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The Rise of October 7th Tourism
The Rise of October 7th Tourism
Harrowing “solidarity tours” of Israel are reinscribing American Jews’ sense of victimhood.
Maya Rosen

In late February, I stood at the site of the Nova Festival in southern Israel, some three miles from the Gaza border, where more than 360 partygoers were killed in the Hamas-led attacks of October 7th. Families of victims had come a month earlier and planted trees in memory of their loved ones; the saplings were now decorated with plaques, notes, piles of stones, and yahrzeit candles. In a nearby clearing, rows of placards, each with a picture of a victim, were flanked by more makeshift memorials. Some families had draped the flags of favorite soccer teams around the photos, while others had put up signs and large, thick banners: “Dance forever, our angel, Barak Davidi,” “Tomer Strosta, you will never walk alone.”

Hundreds of people milled around the site. I counted a dozen coach-sized buses in the parking lot; all but one had carried Jewish groups from abroad, including two from the Dallas Jewish Federation, one from the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and one from the US-based Sephardic Community Alliance. People wandered around wearing “Beis Knesses North Woodmere Israel Mission” zip-ups and “White Plains Stands with Israel” baseball hats. I heard one man murmur that it felt like being in New York after 9/11, while another responded that it was more like being in the killing fields of Poland. A group of American Jews stood in a circle with a guitar singing religious songs. Chabad had set up a truck for men to come and put on tefillin.

These visitors were part of a wave of “solidarity missions” bringing diaspora Jews to Israel. While in the country, these travelers—the vast majority of whom are from the US, though others have come from Europe, South America, Australia, South Africa, and Canada—not only tour sites of devastation, but express their support by visiting wounded soldiers and evacuated communities, packing or cooking food on military bases, and picking produce on Israeli farms. The trips bill themselves as an opportunity to “stand in solidarity, bear witness, and provide comfort and support to those in need,” in the words of a New Jersey Federation. On top of sit-downs with survivors and victims’ and hostages’ families, their busy itineraries almost always include meetings with representatives of the emergency rescue and medical groups Zaka or Magen David Adom, as well as with Israeli public officials, soldiers, and civil society leaders. Thus far, tens of thousands of American Jews have taken part in these trips, which many Jewish groups began planning just weeks after October 7th. (Similar trips have also brought Christian Zionists from the US and elsewhere.) Some Jewish participants come through their synagogues or local federations, while others sign up for missions that are arranged by preexisting Israeli tour companies or major Zionist organizations such as the Jewish National Fund. Some of these trips receive Israeli state funding but most do not; some focus on bringing influencers, journalists, politicians, or donors, but most have few or no eligibility requirements. The average cost for participants runs in the thousands of dollars. As an employee of the Israeli Tourism Ministry told Ynet, “There’s never been wartime tourism on this scale.”

Organizers hope these trips will encourage diaspora Jews to rally around Israel in a moment of growing international approbation. In part, the missions offer American Jewish communities a way to raise significant amounts of money for Israel: Some tour providers require participants to donate to their local federation’s annual campaign in addition to paying trip fees, and a spokesperson for Jewish Federations of North America explained to Jewish Insider in March that this was one of the reasons the umbrella organization had been able to raise more than $783 million for Israel since October 7th. But beyond their interest in fundraising, the disparate groups behind the missions seem united in the belief that showing diaspora Jews the scars of October 7th is essential to shoring up their support for Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza. As UJA-Federation of New York executive vice president Mark Medin, who has led multiple trips, has said, “There are two wars going on,” including both the physical war and “an information war for the Jewish world that the diaspora Jewish community has to fight as well.” To be able to do their part in this war against misinformation, American Jews “have to bear witness . . . If you do, you’re able to be a much stronger advocate; back in America, you’re able to talk to your family, to your professional colleagues, to your friends, to the media, to members of Congress . . . with firsthand authenticity.” The narrative that diaspora Jews are given to bring home is a specific one: “The messaging for groups has to be ‘tzidkat darkeinu,’” the Israeli military term for “the righteousness of our path,” Eve Harow, a private tour guide who also serves as Director of Tourism and Education for the pro-settlement One Israel Fund and is a board member of the right-wing media monitoring group CAMERA, said in an interview with me. Participants, she explained, “have to understand that this evil of Hamas has to be eradicated completely. There’s no middle ground here.”

Thus, though tour groups come within miles of the Gaza fence, the trips pointedly don’t engage with Israel’s ongoing devastation of the enclave, which has killed more than 37,900 Palestinians to date. I spent two days observing several different groups in the Gaza Envelope area and conducted dozens of interviews with tour guides, participants, local residents, and military personnel stationed there. I found that while the trips span a political spectrum—some meet with liberal groups in Israeli civil society or have a Palestinian speaker on their itineraries, while others hear from far-right speakers and visit extremist settlements—this silence was a common thread. An Israeli American who joined multiple mission trips as a staff member in November and February, and who asked that his name not be used to avoid professional consequences, observed that tour participants are “deep within their own trauma, and that trauma is crowding out the suffering the war is causing.” By pausing time on October 7th and excluding its aftermath, the tours reinforce that myopia, consolidating a focus on Jewish victimhood and a refusal to see Israel as the perpetrator of Palestinian suffering. In the process, they succeed in bolstering American Jews’ sense of identification with Israel. As one rabbi who participated in a Federation mission from San Diego wrote upon her return home: “I saw the result of evil. I feel more committed to Israel and its future than I have felt in a long time.”