For travel companies that specialize in bringing people to Israel and the Palestinian territories, flare-ups in regional tensions like the current one are a common challenge.
But Breaking Bread Journeys, a tour operator co-owned by Israeli Jew Elisa Moed and Christian Palestinian Christina Samara, was founded not on finding ways to work around the challenges but rather on addressing them head-on from all sides of the conflict.
"The thing that was really important for making sure that this would be successful was the fact that by doing it together we would offer a balance that in any other way, shape or form we would not be able to do, [and we were able to offer that balance] because we were working together," said Moed. "We really take a hard look at the program to make sure there is always an action and a reaction."
This past September, tensions arose between Israelis and Palestinians over a site in Jerusalem considered holy by both Muslims and Jews — Muslims refer to it as the Noble Sanctuary, or Haram al-Sharif, while Jews call it Temple Mount.
Clashes erupted and the violence has spread, so far killing 11 Israelis and 54 Palestinians.
Tony Blair with Moed, center, and Samara, who escorted the former British prime minister outside of the Church of St. George in Burq’in, near Jenin, in the West Bank.
Breaking Bread, formed in 2013 after Moed and Samara met as participants in a Holy Land marketing cooperative directed by Tony Blair, has experienced the ups and downs that operating in Israel and Palestine presents, and this latest flare-up is no exception.
Senior Editor Michelle Baran spoke to Moed last month about trying to offer clients a broader perspective on the conflict so that ultimately visitors will be better informed about the region, its people, cultures, history and its complicated politics.
Michelle Baran: How do your customers respond to upticks in violence such as this recent one?
Elisa Moed: I don't think there is a tour operator in Israel or in the Palestinian territories that doesn't get emails from clients saying, 'So, what do you think about the situation? Should we put it off?' At the present time, it's absolutely safe. We don't have a war going on. We don't have missiles flying around or anything like that.
We do have some civil disturbances, and we are totally able to operate the program and make adjustments to avoid certain areas. The only place we have been really impacted is we've not been able to access the Temple Mount. That's all temporary and it certainly hasn't been a problem.
There are a number of other places that you can continue to take people to. We have over 100,000 [tourists] here on the ground, enjoying much of the sightseeing experiences that this region has to offer.
MB: Are you hopeful for a more peaceful future for Israel and the Palestinian territories?
EM: This region is notorious for ups and downs. Most people feel that what we're seeing right now is very temporary. It's always been two steps forward, one step back.
Thankfully, we've all been able to rebound, and rebound quite quickly over the last two years as things have occurred on and off. But at the end of the day, I think most people want to live in peace and are very desirous of peace.
Despite what you see, there is this incredible amount of cooperation that goes on between Israelis and Palestinians, and between non-Jews and Arabs.
Looking forward, both of us view it with cautious optimism, because you have to — you just have to. It's a wonderful, beautiful, absolutely extraordinary destination, and it's the heartbeat of three religions, central to so many people around the world. It's an incredible asset. The people of so many different cultures that exist on such a small slice of land, it makes for an incredible travel opportunity. We hope that once it settles down people will come back and return with a great desire.
Muslim women teach participants about food preparation.
MB: What was the premise of Breaking Bread when you launched the company?
EM: We both felt that tourism is a bridge for mutual understanding and knew that it could be a real engine for economic development. Through our individual experiences and operations, we knew that together we could vet and cull and put together a program that would offer a real behind-the-scenes reality that would give participants an opportunity to visit private homes, and provide them with the opportunity to engage directly and intimately with locals of many different backgrounds.
And that was something we would not be able to do if not working together.
MB: What kind of balance do you provide?
EM: The balance we're trying to show is if we're going to go and have lunch inside a Palestinian home, and they're going to hear how this family lives and maybe what they've encountered and the traditions of this family, then we want to make sure that along the path that they're going to have the same type of experience with a Jewish family, and possibly a Christian family. It depends on the group.
Another great example is when we go into Nablus, we like to show them a Jewish settlement, we like to show them how the Samaritans live and we like to show them down inside of Nablus — three cultures, totally distinct, speaking with people from all of those backgrounds, all in one day.
MB: What kind of clients do you attract?
EM: We are seeing a strong demand from three very different segments at this point. We're seeing a demand from more of a pilgrimage interest. And while it is a pilgrimage experience, it is much more about experiencing the food and the culture of the land, and they really want to meet people from all sides.
The other market that we're seeing is an academic market, alumni and universities.
And the third market is a market I would characterize as more secular, luxury travelers, who one year are doing Iceland and the next year they're doing Burma, and now because of the fact [Breaking Bread is] a cooperative program, are really interested in seeing the region and really getting into the homes.
A wine tasting in a Jewish settlement during a Breaking Bread tour.
MB: What are the logistical benefits of being co-owned by an Israeli and a Palestinian?
EM: As the Jewish partner, I am able to bring a more focused Jewish view to the program, and a wealth of contacts. And it's the same with Christina. I am not readily able to go and travel in many areas of the Palestinian territories without permission or approval.
So it's difficult for me to always identify places and homes that we can go and take groups to. We both have to feel comfortable with the experience.
I feel that because we're working together, there's no way you would get this on any other tour, and know that it's balanced.
MB: How do your different political views impact the business?
EM: It hasn't yet.
We both know that the other is coming from a somewhat different place. We also both know that we have a lot more in common than not.