Travel guides, being a tourist in Tel Aviv, and the unreality of reality TV

Being a tourist is an enjoyable and enriching experience. Understanding the nation you are traveling in is another story.

The Australian TV series Travel Guides, based on a British series of the same name, is only one of a number of so-called ‘reality tv’ shows sweeping across free-to-air television programming. It features several groups of Australians, mostly but not all of them families, who go on holidays to various destinations. Their experiences are captured and then broadcast for the entertainment of the viewer. The participants take on the role of travel critics – and in one episode, they venture to Tel Aviv, a major city of Israel.

The following comments are directed at my fellow Australians – please understand that the Middle East does not consist purely of camels and tents; yes, Tel Aviv is a built-up city (just like Miami, according to the surprised observation of one traveller), and yes, people from the region are capable of speaking more than one language. Let’s clear up one thing for the benefit of one pair of travellers on the show – Tel Aviv is a city; ‘Tal-i-ban’ is something completely different.

You may watch the episode and make your own judgement. However, my purpose is not to ridicule the – shall we say uninformed perspective – of the show’s participants. It is to make a suggestion to my fellow Australians. Have fun and enjoy wherever you go. If you want wine, music, beaches and hooking up with the locals – go for it. But also, please understand the country in which you are travelling.

Reality TV is heavily edited and choreographed by its producers to create an entertainment product; it is not an educational or informative piece of television. Every now and then, reality actually seeps through the scripted lens of ‘reality TV’. Jaffa, featured in the travel guides episode above, is described as the old quarter – which it is. But how did it become the old quarter?

Jaffa was the epicentre of economic and cultural life in historic Palestine, prior to 1948. It had a population of around 120 000 thousand Palestinians, living in the city and its surrounding districts. With the growth of its agricultural sector, Jaffa developed bustling commercial/banking enterprises, financing local industrial production. The city had a vibrant cultural life, producing Arabic-language newspapers, athletics and sporting clubs, and cultural societies.

All of that came to an abrupt end in 1948-49, with the seizure of Jaffa by Zionist forces and the subsequent expulsion of the Palestinian population. From March through to May 1948, the Zionist military laid siege to Jaffa. After seizing the city, the majority of the Palestinians were forced out, constituting an act of land armed robbery. The remaining Palestinians were ghettoised, surrounded by what became the new Jewish-only city of Tel Aviv.

The Palestinians lost the city, their economic and cultural life, and were corralled by Israeli authorities into a ghetto. Today’s Tel Aviv is a thriving city, but its Palestinian history has been largely excluded. Just like reality TV, the authorities in Tel Aviv have constructed an exclusionary reality.

Our intrepid band of Australians travel from Tel Aviv to the Masada fortress. A long journey, they made the trek to learn about the holy land and Jewish history. It is a historic location, majestic in its beauty. Archaeological tourism is one of the great drawcards for the Israeli authorities, and that is all well and good.

What is less well-known is the ongoing efforts by the Israeli government to weaponise archaeology, linking that discipline with an ideological quest to eradicate the rich archaeological heritage of multiple societies that have settled in historic Palestine. Archaeology has become an exercise in displaying raw religious-nationalist muscle, excluding the non-Jewish inhabitants and their cultural legacy in Palestine.

In Forward magazine, authors Talya Ezrahi and Yonathan Mizrachi elaborate how the Israeli Culture Minister, Miri Regev, intends to ‘bring the Bible to life’ through the promotion of biblical archaeology. The purpose of encouraging a biblically-based archaeology is to provide another buttress for nation building. Religious nationalism infuses the archaeological project, and the Israeli authorities have the advantage of controlling access to major archaeological sites.

The promotion of tourism to the Masada fortress are not just an exercise in archaeological appreciation, but helps to construct a historical perspective of the Jewish people – today in the state of Israel – as an embattled minority, obscuring the colonial settler annexationist designs of Israel’s founders and leaders. The heritage of the Palestinians, Byzantines, Romans, Ottomans, and others does not fit neatly into the Zionist project of nation-building.

As Palestinian villages and archaeological sites, such as Silwan in East Jerusalem, are gradually eroded, a new imaginary historical reality takes its place. Archaeology itself is being annexed into the service of a religious-colonial nationalism. The Israeli Culture Ministry proceeds to build access tunnels, infrastructure and projects that demolishes – at least bypasses – non-Jewish archaeological heritage. Unesco has repeatedly protested this kind of cultural vandalism, only to be perversely accused by the United States – a strong supporter of Israel – of having ‘anti-Israel bias’.

Everyone should enjoy travelling while they can. If we ignore the Palestinian struggle for human rights, my fellow Australians will continue to have an understanding of the Israel/Palestine conflict as shallow and unrealistic as the end-product of the shockingly misnamed reality TV.

The Black Hebrew Israelites are a hate group – and they operate within the toxic ecosystem of American racism

Over the last few months of 2019, there were several anti-Semitic attacks in the United States. Two of them, occurring in December last year, were perpetrated by assailants described by the authorities as having links to the black Hebrew Israelites. The latter, designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC) does not have a history of violence, but has become more apocalyptic in its rhetoric in recent years.

If you are asking yourself who the black Hebrew Israelites are, you are not alone. Let’s get some details first, and unpack these issues.

It is undeniable that anti-Semitic attacks have increased under the Trump administration. The latter has directly contributed to the rise of anti-Semitic hate crimes, platforming a range of anti-Semitic themes and providing political cover for white nationalist groups. The attacks on Jewish communities in December last year fit into an overall pattern of hate crimes.

The attack on the Hasidic Jewish community during Hanukkah in late December last year was carried out by Grafton Thomas, an African American man said to be linked – at least interested in – the black supremacist theology of the Hebrew Israelite church. Earlier in December, two assailants attacked the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jewish community in Jersey City, New Jersey. In that fatal incident, the New Jersey authorities have stated that the killers expressed interest in the black Hebrew Israelite movement.

The majority of anti-Semitic killings have been perpetrated by white supremacist groups – and while African American organisations have trafficked in anti-Semitism, black American attacks against Jews are exceptionally rare. These recent murders have thrown the spotlight on the Hebrew Israelite theology. This focus is to be welcomed, but the speed of the media in highlighting black anti-Semitism stands in stark contrast to the decades it took for the US ruling class to admit the lethal threat of white nationalist domestic terrorism.

The black Hebrew Israelites, a theological movement that dates back to the nineteenth century has splintered into different sects, factions and detachments – but all of them share a basic set of beliefs. Black Hebrew Israelism dates back to the days of emancipated slaves and Reconstruction after the civil war.

The various churches that belong to the Hebrew Israelite tradition regard the black population as the literal descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. In their worldview, it is the blacks who are the original chosen people – the Israelites. Today’s Jewish population, they contend, are mere imposters, falsely claiming that they are the Hebrews of the Bible.

While the roots of Black Hebrew Israelism are nonracist, they have adopted anti-Semitic rhetoric, denouncing the Jewish people as usurpers of the ‘chosen people’ mantle, engaging in worldwide financial conspiracies to enrich their own people at the expense of others. Their adherents have been non-violent, however, there are sects within the overall church that have encouraged confrontations with persons from non-African American backgrounds.

With the dispersion of ten out of the twelve ancient tribes of Israel after the Assyrian conquest, the black Hebrew Israelites contend that their mission is to regain their biblically-sanctioned rightful place as the descendants of the dispersed Hebrews. Drawing up a tortuous, bizarre theological ancestry from the purportedly lost ten tribes of Israel, the black Hebrew Israelites promote a theme of an oppressed people returning to their promised land.

The myth of the ten lost tribes of Israel, familiar to Western audiences through their knowledge of the Bible, has long provided fertile grounds for the growth of increasingly bizarre, pseudoarchaeological theologies that underpin many Christian-like cults until today. The Mormons, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), have incorporated into its theological doctrines a story of descent from the mythical lost tribes of Israel.

Certain Mormon doctrines hold that the indigenous Americans are the literal descendants of those scattered lost tribes. That sounds unusual to those of us on the outside of the Mormon church, however, the English-speaking world is not unfamiliar with such doctrines. Anglo-Israelism, sometimes called British Israelism, is the pseudoarchaeological contention that today’s people in Britain are the genetic descendants of the lost tribes of Israel.

The black Hebrew Israelites are a minority group, but they have shown a willingness to commit acts of politically motivated violence. This move away from their traditional nonviolence takes place within the toxic ecosystem of white American racism – an ecosystem fed by the Trump administration and its supporters. The Hasidic Jewish community has faced growing expressions of intolerance and hate as it has moved out of New York and into the suburbs.

As the ultra-Orthodox Jews have moved into Monsey, Rockland County – the scene of the Hanukkah attack – local authorities have passed zoning laws preventing the construction of ‘new places of worship’, such as synagogues. Republican party legislators and their supporters in the area have spoken of a ‘Jewish takeover’ of the county, undermining the ‘American way of life’. Such rhetoric has entirely foreseeable consequences.

Perhaps what makes the black Hebrew Israelites so outrageous for the white power structures is that they see a reflection of themselves. An oppressed group, such as African Americans, will search for a sense of belonging and cultural fixation in a system in which they are lost.

While conducting this search for meaning, and looking for a way to explain their suffering, they have adopted the doctrines of their white American oppressors. The black Hebrew Israelites are a reflection, in their own way, of the religiously-informed political outlook upon which the white American state is founded.