Is Israel experiencing an identity crisis? Some such symptoms are evident in a confusion over the territorial, historical and cultural boundaries of contemporary Israeli society. The tourism industry, with its consumer demands and political agendas, is exacerbating this crisis.

Tourism has become Israel’s largest industry and the economic benefits of tourism are a consistent theme in the government’s efforts to mobilize support for the peace process: 1994 was officially declared the “Year of Tourism and Peace.” Israel’s primary tourist attractions relate to the past and reflect the wide variety of peoples who are part of the historical landscape. The Israel National Parks Authority (NPA), a state agency, develops the most important of these as part of an effort to frame particular tourist experiences. But which groups and identities are celebrated and which excluded? What image of Israel is communicated and how? What is to be done with Palestinian citizens of Israel, and with the remnants of Palestinians who are gone, the nationalized landscapes of ruins and memories? [1]

A national park is a site where people try to make their own connections to history and negotiate their social identity. It is also a tool through which state agencies project their version of collective national identity. [2] Conflicts and congruences between the ideological impulses of Zionism and the market demands of tourism are apparent in the relationship between the agendas and assumptions of national park designers and the perceptions and uses of these spaces by different social groups. Conflicts among Jewish Israeli, non-Jewish Israeli and foreigner perceptions and uses of tourist sites arose early in the process of Israeli state formation. Jewish settlers faced predominantly Christian representations along central routes, organized and commercialized by and for the European tourism industry. This representational terrain was incompatible with the Zionist ideology of return, redemption and rescue of the land. The yishuv-era settlers developed a highly mobilized and institutionalized academic discipline of “yediot ha’aretz” — literally “knowledge of the land” — which employed hiking trips and other outdoor activities to ingrain a sense of attachment to the land. Archaeological sites were turned into settings for the emotional and vivid remembrance of historical events, creating space and logic for “internal tourism for local Jewish residents.” [3]

Zionist settlement denied inequalities among different Jewish ethnic and social groups. It has also required that the Palestinian presence be ignored and forgotten. In addition to advancing claims about Jewish Israeli identity and citizenship, Israeli national parks and heritage sites embody the process of physically and symbolically displacing Palestinians: from expropriation of land to be used for parks, to symbolic conquest effected through walking hikes, to excavating under and around the Palestinians who remain and removing the layers of their history. Even the Israeli souvenir market participates in the process of erasing “Palestine.” [4]

Policies to create a landscape of almost monolithic symbolism — “it’s Jewish and it’s ours” — are no longer uncontested. The demands of foreign tourists, and significant changes in the leisure activities of Israeli society, have created pressure for greater diversity in available experiences. Sightseeing has declined somewhat, while vacationing has increased significantly. Vacationers are interested in “good tourism services and varied recreational opportunities, such as sports facilities, restaurants, discotheques, festivals, cultural events and shops.” [5] Yet archaeological, historical and nature sites remain high national priorities. These discrepancies between the leisure and the educational/emotional agendas of foreign and Israeli tourists are reflected in the conflicting demands on the management of the heritage industry.

The proliferation of countervailing historical accounts and representations by groups considered peripheral in the Zionist narrative, and the prioritizing of leisure tourism services over historical sites, reflect fragmentation in the polity, a decline of the dominant Zionist narrative, the emergence of new (middle) classes, the effects of the peace process and the stronger position of Palestinian citizens of Israel. [6] Heritage industry professionals worry that capital investments to promote and satisfy foreign tourism are deforming the historical landscape of Israel. “To have the historical landscape of Israel transformed into Disney World would be a tragic loss,” warns a former Israeli archaeologist. “Tourism threatens the role of archaeology in modern society.” [7]

The mandate of the NPA is to provide for the educational and recreational needs of Israeli citizens by developing sites with historical, archaeological, natural and national values. The development and promotion of Masada, the mountaintop stronghold in the Judean desert where the Jewish Maccabees fought the Romans to their death, is its signal achievement.

Approximately 7 million people visit Israel’s national parks each year. Entrance fees provide some 95 percent of the NPA’s operating budget. After 1992, the government awarded the NPA funds rerouted from settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, as part of an initiative to reduce unemployment and increase tourism. Improvements of tourist sites and infrastructure within Israel were heavily funded as public works projects. The NPA’s development budget has increased tenfold, but this has precipitated a crisis. The new funding is specifically earmarked for sites of interest to the tourism industry. This requires continuous negotiation over the design, development and interpretation of sites and their histories.

Ideology of Design

Sarah, a young Israeli landscape architect, is responsible for the design of new national parks and the expansion and reinterpretation of established parks. Describing the development process, she begins by distinguishing between “recreational” parks and archaeological sites, and the kinds of people for whom various sites are deemed appropriate. [8] Sarah believes that decisions about what to exhibit, restore or ignore are made objectively, based on the science of archaeology. National parks, she says, offer no explicit or implicit messages other than, “This is what the ground here has seen. This is what happened on this ground.”

Richard, an American immigrant, is an architect involved in several large restoration projects in national parks. He agrees with Sarah’s view of how decisions are made in developing a site. “First of all,” he claims, “you’re receiving whatever history has bequeathed to you.” Like Sarah, Richard is convinced that the NPA is not developing Jewish sites per se. But, unlike Sarah, this disturbs him. Reflecting on Zippori — a new park in the Galilee known for its beautiful Roman-era mosaics, important Jewish and Christian legacies and the rubble remains of a Palestinian village within its boundaries — Richard explains that it could be developed into a site which emphasizes its Jewish connections. “Yet what are we doing?” he exclaims:

Developing the mosaic floors that have nothing to do with the whole story because the foreign tourists love it! The Jewish section of the site is of no interest to anyone. The Middle Ages [era] building is used for the view. There are picnic areas. There is no Jewish identity. No Jewish angle. [9]

Richard notes that the authorities are pushing development of national parks that attract Christian tourists because this type of tourism is expected to reach record levels as — and because — the millennium is ending. “The Galilee is now being intensely developed,” Richard says, “because the Galilee is ‘rich in Jesus.’”

Beit Shean, a site that marks the Roman and Byzantine eras, is currently the national park with the most extensive excavations and heaviest investment. Richard sees no “Jewish” agenda here, either. As he speaks, however, his “non-ideological” explanation is slowly transfigured into an allegorical tale of what allows the Jewish people to lay claim to the architectural grandeur of ancient non-Jewish regimes, and to physically repossess the land. In Richard’s version, this site, essentially a pagan city, comes to symbolize the triumph of Jewish history.

I often describe to people, if I take them to visit [Beit Shean], that while all these magnificent buildings were being built, the Jews were living up in the hills not too many miles away, living in relative poverty. But here, people were practicing what is, in retrospect, total cultural degradation. And I give descriptions of the sort of things that took place in the theater. Where this was a very advanced society technologically, Roman society…was, near the end, morally and socially, a dying society. Meanwhile up in the hills, there was this very important moral revolution taking place where [Jews] were really setting the stage for the next 2,000 years. And here’s the irony. All of the cultural content that stood behind all these magnificent buildings disappeared and is gone. It’s wiped out forever. All we have is the empty shell, like a seashell where the creature has died. Although our foundations were not physical, like this, they were actually much stronger and this enabled the Jewish people to survive. And now here we are! Actually using these buildings. Sort of [like the Jews have] come back down out of the hills to take possession of them.

Sarah claims to create sites by presenting excavated materials without embellishment, but she invests them with class distinctions. Richard’s strong feeling of inclusion and participation in a “national redemption” project enables him to lay claim to the material remains of another past. Sarah and Richard personify the processes of grounding Jewish and Israeli identities in the territory under the rule of the Jewish state, rather than in the cultures of diaspora Judaism. [10]

Tourists and the Past

Beit Shean and Zippori are two of the NPA’s biggest projects. The reconstruction of ancient Zippori celebrates a liberal and open city where people of all sorts resided together. The key feature of the site, a Roman villa with a pagan mosaic and a beautiful likeness of a woman, is presented as having belonged to “an affluent Jew with a liberal outlook.” [11]

The reactions of Israeli visitors to Zippori closely approximate the expectations and suppositions of NPA planners. When I asked people to rate the most important aspects of the site, visitors overwhelmingly chose the specifically non-Jewish features — the mosaics, the Roman villa and the Crusader fortress respectively. When commenting about what they learned at the site, though, a majority included some variation on a Jewish theme: “We learned of a new Jewish city.” “We learned that Zippori was a large Jewish settlement with a mixed population.” “We learned of the importance of the place in Jewish history.”

Those features with little or no Jewish but much “cultural” significance were rated highest and appropriated as “Israeli.” Visitors can feel closer to the history and “the land” without identifying with religious Judaism. Asked if being at Zippori made the visitor feel a stronger bond to Judaism, one respondent crossed out the word “Judaism,” wrote in “history of Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel],” and then proceeded to agree strongly. Jewish Israelis and some foreign Jewish visitors who describe the sensation of having discovered a new and Jewish city are inscribing the site with a variety of secular, Jewish and nationalist associations.

Yet the apparent success of Zionist hegemony does not seem to lead visitors to identify a united “Israeli” collective. Visitors were asked to rate which groups would get the most out of visiting the site. The top three groups selected were, respectively, new immigrants, Jewish [foreign] tourists and secular [Jewish] Israelis. The groups for whom a visit to the site was thought to be least beneficial were non-Jewish tourists, Orthodox Jewish Israelis and, last, “Arabs” (meaning Palestinian citizens of lsrael). One respondent indicated “Arabs” as the most important group to bring to this site “so they can be shown that it’s ours and not theirs.”

If Sarah believes her claim that she presents all available evidence as it exists, how does she deal with remains that convey confusion over claims to the land? How do planners and visitors get ideologically — and physically — around the Palestinian presence? At Zippori, I observed a relatively conscientious guide tell her group, just before descending into the Cactus Garden and field of rubble, that the town of Saffouriyya had been in this general area. (She did not tell them that this Muslim Palestinian village had been one of the largest in the Galilee.) What had been a fairly lively group suddenly grew silent. There was a collective shuffling of feet, and then, without any more questions or comments, we moved on. Might the collective shuffling of feet suggest that the development and interpretation of a heritage site works, in the last instance, to preserve a certain distribution of power? [12]

Disappearing Acts

The discourse and practices of tourism and heritage site development reflect “the struggle between religious and secular Jewish citizens, between market economy reformers and socialist and welfare state adherents, and between histories of Palestinian and Jewish citizens of lsrael.” [13] The making of a heritage site — Zippori, for example — suggests the conflicted, yet powerful and enduring, nature of modern Israeli nationalism as it both influences and is influenced by tourism practices. The tensions between nationalistic representations and tourism development in Israel reverberate through what is perhaps the most important of public spaces, the Western Wall complex in Jerusalem. [14] Here the hegemonic discourse evident in diffuse form in national parks and other heritage sites is explicit.

The southern end of the Western Wall complex, revealing the original gates to the Second Temple, was excavated and opened to the public but never successfully developed for general tourism. The northern end, although located completely underground, has been heavily developed. The so-called Western Wall Heritage Tunnels, run by the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs, are officially referred to as “a learning center dedicated to fostering an awareness of Jewish history” and has a year-long waiting list.

During the guided tour, a large mechanical model reveals an overview of the Temple Mount and cross-section of the tunnels. The visuals effect a removal of surrounding layers. A replica of the Second Temple remains fixed to the spot where, in actuality, today stands the mosque of the Dome of the Rock, which is not shown. As the layer with the modern Muslim Quarter splits open and disappears, guides comment that “originally, there were no Muslims in the Muslim Quarter. They were moved in at a later date.” The conflict over Jerusalem is reduced to a matter of stratigraphy. The process of removing successive layers of the model until the “original” Second Temple era is reached taps visitors’ imaginations in such a way as to engage them in a metaphorical conquest and displacement of Palestinians. One of the guides explains to the group: “To get a sense of the real magnitude and grandeur of the Western Wall, we would have to get rid of the Muslims. But, for now, we can only tunnel under them.”

As groups proceed through the dark tunnel, in spots not much more than shoulder-width, the guides explain away the Muslim quarter above them. Because the quarter is supported by arches built prior to the advent of Islam, the guides repeat several times that those homes are actually “suspended” or “hanging in the air,” with no connection to the land below.

The tour of the Western Wall Heritage Tunnels ends like tours at many of the sites and national parks in Israel: with the pervasive message of transcendent unity and territorial foundation of the Jewish people. The group crowds together, silently contemplating the excavated stones above, around and beneath them. The guide marches in place, stomps his feet on the ground and invites the visitors to do the same. “We are walking,” he concludes, “in the same streets that our ancestors walked. This proves that our nation belongs here.”


[1] See D. Nash, “Tourism as an Anthropological Subject,” Current Anthropology 22/5 (1981); Ian Munt, “The ‘Other’ Postmodern Tourism: Culture, Travel and the New Middle Classes,” Theory, Culture and Society 11 (1994); G. L. Watson and J. P. Kopachevsky, “Interpretations of Tourism as Commodity,” Annals of Tourism Research 21/3 (1994). On Israel, see Neil Silberman, “Structuring the Past: Israelis, Palestinians and the Symbolic Authority of Archaeological Monuments” paper presented at Lehigh University, May 22-24, 1994; and Felice Maranz, “Lost in the Ruins,” Jerusalem Report, July 15, 1993. See also Glenn Bowman, “Fucking Tourists: Sexual Relations and Tourism in Jerusalem’s Old City,” Critique of Anthropology (1989); S. Shenhav-Keller, “The Israeli Souvenir: Its Text and Context,” Annals of Tourism Research 20 (1993); S. Katz, “The Israeli Teacher-Guide: The Emergence and Perpetuation of a Role,” Annals of Tourism Research 12 (1985); Tamar Katriel, “Remaking Places: Cultural Production in an Israeli Pioneer Settlement Museum,” History and Memory 5/2 (Fall/Winter 1993).
[2] See the “Space, Identity and the Politics of Difference” issue of Cultural Anthropology 7/1 (1992).
[3] Katz, “The Israeli Teacher-Guide,” pp. 49, 63.
[4] The Old Embroidery Company collected original Palestinian embroidered clothing and “integrated” shreds into “modern Israeli” handicrafts and clothing. Palestinian embroidery “…was recruited as a replacement for Yemenite embroidery, and achieved a central position in the Jewish tourist art system” (Shenhav-Keller, “The Israeli Souvenir,” p. 167). On “mechanisms of landscape transformation,” see Saul Cohen and Nurit Kliot, “Place Names in Israel’s Ideological Struggle over the Administered Territories,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82/4 (1992); Yoram Bar-Gal, “Boundaries as a Topic in Geographic Education: The Case of lsrael,” Political Geography 12/5 (1993); Jonathan Boyarin, “Ruins, Mounting toward Jerusalem” Studio 37 (1992) [Hebrew]; Ghazi Falah, “Israeli Judaization Policy in Galilee,” Journal of Palestine Studies 20/4 (1991).
[5] Y. Roman, “The Birth of an Industry: The Development of Tourism in Israel,” Eretz Magazine 5/3 (1990), p. 102. See also L. Littman, “The New Israeli Leisure Industry,” The New Aliyon 15/1 (1994); E. Katz et al, Leisure in Israel: 1970-1990 (Jerusalem: Guttman Center for Applied Social Research, 1992). [Hebrew] [6] Danny Rabinowitz, “Oriental Nostalgia: The Transformation of the Palestinians into ‘Israeli Arabs’” Theory and Criticism 4 (1993). [Hebrew] [7] Silberman, “Structuring the Past.”
[8] Recreation parks are seen as serving the needs of “ethnics,” usually of the lower classes and considered less “cultured.” Historic parks are designed not to disturb the proper contemplation of archaeological remains. Picnic facilities are available at some historic parks, but only for those “cultured” enough to willingly pay the entrance fee. Parks are designed, accessed and used as part of a “spatial legitimation of class difference” (Munt, “The ‘Other’ Postmodern Tourism,” p. 119).
[9] Other members of the development team disagreed, arguing that the priority was to maintain funding until they could create or find the supporting evidence for the “Jewish angle.” At the end of the 1993 season, the mosaic floor of a sixth-century synagogue was discovered.
[10] Jonathan Boyarin, Storm from Paradise: The Politics of Jewish Memory (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1992); Robert Paine, “Jewish Ontologies of Time and Political Legitimation in Israel,” in H. Rutz, ed., The Politics of Time (Washington, DC: American Anthropological Society, 1992).
[11] Debbie Hershman, “An Epic Mosaic,” Eretz Magazine 5/1 (1989). This interpretation tells us much about current issues and images in and of Israeli society. The “new” pluralistic ideology is being legitimized by being “grounded” in Israeli history and territory at places like Zippori, and expresses the ongoing definition of the cultural content of Israeliness. Yet, for all its attack on Zionist hegemony, this new ideology does not acknowledge the role of the Jewish peasants whose taxes provided a basis for the wealth of Zippori (Maranz, “Lost in the Ruins,” p. 18), and also refrains from acknowledging the memories of the Palestinians, the Saffouriyyan villagers who lived on the site until 1948.
[12] See M. Rodman, “Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality,” American Anthropologist 94/3 (1992). On Palestinian “traces” in the landscape, see Boyarin, Storm from Paradise; and Walid Khalidi, All That Remains (Washington, DC: Institute for Palestine Studies, 1992).
[13] Cohen and Kliot, “Place Names,” p. 677.
[14] On the history, politics and interpretation of archaeology in Israel and Jerusalem, see Nadia Abu el-Haj, “Excavating the Land, Creating the Homeland: Archaeology, the State and the Making of History in Modern Jewish Nationalism,” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Anthropology, Duke University, 1995.

How to cite this article:

Joel Bauman "Designer Heritage," Middle East Report 196 (September/October 1995).

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