The Place of Palestinians in Tourist and Zionist Discourses in the “City of David”, Occupied East Jerusalem

David Landy. Critical Discourse Studies. Volume 14, Issue 3. June 2017.


The ‘City of David’ in occupied East Jerusalem is a unique site. The original location of the city of Jerusalem, it is situated in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Wadi Hilweh, in Silwan, just south of the walls of the Old City. It is at the same time an illegal settlement, an Israeli national park, an archaeological dig and a popular tourist destination. While each of these practices offers different vantage points to understand the site, this article understands it primarily as a colonial space—an area in which Israeli settlers are engaging in a drawn-out process to remove the indigenous Palestinian population and replace them with Jews. There is nothing unique about this practice—there are many such sites of Israeli colonisation across the West Bank. What is unique, and what this article examines, is how tourism has been used to legitimise and bolster this process of colonisation.

Selimovic and Strömbom have studied the narratives of the various sides involved in the dispute—settlers, Palestinians and left-wing Israelis. This article also investigates tourist narratives, seeing the City of David as both a Zionist and a tourist space. It explores the relationship between tourist and Zionist discourses, arguing that there is congruence between them, and that the effect of the congruence is to negate the existence of the native Palestinian population and to further the understanding of Jerusalem as a safe Jewish transnational space reclaimed from Palestinians, who, while largely unnamed in tourist and Zionist discourses, serve as their ‘constitutive outside’ (Hall). The article opens by discussing Zionist and tourist discourses and how they interrelate in Israel and in the City of David. I next examine the site’s spatial organisation, and tourist practices and narratives, with particular interest in how Palestinians are portrayed by tourists. The paper is based on ethnographic field work in the City of David and subsequent documentary analysis.

Discourse here is understood as a practice of social meaning-making—’the production of knowledge through language and representations and the way that knowledge is institutionalized, shaping social practices and setting new practices into play’ (du Gay, p. 43). Discourse is inherently dialogic, a process of contention or negotiation between the various actors that make up a discursive field, actors who are themselves embedded in multiple discourses (Ainsworth & Hardy). As mentioned, Zionism and tourism are the prime overlapping discourses through which the city of David is narrated, their transnationalism being a fundamental part of their ability to establish discursive mastery over the site. Below I investigate these discourses, and how the City of David offers a case study in how they are imbricated in each other.

Zionist and Tourist Discourses in Israel

Zionism is both a nationalist and transnationalist ideology. Transnationalism involves social formations that span borders and transform existing spaces because of their back-and-forth nature. This process also involves the formation of multiple identities among transnational subjects (Portes, Guarnizo, & Landolt). As such, transnationalism offers a site for political engagement, as diasporic subjects from multiple countries increasingly become involved in the politics of their imagined home country. While Vertovec has argued that this leads to the deterritorialisation of the nation, in the case of Israel—a site of transnational political involvement among diaspora Jews from its inception—this has not been the case; instead, there has been a reterritorialisation of diasporic Jewish identities to Israel. Zionism, despite its transnational nature, remains a nationalist discourse concerned with questions of ethnic belonging to a nation state, with the preservation (and expansion) of the borders of that state, and with providing a sense of ethnic continuity based on the state’s territory. Thus, Zionism can be understood firstly as a transnational nationalism, a sense of ethnic connection among some—though not all—diaspora Jews and Israelis, which is territorialised in Israel. Zionism can also be understood as a settler-colonial ideology, one originally deployed by European settlers to justify Jewish sovereignty over Palestine, and which continues to be used to legitimise Israeli sovereignty and further Israeli expansion in the occupied Palestinian territories (Piterberg). While Zionism means different things to different people, at its core is this transnational settler-colonial nationalism—the belief that Israel/Palestine is the home, not simply of Israelis, but of the Jewish people. A key element of this settler-colonial nationalism is a denial of the existence and the legitimacy of the indigenous Palestinian presence (Benvenisti).

Turning to the role of tourism within Zionism, in the past, Zionism demanded that diaspora Jews emigrate to Israel. However, this one-way relationship is being replaced by the more fluid practice of tourism and visiting, serving to reconstruct Jewish identity around a multi-local or transnational diaspora culture, albeit one still territorialised in Israel (Mittelberg). Through such practices as ‘Birthright Israel’ tours—free trips to Israel offered to younger diaspora Jews—diaspora Jewish and Israeli institutions have sought to strengthen the transnational Jewish attachment to Israel as well as the Jewish identity of diaspora Jews (Saxe et al).

The use of tourism to bolster Zionist identification is not left to chance by Israeli tourist authorities. The insertion of Zionist narratives in the tourist industry is ensured by the fact that in Israel, every tour group, by law, needs to be accompanied by a state-licensed guide. In order to be licensed, guides take a two-year course in which there is, presumably, ideological filtering. Alternative tourism, critical of Israel and Zionism, does exist. However, it is very small, numbering at most a couple of tens of thousands of tourists out of a total of 3.5 million who visited Israel in 2013. Thus, in examining tourism in the City of David, I focus on the mainstream tourist experience, while noting that there are occasional tours run by groups critical of the site, such as the archaeological group, Emek Shaveh. In line with Zionism’s effacement of Palestinians, mainstream tour operators in Israel also either ignore the Palestinian presence or treat them as a danger, with tourists warned off interacting with Palestinians (Bowman; Shabi). This is not just done for ideological reasons; pandering to Western stereotypes of the threatening Arab also builds affinity between tour guide and tourist and promotes the idea of Israel as a safe tourist space—a central aim of the Israeli tourist industry (Milstein).

However, there is a deeper congruence between tourism and Zionism. Tourism has been theorised as a means for modern-day subjects to find a sense of authenticity by locating it in pre-modern destination cultures (McCannell; Taylor). Tourism then creates a divide between the modern non-local or translocal tourist and the pre-modern hosts. The authenticity sought for has been criticised as no more than ‘a projection of tourists’ own beliefs, expectations, preferences, stereotyped images, and consciousness onto toured objects, particularly onto toured Others’ (Wang, p. 355). Wang further divides this search for authenticity into object-related authenticity (what is seen is authentic) and existential or bodily authenticity (the desire to have meaningful experiences). While this characterisation does not apply to all tourist experiences, it does describe the nature of much tourism in Jerusalem. The search for authenticity is especially important for Jewish tourists who wish to experience the real home of the Jewish people and connect with that mythologised Israel. In the process, as Shaul Kelner writes about Birthright Israel participants, ‘The other, non-mythic Israel was of little more than passing interest to participants’ (p. 4). There is then a perhaps non-intentional convergence between tourist narratives and nationalism—one which is not exclusive to Israel since the tendency of tourism to present simplified stories of the destination culture, seen as a site of primordial authenticity, is in broad accordance with nationalist ideologies. This process occurs elsewhere in the world, particularly in areas designated as heritage sites (Pretes).

The tourist search for authenticity is governed by what Urry has called the ‘tourist gaze’, drawing from an understanding of the gaze as a means of establishing discursive mastery over others. The tourist gaze is constructed through the collecting of signs which are meant to signify the broader destination culture. Within this discourse, toured objects are not merely represented as being aspects of the destination, but as being a microcosm of the destination. This means of deciphering the universal from the particular is, not coincidentally, the methodology that Said criticised Orientalists for using (p. 96). This similarity between the tourist and the colonial gaze is the second point of congruence between Zionism and tourism. As with tourism, the colonial gaze seeks to control the land through a panoramic overview that establishes its power through naming and cognitive mastery. As Eeden remarks, ‘The desire of the colonial gaze was to create self-referential, enclosed spaces of power wherein the confident assurance of entitled leisure could be played out’ (p. 26). Similarly, one way in which tourists understand themselves as modern transnational subjects is through contradistinction with the ‘local’ and ‘authentic’ destination culture; a level of discursive mastery over this destination country is achieved through the mobile panoramic gaze of the tourists. The transnationalism of tourist discourse is not only achieved by contrast to locals in the destination culture, but is also strengthened through interaction with other tourists around the globe, connections which are increasingly mediated through online sites such as TripAdvisor.

While there is congruence between these forms of power/knowledge, the question remains as to how they work together in practice. To examine this, we turn to the emplaced nature of Zionist and tourist discourses in the City of David, looking at Zionism first and the broader import of the City of David within Israel’s colonisation of the West Bank. Israel took over East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, in 1967. Since then, it has sought to make Jerusalem an undivided Jewish city by encouraging Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem and driving out Palestinian residents, either by directly expelling them from their homes or by making life so difficult for them that they will leave (Shalhoub-Kevorkian). Part of this Judaisation project has been the construction of national parks around the Old City in order to evict Palestinians and create areas in which Jewish Israelis feel safe (Mizrachi). The City of David in Silwan is considered a key element of this strategy.

In its colonisation, the Israeli government has regularly relied on ideologically driven religious-nationalist settlers to break ground (Gordon). Jerusalem is no exception, with the colonisation in Silwan being organised by the settler group, the Ir David Foundation, commonly known by their Hebrew acronym of Elad. Elad was established in 1986 in order to colonise Silwan, a densely populated Palestinian suburb of East Jerusalem. Silwan consists of the two slopes of the Kidron valley; Elad has concentrated on colonising one slope, the Wadi Hilweh neighbourhood, in which is the original site of Jerusalem. In the 1990s, they began to realise the value of archaeology and tourism for its activities, and in 2005 became the sole agent authorised to operate the National Park in the area and are the body sponsoring archaeological excavations there (Greenberg). Their trajectory from ‘extremist’ settlers to the Israeli mainstream, albeit on the right of that mainstream, is not unusual and is indicative of a broader rightward shift in Israeli politics over the past few decades. As such, despite some conflict with the government, this group can now be seen as governmental subcontractors and have become the ‘de facto planning authority for the Wadi Hilweh neighbourhood of Silwan’ to the immense detriment of the non-Jewish residents who they are seeking to drive from their homes (Greenberg, p. 275). Elad’s activities have been heavily funded and supported by diaspora Zionists, with the US-based ‘Friends of Ir David Foundation’ receiving some six million dollars a year (Propublica). This offers a concrete example of the transnational nature of colonisation projects in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Archaeology has been chosen to drive the colonisation of Silwan partly because of its use as a vehicle of national myth-making (Kohl & Fawcett). This is especially the case in Israel, where Jewish immigrants used archaeology as a means of asserting an ancient Jewish presence and establishing shrines of national pilgrimage (Zerubavel). In the early years of the state, archaeology was of prime importance in creating a national mythology, and in Jerusalem especially, it is still being used to further an exclusionary narrative of a Jewish state for a Jewish people, as well as a means to drive non-Jews out of their homes (Greenberg). All nationalisms ‘imagine’ an ethnic community which predates the founding of the state (Anderson). In the Zionist imaginary, this community was first territorialised in Israel/Palestine in biblical times. Hence, the specific importance of sites like the City of David—they not only provide justification to the present-day colonisation of the area, such sites also provide legitimacy to the originary myths of a Jewish people, a means whereby Jews can imagine an ethnic link to each other. Thus, the power of these sites lies in the fact that they provide both a sense of nationalist and transnational belonging, illustrating the paradoxical nature of Zionism as a transnational nationalism.

This archaeological background explains why the City of David has become an important heritage site in Jerusalem. Yet, tourist authorities do not have complete control over the interpretative process in these sites. In heritage sites, there is (usually friendly) struggle for interpretative control between tourists and those structuring the tourist experience—with tourist boards, tour guides, other tourists and locals having agency in this process. Thus, I examine firstly how the site is narrated by Elad, and then how it is viewed by tourists. In order to examine these discourses and the place of Palestinians in them, I visited the site in March 2014, at the end of the Christian festival of Easter and the beginning of the Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover). I went on two official tours of the City of David, which I recorded, as well as one alternative tour run by the left-wing group, Emek Shaveh which I also recorded. I conducted interviews with tour guides and 10 tourists from abroad and took field notes of tourist encounters with the site. In approaching the site, I was informed by my positioning as a diaspora Jew critical of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians—this enabled an understanding of the ideological draw of the City of David for diaspora Jews and the wellsprings of Jewish identity it draws upon, while also ensuring a sensitivity as to the effect of this ideology on Palestinians in the area.

While Elad might be the hegemonic voice in the City of David (Noy), it is not the only one. In examining tourist voices, the interviews I conducted with tourists at the site were helpful in framing my understanding of their opinions. However, for a more comprehensive overview, I examined comments left on the online site TripAdvisor—the most popular of the online ratings sites—for the two-year period, May 2013-June 2015. This site enables tourists to write comments on places they have visited and to rate them on a scale from 1 star to 5 stars. The City of David was split into two main separate attractions on TripAdvisor—’The City of David Visitor’s Centre’ and ‘Hezekiah’s tunnels’. For the two-year period, 1 June 2013 to 31 May 2015, there were 135 comments in English on ‘The City of David Visitor’s Centre’ and 253 comments on ‘Hezekiah’s tunnels’—388 comments in total, although some people wrote about both attractions.

While not offering a complete cross-section of all tourists who visited the City of David, the sample does offer a comprehensive overview of the opinions of a large number of English-speaking tourists. In line with other research on TripAdvisor, the vast majority of comments were written by genuine tourists (O’Connor). On TripAdvisor, one can also see the other comments made by the commentator, and almost all had also written about other sites in Jerusalem, and indeed globally. For the average commentator then, the City of David was but one of the attractions they wrote about, in one of the cities they had visited. Their persona was of someone writing helpful postcards to the transnational community of fellow tourists, a community being created through sites such as TripAdvisor. These comments are then part of a transnational exchange of information between tourists about destination countries, rather than being rooted in the specific ideological discourse of Zionism. These comments can best be regarded as modern-day postcards written by tourists for tourists, snapshots of half remembered holidays. As such, they are an ideal form to capture the vague, disjointed relationship that tourists have with the destination culture.

Overall, I sought to discover how Elad narrates the site to tourists and how tourists in turn narrated their experience. I was interested in how tourist understandings of the City of David accorded with and diverged from the Zionist discourse of Elad. In order to examine this, I used narrative analysis, owing to narrative’s role as a social practice through which people negotiate their relations with each other, the space they are in and crucially a practice through which they claim and maintain their various identities (Riessman). I was mainly interested in the content of the stories told by tour guides and tourists—thus my main orientation was thematic narrative analysis. However, I was also alive to the stories’ structure and sequence, function and context as well as the social interactions enacted in the narratives of tourguides at the site, and tourists discussing the site (Riessman). The main themes that emerged from the tourguides’ narratives were those of archaeology and the bible—themes which were told in two registers which I term ‘biblical archaeology’ and ‘bible stories’. In coding tourist comments, I identified differences and similarities between the Visitor Centre and Hezekiah Tunnels comments and then constructed broader descriptive themes out of the initial process coding. In constructing these themes, I focused firstly on how tourists described the City of David, and then their experience of the place—the main themes that emerged were those of history and education when discussing the Visitor Centre and adventure and fun when discussing Hezekiah’s tunnels—themes which correspond to Wang’s division between object-related and existential authenticity. In addition, I examined how tourists related to Palestinians within the City of David and Silwan.

Narrating the City of David

Before looking at these discourses, it is necessary to describe the site and the route that tours take. The City of David is a significant archaeological area—it was the original site of the Canaanite village of Jerusalem about 1800 BCE. Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE—although was already declining by then, and re-established in its present-day location—the Old City. One enters the site via the City of David visitor’s centre—replete with shrubberies, piped harp music and picnic benches. Above the entrance area, there is a visitor’s area, 3D film and ‘lookout point’—military terminology which is used throughout the site. Below the entrance are the two open-air archaeological sites—the ‘large stone structure’ and the ‘Kings palace’. Adjacent to the ‘King’s palace’—there is another lookout point which one needs to pass in order to go down to the tunnels below. Moving further downhill are the tunnels, which are most memorable experiences for many tourists. This is the ancient underground water system, including a still functioning underground aqueduct—named Hezekiah’s Tunnel after King Hezekiah—this leads from the Gihon spring to the Shiloah/Siloam pool at the bottom of the hill.

Tours move from the entrance area to the 3D film, which gives an introduction to the City of David. Then they move to the archaeological area, and then down to the tunnels. At the entrance to the tunnels, there is another film simulating what Elad believes the area to have looked like in biblical times. Then tourists can go either into the ‘dry tunnel’ or the ‘wet tunnel’—the latter is the more popular and involves walking in knee high water in darkness for about 20 minutes before coming out into the pool area. Here, the tour ends and tourists can either walk back up the hill or get a taxi. The site claims to have 500,000 visitors in 2014, although many were Israeli schoolgroups and soldiers. Foreign tourists appeared to be preponderantly Jewish, with few other tourists—even over the Easter period. Religious Jews featured strongly—for instance, on one of the tours I took, I was the only adult male without his head covered.

The archaeological attractions are visually unimpressive—essentially, ruins—and therefore the aim of the tours is to allow tourists to see what is not there, the mythically monumental City of David. Or rather, they have two aims—firstly, object-related authenticity—to describe this confusing archaeology dig as the genuine City of David. Secondly, existential authenticity—to allow tourists to have a meaningful bodily experience of the genuine city of David. The first is done in the upper area by discussing the archaeology; the second is achieved by allowing tourists to walk through Hezekiah’s tunnel.

As Noy remarks, this site is cut off from the surrounding area through landscaping which only allows tourists glimpses of Silwan on the far slope, rather than that part of Silwan which is within the national park. It is also cut off through alternative walkways—the first one is the tunnels—where tourists can avoid the presence of Palestinians by walking beneath them. While tunnels are being excavated to allow tourists to return to the Old City without encountering Palestinians, during my visit, tourists had to return above ground, and the main road—Wadi Hilweh street, is Palestinian. In response, Elad have created an alternative walkway up the hill that passes by meticulously kept settler Jewish houses.

However the main way that the presence of Palestinians was effaced was through the various narratives told, which I next examine—firstly how the City of David is narrated by tour guides and tourists and then the role of Palestinians in this narrative. Broadly speaking, the place is described through a mixture of biblical archaeology and bible stories in order to allow tourists to connect to a Jewish past and present. The 3-D film which all tour groups watch at the beginning of tours provides a master narrative in the site and introduces many of the tropes developed by the tourguides. The film opens with someone playing the part of an older Israeli archaeologist. He asks the audience

Do you want to see where it all began? Excellent. For in a brief moment we’ll go on a fascinating journey. In the City of David every stone has a story to tell … and I’ve been searching these stones all my life with the help of a shovel and with the help of the bible. The two of them together sometimes manage to take me back 3000 years to the day when the soldiers of King David first lay their eyes on the Jebusite city of Jerusalem. (italics added)

This establishes the site’s guiding themes of archaeology and the bible. Throughout the film, biblical history is taken as fact, with the narrator’s words being interspersed with another voice intoning readings from the bible. For instance, in discussing the underground aqueduct, the film describes it as being built by King Hezekiah in preparation for a siege by the Assyrians, since this was the bible story. The tours of the site kept to the same narrative; taking place in some cases literally with a bible in one hand, and if the shovel was not in the other—the presence of the shovel—archaeological enquiry was used as an important legitimiser for the existence and the expansion of the site. In terms of relationships established by this narrative, the identification of tourists with ‘the soldiers of King David’ is key, and also features later in the film where the viewers are invited to take the point of view of these soldiers, thereby establishing a sense of connection between tourists and the biblical Jewish past.

Throughout the tours, the ancient City of David was projected onto the ruins. This is not merely a metaphor—at the entrance to Hezekiah’s tunnel, a literal projection was used to show the imagined ancient citadel. Narratively, there were two ways in which this projection took place. The first was by reference to archaeology—the actual archaeology of the site, the melange of buildings from different eras, was used to provide a simple narrative, unconnected to the archaeological complexity of the area. The aim throughout was to prove a direct equivalence between these ruins and stories in the bible. For instance, tours produced a photo of a clay seal uncovered at the site, with the name Gemaryahu ben Shafan on it, a name also mentioned in the bible, in order to justify the use of the bible as a reference book. Such stories accord with the need for tourists to hear a simplified story and for guides to shade over any troubling anomalies between archaeological evidence and biblical interpretation. In this biblical archaeological register, tourguides took a detached scientific tone. This is not unimportant as a means of legitimising the site in the eyes of tourists. The one person I interviewed who was sceptical about Elad added that he could still see the legitimacy of the site because,

I really wanted to know the history. I really understand the impulse, the desire to keep exploring, because that’s what we do, we’re people right. You want to explore, you want to know what’s happening. And I’m not as sympathetic from a perspective of ‘let’s keep this stuff covered up.

This demonstrates the importance of the archaeological theme in legitimating the site—the desire for knowledge is seen as being shared by Elad and the narrator, enabling even a critic to ‘understand the impulse’ of Elad and feel a sense of connection grounded in archaeological curiosity.

The second register of these narratives was less detached and scientific—it was what I term ‘bible stories’, because their style is similar to the type of stories told to Jewish children. An example—an extract from a tourguide retelling the popular David and Bathsheba tale—is below.

Ok does anyone remember the story about King David and the palace—anybody? Something happened on the roof definitely—the word roof is coming into your mind. Right, he saw something on the roof—anybody remember what? He saw Bathsheba, right.

When you come here it makes sense. When I was taught the story, I thought, ‘What! How come he saw anyone on the roof’, right. Was he climbing roofs at night? How did it go? And when you are here with the scenery—like Silwan to this day—you can see the top of other people’s roofs.

And so we have the story of Bathsheba. He marries Bathsheba, but it’s not fair what he did, because she was married to Uriah, right. So what does God do about King David. You remember maybe?

While there are the same themes of the bible and archaeology as above, the demotic informal style creates a strong sense of connection between tourists, the site and their own Jewishness. Through nostalgically invoking stories that Jewish tourists would have heard when young (as well as through the implicit assumption that the listeners have this background), these stories connect tourists with their own sense of Jewishness. They also connect this Jewishness with the site. The emplacement of such stories is constantly reiterated—the fact that they took place in the City of David. Thus, they give an individual meaningfulness to the site for people. In the sequencing of the story, the way it moves from a general bible story to an emplaced narrative and back again to a morality tale, indicates how these stories narrate the site as being moral, concerned with such things as social justice between the rich and poor. Another example of this narration of the site as a moral space was how a non-Elad guide I observed claimed that King David was the only person to have conquered Jerusalem without any deaths. This also indicates that other guides did not tell less of a religious-nationalistic narrative than Elad guides. Far from it, since they did not spend so long at the site, their explanations were simplified versions of the ones told by Elad guides—if anything, more reductively nationalist.

So far, I have spoken of how tourguides narrated the site. The question is how far tourists accepted this religious-nationalist narrative. In tourism, there is always an element of contestation between the narrative given by tour operators and the one potentially internalised by tourists. Nevertheless, both interviewees and TripAdvisor comments were positive about the site, with the vast majority of TripAdvisor comments being five and four starred (243 of the 253 comments on Hezekiah’s Tunnels and 125 of 135 comments on the Visitor’s Centre). Turning first to Hezekiah’s Tunnels, the main themes of these comments focused on bodily experience—adventure, bravery/danger and fun. Most commentators saw their role as explaining to other tourists how to endure the tunnels, giving prosaic narratives of the difficulties on going through the dark, wet, enclosed space and useful advice on how to overcome them (bring a flashlight, water shoes etc.). Those going through the dry tunnel wrote justifications of why they chose the easier option, adding to the feeling that the wet tunnel was an important adventure. The feeling of courage and accomplishment is mentioned by several comments—that it was an ‘epic underground adventure’ (Stuart T. Reviewed 13 April 2015). A typical comment reads as follows.

Skip this if you are claustrophobic, but otherwise, it’s totally worth it. I walked barefoot and survived, but my feet were a bit tender. Kinda felt like something out of an Indiana Jones movie!! (Brandon B. Reviewed 16 May 2015)

The underlying narrative here was that on going through the wet tunnel, one has achieved something memorable. The use of ‘survived’ and ‘Indiana Jones movie’ presents the experience as mildly dangerous, and also indicates the success of the site’s archaeological narrative in structuring the tourists’ self-understanding. In addition, we can see how a transnational tourist community is created through such advice, the relationship being that of the initiated explaining the local mysteries to the as-yet uninitiated. The tunnels are sometimes called a ‘fun adventure’, (Nedra B. Reviewed 14 October 2013) and distinguished from more mundane tourist activities such as visiting museums. Although the historical nature of the tunnels is mentioned by many of the comments, they rarely go beyond this since their role is to allude to their physical experience of history, rather than to discuss this history.

While the comments for the tunnels concentrate on bodily experience, those on the City of David Visitor’s Centre talk more of the actual site, with bodily experience—mainly discussed in terms of heat and discomfort of walking up hills—being a secondary affair. The main themes in these comments were those of education, authenticity and history/archaeology. Overall, this was seen as a learning experience, with the fun of splashing through Hezekiah’s tunnel given as a reward for the learning. The biblical archaeological claims of the City of David are taken at face value by almost all comments. This can be seen in how the 3D film at the beginning was discussed. While I saw it as schmaltzy and propagandistic, and the occasional comment mentioned that it was ‘slightly cheesy’ (FunkyMan3333. Reviewed 21 June 2014), almost all references to it are positive, claiming that this is part of a learning experience and that it ‘truly brings the city of David to life’ (Jonathan B. Reviewed 6 August 2013). Another highlight is the guides, mentioned by many as informative, friendly and enthusiastic. Indeed, the one, two and three starred comments are mainly written by those who did not take the tours and thus were confronted by ruins that they could not make sense of. Thus, the fact that the site presents a straightforward narrative is considered to be a positive aspect.

Both the authenticity and the newness of the place are referred to many times—the fact that it is a live archaeological site and tourists can experience that authentic past more immediately and perhaps have an experience different to other tourists. There are constant references to how one can experience history or, as one comment had it, the City of David is ‘a place where you can touch history’ (Massoud010. Reviewed 9 April 2014). This, as stated above, offers an important legitimator to the presence of this illegal settlement.

A key question is whether the religious Zionist content of this narrative was internalised by tourists. While difficult to substantiate, in some cases, it appears to have been. Many comments refer to the archaeological excavations as revealing the truth of the bible. As one comment says, indicating the internalisation of the site’s biblical archaeology narrative, ‘The bible comes to life as you walk through the ancient city of King David!’ (Renaelee. Reviewed 17 June 2014). The religious narrative did not come simply from the guides but also the tourists—for instance, on one day, I observed a group of tourists animatedly quoting the bible at each other.

It would be wrong, however, to characterise most tourists as religiously motivated or agreeing with Elad’s ideology—from the TripAdvisor comments, most appeared unaware of it and saw the site as merely another fascinating historical area of Jerusalem. More importantly than agreement with Elad, what tourists wished for were meaningful experiences—object-related authenticity that they could internalise, the sense of having experienced history. This comes out especially in the very few low starred comments—only one of these comments mentioned political disagreements with Elad, the others rated the site poorly simply because the experience was seen as meaningless and the individuals could not get involved in the site. Thus, while some seem to have internalised and approved of the political message, for many, the actual content of the history, which varies wildly from comment to comment—from having walked the path that Jesus took to that which Abraham took—is less important than that feeling of bodily connection with the Jewish past which the admixture of biblical archaeology and bible stories gave the tourists.

Do Not Mention the Arabs—Erasure and War Stories

So where in these meaningful experiences are present-day Palestinians? Chaim Noy speaks of a process of erasure of Palestinian names and presence enacted by the City of David. However, I would argue that there is not simply erasure, but also a narration of Palestinians as a vaguely threatening presence by both tourists and tourguides. Themes that emerged were Palestinians as separate in time and space, Palestinians as temporary presences and Palestinians as a threat. This enabled Palestinians to be integrated into the narrative of a Jewish Jerusalem by legitimising the Citadel on a Hill narrative of the site, and its safe Jewish nature.

The denial of Palestinian presence occurred through spatial and linguistic separation. I have spoken about how the Palestinian presence in the area was elided through the spatial organisation of the site and the construction of alternative walkways to avoid their presence. There was linguistic elision as well, through guides referring to the village of Silwan as ‘over there’ on the other side of the valley, which made the site by contrast, non-Silwan. Tourists went along with this spatial segregation, and also with the elision of Palestinians who are almost never referred to in the TripAdvisor comments. When mentioned, they are seen as a dangerous, intrusive presence—part of a disorganised and threatening third world city separate from the City of David. For instance,

the exit form [sic] the City of David from the pool of Siloham is on a dirty, steep mountain street with no sidewalk in the West (muslim) part of the city. So a walk back to the Old city wall is terrible and dangerous. (Kira_Kyiv. Reviewed 7 November 2013)

Here, Palestinians are only talked of indirectly as a vague ‘dangerous’ ‘Muslim’ presence—an othering of locals which also serves to create a sense of connection between tourists. In truth, Wadi Hilweh Street, which is being described, does have rubble and rubbish strewn around since the Jerusalem municipality denies basic services to Palestinian areas. Small wonder that there was tourist unease with the Palestinian area and a desire to ignore it, an unease I also observed among tourists emerging from the Shiloah/Siloam pool.

There was also a narration of temporal separation. In the earlier tourguide’s story of David and Bathsheba, the flat roofs of Silwan were made part of this story, narrating the Arab village as belonging to an earlier time. Similarly, another guide, when talking of building practices in the ancient city of Jerusalem mentioned that while ‘we’ have moved on since these times, in many Arab villages, one can still find these building practices. Here, the classic Zionist narrative of Arabs as being backwards dovetails with a tourist understanding of the destination culture as being authentic by being separated in time from the present day (Taylor).

There was also the narration of Palestinians as a temporary presence. At the site, I spent much time on a lookout platform overlooking the Palestinian neighbourhood on the other side of the valley. I did so because all tours going down to the tunnels had to pass it and I wished to find out their reaction to the sight of a Palestinian neighbourhood. No Israeli soldier or Israeli school group stopped at the lookout while I was there; they all passed on without looking. Of the tour groups, about half passed without stopping. However, most independent travellers did look at the view. To help them make sense of what to look at, there were two signs directing their gaze to either the Jewish cemetery at the Mount of Olives or to the ancient tombs in Silwan, rather than the neighbourhood itself. However, Silwan was not completely ignored. Tourguides sometimes used the place to advance two other narratives—the Arabs as temporary and the Arabs as threat. Often, they would tell their charges that what they were looking at was only recent—that 80 or so years ago the Arabs moved in, and beforehand, there was nobody. Twice, I heard tourguides say that because there were ancient tombs on the far hill, these recently arrived Arabs have built on a Jewish cemetery. Thus, when their existence could not be denied, the legitimacy of that existence was challenged. This accords with Israeli justifications of ethnic cleansing and colonisation through the assertion that Palestinians are recently arrived, temporary presences (Finkelstein).

The sight of Silwan also allowed Palestinians to be narrated as a threat. On one tour, the tourguide used the lookout point to talk about the walls surrounding ancient Jerusalem. She chose a girl of about 12 or 13 from the mostly Jewish audience as a ‘volunteer’ and said ‘meet the hill on which we will build the City of David’. Pointing to the girl, she asked us, ‘If you are to defend your city, where would you build the walls?’ When someone correctly answered ‘high up’, she instructed the girl to raise her hands over her head as ‘walls’. The guide then explained that we also need to protect the water source of our city, at the bottom of the hill, around the girl’s legs. Then she added, ‘we can’t build the walls low down around her legs because if we did, then the enemy on the other hill … ’—and here she pointed to where the Palestinian houses on the other hill were crowding along the slopes, and everyone’s gaze followed her finger and they nodded in understanding. ‘Then the enemy on the other hill, they would fire into her stomach’.

This narrative deployed the governing themes of biblical archaeology in order to establish tourist connection to the site as well as their assumed Jewish heritage. At the time, I was shocked by the images this narrative evoked, the young woman on whom we build our Jewish city, the need to defend our vulnerable young (Jewish) women, and the casual relegation of un-named Palestinians to the role of the inevitable enemy threatening our citadel. It was a narrative which both elided over Palestinian presence and treated it as a threat. In retrospect, the fact that nobody else was shocked was of equal interest. For key to narrating Palestinians as the enemy is doing so in a non-political, naturalised way which all could accept. After all, the tourguides (and while on the lookout point, I observed several guides doing the same thing, pointing to the Palestinian houses to illustrate the need to and the ways of defending the City of David) were only discussing ancient history. Palestinians were not named. Thus, one can see these past stories of militarised history as serving to sublimate the present-day violence against Palestinians in Silwan. Narrating Palestinians as threats also contributed to the site’s tourist credentials, as being a safe space for tourists in contrast to the vaguely threatening area on the other hill.


In the City of David, archaeology and tourism have been used to bolster Israeli colonisation. Settlers use the archaeological dig to appropriate Palestinian land, and the development of a tourist site to help fund their settlement (Mizrachi). Both are also used to legitimise their colonisation and to bolster their narrative of a Jewish Jerusalem. This article has investigated how tourist and Zionist narratives work as overlapping, intertwining transnational discourses that erase the existence of the local population. The City of David is a place in which the tourist desire for a safe comfortable place, specifically a comfortable Jewish place dovetails with the Zionist project. Thus, explicit tourist agreement with the Elad agenda, while a bonus for the illegal settlers, is not necessary—nor is it the prime way in which tourism legitimises the site. It does so in a far more mundane way—in that the City of David caters to the tourist wish for a meaningful experience and connection with history. The Zionist narrative of Jerusalem being ‘authentically’ Jewish feeds into tourists’ desire to feel a sense of connection with the destination country and with history. The site’s governing themes of the bible and archaeology appear to have been accepted by those tourists who narrated the City of David as an educational, authentic, archaeological site; furthermore, it was a site in which their fellow tourists could experience a sense of meaningful bodily authenticity and connection. While this is of particular importance for diaspora Jews who go to Israel to experience a place they can feel at home as Jews, it is not specific to Jewish visitors.

In establishing an ethnically sanitised, homogenously Jewish space away from Palestinians, the settlers were also creating a ‘safe’ tourist site. Tourist fears and erasure of the Other have dovetailed with similar settler fears and erasures. Tourist paths have been created above and underground to carve out a safe space and ensure that tourists do not have to encounter local Palestinians, narrated as Arab invaders and seen as liminal and dangerous. It was clear from both TripAdvisor comments and my observations at the site that tourist discourses and habitus work well with the Israeli erasure of Palestinian presence. That part of Silwan that existed within the national park was linguistically erased by having Silwan described as being ‘over there’, on the far slope. In turn, ‘over there’ was narrated to and by tourists as a temporary encampment, as enemy territory, and as a third world zone of poverty that ‘we’, in ‘our’ Jewish citadel, were safe from. Thus, in the search for authenticity, tourists are unwittingly contributing to a simulacrum of the city, consuming simplified stories about a mythic biblical past of Jerusalem. In the process, they are not only ignoring the reality of the city’s present colonial reality, they are contributing to the practical and discursive extension of this colonialism.