But that doesn't have to be the case. A walking tour within non-Jewish towns and villages -- with or without guides -- can be an eye-opening, informative, tasty and heart-warming experience. On a recent tour in the Galilee focusing on different religions in the Western Galilee, I meandered through Muslim, Christian and Druze towns, as well as Baha'i landmarks, only to discover cultural richness, friendliness -- and some surprises.
We began the tour at the visitors' center of the only Jewish olive press in the lower Galilee, Avtalion, named after the tannaitic sage who migrated there after the destruction of the Second Temple. A quaint cafe serving olive oil-rich, Arab-style foods overlooks the never-ending groves of olive trees belonging to the Arab town of Arabe, which is part of the "axis of olives" that includes Sakhnin, Deir Hanna, Marah and Rama.
Avtalion offers year-round tours, tastings and lectures on the production and health benefits of olive oil. The olive season begins in October, and visitors are invited to witness the process.
Owner Peretz Elbaz assured me that visiting Arab towns and villages for food and shopping can be a safe and pleasant experience.
I felt only a mild, probably self-imposed tension as our bus passed through the commercial thoroughfare of Arabe, but even more than that, I felt a certain voyeurism. Arab towns always seemed impenetrable, not necessarily because of cultural tensions, but because they look like mazes from afar.
Our tour guide, Morris Zemach, author of "Traveling With Morris in the Galilee," slammed the myth that Arabe residents are stingy and not friendly. But we didn't stop to find out.
We continued to Dier Hana, a mixed Muslim-Christian town named after Yochanan's (John's) Monastery, which thrived during the Byzantine period. The town features some of the country's oldest olive trees, and every home here used to have a working olive press, before industrialization made them obsolete.
"Many Jews don't like to come here," Zemach explained as we stood under an Ottoman stone gate where Muslim elders of the adjacent mosque often meet after prayers. "They're afraid, but that comes from lack of knowledge. You can feel welcome to come on your own."
Zemach, who is friendly with the locals, took us through a Muslim home whose backyard contains the remains of a Byzantine fortress built by Daher el Omar, Ottoman ruler of the Galilee in the 1700s. The residents, an elderly couple, didn't seem to mind that we passed through, although when we left and wished them a good day, they didn't exactly smile and wave back.
But gregariousness was not lacking with the Houris, a Christian family who have made their centuries-old olive press a tourist attraction.
The father of the house, Mutlak, and his wife entertained us with a darbuka and violin; the music wasn't exactly the most melodious, but it was endearing. The Houri family sells homemade olive oil and carob honey in the same room as their refurbished ancient oil press.
"The building is 1,500 years old, the press is 250 years old, and the donkey that pulls the press is 1,007 years old," explained Mutlak with a joke he probably tells to all visitors.
Further northwest, in Kfar Yasif, Muslim, Christian and Druze communities open their mosques and churches to Jewish tourists. Jews lived here before the 19th century, and an ancient Jewish cemetery is hidden among dying weeds at the side of the main road, across the street from a Superpharm.
An ornate, medieval-style Greek Orthodox church is open to the non-Christian public, and nearby is an Evangelical church. The falafel and humus joints along the main road are said to be among the best in Israel.
Our tour guide, Amnon Gofer, encourages visitors to wander through the village, knock on doors, and have coffee or tea with the locals to find out more about the mutual respect between Christians and Muslims.
Avtalion Olive Press and Cafe: (04) 678-9521; www.avtalion-oil.net
The Houri Family: (050) 751-9597, (04) 678-4035
Greek Orthodox Church: (054) 310-9023
Evangelical church: (04) 996-5461
The Great Mosque, Sheik Abbad: (050) 908-4020
Morris Zemach, the tour guide: (04) 693-6924, (052) 654-9191
Western Galilee Information Hotline: (700) 705-050
The Chasidic man with payot walking around the Druze village of Sajur seems like an anomaly, but a Chasidic presence has existed in Sajur for the past five years -- ever since Ibrahim Riad decided to make his family's Druze restaurant kosher. The Riad's eatery, The Sultan's Feast, began in a handsome, Oriental living room. Ibrahim's decision to go kosher was strictly a business decision, and a smart one at that -- the place was filled with a religious tourist group.
Mrs. Riad and her children are the chefs, making fresh, authentic Druze dishes like majadra, a dish of chickpeas, lentils and bourgal; and "groom rice," with meat and cinnamon, served to a Druze groom on his wedding night to give him "strength."
Ibrahim, who served as an Israel Defense Forces army officer for 25 years, has three sons serving in the army, and his sweet, well-spoken daughters were on hand to provide us with some insight into the restaurant, the village, and the basics of the Druze faith.
Further west, in the Druze village of Julis, more insight into the Druze faith can be provided by Nabia Tarif, the grandson and personal assistant of Sheikh Amin Tarif, the "Lubavitcher rebbe" of the Druze community. Sheikh Tari was given the rare Druze privilege of a private burial place, which is now a Druze holy place.
"During his tenure as head of the community, there wasn't any split within the Druze community," Nabia Tareef explained, bearing a noble stature, Druze headdress, friendly smile and sparkling blue eyes. The wall of the visitor's center is covered with pictures of the sheikh and 20th century notables: David Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin and Jimmy Carter.
Naji Abbas, who lives near the entrance to Julis, claims that his father was the first to serve in the Israeli army in 1948. In honor of his parents, he has planted a marvelous, fountain-filled garden in his backyard called Fountains of Faith. He has opened it to the public for strolling, relaxing and meditating -- and also for wedding portraits, for which he charges a fee of NIS 100.
The Sultan's Feast: (50) 763-7130, (4) 998-3629
Sheik Tareef Visitors' Center: (4) 996-4097
Gardens of Faith: (52) 431-8414
In Israel, the Baha'i faith is most famous for its stunningly landscaped administrative headquarters in Haifa, where the prophet-herald of the faith, the Báb, is buried at the Shrine of the Báb. But the religion actually took root in Acre.
The founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, an early follower of the Báb, declared himself in 1863 to be the messenger of God foretold by the Báb. He was banished across the Middle East, until he was thrown into the Acre prison by the Ottomans. When he was released under nominal house arrest, he remained in Acre to continue documenting and revealing his message of monotheism and global unity. Now 6 million Baha'is are spread throughout 200 countries. Only about 700 Baha'is live in Israel at any given time, where they care for Bahai landmarks and welcome pilgrims.
The Bahji Mansion in Acre, the burial place and Shrine of Baha'u'llah, is the focal point of Bahai prayer. Its structure is more modest than the Shrine of the Báb in Haifa, built by Udi Khammar, a prominent Acre resident in the 19th century, but the gardens bear the beauty, geometry and lushness that has become a signature of the Baha'is. A visitors' center at the mansion offers a brief history of the religion, including key figures, teachings.
Haifa Baha'i Gardens: (04) 831-3131
Places to Stay
Many members of this agricultural moshav, founded in 1950, have traded in their hoes and tractors for beds and hot tubs. With the decline in agriculture in recent years, the moshav has transformed itself into a tourist village, offering 70 guest homes run by 15 families, including the Ya'ari family's three imported Finish wooden cabins set in a carefully designed tropical garden. The atmosphere of "Derech Hashenhav," as it is named, is not only beautiful and homey, but erotic. The only babies allowed on the premises are those being conceived. The soundproof cabins are decorated with roses, and the large hot tub is placed conveniently next to the bed. Each guest home also features soaps, treats, wine and every amenity a couple should need. Scrumptious breakfasts are served in the Ya'ari home.
B"&"B NIS 480 (weekdays), NIS 1,200 (two-night weekend stay).
Moshav Reception: (04) 9822261
Derech HaShinhav (Amalya Ya'ari): (04) 982-2253, (052) 828-0953.
Shalom Plaza Hacienda Forestview
While the north is replete with cozy, private guesthomes, those seeking a hotel experience, whether to accommodate kids or an event, can opt for Hacienda, which preserves a lodge atmosphere amid deluxe four-star amenities. Located within the forests of the Western Galilee, between Ma'a lot and Kfar Veradim, the campus includes five buildings and 140 suites sprawled over 70 dumans. The main drawback is the price, which is a little more expensive than some of the cozier, private cabins in the region.
B"&"B NIS 780 (weekdays); NIS 720 (per day, minimum two-night weekend stay). (04) 957-9000, http://www.shalomplaza.co.il
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