Flotilla passengers are no more than post-modern tourists

Passengers on the flotilla are a post-modern type of tourist, but only simply tourists nonetheless. They can role-play heroes, but ultimately they are not looking to participate in genuine, meaningful humanitarian activity – that would ruin their sense of vacation.

By Dr. Evgeni Klauber, Tel Aviv University

For some of its Western participants, the Gaza Peace Flotilla is not just an ordinary political protest: it is an exotic and dangerous cruise that involves a heroic element. In this sense, the flotilla represents a fashionable new type of tourism – call it “post-modern tourism.”

In the 21st century, the geography and the characteristics of tourism underwent extensive changes. Once, tourism was an activity designed to expand our experiences of time and space – it involved seeking new specific locations to be explored for a limited and specific period of time. Modern tourists sought to observe undiscovered paradises, to widen their traditional frameworks, to break away from routines.

Post-modern tourists, by contrast, do not want to just expand their space-time frameworks: they want to experience new systems of meanings. Post-modern tourists have made their way to the detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay prison to spend a whole day in captivity; they have traveled to Gulag in Siberia to spend a week in conditions designed to make them feel the crimes of Stalin’s dark regime on “their own skins.”

Today, post-modern tourists sign up for the exotic tour to Gaza to buy a moment of excitement and emergency that they expect Israel will provide as it resists the flotilla’s challenges its sovereignty. The experiential peak of the flotilla was supposed to be immediate: one can sign up on-line for the “overpriced” third-class cruise, and after several days of an exotic tour – the short, intensive, and high-pressure moment of meeting the Leviathan, a powerful Hobbesian sovereign which will emerge out of the sea to make order. The difference between modern and post-modern tourists is that the former try to personally experience objects that belong to history, while post-modern tourist seeks to provoke and thus create history (perhaps inspired by the 2010 flotilla).

In the past, “modern” tourists would go and observe sites such as the Gulag and Guantanamo to view cells, and observe the detainee’s uniforms and ‘comfort items’ laid out neatly for viewing. Now, the post-modern tourists wear these uniforms themselves and use those items in order to produce an illusion of oppression and to invoke the “heroic” sense of resistance within themselves. This is another way, an expensive one, to add a system of meanings to familiar objects, while manufacturing a sense of heroism. To visit Gulag, then, for the modern tourist, is to discover detention facilities located on the ten islands in the horseshoe-shaped archipelago, while the post-modern tourist asks to live through these facilities, to feel them from the inside. Post-modern tourists try to understand how the rocks look from the perspective of the camp’s prisoner.

Critics feel that a thousand days in the artificial tourist Gulag camp cannot re-create the experience of even one actual day in life of prisoner, as described by Solzhenitsyn in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.” In this view, such tourism just cheapens history – as Christopher Hope writes, “Russian capitalists are exploiting the nation’s dark past.”

Both modern and post-modern tourism include transportation, marketing, accommodations, eating and drinking establishments, shops, entertainment, convention facilities, activities and other hospitality services. In this sense, the Flotilla of Peace to Gaza is no different from other organized tours of the ‘modern tourism’ type: it provides all amenities mentioned above. Several tourist agencies have already offered tours to the region in the past with “Suggested Docking Locations for the Gaza Cruise Flotilla,” which included the Grand Palace Hotel, the Gaza Mall that attracts thousands, and Gaza Movie Theater, and even Gaza World Cup 2010. All these are supposed to attract modern tourists.

But unlike modern tour groups, the post-modern cruise participants are seeking feelings, not just spectator experiences. The post-modern tourist wants to share his experiences afterward and not only about the practical details and accommodations. The tourist seeks to represent him/herself as someone who knows what it is to be a political detainee, or Palestinian refugee, or some other role in the conflict. While modern tourists compete among themselves over the number of places visited, post-modern tourists compete over the depths of their feeling achieved as a result of artificially created changes of their identities.

Perhaps that’s why there are so many “people of depth” or as Judi McLeod ironically calls them, a “D-Grade coterie of celebrity activists” on the Gaza Flotilla – including Pulitzer-prize winning author Alice Walker; perhaps after her Devil’s my Enemy (2008) she is now looking for the next topic for another “self-experienced novel.” There is the 77-year-old retired U.S. ambassador Samuel Hart, who has even declared that he is not anti-Israeli, but just a “tourist”; soccer star Iker Casillas and tennis legend Rafael Nadal perhaps simply want headlines.

Ultimately, these participants are still tourists. They can role-play heroes, they can imagine that they are pushing the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty; but ultimately, the post-modern tourists to Gaza do not really want to participate in any genuine, meaningful humanitarian activity because that would ruin their sense of vacation. You don’t see these people spending real time in Gaza, living there, making friends and devoting their lives to humanitarian or even political activism on the ground. Post-modern tourists draw the line at staying in Gaza and endangering their personal security on its violent streets – unlike journalists, who take these risks every day and sometimes pay the price, such as Alan Johnston, the BBC correspondent who was kidnapped in Gaza by the Army of Islam – people.  Post-modern tourists want to feel big, exotic, dangerous and heroic things – from a very safe distance.

Dr. Evgeni Klauber holds a PhD in Comparative Politics and International Relations from the University of Delaware. He studied ethnic conflicts in the former Soviet republics, focusing on the mobilization of Russian-speakers in Ukraine and Kazakhstan. He is now Fulbright scholar and a visiting lecturer at Tel-Aviv University.