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Now That I’ve Seen Their Faces: Contact, Social Justice, and Tourism in Israel/Palestine

  • Author(s): Schneider, Emily Maureen
  • Advisor(s): Bhavnani, Kum-Kum
  • et al.

Tourism is an expanding battleground of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the founding of the state, Israel’s supporters have used tourism as a mechanism to socialize diaspora Jews and other travelers into supporting Israeli institutions, namely the military. As a counterforce to this mobilization, Palestinians, alongside Jewish/Israeli activists, have also been employing tourism as a method to garner support for justice and human rights in the region. This dissertation examines the power and limits of tourism to engender transnational solidarity.

In a wider sense, this dissertation sheds light on the power of exposure, empathy, and intercultural contact to shift political sympathies and allegiances. I investigate these topics through a case study of Jewish Americans’ experiences on alternative tours to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Based on an analysis of 87 in-depth interviews, 400 survey responses, as well as three years of participant observation, I use tourism as a lens to examine the barriers to Jewish solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Given the ways that Jewish Americans are typically shielded from Palestinian perspectives and encouraged to support the state of Israel, I use these tours as a microcosmic case to understand what happens when privileged populations are exposed to injustices suffered by marginalized peoples in the Global South.

These tours challenge participants’ stereotypes of Palestinians as dangerous and primitive along with participants’ absolutist ideas of Jewish moral purity and victimhood. In addition to these outcomes, the visceral experience of witnessing Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israeli violence causes many participants to develop greater animosity towards settlers and right-wing segments of Israeli society. I argue that this focus on settlers, as aberrations from Israeli institutions rather than extensions of them, can function to organize participants’ outrage around a population that remains conceptually separate from wider state institutions.

Simultaneously, while participants move past stereotypes of Palestinians as inherently violent, a differential conception of Israeli versus Palestinian violence remains in place. Despite empathetic, emotional reactions to sites such as the checkpoint, participants continue to understand Israeli participation in military violence as involuntary and often necessary. At the same time, participants continue to unequivocally oppose all forms of Palestinian violence. This inconsistency appears rooted in participants’ associations of Israeli violence with a form of social control, and associations of Palestinian violence with disruption and deviance. The persistence of these fundamental currents of privilege and racism within tourists’ ideologies reveals the ways that allegiances to unjust status quos can remain in place, despite increased levels of empathy and intercultural understanding.

My findings demonstrate the ability of tourism and intercultural contact to expand compassion and to mobilize transnational activists. On the other hand, they also reveal the ways that tourism, as a medium for social change, may preserve some of the most fundamental elements of inequality, due to economic forces within the tourism industry. Taken together, these conclusions illuminate how racialized conceptions of the right to violence often go unnoticed and unchallenged in progressive movements for social change. Lastly, through revealing the limits of appealing to those with power through empathy, this dissertation urges movements for social change to prioritize the redistribution of power, rather than focus exclusively on the ideological transformation of those in power.

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