I am going to Israel in November. It is a press trip I have been planning since last spring, and I am excited to check out what’s new in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and some spots up north.
So, apparently, are a lot of other people. Despite recent events in Gaza, Israel (whose tourism industry has surely taken some hits) has been enjoying a steady stream of visitors this summer: some 120,000 in July and 75,000 in early August at the height of the conflict, according to Haim Gutin, Israel’s tourism commissioner for North and South America. More than a half-million Americans have already visited Israel in 2014, a record number.
Among them are a gaggle of New York politicians, from former Mayor Bloomberg to Gov. Cuomo; thousands of students on teen tours and summer educational programs; and thousands more on tours organized by Taglit-Birthright Israel for young North American Jews. They are enjoying a lively season of festivals, concerts and excursions that carry on despite the headlines.
Still, people keep asking me whether they can feel confident traveling these days. Many, understandably, are concerned about personal safety; they cite both the conflict in Israel and troubling events in Europe, where anti-Israel demonstrations frequently flare into outright anti-Semitism. Neither situation is without precedent, but there are readers who wonder if it is even responsible to write about travel to places where human lives — Jewish lives — are particularly vulnerable.
I can’t deny that this is a tense time for international travel. In too much of the world, Israel and America are polarizing countries in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. But it is for this very reason that travel continues to be so important. These days especially, every visitor to Israel votes with his feet. And every American Jew serves, in his own way, as an ambassador for his particular tribe.
Before, people might have read a balanced account of military conflict in a newspaper, but today they are more likely to stumble over a series of sensationalized, context-free rants in a Facebook feed — rants that not only tend to present negative facts devoid of perspective, but also convey a subtle, collective coercion to adopt a prevailing viewpoint.
Travel is an antidote. No amount of reading can equal the visceral experience of walking city streets, watching local TV, witnessing the interactions of diverse residents and listening to the locals in the café, the restroom line, or over dinner at a relative’s apartment. When you come home, your perspective carries the weight of authority because you have been there, and most people haven’t — wherever “there” may be.
Likewise, an American overseas is an involuntary ambassador for the country that most fascinates citizens of everywhere else. I am always struck, wherever I go, by how strong people’s feelings are about America and how they are better informed about my homeland than I am about theirs; they know the name of my city’s mayor, for instance, or that New York had a freak October blizzard.
But a little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing: misconceptions about Americans are predictably common, frequently alarming and occasionally hilarious. (I think of a woman I once knew in Romania — highly educated, multilingual and possessed of a German education — who was shocked to hear that America was not split racially 50-50 between blacks and whites; she had based her assumption on the mix of American movies released in Eastern Europe.)
Many people with strong (but uninformed) feelings about Jews and Israel have never knowingly met a Jew. I have met foreigners who think all Jews are rich; that we are all bankers; that we all speak fluent Hebrew, or have Israeli citizenship; and on and on. Falling into none of these categories, I can open minds simply by telling such people who I am.
I would be remiss in these exhortations to travel were I not to address the issue of safety, which is a valid concern. But it is also not a new one. Anti-Semitism and swastikas are sadly familiar sights — both in Europe, where modern antidiscrimination laws often fall short in Arab neighborhoods, and in Latin America, where in many corners there is not even a pretense of ethnic tolerance. Discretion and sensitivity are important qualities for any traveler, now more than ever.
So why go at all? Because the wide world, and the billions of fascinating people in it, are so much more than the sum of their headlines. We have a right to explore the routes of our ancestors, lay eyes on humanity’s visual treasures, break bread with fellow Jews around the world, or simply enjoy a change of scene.
The coordinator of my upcoming Israel excursion assured me that trips have been running smoothly all summer. Israelis are used to dealing efficiently with a security situation in constant flux; Taglit-Birthright Israel, for example, checks its itineraries daily with a team composed of representatives from the Ministry of Education, the IDF, the Israel Police and the Homefront Security Administration. As a result, of the 5,000 participants in scheduled early-August trips, fewer than 10 changed their plans.
I won’t change mine, either.