Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism

Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism

Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism

Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage, and Israeli Birthright Tourism

Synopsis

Since 1999 hundreds of thousands of young American Jews have visited Israel on an all-expense-paid 10-day pilgrimage-tour known as Birthright Israel. The most elaborate of the state-supported homeland tours that are cropping up all over the world, this tour seeks to foster in the American Jewish diaspora a lifelong sense of attachment to Israel based on ethnic and political solidarity. Over a half-billion dollars (and counting) has been spent cultivating this attachment, and despite 9/11 and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict the tours are still going strong.

Based on over seven years of first-hand observation in modern day Israel, Shaul Kelner provides an on-the-ground look at this hotly debated and widely emulated use of tourism to forge transnational ties. We ride the bus, attend speeches with the Prime Minister, hang out in the hotel bar, and get a fresh feel for young American Jewish identity and contemporary Israel. We see how tourism's dynamism coupled with the vibrant human agency of the individual tourists inevitably complicate tour leaders' efforts to rein tourism in and bring it under control. By looking at the broader meaning of tourism, Kelner brings to light the contradictions inherent in the tours and the ways that people understandtheir relationship to place both materially and symbolically. Rich in detail, engagingly written, and sensitive to the complexities of modern travel and modern diaspora Jewishness, Tours that Bind offers a new way of thinking about tourism as a way through which people develop understandings of place, society, and self.

Excerpt

There was a time when researchers would have to defend the decision to take tourism seriously. Most of their audience, after all, had probably played tourist at some point and knew firsthand that this was a temporary escape from the matters of consequence that weighed on them in their daily lives. Fellow researchers could hardly have been expected to see things differently. For them, tourism was primarily a diversion to be enjoyed between semesters. Some hours baking in the sun, the company of family or friends, a little sightseeing. Maybe they would learn a thing or two about the local culture, but only—dare I say it—as dilettantes. Real scholarship, the knowledge that counted, would be produced in the stacks, or in the lab, or in the field, or at the desk. That was work. Tourism was just R&R.

Intellectual currents shaped tourism’s reception, too. A modernist, prefeminist research agenda that enshrined labor and production could not help but marginalize the study of a consumption-based, symbol-driven, leisure activity. By the 1970s, however, tourism studies found more fertile soil in academia, as broader intellectual movements began staking claims for the centrality of symbolic consumption to self and society in market economies. At the same time that semioticians, postmodernists, and others were giving tourism a newfound respectability, those whose interest remained on the production side of the equation began to notice that tourism was becoming one of the major growth industries of the late 20th century. Now with international receipts representing more than one-fourth of global service exports and totaling over $850 billion annually, with an increasing number of developing countries staking their economic futures on the industry, with more and more cityscapes being transformed in the name of tourism development, and with today’s tourists constituting the largest international population flow in human history (903 million arrivals in 2007 alone), tourism has become a favored object of study across disciplines from the social sciences to cultural studies to business management and more.

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