You Can Vacation Safely in Israel

Submitted by Michael Rivest*

an hour of arriving in downtown Jerusalem, I was approached by a man who
nervously asked if I was a reporter, just in from the U.S. He’d overheard
my American English as I was asking directions to the Beit Agron press building
on Hillel Street.

A lot seemed to be riding on my answer
to his question, as evidenced by his furrowed brow and the fact that he
was standing so close I had to lean back to bring him into focus. When I
told him I was a freelance writer accompanying a group of tourists, he leaned
forward and out of focus again, making us dip in a sort of awkward street-tango.
“Please,” he said, pointing at our surroundings, “tell America eez
safe to come to Israel, eez SAFE.”

He introduced himself as Ronen, from
a local falafel shop. Ronen was reflecting the lesser-known consequence
of the recent intifada, or Palestinian uprising. It’s killing the
tourist industry. People are scared. They’re choosing to vacation elsewhere,
anywhere but in a place where you think less about the quality of the falafels,
than the possibility of a car bomb. Better to do Israel next year, they
say. So Ronen wanted me to get this message to you: IGNORE CNN. YOU WILL
BE SAFE HERE. But is he right, or just desperate? Let’s think.

First, he has reason to be concerned.
Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics reports a 53% drop in tourism since
this time last year, a reality that’s costing the local economy a ton of
money. “When Arik entered the Temple Mount,” Ronen explained, “CNN chased
out the tourists.”

What he was referring to, of course,
is how last September, Ariel (Arik) Sharon, then candidate for Prime Minister,
entered the place where thousands of years ago, stood the First and Second
Jewish Temples. But today it is an entirely Muslim site — the Dome of the
Rock, where Mohammed is believed to have ascended to heaven. Jews aren’t
so welcome there, which is O.K. since they tend not to drop by anyway. Rabbinical
rulings don’t allow it. “The Mount is not a site of Jewish prayer, but
the object of Jewish prayer,” says Middle East authority Jeffrey Goldberg
(The New Yorker, January 29, 2001). The only Israelis around are
soldiers, there to maintain security.

Sharon was undoubtedly just being
himself that day, thumbing his nose at not just Yasir Arafat, but at then
Prime Minister Ehud Barak for almost ceding the site to the Palestinians
in a peace deal than never was. So riots broke out and the violence spread.

The media have had their cameras rolling
full tilt, of course, because while good news is good, bad news is better,
and horrible news is terrific. The photo of the ebullient Palestinian youth,
waving his hands, red and wet with the blood of an Israeli soldier, entered
my mind more than once on the 12-hour flight. I also thought of the Palestinian
father and son, caught in a shoot-out and huddled behind a small metal barrel.
We learned, of course, that soon after the cameras were turned off, the
12-year old boy died. Part of me wanted to pull the cord and get off at
the next stop.

To make matters worse, in October
2000, the U.S. State Department issued a warning advising us to postpone
visits to Israel and reissued the warning in January 2001. Our official position
stands: Israel is dangerous.

But in the humble opinion of one who
was there, I think Israel is dangerous if you’re careless or reckless. I
say our State Department’s sinning on the side of caution (always a bureaucracy’s
favorite way of sinning). They need to cover themselves so that if something
happens, an “I told you so” will go quite a distance. This is why such
traveler’s warnings are rarely rescinded, and are instead just left to fade
away, as well as why they’re often peppered with vague terminology such as
“remain vigilant” and “exercise caution,” whatever these mean.

All things considered, I’m with Ronen.
Come’on over — and bring the kids. An Israel vacation can be made safe
with just a few common sense precautions:

  • Come as part of a tour group headed
    by an experienced local guide. These folks know where you should and shouldn’t
    go. If you’re too cool for tours, and insist instead on renting a car and
    riding around the various towns and villages, fine, but we just might see
    you on CNN. Israel isn’t that kind of place.
  • As much
    as possible, stay with the group. A tourist alone is vulnerable, even in
    countries that have no internal strife. This even applies to parts of that
    foreign land called Brooklyn. When Billy Joel immortalized in song that he
    may be crazy, he offered as evidence that he “walked in Bedford-Stuy alone.”
    Same story here; don’t wander around by yourself.
  • If you
    should happen to stumble onto to an angry demonstration, put your camera away
    and leave the area. (duh)
  • Look,
    when that suicide bomber did his work in Tel Aviv recently, I too shuddered.
    It’s frightening to know that Hamas is randomly targeting innocent
    civilians for death. But let’s be real, Israel is nearly 8,000 square miles,
    making it roughly the size of the State of New Jersey. Would you cancel
    a trip to New Jersey if I told you there were around 37,000 violent crimes
    there last year? Would you even think to check violent crime statistics
    before going? Or would you just pack up the family and go, knowing that
    risk is everywhere?

  • Whether it’s under the jacket of a
    terrorist, or in the hand of a gang member, the danger to you — personally,
    is just as real — and, more importantly, just as remote. That’s
    why you would, and should, go to Jersey. But given the choice, I’d pick

    Israel is the most breathtaking place
    I’ve ever been. It has affected me deeply, changed me even. It’s a country
    whose size is measured less in square miles, than in depth of spirit. It’s
    a place where at every turn history laps up against you — in Jerusalem,
    at Masada, and in the ancient cities of Bet Shean and Sepphoris. Like everywhere,
    Israel endures the dark, violent side of humanity, but it’s also where you
    find the Wall, where more prayers have been said, more tears have been shed,
    and more faith revealed than at any other place on the planet. You ought
    to — no, you need to stand there.

    Come to Israel, but be smart. Then
    have a falafel. Eez

    *Thank you to Michael Rivest, a freelance
    journalist from Averill Park, NY, for submitting this article. He can be
    reached at
    Copyright Mike Rivest 2001.

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