Enlightened Tourism

Husam Jubran, MA ’04, with Israel’s “security fence” at left and the Aida refugee camp at right. Photo by Jon Styer

Palestinian ‘Pioneer’ of Nonviolence Returns to Guiding Visitors

There is a specific spot on a specific road on the northern edge of Bethlehem where Husam Jubran, MA ’04, likes to take visitors. On one side is the Aida camp, the crowded home of nearly 5,000 Palestinians registered as refugees with the United Nations. On the other side of the road is the tall, graffiti-covered concrete wall, erected in 2004 by Israeli authorities to serve as a physical barrier between the West Bank and Israel.

These are facts. Then there are the narratives that couch these facts within specific worldviews.

Some dispute that the residents of Aida are in fact refugees. Others insist the refugees there must be allowed to return to homes from which their grandparents were forced more than 60 years ago. Some say Palestinian terrorist attacks necessitated Israel’s construction of the “security fence” that runs past Aida. Some say the “apartheid wall” exists to further Israeli control over the people and resources of the Occupied Territories.

From this spot on the street, Jubran tells visitors how the scene fits into his own narrative as a Palestinian and a nonviolence activist. For example: the wall interferes with the education of Palestinian girls, because it has made travel within the West Bank more difficult, time-consuming and expensive. Some families with limited resources, facing higher costs to get their kids from home to school, have to pick which of their children will receive an education, and which will not. Given Palestinian cultural norms, it is the girls who often end up staying home – more often now than before the wall existed.

Israeli-Palestinian Tour Co.

“My passions are nonviolence and tourism,” says Jubran, who since 2011 has worked as a guide with Mejdi, a “dual-narrative” tourism company that exposes visitors to a variety of perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (One of the company’s owners is Rabbi Marc Gopin, the director of George Mason University’s Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and a professor at EMU’s Summer Peacebuilding Institute for several sessions in the early years of the program.)

Mejdi’s tours in Israel and Palestine typically feature two guides, one Israeli and one Palestinian, who provide contrasting perspectives on the region’s history as well as its current conflicts. Jubran said growing demand for Mejdi’s tours indicates a strong interest in this kind of learning among students, religious groups and others who visit the region.

Raised in the West Bank town of Beit Sahour, right beside Bethlehem, Jubran was 17 years old when the First Intifada began. To this day, he is unsure what exactly prompted his involvement in the widespread, mostly nonviolent uprising. The best he can tell, it was a vague sense that the situation of the Palestinian people was unjust and that he was determined to work for something better. Jubran joined the stone-throwing crowds. He wrote protest slogans on walls. He helped organize a community movement to withhold its tax payments to Israel. He spent three months in the hospital after getting shot in 1989, and was jailed several times. At the time, he had a general awareness of the concepts and practice of nonviolence, but it was not at the front of his mind.

After the Intifada ended, Jubran began to learn more about the principles of nonviolence and began to practice them more deliberately while he spent the rest of the ’90s working for various NGOs and in alternative tourism. In 2000, life in Palestine became significantly more difficult when the Second Intifada began. Jubran, who had already been thinking of pursuing a graduate degree somewhere, had further incentive to leave for a period of respite. When he came across a newspaper announcement advertising Fulbright scholarships to study conflict resolution in the U.S., he immediately knew he wanted to apply.

By the fall of 2002, he was in Harrisonburg to pursue a master’s degree from EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. He finished in 2004, with concentrations on facilitation as well as mediation and nonviolence. After his return to Palestine, he developed a five-day training course on conflict analysis and nonviolent organizing. Jubran gave trainings all over the West Bank from 2004 to 2007, when he worked with the Holy Land Trust, a humanitarian organization based in Bethlehem. From 2008 through 2011, he worked through Birzeit University near Ramallah, developing programs in leadership, conflict management, planning and communication.

Nonviolence Is Not Passive

The term “nonviolence” has been controversial within Palestinian society. Some equate it with weakness and submission, rather than engagement with an opponent. Jubran said that some of the projects he worked on, both before and after his time at EMU, along with the work of a number of other colleagues, played a role in spreading acceptance and awareness of nonviolence in Palestine. Corresponding work elsewhere in the region, he said, gained full expression during the Arab Spring, when nonviolent techniques figured prominently into many of the anti-government protests that began in the Middle East in 2011.

“In a way, some other people and I were pioneers. We helped shape a movement that changed the perception of nonviolence,” he says, with a sense of accomplishment.

In 2011, Jubran, who is married with two young daughters, decided to take a break from the stressful world of NGOs to concentrate on his long-standing interest in tourism through Mejdi Tours. Responding to growing interest from religious groups, Mejdi launched a single-day tour program for individuals and smaller groups in the spring of 2012. (Jubran also remains involved with Hands Of Peace, a group that brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together each summer, and Synergos, an organization that provides funding and support to social innovators working on issues of equality and poverty.)

While shifting his career focus, the move doesn’t diminish his desire to remain involved in efforts to transform the deep and wide conflicts that continue to divide Israelis and Palestinians.

“I can’t afford to sit and do nothing, because that would be a disaster,” says Jubran. “For the moment, tourism will give me the leverage of reaching many people.”

The future in the Middle East right now seems as uncertain and foreboding as ever. Full-blown war has erupted in Syria; the possibility of war between Iran and Israel or the U.S. hangs over the region like a cloud.

“As a person, I’m always hopeful,” he continues. “[But] it’s so confusing in the Middle East. I can’t tell what’s going to happen. This is the first time I’ve felt so confused.” — AKJ