Choose Israel

I am a person of a certain age and fortunate enough to have the resources to travel pretty much where ever I want to go. So are my friends and acquaintances. Where are they headed?

There seems to be an approved list of “hot spots” for folks like me to visit. One year it was Machu Picchu. The next Myramar. The past few years, everyone is going to Southeast Asia. Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam. Facebook posts are full of pictures of Incan ruins, Burmese Buddhist temples, Vietnamese street food, and the “zenith of Khmer architecture,” Angkor Wat. Plus markets, river cruises, and ruins. Lots of ruins.

Now I’m sure all that is very interesting and an acceptable mode of conspicuous consumption.

But why not Israel? Why don’t my contemporaries, friends, relatives and acquaintances visit Israel? Especially my Jewish (as I am) friends and relatives? After all, if you want architecture, there is the one-of-a-kind Bauhaus section of Tel Aviv. You want ruins, hey, this is the ground zero of ruins as folks have been ruining the place since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple. Plenty of markets (figs and spices!), beautiful beaches (parasailing), historical sites (birthplace of the Son of God, anyone?), nature, great restaurants and nightlife, wineries, scuba diving and snorkeling, world-class hotels, top-notch museums, and an amazing diversity of people from all over the world. We’re not talking some obscure Buddhist temple in Phetchabun, Thailand here. We’re talking about the Western Wall of King Solomon’s Temple, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock, Masada, the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Caesarea, Eilat. Not to mention that this is the place where it all began (and will end) — from Bethlehem to Armageddon.

I ask my Machu Picchu-visiting Jewish friends: “why not Israel?” Generally, they look down sheepishly and mumble something like, “I went there once 40 years ago” or “I’m just not connected to the place” or “there are many other places I find more interesting.” I’m not buying it. They went 40 years ago? Much has changed. Today Israel is an incredibly dynamic and diverse place. A start-up nation like no other. More interesting places? Right. How many husbands are pleading on that trip to Cambodia to visit more Khmer architectural ruins? Paris? Just don’t wear a kippah or visit a kosher supermarket and you might escape with your life.

No, it’s the “I’m just not connected” explanation that rings true and concerns me. From the ’67 war to sometime around the Second Lebanon War (2006), my generation of Jews enthusiastically supported Israel which was viewed as a spunky little democracy populated in large part by European Holocaust survivors. As we watched Israel survive attempt after attempt to wipe it from the map (particularly in 1967 and 1973), we certainly were quite “connected” to our Jewish state. We were on Israel’s team.

Somewhere around 2006, this attitude changed. We stopped wearing our team IDF t-shirts. It was partly due to the continued controversy regarding the Palestinians as my generation grew weary of the fifty-year old conflict. It was partly due to the Second Intifada (2000-2005) during which approximately 1,000 Israelis were murdered by suicide bombers (the population equivalent of 50,000 Americans). Buses blowing up in downtown Jerusalem doesn’t foster tourism. Would-be Jewish-American visitors headed instead to the mountains of Machu Picchu. Of course, for younger Generation X Jews, there was never any emotional connection to Israel to break. They did not live through the horrors of the ’73 war where Israel’s very existence was in doubt. Instead, they were raised on college campuses where to be “connected” to Israel could lead to social isolation or even physical assault. For them, choosing Vietnam (hardly aware that 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives there not so long ago) over Israel is a natural choice.

The lost “connection” to Israel is also a product of the assimilation of American Jews. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center Poll, the intermarriage rate among U.S. Jews is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970. Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is an astonishing 71 percent. Less than one-third of those who identified themselves as secular Jews are raising their kids as Jewish. Only 30% of those surveyed said they were emotionally very attached to Israel. These Jews are not just losing their connection to Israel. They are losing their connection to Judaism. For these Jews, the beaches of Phuket in Thailand look as good as Tel Aviv.

Hardly ever mentioned, the elephant in the room when discussing travel to Israel, is fear. American Jews are far from the macho Jews of Israel and tend to be a little sheepish when it comes to their physical safety. The 2004 tsunami that killed over 5,000 people on the beaches of Phuket is considered an aberration. The danger in Israel seems unremitting. I visited Israel most recently in December, 2014, after the summer of war in Gaza, and during a time when there were random attacks on Jews in Jerusalem. I must say I felt much safer in Israel than walking the streets of Washington, D.C., where I reside (and where, two weekends ago, one person died and 14 were injured in violent attacks, including 4 people who were stabbed two blocks from where I live). But at least fear (even if unfounded or exaggerated) seems to me a legitimate excuse for avoiding Israel, if only people will honestly own up to it.

For those who can overcome the fear, I say choose Israel. If you claim to “support” Israel, put your money where you mouth is. If you have “concerns” about Israel, go check it out for yourself. Go to the West Bank, as I did, meet the settlers high on the hilltops, and you will not find monsters “occupying” someone else’s property, but ordinary people like you and me carving out a life for their families on land where no one has lived for thousands of years. Go during a holiday, as I did (Chanukah), and gaze at all the people standing around you in the major squares and plazas singing the same traditional songs you have always sung like a Marrano hiding in your home and realize that all these people are openly, proudly Jews. See the two million Arabs who are full citizens of Israel and who, looking around them at the chaos of the Arab world, are not rioting or signing up to be suicide bombers, but enjoying more freedom than their Arab brothers in other countries (the right to vote, free speech, the right to be a woman who can drive a car, the right to be gay without being stoned to death). The next time you consider booking a trip to yet another hot spot filled with ruins and churches, consider spending some time with your own people in Israel.

The Bible says: “choose life.” I say “choose Israel.” Same thing.

About the Author
Steve Frank is a native Texan and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He is a lawyer and writer residing in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, Judaism, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Chicago Tribune, the Jerusalem Post, and Moment Magazine.
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