On his most recent vacation, Jerome Chapman signed up for a package tour that offered a visit to “one of the main terrorist infiltration routes” into Israel and a briefing by a “leading expert on bomb blast injuries.”
According to the itinerary, the program for the 64-year-old Washington antitrust lawyer also included lunch at a Jewish settlement “on the front line,” a demonstration by elite Israeli military forces on methods of “self-defense against terrorists in Arab villages,” and chats with “terror victims.”
“It is not Grandma’s trip to Israel,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center, which hosted Chapman and 74 other participants from around the world for last month’s “Ultimate Mission” program. “It’s a look at the hard-core realities of terrorism for people who are hard-core buffs of Israel news, intelligence and security.”
A few weeks earlier, another Washingtonian, Kasey Cook, 25, joined a boisterous Christian solidarity march through the streets of Jerusalem. “We’re here to shout and show that Israel is not alone,” she said between group chants of “Hallelujah to the God of Israel!” and “USA! USA!”
Devastated by war and suicide bombings, Israel’s once-burgeoning tourism industry is changing tactics, marketing counterterrorism and solidarity as reasons to visit the Jewish state. The targets of this pitch are evangelical Christian and Jewish solidarity groups, adventure tourists with a hankering for anti-terrorism training, and Jewish professionals eager to take tales of military checkpoint crossings and insider army intelligence briefings back home.
“It doesn’t make sense to compete with the sun and sand of the Riviera in France and ignore the real question of terror,” said Benny Elon, Israel’s tourism minister, whose predecessor, Rehavam Zeevi, was assassinated by Palestinian gunmen at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Jerusalem in 2001. “We had to change the whole system and way of seeing things.”
Three years ago, before the worst violence of the Palestinian uprising, Israel ended its best tourism year on record with a millennium visit by Pope John Paul II and swanky new hotel openings. More than 2.5 million visitors spent more than $3 billion that year, according to Tourism Ministry records.
By contrast, in the first months of this year, the government was handing out gas masks to its few intrepid hotel guests in preparation for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and confronting suicide bombings at cafes and on public buses. “It was the worst period for tourism since the establishment of Israel,” conceded Elon, a rabbi with a bearish figure and a silken white beard.
That’s when Elon, who leads the country’s most hawkish political party, Moledet (Homeland), embarked on a campaign to cultivate a new breed of tourist.
“The majority of people who are coming to Jerusalem these days are religious people,” said Tal Rabina, a media consultant for the Jerusalem Tourism Campaign, referring to the Christian and Jewish groups. “They are not afraid. They saved the industry.”
While Jews still make up the largest percentage of tourists, the new campaigns also heavily solicit evangelical Christians, playing to their interest in the region’s religious history.
Instead of buying expensive advertisements in major U.S. newspapers, Israel is airing its message on Christian radio stations, sending e-mails and dispatching recruiters to evangelical churches with slogans such as “Don’t put your soul on hold.”
Earlier this month, Elon met with religious and political leaders in Washington and Oklahoma to promote Israeli tourism. Meanwhile, the State Department has posted a travel advisory on its Web site that is a national tourism industry’s ultimate nightmare: “The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Israel. ... Ongoing violence has caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including some American tourists, students and residents.”
Last month, a gunman opened fire on a large group of tourists at a crossing on the Israeli-Jordanian border, killing an Ecuadoran and injuring four others. The incident was unusual in that foreign tourists have not been targeted during the uprising, although several have been killed.
Jennifer Putnam, 30, of Charlotte, who participated in a Christian solidarity gathering that drew 3,000 people from around the world to Jerusalem in October, said she was undeterred by the warnings. “We had lunch right across the street from a cafe that had been the site of a terror attack, and I felt no fear,” she said.
“We stand for Israel 100 percent, and we want them to know that,” said Placido Soliven, a San Diego real estate broker who attended the same Christian assembly. “This is why we are here.” Soliven said he also came “to bless” the Jewish settlement of Ariel in the West Bank with an $80,000 check from Christian supporters.
Statistics released by the Tourism Ministry indicate the number of tourists has risen recently. The ministry reported about 852,000 tourist entries during the first 10 months of this year, an increase from the 708,000 recorded entries during the same period last year, but far short of previous highs of well over 2 million.
“I’ve been working as a tour guide for four years,” said Steve Ben Yishai, 32, as he led a group of young adults on a tour of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. “And all my groups are evangelical Christians now. If it weren’t for these guys, I’d be unemployed.”
Even so, Yishai and others expressed concern over the direction of Israel’s new tourism campaigns.
“I like to do intellectual Bible study tours about the Jewish roots of their religion, but they don’t want to hear it — they only want to pray,” Yishai said. “They aren’t interested in the stereotypical history-archaeology tours that I studied for two years to give.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has given rise to another form of adventure tourism: combining personal anti-terrorism self-defense programs with insider tours of Israeli military and security establishments.
“Since Israelis have more experience with this than others, unfortunately, we bring them here to teach them how to handle terror,” said Yehoshua Mizrahi, director of one of the programs, Operation Shiloh. “We attract a very eclectic mix. We’ve had Jews and non-Jews, men who are former 82nd Airborne, and soccer moms. Most of our participants tend to be politically supportive of Israel in general.”
Jeff Reed, 38, of Newport News, who described himself as a “full Gospel, born-again Christian” with an interest in “remaining proficient with handguns,” said he heard about Operation Shiloh while listening to G. Gordon Liddy’s radio show.
Last year, Reed, his wife and his brother enrolled in the privately run, five-day program, part of which was conducted at a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. They experienced a simulated attack on a speaker at a crowded rally, a paintball ambush by would-be gunmen and a pelting by a gang of young boys throwing water balloons in lieu of rocks.
“Had I not had training before, it would have been almost culture shock,” Reed, a former police officer and paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, said in a telephone interview from Newport News. As for his wife, he said, “Her eyes were opened up to the gravity of the situation for the Israelis and what’s going to face the rest of the world.”
The program costs $4,900 and is promoted by the tourism association of the Gush Etzion bloc of Jewish settlements south of Jerusalem. It has been labeled “terrorism tourism” in some Israeli news reports and criticized by some settlers as presenting an unfair image of life in settlements and in Israel.
“People are really giving it a bad rap — unfairly,” complained Yehoshua Klein, who heads the Gush Etzion Tourism Association. “So people are coming, visiting settlements, looking at what’s going on here, taking a Jeep tour. It is not like they are going into some Arab village and shooting at people.”
Staff researcher Hillary Claussen contributed to this report.