates are $50 per single and $100 per double. He also offers the "Kamal Mini-Tour Package": $700 per person for double, or $600 for single, which includes three nights and two days of sightseeing (one day covering Bethlehem, the second day visiting Hebron, Jericho, and the desert) with breakfast and dinner (add a third or fourth person to the double rate for $100 per person per day). Add an extra day and night with room, meals, car, and guiding for two for $350 (the third day can be good for many plans). Kamal's mini-tour makes the short West Bank side trip from Jerusalem efficient, easy, economical, and filled with experiences and learning.
Husam Jubran is a Muslim Palestinian guide and Fulbright scholar with a master's degree in conflict transformation and peace-building. An expert political, interfaith, and religious Holy Land guide, he lives in Bethlehem and is the Palestinian guide for National Geographic expeditions. Husam can work as a guide in Israel and Palestine, and charges $220 per day without a car and about $100 more per day with a car (depending on West Bank itinerary).
Abie Bresler is a Jewish Israeli guide offering tours in Israel. He charges $600 per 9 hours/200 km for minivan tours with a maximum of six people, or $300 without car per half day (5 hours) on a Jerusalem city-center walking tour.
Benny Dagan was helpful in our researching and filming of the Holy Land special. He's a knowledgable guide who knows Israel well (a former press relations officer with their military). Benny charges $375 per day without car, $350 per 4 hours with a car (max 4 people), $590 for 10 hours in his car, and $620 for 10 hours in his luxury van (up to seven travelers).
Plenty of fine, well-established companies and individuals lead tours in Israel and Palestine. The list below is intended to connect our travelers to tour organizers and independent guides who believe in the "dual narrative" approach to traveling in the Holy Land, and lead visiting groups in a spirit of understanding both perspectives. I do not endorse any of these organizations or individuals; they are listed at their request.
Guides and tour companies interested in joining this list: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with a brief description of your company and your web address.
Sabeel Colorado leads peace and justice witness trips to Israel and Palestine. Learn from visits with Israelis and Palestinians, stay in the Old City of Jerusalem and on the Sea of Galilee, spend a night with a Palestinian family, and visit the religious holy sites.
Meet the Middle East fosters relationships between the US and Middle East through education and immersion travel for students, adults, and businesses. MTME offers customizable, boutique-size trips allowing participants to immerse themselves in a tapestry of sacred stories with the people whose passion binds them to the land. MTME emphasizes cultural, historical, religious, archeological, and political explorations.
Interfaith Peace-Builders fosters a network of informed and active individuals who understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the United States' political, military, and economic role in it. To build and nurture such a network, we lead diverse delegations to Israel/Palestine.
MEJDI Tours creates custom itineraries for religious groups, universities, high schools, non-profits, and corporate groups. With over 40 years of intercultural bridge-building and tourism experience, MEJDI was founded on the belief that travel should contribute to a more positive, interconnected world. We do this through a socially responsible business model that honors local narratives and supports local communities. Our dual narrative approach has been featured by National Geographic, the United Nations, and CNN.
Twins Tours & Travel Ltd. specializes in both individual and group tours. The company helps you build a customized tour package to explore the Land of Israel/Palestine and experience its rich and ancient history first-hand, and they are committed to developing a tour package which best suits your budget and specific desires to give you the most memorable Biblical-based tour in the Holy Land.