July 3, 2024

The Rise of October 7th Tourism

Harrowing “solidarity tours” of Israel are reinscribing American Jews’ sense of victimhood.

AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

Participants take photos during a tour of Kibbutz Nir Oz, in the Gaza Envelope, on June 21st, 2024.

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.”

A woman visits the site of the Nova Festival on June 20th, 2024.

AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

Organizers hope these trips will encourage diaspora Jews to rally around Israel in a moment of growing international opprobrium. 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.”

People take photos at the Nova site on March 27th, 2024.

AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

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.”

Visiting the towns of the Gaza Envelope is harrowing. During a tour I attended in Kfar Azza—where more than 60 people were murdered and 19 were taken hostage from a community of 700—my group followed kibbutz member Zohar Shpak past a series of small houses emblazoned with banners: “Netta Epstein was brutally murdered in this house,” “Ziv Berman, kidnapped from this house!” From outside, we observed the broken windows, charred exteriors, and bullet holes, and the piles of scorched and broken furniture that lay in heaps in the open air. Tour participants around me sobbed. The only house we were allowed to enter had belonged to Sivan Elkabetz and Naor Hasidim, a 23-year-old couple slain in their home on the morning of October 7th. Elkabetz’s parents decided to preserve the site for visitors. As I passed through the entrance, I saw that a first responder had written in permanent marker on the exterior wall beside the door, “human remains on the couch.” Inside, the small home was riddled with hundreds of bullet holes. Screenshots of Elkabetz’s last, frantic WhatsApp conversations with her parents had been printed out and tacked to the walls, alongside letters that her mother had written to her after her death.

For participants, scenes like this are understandably devastating. As I read the WhatsApp messages—which end with Elkabetz’s parents texting her name repeatedly to no response—I bit my lip to keep from crying in front of the participants I was hoping to interview afterwards. Many trip participants describe the difficulty of witnessing such traumatic scenes: A Vancouver-based rabbi wrote in a post published by the local federation that he had “tried to keep walking” through a destroyed kibbutz “but simply collapsed and sat down and wept.” Harow, the tour guide, told me about a woman who vomited at the Nova site after seeing a tree covered in scratch marks and surrounded by zip ties, suggesting that a victim had been tied up there. An American rabbi who led a trip for her community told me about hearing story after story of people who were killed, “step by step, where it happened, how it happened, how many hours people were locked in their safe rooms, when people were shot through their window or taken out of their house.” These images gave her nightmares for the next five nights, she said.

A group tours Kibbutz Nir Oz on June 21st, 2024.

AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg

Scholars have explored the ways in which visiting sites of atrocities, however disturbing, can also be “a means to affirm and reproduce particular identities,” in the words of Duncan Light, a professor of tourism studies. Visiting the 9/11 memorial—which drew 37 million people between its opening in 2011 and 2018—can bolster Americans’ sense of patriotism, even in the face of the long and deadly wars that followed; visiting the beaches of Normandy can inspire pride not only in the Allies’s World War II victory, but in the US-led world order it produced. Such pilgrimages to places of death and tragedy are known as “dark tourism.” The post-October 7th trips fuse this phenomenon with another type of sightseeing common in Israel: “diaspora homeland tourism,” which encourages a sense of national belonging among members of a dispersed ethnic group. In an especially prominent example, the free trips offered by Birthright, which have brought close to a million young Jews to Israel since 1999, were created following the collapse of the Oslo negotiations in order to “win the hearts and minds of a young generation of diaspora Jews just as the conflict was entering a period of renewed violence,” according to Shaul Kelner, a scholar of Jewish tourism.

In the case of the current wave of solidarity missions, the closest parallel may be Jewish travel not to Israel but to the death camps of Poland, trips that anthropologist Jackie Feldman terms “pilgrimages of identity.” Tours of Poland for American Jewish youth, many of which are organized by the program The March of the Living, almost always culminate in a flight to Israel, symbolically connecting the tragedy of the Holocaust to the purported need for the safety afforded by a Jewish state. Death camp tours “make the victim so much the object of identification that one comes to see oneself as if one is at the gates of the crematorium, instead of [Israel] being a country with nuclear capacity,” Feldman told me in an interview. “It becomes impossible to identify with anyone other than the victim, and the victim is me, and this is our eternal condition.” This extreme identification forecloses the exploration of other questions, he said, like, “What would I have done if I were on the side of the bystanders, if a Polish Jew escaped the ghetto and then wanted to take shelter in my house? What are the processes that led to bystanders [doing nothing], or to perpetration—and can they recur?”

Tellingly, the echoes of Holocaust tourism were everywhere as I traveled with the current solidarity missions. “Holocaust tours and Holocaust memory have become so much a part of the Israeli and Jewish mentality that those molds are automatically applied to the 7th of October,” Feldman said. Even as Israel faces charges under international law—and from myriad human rights experts—that its assault on Gaza constitutes a genocide, the tours continue to present the narrative that Israelis, and the Jews who visit them, are the genocide victims. Danny Ehrlich, who led a mission trip I observed and also leads tours of Poland through the company Keshet Educational Journeys, told me in an interview, “Standing at Nova, if I just ignore the vegetation, I’m standing in Poland, where Jews were murdered—unarmed, with no power, unable to defend themselves.” The word “Auschwitz” appears again and again in participants’ reflections: “At times it felt as if we were visiting Auschwitz, while Auschwitz was still Auschwitz,” one wrote in a testimony published by the Jewish education and research center Shalom Hartman Institute. A soldier stationed at Kfar Azza said he thought the tours to the kibbutz would continue indefinitely. “It will be like the trips to Poland,” he said. “The cars at Tkuma”—where vehicles burned and destroyed on October 7th have been collected—“are like the shoes in Poland, and Nova is like Auschwitz.” A few trip providers, like Montreal’s Jewish Federation, have even offered add-on trips to Poland in combination with their post-October 7th Israel missions. Scholars whom I spoke to noted that the USC Shoah Foundation, which has created holograms of Holocaust survivors for educational purposes, is currently working on similar holograms of October 7th survivors, while a company that created a virtual reality experience of the Holocaust (“Auschwitz 360”) has now released an October 7th version (“Gaza Envelope 360”).

The trips I joined seemed intended to reassure participants that they could support Israel while retaining the moral clarity of the victim.

Not unlike prior forms of Jewish “dark tourism,” the trips I joined seemed intended to reassure participants that they could support Israel while retaining the moral clarity of the victim. For example, at the end of the Kfar Azza tour, Shpak, the kibbutz member, explained that the community had once been invested in peace and co-existence efforts, “but everything was broken and trampled in our children’s blood.” Shpak told our group that in the past, he had found it painful to witness the suffering of the other side. “I admit and confess that not this time. I have no sympathy for what’s happening on the other side,” he said. Other leaders on the trips I witnessed frequently glorified the war effort. In one case, a group’s Israeli driver boasted about having driven bulldozers bigger than our large bus into buildings in Khan Younis. Various guides echoed well-worn pro-Israel talking points arguing that Palestinians are not a people, or that the Nakba—the mass dispossession of Palestinians in 1948—was not a case of ethnic cleansing. This messaging has clearly affected participants. “There aren’t a lot of ‘innocent’ Gazans,” one member of a rabbinic trip wrote in a blog post. “After hearing the stories from those who were there, I am truly sad to say that this is the reality.” Greg Harris, a rabbi from Bethesda, Maryland, who led a trip for his congregation, told me that while, in the US, “it is perceived that Israel is retaliating against the Palestinian people,” in fact “that is not what is happening”—a truth that participants grasped “just by being there in Israel.”

The trips not only blur past and present Jewish trauma, but encourage visiting Americans to assume an Israeli identity—and the sense of embattlement that comes with it. When one tour group arrived to help pick fruit in a Gaza Envelope orchard, their guide announced that they had come to show the farmer “that we’re your brothers from another mother in America.” A rabbi with another group I observed, after witnessing the devastation at Kfar Azza, told the local resident who had guided us, “Your story has become our story, our memory, and our trauma.” As the Israeli American who staffed multiple trips explained, participants are “having their own moment of disorientation about whether they feel safe in America. And that’s the lens through which they experience Israel: ‘We’re all part of the same struggle.’” A rabbi who went on a Hartman trip in November drove this idea home in a Shabbat morning speech upon his return. “The Jew walking across a college campus to get to class, wondering if it is safe to be conspicuously Jewish in the 21st century in the USA . . . is experiencing a phenomenon that is different from what the victims and the survivors of Oct. 7 confronted only in quantity and scope, not quality and category. They are the same. So we are all in that safe room.”

Many Americans return from these trips ready to spread the word about what they have seen. A few participants told me that they hoped to draw on their experiences in particular, politically contested settings: One woman who worked with unions in the US said she thought the trip would help her more effectively advocate against organized workers supporting a ceasefire. Meanwhile, countless participants have given media interviews and presentations to their local congregations and JCCs, as well as to churches and public schools. For many, such results are proof that continued solidarity tourism is necessary: “We need mega missions,” one participant told me in an interview. Harris, the rabbi from Bethesda, told me that he now hoped to have his synagogue organize trips to Israel every two or three months, a rate that would have been unimaginable before October 7th.

Yet while Americans are clamoring to join such trips, Israeli survivors are exhibiting more ambivalence about their frequency and invasiveness. When I was there in February, Kfar Azza was often receiving between 30 and 40 groups a day, and in January, Gili Molcho, a spokesperson for Kibbutz Beeri—a town formerly of some 1,000 residents where nearly 100 civilians were killed and about 30 were taken hostage—estimated that the community was receiving between 500 and 1,000 visitors daily. “The feeling is of losing control,” he explained to Ynet at the time. In another interview at the time, he told Haaretz: “On the one hand, it’s unpleasant to refuse, and on the other hand, people say they’re starting to feel like they’re in a zoo.” Kibbutz residents have described having strangers burst into their homes to photograph them or push past them to climb the stairs; others have spoken of opening their own front doors to find people taking selfies in the living room. Haaretz has reported that some tourists have taken items from people’s homes as “souvenirs.” In the past several months, Beeri and a few other kibbutzim in the area have largely stopped allowing tours. Multiple guides told me in interviews that it was becoming harder to find kibbutzim open to groups or survivors willing to speak. “There’s a tension between people who are trying to return to their homes and rebuild their lives, versus all of these groups who keep walking around the kibbutz and reminding them that they live in a massacre site,” the Israeli American trip staffer said.

Tour groups visit Kibbutz Beeri in January 2024. Credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty

Still, many kibbutzim recognize both the political utility and the fundraising potential that comes with welcoming tourists. The solidarity missions bring in money to communities facing huge costs to rebuild. (I asked multiple kibbutz residents and several Israeli tourism experts just how much money the trips are generating, but they said the donations were too decentralized for anyone to have a reliable estimate.) When I visited Kibbutz Nirim with a Los Angeles-based group, I learned from the guide that the town had largely stopped allowing visitors, but that the Los Angeles Federation had made a gift of $500,000. “So they’re going to be nice to us,” she told me with a smile. The role of donations in gaining access to kibbutzim is one of the reasons that far fewer Israelis than American Jews have toured them. “Israelis can’t afford it,” the guide told me. “They’re not big donors like that.” In general, kibbutzim that still provide tours hope that American participants will fundraise for them upon returning home, Ariela Lacovsky, who works for a civil society consulting company that is assisting the kibbutzim in rebuilding, told me. Beyond the financial benefits, some kibbutz residents are committed to the tours for political reasons. Adele Raemer, a resident of Nirim who has grappled with whether to continue giving tours, decided to do so after watching the International Court of Justice proceedings in which South Africa accused Israel of genocide. It was then, she wrote, that she “realized why it is so important for people to see for themselves exactly what the Palestinian leaders strive to do to all of Israel.”

If the trips do continue, they could reshape Israel’s tourism economy for the long term. In a lecture at a tourism convention in January, Shahar Shilo, the head of tourism studies at Ashkelon Academic College and a member of the government body responsible for the rehabilitation of the Gaza Envelope, touted the potential of dark tourism for Israel, citing the economic impact of visitors in Normandy, Auschwitz, and Hiroshima, as well as of genocide museums in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Armenia. Shilo estimated that between 1.25 and 2.4 million visitors annually would visit the area in the coming years—numbers that far exceed anything the region has experienced before. “The events of the October 7th tragedy have the potential to put the Western Negev on the national tourist map,” he said. “There is now the possibility of taking the tragedy and crisis that happened and creating an opportunity for tourism in an area that never would have gotten this kind of attention.”

On the tours I shadowed, I heard guides point out Gaza from time to time. “That’s Gaza on your left. With the sun it looks kind of nice,” one remarked; “Where there’s smoke coming up, that’s Gaza,” another said in passing, pointing to the huge plumes rising from the border. But for the most part, they ignored the enclave, even when the bombs falling there were clearly audible. Because there are still buildings standing in Gaza, the skyline, from a distance of a few kilometers, looks undamaged. The area near the border thus offers a strange vantage point—closer than most people come, but not close enough to see the devastation that’s easily visible through news and social media. It gives a false impression of understanding: The Israeli American trip staffer told me about listening to bombs exploding in Jabaliya, which is visible from Kfar Azza, and hearing one participant exclaim, “Oh, it looks fine. Everything looks intact there.”

Just two words into the kaddish that one tourist recited for the festival victims—yitgadal veyitkadash—an explosion sounded so closely and powerfully that I felt the vibrations in my spine.

This willed incomprehension seemed especially surreal on the day I visited the Nova site, which coincided with what I later learned was a major attack on the Palestinian city of Khan Younis, only ten miles away. As I walked through the festival grounds, the earth was literally shaking beneath me. The artillery fire and explosions from Gaza were the loudest thing I’d ever heard in my life, and everyone, myself included, instinctively jumped at each blast. Just two words into the kaddish that one tourist recited for the festival victims—yitgadal veyitkadash—an explosion sounded so closely and powerfully that I felt the vibrations in my spine. And yet, aside from their reflexive flinching, the tour guides did their best to ignore the din.

When trip leaders did acknowledge the sight of Gaza on the horizon, it was usually to emphasize how close danger lies to the Gaza Envelope communities. Standing at a lookout point over the enclave, Ehrlich, the tour guide, gestured back at the Israeli city of Sderot behind us, saying, “See the beautiful houses being built despite years of attacks?” And when trip leaders made note of the sounds of death all around us, it was only to assure us that we were safe. “Don’t worry too much about the booms. They’re our booms. They’re not coming in on this end,” one group I followed was told. And, later: “You’re going to hear a lot of booms. There’s currently something going on in Khan Younis, literally across the border here. It might shake you up a little bit, but don’t worry, it’s us, not them.” These booms might be what Jackie Feldman, in his work on memorial sites, calls “the ghost in the machine”; they are the “not-quite-erased voices that may surface in spite of the state’s best efforts at control.” Yet few on the trips seem ready to listen. At one point, as my group helped to harvest a farmer’s crops, I heard a participant murmur, “It’s just like thunder.” He couldn’t stop himself from looking up as the explosions sounded, but he repeated, as if to reassure himself, “It’s just thunder off in the distance.”

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.