Every fall architecturally distinct buildings and grounds in Jerusalem treat the public to free tours as part of Open House Jerusalem. Usually, the event is celebrated locally as an opportunity to explore hidden treasures in and around the city. Yet for the first time, this year Open House Jerusalem was protested after it promoted guided tours at a site in the West Bank and programs in Jerusalem run by a settler organization.
The event, now in its thirteenth year, ran from Thursday, Oct. 31, to Saturday, Nov. 2. The program included 136 locations, featuring architectural sites and tours that reached up to 60,000 people.
“The festival is a beautiful festival,” Aviv Tatarsky told Mondoweiss during one of two Friday protests by a Roman-era spring in Israel that was included in the schedule for the first time this year. “I participated in the event in the past. But we said no [this year], we cannot accept this.”
He and around 15 other demonstrators distributed flyers to attendees with information about the land of the national park, such as its discriminatory practice of excluding Palestinian entry via barriers and checkpoints, which the tour wasn’t giving them.
“We saw how the expressions on people’s faces changed. There was a woman who couldn’t continue walking forward. She just stood there frozen and read our flyer again and again,” Tatarsky said.
The spring, Ein Haniya, dates back to the Roman Empire and was once a swimming hole for Palestinians. For the past 20 or so years both Israelis and Palestinians enjoyed the spring together recreationally and rather peacefully, according to Tatarsky. It is nestled on the outskirts of the West Bank village of al-Walajah outside of Bethlehem. Yet as of a few months ago Palestinians bathers and sheepherders were prevented from reaching the spring. It’s guarded by the Israeli border police. The land surrounding the spring is part of the Emek Refaim national park, 300 sprawling acres of an Israeli nature zone that spills over Israel and into the West Bank.
“We call it a touristic settlement,” he told Mondoweiss. “The barrier kicks out the Palestinians and the national park turns it into an Israeli settlement.”
Tatarsky has long been involved in advocating for Palestinian freedom of movement in the cradle between Bethlehem and Jerusalem since 2010 when Israel’s separation barrier expanded to the region. That year he co-founded Engaged Dharma, an Israeli meditation and activist group based on Buddhist principles.
“We are very appalled [at] the idea that our government wants to not only take away Palestinian land but wants to make us, Israelis, these kinds of people who can have a picnic on lands that were taken away from people who are just 70 meters [away],” Tatarsky said.
About an hour away through one or two checkpoints – a task made easier by their Israeli IDs – another group of activists was protesting at the same time near the Old City of Jerusalem. Fifteen or so from the group Free Jerusalem demonstrated against a settler organization, Elad. The group provided two tours on the Open House program.
One tour went through the King’s Valley and the Tomb of Absalom and the other in the Valley of Hinnom. Both tours either started or ended at some point in East Jerusalem. This fact sits uneasily for protestors who already had issues with the settler organization. Elad administers the City of David, a biblical park in the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan. Tucked behind the Old City, Elad has moved Israeli settlers into 75 properties in Silwan.
“People are going to these tours and they do not understand what they are taking part in,” Noa Pinto, 27-year-old Free Jerusalem activist who attended Thursday’s demonstration at the King’s Valley tour, told Mondoweiss.
Regarding the Elad-led tours, “the critical point is they are leading people into East Jerusalem without letting them know they are in East Jerusalem,” explained Pinto. The tours are, “normalizing Elad as an organization which does all kinds of things to take houses in East Jerusalem from Palestinians.”
Activists also spoke with festival-goers outside Elad’s tours and passed out flyers that described Elad as, “a right wing settlers organisation that operates to Judaize East Jerusalem.”
“Many residents of Silwan live in constant fear of losing their homes because of the efforts of Elad,” the flyer continued, citing the most recent example of a single mother and her children losing their Silwan home to Elad just four months ago after a decades-long court battle.
Free Jerusalem collected over 1,600 signatures calling for the removal of known far-right political groups from the festival program, citing it directly contradicts Open House Worldwide Network values and code of ethics.
Open House Jerusalem’s inclusion of settlement properties caught ire beyond local activists.
Rory Olcayto, director of Open House London, issued a public statement expressing its concern over last weekend’s festival in Jerusalem after learning of some, “events within the Open House Jerusalem programme that might appear to exclude some Israeli citizens and communities.” The statement reiterated that, “as one of our core principles states, Open House programmes are essentially apolitical.”
“First of all, the tour is open to everybody,” Open House Jerusalem manager, Aviva Levinson, told Mondoweiss. “It’s a way to discover your city,” she later added.
“The tours are giving the public an opportunity to hear… the opposite side,” Levinson said in reference to the national park in the West Bank.
Elad, the East Jerusalem settler organization, had originally presented Open House Jerusalem with tours of houses in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. Levinson said the board rejected their application for tours inside of Silwan, which sits behind the Old City, and in the Muslim Quarter.
In the end, she said, “it doesn’t matter if we agree or disagree or what my personal political opinion is,” Levinson continued, “Jerusalem, I think, is the most delicate city in the world. And we try to do our best in selecting everybody.”