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.

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