A group of Israelis of Circassian descent was denied entrance into Saudi Arabia for an UN-sponsored tourism event where they were to be the guests of honor. The event, held on Sunday and Monday, was to pay tribute to the Israeli town of Kfar Kama, the first small tourist village in Israel to receive a special UN tourism designation. The snub by Riyadh comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia announced a warming of relations this week, cooling hopes that the Gulf Kingdom will join the Abraham Accords.
A delegation from Kfar Kama was invited by the UNWTO to Al-‘Ula, a city in Saudi Arabia that was hosting a tourism event for the UNWTO. However, days before the event, the delegation received word that their entry visas had been denied. The group appealed to the UN, which then, in turn, requested Saudi Arabia reverse their decision. Saudi officials refused.
The Circassian people trace their roots back thousands of years to the Caucasus Mountains, a range that lies between Asia and Europe and spans from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. In the 19th century, the Russian Empire took control of the region and systematically murdered over one million Sunni-Muslim Circassians. Those who could flee went into exile. Many were given sanctuary by the nearby Ottoman Empire, which at the time controlled much of the Middle East, including the land of Israel.
Circassians mostly settled in Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. But some decided to make their new home at the lower end of the Sea of Galilee, establishing Kfar Kama 150 years ago. The Circassian people helped the Allied troops against the Nazis in Syria, and when Israel was granted statehood in 1948, the Muslim Circassians decided to remain neutral, stay put, and receive Israeli citizenship. Israeli-Circassian men have a long, proud heritage of serving in the Israeli Defense Forces and are often members of the Israeli National Police or Border Police force.
While their adopted homeland is far from their native Caucasus mountains, the 3,000 Israeli-Circassians in Kfar Kama (and about 1,000 of them in Rehaniya) have maintained their traditional culture and were selected at the end of 2022 to be on an exclusive list of tourist towns designated worldwide by the United Nations Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
“The recognition of Kfar Kama as a tourist village puts Israel alongside other famous tourist sites around the world,” said Yoel Razvozov, Israeli Tourism Minister. The UN designation will “transform it into a center for pilgrimage by many tourists and will have an important positive impact on the rural surrounding in the Galilee.”
Israel’s Tourism Ministry has worked with the people of Kfar Kama for the last two years to expand the village’s tourism industry. The town features tours of the old village alleyways, authentic Circassian cuisine, and unique architecture. There is also a sound and light show, a dairy workshop, and a family-friendly horse-riding attraction. You can also take a trip back in time through the village’s “time tunnel” to the Circassian Heritage Center and see costumed dancers performing traditional dances.
The Circassians are Israeli—and the Saudi snub is an insult to all citizens of this country. Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people, but we also have room for and appreciation of other peoples and cultures that desire to live in peace with us—especially those who have survived persecution and genocide, like the Circassians. This village—and the efforts of the Israeli government to elevate its tourism status—is a great example of how Jews and Muslims can (and do) live side by side peacefully here on any given day.