Travel to Sacred Space Project

Stage 3: Cultural Sensitivity and Safety

[Revise to put less emphasis on safety, more emphasis on cultural awareness and understanding for its own sake (especially for destinations that are as safe as the U.S.).]

General Expectations

Remember this is a research project. It may be true that you could learn just by traveling without having done research in advance, but some naiveite and mistakes could ruin the trip. A conventional guidebook such as Lonely Planet must be cited by page number. It doesn’t have to be the very latest edition, so you could get a used copy for $9 or free if not already checked out from Starting with this stage, we are moving toward cultural immersion more than tourism. What do you need to know to immerse yourself in a culture outside the tourist bubble without offending or risking safety? The guidebook will have sections on culture, history, religion, food, language, safety, etc. at the front and back of the book, along with issues at individual sites. Websites may have more detailed information or more information specific to your situation, but don’t make this harder than it needs to be. The guidebook is your friend.


The balance and distribution of the maximum thirty points will differ greatly between destinations. Be sure to learn something new about each of the five areas. If one area is not very interesting to you, be sure to balance with a deeper dive in another area.

  1. Safety and perceptions
  2. Gender and sexuality
  3. Religious diversity and boundaries
  4. Language
  5. Cuisine

Safety and Perceptions

How will you be perceived by the local culture? What history is necessary to understand how people perceive your nationality and culture? What do you need to know to avoid offending or even being endangered? If your passport, accent, dress, or travel companions signal that you are from the U.S., check the State Department’s travel advisories and fact sheet for the country to which you are traveling. Other resources may be better if you are perceived otherwise. Beyond safety, include here any aspects of cultural immersion and sensitivity not included in the other topics. How will you draw the line between fitting in and appropriation?

Gender and Sexuality

Cultures differ greatly in their expectations for men and women. Guidebooks generally have a section consolidating advice for women travelers, and similarly LGBTQ+ travelers. Read these sections even if they do not apply to you. Although there is usually not a separate section for male travelers, expectations for men are implicit. It may actually take more work to figure out expectations for men, in holy places and otherwise.

Religious Diversity Past and Present and Respect for Religious Boundaries

What do you need to know before immersing yourself in sacred space or ritual? What are the boundaries between insiders and outsiders that you need to know and respect? All the approved destinations exemplify engagement between faiths historically and/or today. Sometimes that engagement has been healthy, sometimes not. If the engagement is mostly limited to the past, you will have to work a little harder to see how the other religions left their mark on architecture, language, and culture. For example, what would be the indicators that a church was originally built as a mosque, or vice versa? Rome might be the most difficult, especially if you are Catholic. If that is the case, work harder to understand the relationship between pagan Rome and Christian Rome, the controversy about Rome in the eyes of Martin Luther and many non-Catholic Christians, minority religions in Rome, and the differences between religious culture even within Catholicism. If you are immersing yourself in a religious culture new to you, the work will be to know enough to participate to a degree that does not offend the host (or your own religious commitments).


Anticipate the sufficiency of languages you speak and how to supplement, either for courtesy or important communication needs. If starting from nothing, what is the minimum you need to know to be courteous and communicate essentials, such as food allergies? If already fluent in the general language, the questions of language and culture only get more interesting. What are the grammatical differences between Spanish Spanish and Latin American Spanish? How does pronunciation and vocabulary vary by region? What is the history of the language, and why does Spanish differ from other Romance languages?

Cuisine and Dining

Cuisine is an important part of culture. Food can be common ground and an arena for sharing. It can also be distinctive and expressive of religious or regional identity. Rules of dining etiquette can vary greatly between cultures, along with expectations around things like meal times and tipping. Menus can be difficult to translate when foods do not have an exact equivalent in the culture of another language. It is important to know about the local dishes, especially if you have dietary restrictions. I’m looking for learning about the role of cuisine in culture, not “sounds yummy” and “I bet it would be more authentic than ethnic restaurants I’ve tried in San Antonio.”


Safety and Perceptions

My passport, accent, physical appearance, and dress all scream “American” and I don’t look Jewish or Arab, so people would most likely assume I am Christian. As of January 3, 2024, the U.S. State Department advises Americans to reconsider travel to any part of Israel and absolutely not travel to Gaza.1 I might be fine in tourist areas, but since I want to immerse myself in the culture as much as possible, I should wait for better days ahead. I am hopeful that within a year or two the advisory level will be brought back down to “exercise increased caution,” which is a level of risk I am willing to take. Even then, I would review the instructions in Lonely Planet (p. 399) for what to do if I hear an air-raid siren. In the U.S. we dial 911 for police, ambulance, and fire, but in Israel those are separate 100, 101, and 102 (p. 19). The State Department fact sheet says, “Israel has no greater friend than the United States.”2 The U.S. support of the state of Israel would cause me to be seen as not a supporter of Palestine, and even Israelis might resent U.S. involvement in their country and government. I might hope that some people would get to know me enough to know that not all Americans are the same, but I need to be aware of first impressions. As discussed below, things like hats can make more of a statement than just fashion. In general, I would be a gracious guest. I will not try to present myself as anything I am not. I will participate in rituals and customs if invited, except when unduly provocative, as discussed below.



Gender and Sexuality

I present as a cis-gendered heterosexual male, so have the least danger of discrimination or assault, as long as I stay out of places designated for women, religious and otherwise. If that were not the case, I would pay attention to Lonely Planet’s recommendations for LGBTQ+ travelers and look up some of the recommended websites (p. 405). Women have played important roles in Israeli and Palestinian history and politics, but in many ways expectations for women seem more old-fashioned than my culture (p. 374-76). In some situations there might be gender roles that I would not support at home, but as a guest I would not take it upon myself to challenge gender roles in other cultures. In sacred spaces for Jews, Christians, and Muslims I should be prepared to cover my knees, chest, and shoulders (p. 58). In Jerusalem, men mark identity with head wear. All Jewish males wear a kippa while praying. If invited to pray, I would borrow one of the head coverings available and remove it after praying (p. 223). Religious males may wear a kippa all day (different kinds to express different religious identities, p. 383). I would not buy one as a souvenir or wear it outside of prayer. Many Palestinian or Arab Israeli men wear a keffiyeh. As this CNN article explains, under some circumstances it may be a sign of solidarity for outsiders to wear a keffiyeh, but it can also be appropriation if taken casually without knowledge of history and sincere and consistent commitment to what it means.3 I know the history, but wearing one would be a stronger and more polarizing political statement that would be true from me. I would not wear one even if invited, and I would not buy one as a souvenir. I could wear my usual baseball hat to keep the sun out of my eyes. Christians would expect me to remove my hat upon entering a church.


Religious Diversity Past and Present and Respect for Religious Boundaries

Not counting the diversity of practice from secular to ultra-orthodox, the three biggest religions in Israel and Palestine are Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As a Catholic Christian, I can participate in Christian sites and practices with awareness of some of the ways in which I am still a guest. For Judaism and Christianity I need to be more aware of what I can observe from a distance, what I might be able to do if invited, and what I would avoid doing even if invited. I would have no personal objections to praying to the same God in a different way. In Catholicism we are taught to respect and learn from fellow seekers of truth in other religions.

Unlike at home, there are numerous eastern orthodox sites and people in Jerusalem, in addition to Catholic and Protestant Christians. Orthodox Christians use a different calendar, so they may be observing holidays on different days. I look forward to observing their art and architecture, but would not stay for a liturgy unless explicitly invited. Catholic masses might be in Arabic or any of the languages of tourists. I think I could follow a mass in Arabic just because the liturgy is so standard.

The Islamic holy sites I would be most likely to encounter are on the Temple Mount. Lonely Planet says it would be disrespectful and unwise for non-Muslims to enter the Dome of the Rock or Al-Aqsa Mosque (p. 49). Non-Muslims may tour the area by entering through one of the gates (p. 49). However, in ancient times Jews prohibited Gentiles from entering the area, and Jews today do not enter the holy site (p. 48). Out of respect for ancient Jews and solidarity with contemporary Jews, I will not enter the site, even the Temple Mount grounds. If invited to pray in a Mosque, I would be expected to participate in a ritual of washing first. Whether prayer or just visiting, I would always be expected to remove my shoes before entering a mosque.

Judaism does not actively encourage outsiders to join their religion, but I might be invited to join in prayer or a sabbath dinner, especially at my hostel (p. 84, 89). The Western Wall is open to prayer from people of all religions (p. 59). While there, I would be careful to observe expectations for separation of men and women. If it were the sabbath, I would turn off my phone before approaching the wall. If I spent sabbath or a holy day with Jews I would have to be careful to avoid disrupting their plans to not work. For example, they may have left a light on before the sabbath because they cannot turn it on during the sabbath. It would be bad if I turned it off. If I make other plans during the sabbath, I would have to expect Jewish businesses to be closed and government transportation not to run (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, p. 407).


My destinations are all popular with tourists and pilgrims, so I will be able to function fine with English. Even Google Translate will probably not be necessary. I do not have time to become fluent in Modern Hebrew or Arabic, but a few phrases will be courteous, especially if I know when to use Hebrew and when to use Arabic. Some of the phrases in my guidebook that I thought would come in handy are as follows. In Hebrew, todah (thanks), todah rabbah (many thanks), slicha (excuse me), and efoh hasherutim (where are the bathrooms?) (p. 421-22). In Arabic, shuchran (thanks), salaam alaikum (hello, peace be with you), yallah (let’s go, by God) (p. 423). I don’t have food allergies, but if I did I would be sure to learn how to say what I can’t eat.

Cuisine and Dining

According to Lonely Planet, “Israelis and Palestinians disagree about many things, but food isn’t one of them” (p. 368). Sometimes the same food has different names (Israeli Salad and Jerusalem Salad). I would certainly seek out falafel, hummus, and pita (p. 368). I would seek out Maccabee Beer because the Books of Maccabees in the Catholic Bible are super interesting (p. 369). If I were a vegetarian or vegan I would probably be in paradise. If I had a nut allergy I would be super cautious. Food options will be impacted by religious observance. Jewish restaurants will close on the Sabbath and Passover (p. 372). During the month of Ramadan, I would not expect food options catering to Muslims to be open between sunrise and sunset (p. 92). Tipping is increasingly expected in restaurants, but must be in cash, not added to a credit card charge (p. 407). Lonely Planet doesn’t talk about meals or meal times being different from what we would expect in the U.S.


  1. Daniel Robinson, et al., Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Eighth Edition; Lonely Planet; Footscray: Lonely Planet Publications, 2015.
  2. U.S. Department of State, “Israel Fact Sheet.”
  3. U.S. Department of State, “Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Travel Advisory.”
  4. Zoe Sottile, “The Keffiyeh Explained: How This Scarf Became a Palestinian National Symbol,” CNN