How Jews can help right now!
A month after the terrible events of October 7th, Gil Travel CEO Iris Hami talks about the challenges facing the Israeli travel industry, the implications for ordinary Jews who want to travel abroad, and what you can do to help out in this difficult time.
10-07-23 Israel’s Day of Infamy
The Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah is usually a peaceful and happy day. Worshipers celebrate by singing and dancing as the Torah scrolls are taken out of the synagogue and publicly displayed in a series of seven hakafot or circuits.
On Saturday the 7th October 2023, Simchat Torah marked the end of almost a month of holidays. Israelis planned to enjoy the sunny autumn weather with a final day of relaxation, family picnics and barbecues before returning to work.
It was not to be. Much of the country awakened shortly after dawn to the harsh banshee wail of air raid sirens, followed by deafening explosions. A surprise mass bombardment of 2,000 rockets sowed confusion across the Center and suppressed local defenses in the South.
What followed was a horrific crime against humanity. Hamas terrorists overwhelmed the IDF’s border defenses and unleashed a savage attack on Israeli civilians. Over a single bloodsoaked day, Hamas rampaged across the South’s kibbutzim and small towns. They targeted beaches, a music festival and even motorists on the highways.
Organized gangs of terrorists, followed by a rabble of criminal opportunists massacred, burned, tortured, looted and kidnapped indiscriminately. Local civilians, police officers and IDF units resisted fiercely, but it took several hours to launch coordinated counterattacks and rescue missions. 1,200 people were murdered, 5,000 injured and 240 kidnapped. The youngest victims were tiny babies. The oldest were pensioners, including elderly holocaust survivors.
As manhunts for stray terrorists and sporadic gun battles continued through the night, a horrified nation watched the news in an agony of shock and grief. The Jewish people reeled in horror at a 21st century pogrom inside their own borders. In Jerusalem, an outraged government responded to Hamas’s declaration of war by calling up 360,000 military reservists and promising to eradicate the terrorists.
In the aftermath of the atrocities, there was a powerful groundswell of sympathy for Israel. Western leaders flew in to see the carnage for themselves and to offer support. The civilized world experienced a visceral revulsion at the primeval savagery of October 7th and understood that this was a straightforward battle of good versus evil.
Israelis knew from the outset that the military campaign to destroy Hamas would come at a high blood price. It is a battle for immediate national survival, and to create a lasting peace and a safer region. The stakes could not be higher and the threat has pulled Israeli society together in an extraordinary display of unity.
Israel is now at war and the best and brightest of Israel’s youth are on the front lines. The rest of the country is actively supporting them. The IDF’s mission is twofold, to destroy Hamas and to rescue 240 Israeli hostages held somewhere in Gaza’s labyrinths of underground tunnel networks. Alongside the military battle, Israel and its friends and allies around the world are fighting an intense diplomatic battle.
An estimated 18% of the Israeli workforce has been called up to the army. The national economy has been severely impacted, in particular the agricultural and tourism sectors. Israel is currently perceived as being unsafe to visit and many airlines ceased or reduced flights to Ben Gurion international airport.
Gil Travel CEO Iris Hami has spent her life arranging tours to Israel and has a deep and intimate knowledge of the country and its people. She explains the current situation and offers some practical suggestions for Jewish Americans who want to help Israel in this tragic and challenging time. She also offers a vision of hope for a better Middle East and a renewed and revitalized Israeli tourist industry.
Shalom Iris, thank you for joining us today. How can the global Jewish community support Israel and its people as they fight a war for national survival?
Hi, That’s a great question! You can sit at home in the US today and be a frontline soldier in the diplomatic and public relations campaign! Start by emailing your government officials and representatives. Thank them for their support of Israel and encourage them to do even more.
Boycott and expose companies that support Hamas and the destruction of Israel. Rescind donations to universities and colleges that are tolerating venomous displays of anti-Semitism on campus, or whose moral cowardice is enabling it. Continue to support organizations that help fund Israel. Purchase from Israeli companies and donate to charities and relief efforts for displaced Israelis, war orphans and the wounded.
You mentioned colleges. Some Jews are afraid of recent college antisemitic activities and pro Hamas groups in the USA. What is your advice to Jews right now? How should they protect themselves?
In my opinion Jews should join organizations of their choice and listen to the experts. The strongest power we have is in advocacy and sending our message to our elected leaders. Only they can make a difference.
That said, a lot of anti-Semites are basically just bullies. There are also kids who’ve latched onto a fashionable campus cause without thinking it through. Strength in numbers, with a show of unity and an uncompromising voice is often enough to make bullies and extremists back down. Make them understand that today’s actions (and words) will have future consequences when they enter the job market. The same applies to radical college professors and administrators.
What should Jews worldwide be focusing on now?
It’s simple: Hasbara and public education. We need to get the TRUTH out there. So many people around the world are being fed a distorted media narrative. It is our responsibility to teach and change the perceptions of people who are being misinformed.
Are there any organizations or initiatives you recommend for those wanting to provide assistance or donations?
There are many wonderful Jewish organizations: ADL, AJC, your federation etc. I’m personally involved with Bring the Hostages Home, a vitally important grass root forum that is solely working for the hostages and their families. They raise awareness by advocating for the hostages and their families on social media, sending missions to different countries and being there for the families of the 240 hostages 24-7. As a volunteer advocate. I connect with people in Israel and make sure their voices are heard worldwide. We talk about the issues, explain the horrors that occurred and the history behind Hamas. The goal is to create international pressure for the release of the hostages, many of whom are small children and vulnerable elderly people.
What else have you and Gil Travel been doing during these challenging times?
We’ve been busy providing support and consultation for our clients – answering questions about refunds, postponements and travel insurance. We had to delay many of our groups that were expecting to travel to different destinations such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, UAE, and Israel this autumn. Where possible, we’re offering exciting fall/winter alternative tours to safe destinations such as Mexico, Argentina etc. We’re creating groups for Spring 2024 to Belgium, Berlin, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Brazil, and Argentina. Jewish travel is absolutely viable and there is an upsurge of interest in Jewish heritage tours. As Israel is in need for lots of assistance in many areas, we will be offering volunteer programs to Israel in the winter of 2024. These programs will be a combination of hands on education, volunteering and advocacy.
Jewish Travel in 2023/4
How has the current situation affected Jewish Travel?
Groups are shying away from travel to Muslim countries like UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Jordan and Egypt. They aren’t feeling safe to travel there now. Fortunately, I believe we will be able to rebuild trust in these destinations when the war is over.
A lot of our work is with large Jewish organizations. It is difficult to bring a group of Jewish leaders to a country that is (publicly) condemning our homeland and our right to defend ourselves. In fact, the governments of Arab countries we arrange tours to are privately supportive of Israel and want to see Hamas destroyed. They will happily welcome Jewish travel and Jewish tour groups again. The ‘Arab street’ will adjust in time too. We can rebuild trust.
What tips do you suggest for Jews traveling abroad right now?
Purchase travel insurance. Travel with a trusted agent who has a personal relationship with the guides, and land operator and will know what to do in case of emergency. Many destinations around the world are perfectly safe for Jews (and other Americans), but local knowledge is vital. would also recommend joining a volunteer Israel tour both to help Israel and to also gain an unbelievably hand on education to Israel, its people and its culture.
What advice do you have for Jewish Americans who are currently planning trips to Israel?
Be flexible in your planning and be ready to change your itinerary at short notice. When planning a volunteer component, be open minded. There are so many opportunities– You will not only be giving back to the country but also you will have a special connection with the people. Also, consider visiting during the Jewish holidays, they may be especially poignant and meaningful over the coming year.
How do you envision the recovery process in Israel once the war is over?
Israel has had to recover often in her short history. They have a strong ‘can do’ mentality and know how to bounce back quickly. Israelis will be delighted – and deeply touched – to see US Jews visiting Israel again. We would suggest though that the guest be patient – there may be some things that aren’t yet back to the way the things were ‘before.’ Patience, understanding and some leeway will go a long way.
Future Vision for Gil Travel
When the war ends, how do you see Gil Travel evolving to meet the needs and expectations of travelers?
First and foremost, we take our clients’ safety very seriously. We want them to feel free to explore the world’s most exciting destinations, and Jewish heritage sites, with a sense of personal security. We have a professional security consultant as part of our team whose expertise we trust. We will ensure that our clients have up to date security information for their destinations.
We will also ensure that in the unlikely event that there is an emergency, our ground team is ready to assist with any arrangements. Every group will have a top quality backup itinerary in case we need to make changes to a schedule.
How do you envision Jewish travel after the war?
I think that Jewish travel will be more important than ever. I expect to see an increase of interest in family travel (Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah tours) as both an educational tool to teach Jewish History as well as to build affiliation to one’s Jewish roots. I believe that a lot of American Jewish youth will want to make a deep connection and commitment to Israel after the war. It will be important for people of all ages and traditions to explore their Jewish heritage and to define what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century.
An organized tour should also include meetings with Jewish communal leaders, and perhaps with survivors of the massacres. We need an opportunity to talk about the challenges we share. There are really important opportunities for partnership and collaboration as we strive to build a sense of Jewish global peoplehood. Israelis are also desperately keen to make sense of what happened and to build a better future.
Are there any new services or adaptations that Gil Travel is considering?
Gil Travel has been in business for 50 years serving the Jewish community, enabling travel to Israel and other Jewish destinations. We have gone through challenging situations before, and are always adapting to new realities on the ground. We will definitely recommend to our partners abroad to offer more security on group trips. We will probably also develop more detailed travel recommendations for each foreign country. We are already liaising with our insurance company to ensure that all policies reflect new realities.
Overall, I’m positive about Jewish travel. The situation in Gaza is tough, but Israel is fighting a moral war to eradicate an evil entity. I’m confident that the IDF will win, and that the situation in the Middle East will stabilize. The aftermath of the terrible events of October 7th will continue for a long time, but I think that we’ll actually see an upsurge in interest in travel to Israel. There will inevitably be a healing process and Jewish Americans will want to show their solidarity and make a practical contribution to Israel’s recovery.
The situation in the wider Middle East may take a little longer to come right, but I’m quietly confident that (if there is no escalation of the war) it will be possible to arrange tours to the UAE and Bahrain, including Jewish heritage tours. We’ll assess the situation in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan carefully, but again, I’m ultimately optimistic about the future. The Middle East has been here before and is resilient. Whatever happens, there is an underlying sense of hospitality that is thousands of years old!