Eyal Carlin had never been outside his native Israel during a military conflict with Gaza until this past summer’s month-long battle in the Middle East. The director of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism Southern region, based in Atlanta, was reading the reports from afar, presenting information notably different than what was being said in Jerusalem.
Despite the news cycle, which turned decidedly against Israel for a stretch in July, Carlin kept faith his country was secure and the conflict would end quickly—as is usually the case in these all-too-frequent crises. Not once did he advise U.S.-based planners to cancel travel plans to Israel, and they followed suit. Carlin says he knows of no American group that abandoned their intentions, and that only a sporadic few attendees bowed out on upcoming trips.
Carlin also took his own advice, returning to the Holy Land first for a vacation in August with his family and then again for business in September as the country once again reassured business travelers and tourists that they are safe inside Israel’s borders. Israel has copious experience relaying this message after such bloodshed, and it’s unlikely the country has experienced its last war with the Palestinians, acknowledges Carlin.
“That’s the reality Israel is facing,” he says, noting he saw no after-effects of the war during his trips. “Things tend to return to a normal state in a few weeks.”
In the Beginning
By definition a Jewish state, Israel is the epicenter of many major religions and has been part of the world’s most notable sovereignties, including the Philistine, Roman and Ottoman empires. This rich history makes it a top destination for many world travelers, associations and faith-based organizations.
Jerusalem, home of the Western Wall (or Wailing Wall), Dead Sea and Temple Mount, among its dozens of historically significant sites, attracts Christian groups in particular. Oftentimes, the trip leaves such an impression that attendees return multiple times over the course of a lifetime.
“It connects us to the roots of our faith,” says Kelly Stewart, a five-time visitor to Israel and one of the leaders of In Touch Ministries’ 12-day tour of music, worship and education sessions there in September. The group’s excursion began in the Northern Coast and Jezreel Valley and concluded in the Old City of Jerusalem.
“Going to Israel is, for a Christian, like when a child reads a children’s book and the pages stand up. It makes the Bible come alive,” says Stewart, a member of First Baptist Church Atlanta, which partnered with In Touch for the tour.
So cherished are some of the city’s holy sites that they’ve led to centuries of conflict. Palestinians—who continue to push for their own independent state—and Israel both claim Jerusalem as their capital. However, the United Nations recognizes it as an international territory.
The disputes have alienated Israel from many of its surrounding Arab neighbors and solidified the backing of staunch supporters like Stewart. She believes it is Christians’ responsibility to support the Jewish state, encouraging her church members to find an area of their interest—be it military, finance, education, elderly care—and contribute in some fashion to correlating organizations.
Friends of Israel like to say, “it’s not in the best of neighborhoods,” as Stewart puts it, but there’s no reason to be afraid.
“The things we worry about happening in the Middle East are happening in America,” she says, noting terrorist cells and horrific violence are part of Americans’ daily lives. “You are safer in Israel than in America.”
Is It Safe to Go?
Israel has experienced four rocket wars with Gaza in the past decade, but 2014’s took on a different feel as it lingered much longer. News of children being killed on a Gaza beach and the disproportionate level of Palestinian and Israel casualties grabbed headlines in America, and the Obama administration took the unusual step of issuing a brief travel ban to Israel when a rocket landed about a mile from Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.
Nerves frayed among members of the First Baptist Church Atlanta group who were concerned the trip would be called off. A vast majority of the 17 busloads of attendees had never been to Israel before. Stewart organized training and education sessions to allay unease, and the tour operator sent links with testimonials about Israel’s level of protection, largely provided by the Iron Dome defense system.
Carlin’s office fielded questions and concerns, addressing them with facts and figures about the situation. During the operation, there were more than 100,000 tourists in Israel and about 90 airlines were still flying there. “We were reassuring [travelers] that it’s safe to go,” he says.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem, David Parsons was helping organize International Christian Embassy Jerusalem’s 35th annual Feast of the Tabernacles celebration (see case study, page 58) that typically draws between 4,000 and 6,000 Christian attendees from more than 80 countries each year.
Parsons says registration was up 20 percent from last year, when a chemical weapons scare in Syria turned some would-be attendees away. Had this year’s crisis ended a little earlier, he predicts the numbers would be even higher. He’s also confident the gathering could have gone on even if the fighting had not ceased.
“Any rocket that looks like it is going to hit the city is probably going to be intercepted [by Iron Dome],” affirms Parsons. “We felt you could get in and out of the country safely.”
Only a few events were called off in Jerusalem this summer, Parsons reveals. Some planners altered their itinerary to avoid hot spots, as the Living Church of God’s Jim Meredith did by bypassing Bethlehem this fall. Meredith says that comes with the territory when going to Israel, but he’s never experienced any discomfort there.
“The reality is any time you plan an event in Israel, you have the possibility it could be canceled because of the volatility of the region,” admits Meredith, who led groups of 165 and 75, respectively, the past two years in concert with the Feast of the Tabernacles holiday.
A Resilient Destination
Israelis have learned to live with the situation with the Palestinians. Streets, sites and beaches were less busy than normal this summer, but you could still see kids playing in the streets and people eating falafel sandwiches topped with hummus on sidewalks. It’s a point of pride to continue as usual, suggests Parsons.
“If you see Israelis heading to the airport and fleeing the country, then you know it’s a really serious war going on, but that just hasn’t happened,” Parsons says. “They hunker down; they endure it; they get through it.”
The country’s resilience is seen in tourist numbers, with records broken three of the past four years despite the battles in that span. Joe Diaz, also a director for Israel Ministry of Tourism’s Southern region, credits the leaders and pastors who’ve been to Israel for spreading the word and helping to mitigate some fears about the region.
“Israel offers a product no one else can really offer,” says Diaz. “People are always saying they’re waiting for a better time. You have to tell them, unfortunately it’s an amazing destination surrounded by bad neighborhoods.”