Rebecca L. Stein, Itineraries in Conflict: Israelis, Palestinians and the Political Lives of Tourism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
“To read Israel as itinerant is to imagine its alternative future.” With these optimistic words, Rebecca L. Stein closes the introduction to her beautifully written ethnography of Israeli tourism in the years between the 1993 Oslo agreement and the second intifada that began in the fall of 2000. What shines through in this book, indeed, is Stein’s optimism, which, far from being romantic or dreamy, emerges out of a sober and well-crafted socio-political analysis. Joining a growing body of works dedicated to the mechanisms of Zionist domination, Itineraries in Conflict stands out in its commitment not only to documenting the present predicaments of Israel-Palestine, but also to thinking through these predicaments and the often paradoxical possibilities they open for setting the political reality on a different trajectory.
Itineraries in Conflict traces the changing landscapes of Israeli tourism during the 1990s, the era of the Oslo peace negotiations. The period under examination is short, but it marks a time of profound political transition for Israel, resulting in radical shifts in what Stein calls “Israeli intelligibility.” Stein’s main argument is that touristic practices in this period did not simply reflect the shifts in the Israeli national imagination due to the prospect of peace, but that they also ought to be understood as “important site[s] of national reformation” through which “Israel was being reimagined.” Rather than simplifying matters, as many commentators on “the conflict” tend to do in their zeal to prove themselves right, Stein deploys a careful reading of Israeli tourist practices to highlight the multiple functions they serve in providing “an allegorical terrain on which fears and fantasies about regional reconfigurations could be negotiated.” While some practices and the narrative about them fortified the terms of national intelligibility, others, Stein remarks, challenged its terms in reviving repressed histories and pointing to previously unforeseen potential futures.
The book is made up of five chapters, all of which examine the ways in which the new Israeli tourist market was forged. The first is dedicated to Israeli tourism in neighboring Arab countries. It examines the central role played by Israeli media stories about these travels in generating a new understanding of the Middle East as an evolving “unified geography of leisure.” Stein’s subtle analysis reveals the manner in which this promise of regional openness and border crossing nevertheless also served the ideological purpose of consolidating Israel’s difference from surrounding countries, presenting this regional geography as devoid of history, as if the national borders drawn by the 1948 war have always been there, preceding the meeting between Jews and their “newly discovered” Arab neighbors. The second chapter examines the emergence of Israeli tourism within the Palestinian communities of the Galilee. Stein follows the growing Israeli search for “authentic” Arab experiences, itself translated into a booming market of visits to local Arab villages, which until the 1990s were considered dangerous and hostile by most Israelis. As with all the touristic practices she examines, Stein effectively demonstrates that these visits often had conflicting effects: On the one hand, they underscored the power dynamics between Israeli Jews and Palestinian citizens of Israel, for the latter were objects of consumption for the pleasure of the former. On the other hand, these visits also produced “counter-hegemonic resonances” as they disturbed the “prevailing fiction of ‘one Israeli people.’” Thus, if the commodification of Arab culture was commonly premised on dominant Israeli logics, Stein concludes that it nevertheless exhibited moments that “undermined state logic and terms of [national] inclusion.”
The following three chapters, dedicated to the production of Palestinian space by the Israeli state, restaurant tourism and what can broadly be called “coffee culture,” follow in the footsteps of the first two in paying close attention to the variegated and often internally contradictory impact of the emerging Israeli tourist market. There seems to be a subtle shift in the later chapters, however, from a focus on the potentially subversive outcomes of individual encounters toward an analysis of state power and control. Chapter 3, devoted to the Israeli production of Palestinian space, thus emphasizes the manner in which Israeli anxiety about the Oslo process generated a need to contain the Palestinian community living within Israel, fixing them in rural spaces and restricting their mobility. Chapter 4, dedicated to Israelis’ adoption of Arab cuisine and frequenting of Palestinian restaurants, similarly zeroes in on how these practices functioned primarily to transform Palestinian loyalty to the state from something doubted by Israeli Jews to something assumed. Finally, chapter 5, titled “Of Cafés and Terror,” moves ahead in time to the early years of the second Palestinian intifada, when Israeli coffeehouses turned from signs of modernism and Western leisure into sites of prospective suicide bombing. Stein rightly reads this change, expressed in the Israeli saying, “The Palestinians have emptied our cafés,” in terms of its repressed, but haunting predicate: “We Israelis have emptied their nation.”
Where, then, is the optimism in this devastating picture? Perhaps in the fact that small acts like drinking coffee translate, as Stein convincingly shows, into complex political gestures that at times have the ability to exceed the limits of the dominant national imagination.
If I have one reservation about this wonderful and compact book, it has to do with the fact that its sober optimism is not sufficiently grounded in retrospective. Indeed, today, less than a decade after the “Oslo dream” became exposed for the complete failure that it was, it seems painfully impossible to take seriously the promise articulated in Stein’s closing words: “The anticipated tourist onslaught of the Oslo era…threatened to expose the most foundational of Israeli fictions: that of a nation neither in nor of [emphasis in original] the Arab Middle East…. In the midst of this panic…a different Israeli future was becoming visible.” I would love to agree, but recent years, I am afraid, have taught us that such a “different Israeli future” is becoming harder and harder to imagine.