Gospel truth

Here’s a story of David and Goliath.

In 2007 and 2008, US outdoor adventure specialist David Landis and Israeli tourism entrepreneur Maoz Inon developed the Jesus Trail, a 65km walking route linking Nazareth – the town where Jesus grew up – to sites of pilgrimage around the Sea of Galilee. David and Maoz, with David’s wife Anna, created the trail from nothing, route-finding between points of interest, building relationships with people in villages along the way, encouraging them to create guesthouses and other support businesses for walkers, and negotiating with the SPNI land authorities to blaze the trail officially.

Nazareth is the largest Palestinian Arab city inside Israel, a focus for the substantial Arab population – both Muslim and Christian – in nearby towns and villages. The Jesus Trail deliberately passes through these, as well as through Jewish-Israeli and Druze communities in the area, on a village-to-village route which links specific New Testament locations with sites of historical interest from different periods and traditions.

While living in Nazareth, round the corner from Maoz’s award-winning Fauzi Azar Inn in the Old City, David and Anna wrote and photographed a Jesus Trail map and guidebook, self-published in the US in 2010. They developed an exemplary website for the trail which includes stage-by-stage route outlines, video and satellite imagery, GPS downloads, links to accommodation providers, even merchandising.

Nobody “owns” the trail: it’s a free, public, non-profit enterprise, feeding visitors – and, therefore, money – directly into rural communities. It’s founded on sustainable ideals, and promotes Leave No Trace principles. Everything is maintained by volunteers.

A pretty creditable effort, you’d’ve thought. Worthy of an award, perhaps? Or funding? Or maybe incorporation into Israel’s national tourism effort, to help bring more international visitors and so give those villages along the way a bit more of an economic boost?

Er, no. The Israeli government has its own agenda. Fuelled by the green-eyed monster.

Facts on the ground

Jesus Trail at Zippori

Newly announced this week is the “Gospel Trail“, a 63km route linking – yes – Nazareth with the Sea of Galilee, designed by the Ministry of Tourism for Christian visitors to be able to walk where Jesus walked, blah blah.

But the ministry has taken a rather more interventionist approach. Their not-exactly-subtle signage, which includes appropriate passages of scripture hacked into chunks of basalt stone (in case walkers venture out without a bible, presumably), stands propped up as giant cairns beside the path. The cairns are widely spaced just now, but even when the path is ready they’ll be placed only every 500m or so, making it impossible to follow the trail independently.

What’s far more concerning, though, is that the Gospel Trail has been deliberately routed away from Arab communities and sites of Islamic interest or Palestinian cultural relevance – and the official map identifies every other officially blazed path in the region, except the Jesus Trail. There’s an agenda at play.

The Jesus Trail starts at the Basilica of the Annunciation in the heart of Nazareth, leading through the souk and residential districts, heading into open country to pass through the Arab Muslim village of Mashhad (reputed birthplace of Jonah) to end for an overnight stay in the Arab Christian village of Cana (one of the places where Jesus is supposed to have turned water into wine).

By comparison, the Gospel Trail begins on Mt Precipice, a manicured tourist spot – and site of a 2009 papal mass – well outside Nazareth city centre, and proceeds on day one through forest planted by the Jewish National Fund, avoiding villages to end somewhere near Mt Tabor (unspecified). The first 30km of the trail has nowhere to refill water bottles, buy food or sleep.

Further along, after an overnight stop at the orthodox Jewish kibbutz of Lavi, the Jesus Trail visits the Druze holy site of Nabi Shuayb and then heads over Mt Arbel for panoramic views across the Sea of Galilee. The Gospel Trail bypasses Nabi Shuayb and follows existing valley-floor routes.

Perversely, the Gospel Trail even avoids sites of Christian interest: I’m told the first church on the trail comes at Km 59 – out of the 63km total route. The Jesus Trail passes 8 churches on Day One alone.

A land without people

With Israel’s global tourism reach and IGTO‘s marketing budget, the Gospel Trail will probably succeed. But, even before it’s got anywhere, concerns are being raised. Judith Sudilovsky, writing for the Catholic News Service, reports:

…retired Anglican Bishop Riah Abo el-Assal, retired Melkite Catholic Archbishop Pierre Mouallem and Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour said they were glad to see effort spent to improve Christian pilgrimage. They were less enthusiastic about side industries such as bike riding and horseback riding, which they said were not suited for a contemplative pilgrimage experience along the trail.

Even Israel’s tourism minister is already on the defensive. “Israel invests a lot of money in safeguarding the holy places of all religions,” he is quoted as saying (perhaps literally true, though an interesting follow-up question might ask in what proportions that money is allocated between sites from different religions. Anyway.). “Is it problematic,” he continued, “to use the culture and history of the [Nazareth/Galilee] area to promote tourism for the benefit of all nations? I don’t think so.”

I do. How about using the culture and history of the area to promote tourism for the benefit of the people who live there – Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Druze, Israeli and Palestinian? It’s theirs, after all. And in what way are “all nations” benefiting here? Surely “for the benefit of the Israeli government” would be more accurate?

But Mr Minister has bigger fish to fry.

According to Anna Landis, a tourism official has told her: “[The Jesus Trail] is dirty. I don’t want to show the face of Israel as…uh, you know…and I can’t fight the Arab cities to say ‘Listen, don’t throw your garbage outside.’ I’m the government, I don’t have to compete with anyone…but I can’t claim this is the best treatment you should give to pilgrims.”

Walking the walk

Government officials tend not to tread lightly. They know all about big-bus tourism, hosting Christian groups 50- or 100- or 200-strong, but do they know about developing sustainable rural tourism initiatives down at the grassroots? Have they chatted over tea with community leaders along the trail, explaining ideas and listening to concerns? Have they encouraged the growth of village B&Bs and local trail support initiatives? Have they walked similar trails – the Camino de Santiago, St Paul TrailAbraham’s Path or Nativity Trail, to name only four – to find out how things are done elsewhere?

Or have they just sat in their big city offices and decided to graft their idea of religious tourism onto what they imagine is a blank countryside canvas?

I wonder.

But government officials also don’t think nimbly. Some time ago David, Maoz and Anna quietly bought gospeltrail.com, gospeltrail.co.il, gospeltrail.net and gospeltrail.org – and pointed them all at the Jesus Trail. Ha!

Market that, IGTO.


Disclosure: I first heard about the Jesus Trail in 2009, when I met David and Anna on a walk in southern Israel. I met Maoz soon after. Since then I’ve sat with them, eaten with them, talked with them and walked with them. I like them. They’re nice people, doing good work. Maybe that means this post is a load of biased, jealous, provocative, de-contextualised whingeing. Up to you to decide.

Note: I’m told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz is running an article on the Gospel Trail tomorrow (4 Dec 2011). If it does, I’ll give a link in the comments below.