Jackie Feldman, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel

Holy Land Pilgrims’ Souvenirs as an Expression of National Solidarity with Israel or Palestine

The Holy Land has attracted Christian pilgrims from abroad for nearly two thousand years. The objects they brought home – relics, mementoes and souvenirs – have often served as metonyms of sacred sites and lands, and are imbued with value through ritual acts and narratives. Religious souvenirs extend bonds of solidarity to Palestinian and Israeli ‘natives’ (craftsmen, store owners, salesmen and tour guides) at the point of purchase; as witnesses of pilgrims’ experience, they expand values to pilgrims’ families and friends, through gift-giving, story-telling and ritual use.

As religious souvenirs may become lieux de mémoire, the sites of purchase are performative stages not only for conspicuous consumption or religious devotion/belonging, but of national agendas. Local Israeli and Palestinian agents produce narratives of authenticity and social justice for pilgrims, which imbue the Israeli or Palestinian struggle with Christian values. As representatives of experience and place, souvenirs become props through which local agents can tell and ‘sell’ Israeli and Palestinian national stories that are told and retold in a Christian language. Thus, while pilgrims may employ these objects as authoritative/authentic witnesses to express their position as Christians in their home countries, their use of these objects also supports and legitimizes the national causes of parties to the conflict in Israel/Palestine.

Christian Judaica – standing with God’s people

Although Evangelicals reject materiality as intermediary between God and man, they create and maintain spiritual ideas through the exchange of goods. Shopping is an important part of their visit to the Bible Land. The logic that guides Evangelicals’ selection of pilgrim landscapes also applies to their selection of souvenirs: They seek ‘natural’, seemingly untouched areas that can remind them of the time of Christ, while rejecting ornate churches and chapels that they associate with later tradition. Similarly, Jewish ritual objects such as small Torah scrolls, silver plated mezuzah cases, silver plated ram’s horns, seven-branched candelabra and prayer shawls have become popular in many Evangelical circles because they offer a veneer of ancient authenticity and antiquity to Christian worship (see Figure 3). A popular item sold in the “Jesus Boat” shop on the Sea of Galilee (see website photo in Figure 6) is a tallit, a Jewish prayer-shawl, decorated with a Biblical verse in Hebrew and English –Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has arisen upon you” (see Figure 4). The verse points to the redemption of Jerusalem (for Evangelicals, through Christ’s mission or at the immanent Second Coming), in a passage which speaks of Gentiles coming to bless Zion (Isaiah 60:3). By contrast, the Jewish tallit used in synagogues, if it bears any inscription, will provide the blessing recited upon donning the tallit for prayer: “Blessed are you, O Lord, our God King of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves with the fringes”. Supported by the tacit but incorrect assumption (sometimes promoted by guides and salespersons) that Jews of the Second Temple Period wore tallitot for prayer, the item becomes, for Christian buyers, an artifact from Jesus’ day. The selection of these objects for Holy Land souvenirs makes Judaism the marker of the antiquity and authenticity of the land. For those most Biblicaly literate, it also points to the role of Gentiles in redemption of Zion.

Another popular item is silver-plated decorated shofars or ram’s horns. While silver-plated shofars are rarely used in synagogues, and the shofar is sounded only in connection with the New Year season, they have become prominent in some Evangelical circles. Christian Embassy meetings and many Evangelical payer rallies often open with the sounding of the shofar. Their promotion as ‘kosher’ (see Figure 5) gives it a cachet of quality and authenticity, which has little, if anything, to do with Jewish law.

These purchases also affirm the salvific role of the State of Israel, in an adaptation of the Zionist narrative of return to sources, which was originally inspired by Protestantism. Briefly, Zionism’s ‘return to the sources’ or ‘return to history’ implied an acceptance of the Christian view of the epoch following the Destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of the Jewish people from the land of Israel as being outside history. The return to history was thus interpreted as a return to national political sovereignty ascribed to ancient Israel of Biblical and Second Temple times. This is an adaptation of the Protestant schema, whereby the Reformation is seen as a return to the source, sola scriptura, or the purity of the early Church, while rejecting post-Constantinian Christianity as the foreign accretion of ‘tradition’, corruption, and, in its more extreme formulations – idolatry. In the Zionist variant of this schema, the ideal was the return to a mystical home whose origin was in the ancient text; the land would be revived through the efforts of the “new Jew”, a farmer-pioneer, who would supersede the ‘traditional’, ‘exilic’ Talmud scholar land through ‘return’ to the Biblical paradigm. While the Protestant origin of Zionism is not acknowledged by most Jewish Israelis or most tour guides, it inflects the way Jewish guides present historical narratives to Evangelical publics, how Evangelicals understand the historical and prophetic role of the State of Israel and, finally, how they consume Judaica in the Bible Land.

This logic also applied to the Israeli state’s adoption of Jewish or supposedly Biblical symbols. The Star of David (mistakenly seen as Biblical) and the colors of the tallit became those of the national flag; the seven-branched candelabrum used in the Temple is the symbol of the State, and a replica stands opposite the Knesset. Biblical archaeology became a means of legitimizing Jewish sovereignty in the land. Consequently, authentic markers of Biblical antiquity are also those of the State of Israel. For Evangelicals, Messianic Jewish symbols further blur time frames. For example, the gold or silver pendant combining the menorah, the Star of David and the fish (see Figure 2) present a continuum between the Temple, the Christian community, and the State of Israel. This invented symbol has even been invested with a name and a genealogy as the “Messianic Seal”. By wearing the jewelry, the Evangelical attests that the church has been grafted in to Israel, and witnesses to the centrality of Israel (Star of David) for the prophetic future.

Furthermore, some Evangelicals purchase only from Jewish shops as an expression of solidarity with God’s people in the End Times. For them, the State of Israel is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The purchase of Christin Judaica from Jerusalem is seen as an act of support for Israel in the war in “troublesome times” against the forces that seek to “wipe her off the map.” Other ventures, such as Blessed Buy Israel promote the sale of ‘Biblical” products of settlers of Judea and Samaria (mainly, though not exclusively, agricultural) as an act of Christian solidarity. One of their Israel-flag banners promotes their contra- advocacy of the ‘BDS’ – “Blessing, Defending and Serving the land, the people and the God of Israel”.

Separation Wall nativity set
Figure 1
Figure 2

Supporting the ‘Living Stones’ in Palestine

Other pilgrim groups, primarily liberal Protestants and most Catholics, will prefer to purchase items from Palestinian stores. While for some, it expresses their desire to purchase religious items from the ‘original’ site of the event – such as olive wood nativity sets in (Palestinian) Bethlehem, others frame shopping as an effort to support the ‘Living Stones’ – Palestinian Christians, who are described as the brothers and sisters of Jesus, and whose perseverance in Palestine is declared as an act of Christian witness. One shop that promotes olive wood and mother-of-pearl carvings as traditional authentic crafts of Bethlehem, includes Palestinian and Palestinian Christian solidarity in its sales pitch. The shop’s website adds:

The handicraft industry in the Bethlehem area is in danger of disappearing. This is a direct result of three things: constant political unrest, the resulting decline in tourism, and more generalized economic hardship resulting from the occupation… The Cooperative strives to alleviate local poverty, decrease unemployment, increase the level of income, decrease emigration, and sustain the Palestinian handicraft industry for the benefit of the traditional handicraft artisans.

As in many religious venues, the meaning of sacred objects derives from the agents themselves. Retailers need to show that they are authentic and can perform the process required by transferring meaning from the cultural mold to themselves. Thus, the disappearance of traditional ‘Christian’ crafts becomes a metaphor for the disappearance of the local Christian community. Similarly, the purchase of Palestinian olive wood is promoted by church organizations and to a Christian public as an act of support for the disappearing and oppressed Holy Land Christian communities.

Occasionally, religious souvenirs make iconographic reference to politics– as in the Separation Wall Nativity Set (Figure 1). There, the separation wall separates the three magi of the East from the infant Jesus they seek to venerate. Some Anglican churches have devised an elaborate liturgy involving the figures throughout the Advent season, including activities and prayers for children. Through the ritual, the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation may be imbued with the innocence of the Christmas babe and the moral passion generated by the Christmas liturgy.

Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5

Traveling objects, travelers’ stories: Christian souvenirs and national solidarities

The adoption of Israeli and Palestinian symbols as an expression of Christian identity is not restricted to the case of pilgrim souvenirs. We might compare the dynamic with the display of Israeli and Palestinian flags abroad. The Israeli flag is prominent as a manifestation of Evangelical or Protestant identity in the United States, Burma, Indonesia and Northern Ireland – to name several examples. While In the US, the display of Israeli flags ties together Republican Party patriotism and supposedly Biblical values (fighting on the ‘side of right’ abroad and morality issues at home), in Indonesia and Northern Ireland, it is displayed in reaction to the prominence of Palestinian flags among the opposition. In Indonesia, it is an expression of Christian resistance to a hegemonic Muslim majority, some of whom displayed Palestinian flags as an expression of a more militant Islam. In Northern Ireland, Ulster loyalists have been flying Israeli flags since 2002. Although it was mainly a reaction to the prominence of Palestinian flags among Catholic Republicans (the IRA developed ties with the PLO beginning in the 1970s), it has also been interpreted as a call for a harder line towards the IRA on the part of Britain, a strategic positioning of the Loyalist struggle with the United States’ War on Terror, and an identification of Loyalists with the Chosen People. Finally, during the annual Evangelical Feat of Tabernacles parade in Jerusalem, each of the 100 national groups participating marches under their national flag along with the Israeli flag. So the interpretation of the blessing of the nations acending to the Temple in Jerusalem at the end time (Zechariah 14:16-17) reinforces the identity of each Christian community as representing a nation-state.

In each case, when the national symbols are mobilized to bolster local identities, they also imbue the Palestinian/Israeli struggle with religious meaning and passion. Some items are crafted, labeled, marketed and employed in ways that make this explicit – such as the Separation Wall Nativity Set, the West Bank settlers’ products sold by Blessed Buy Israel, or most recently, the minted silver “Trump Temple Coin“. I have argued for the political meanings of many, less explicitly political pilgrim souvenirs. As condensation symbol and material witness of the pilgrimage, the souvenir fuses personal experience, religious faith and belonging and political legitimation. The purchase of the Holy Land souvenir initiates a career that will continue with its transport and display at home, its gifting to significant others, the telling of stories and performance of rituals. While the authority of the ‘authentic’ Holy Land artifact reinforces pilgrims’ own religious and national identities, the national resonances of these religious symbols, in their narrative and iconic merging of Biblical Israel and the State of Israel, Roman Palestine and current-day Palestinians, make such objects aids in mobilizing support to one of the sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Figure 6