Invited to Witness: Solidarity Tourism across Occupied Palestine
By Jennifer Lynn Kelly
Duke University Press, 2023
In her book “Invited to Witness: Solidarity Tours across Occupied Palestine,” Jennifer Lynn Kelly explores an aspect of the recent phenomena of trauma/tragedy travel by focusing on the solidarity tours in Occupied Palestine. Even though Palestinians were legally prohibited from being tour guides from 1967 to 1994, today, Palestinians have turned tourism into a peaceful weapon against their relentless Israeli colonizers, actively reclaiming their narratives by opening their lives for foreigners to witness a situation that recent participant and celebrated author Alice Walker describes as ‘“more brutal’ than the Jim Crow South.” In a grassroots effort to negate the Zionist narrative of Israel as the center of democracy in the Middle East, Palestinians utilize tours to show the destroyed villages, military presence, aggression in occupied territories, and their steadfast efforts to stay connected to their land and cultures.
Kelly does not shy away from the controversies underlying this mode of tourism. Due to the immense success of the Israeli lobby’s promotion of Israel as America’s victimized friend surrounded by hostile terrorists, Palestinians have turned to solidarity tourism because they are not believed to be capable of or trustworthy enough to tell their own story to the world. Within this paradigm of overt racism, they invite foreigners to see the reality on the ground, and even Israeli tourists are shocked by what they witness. In addition to being stunned by the apartheid conditions of the West Bank and Gaza, many Americans are dismayed by their complicity through their tax dollars. While most Americans are proudly aware of the arms sales to Ukraine, few are aware of Biden's $735 million authorization of weapon sales to Israel throughout its bombardment of Gaza. While some tourists may be so moved that they would like to stay and help the Palestinians, they are instead urged to return home to share their stories to expose the day-to-day truth of occupation and its seizure of land under the guise of “security and peace.”
Urging the participants to question “what used to be, what is, and what could be,” these tours include olive planting and harvesting, listening to personal life stories, and visiting sites where the tour guide is often prohibited from entering and is forced to regroup with them later. While touring, they become aware of their privilege, often taken for granted, juxtaposed to the guide’s restrictions and limited access to their history. Although visits to the refugee camps may invoke a voyeuristic discomfort in tourists, more importantly, these visits combat the isolation imposed by Israelis. Visits to the ‘national’ parks underscore the hypocrisy of Israeli bohemian art colonies and green parks on the land of destroyed villages.
The tour guides and Kelly insist on including moments of joy and the youthful ability to dream so that readers and visitors have a more humane understanding of the Palestinian plight that goes beyond the hungry, wide-eyed child. Kelly’s text includes some beautiful photos of recent artistic endeavors, and her chapter on virtual tourism adds an innovative insight to both Palestinian and travel studies. Although her text can lapse into repetition, that exact repetition reveals her passion for her subject and her hope for justice. She forces the reader to recognize that colonization is ongoing in Palestine and urges American readers to turn their gazes to their backyard. Her descriptions of the Gazan students creating a virtual future for tourism in Gaza throughout the Israeli bombing testify to the resilience of youth and will inspire students to examine the past and benevolently imagine the future unflinchingly.
"New Book Examines ‘Solidarity Tourism’ in Palestine as the ‘Voice of the People"' by Lynne Rogers is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 27, No. 84.
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