Aaron Snyder

The Solidarity Mission: Inside Israel’s New ‘Tourist’ Industry

The Americans in our group meet at Newark Airport before embarking for Israel. (courtesy)
The Americans in our group meet at Newark Airport before embarking for Israel. (courtesy)

We only had 5 days, so there was no rest for the weary. After 2 flights and 12 hours, I landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, in the heart of Israel. After a pit stop at Aroma espresso bar, I was off. The group I was traveling with were on a so-called “solidarity mission” to Israel. After Oct 7th, Israel’s tourist industry, a vital part of their economy, was in free fall. In recent months, however, as airlines restore routes, there are signs of life. Part humanitarian, part tourism, part “March of the Living”, thousands of people from around the world are going back to Israel, not just to uplift a nation plagued by over 6 months of war, but themselves as well.

There were 6 of us, some meeting each other for the first time. Our hired driver showed up in a luxurious minibus with room for 20. Minibuses were cheapest, since “the tour companies have no use for them.” Our first stop was Sheba medical center – we had arranged to meet an American-Israeli soldier we knew who was injured badly in combat. Sheba is the largest hospital in Israel, where most of the thousands of Israeli soldiers injured since Oct 7th begin their long road to recovery.

As you enter the soldier ward, you pass young men with terrible injuries; many are missing limbs. You say hello but turn away quickly, careful not to stare too long. As we made our way down the hallway, a soldier in a wheelchair broke the ice: “What’s up guys?” He introduced himself as a father of 4 and told us to head out to the terrace. “Next time bring whiskey,” he quipped as he wheeled himself away.

The scene outside on the terrace is livelier. Here visitors bring gifts, order pizza, play music, and perform other services to boost the soldiers’ spirits. A cigarette is the quickest way to make friends, but all these kids really want is an ear. Groups of 2-3 visitors surround animated soldiers as they tell their stories. I was quickly drawn to one young man, a 22-year-old named Yaniv from a kibbutz (Hebrew word for a collective community) in northern Israel. He had burns all over his face and arms and could not move most of his fingers. He couldn’t understand why so much of the world was against Israel. “Growing up, we had very little. Everywhere I went in Gaza I saw signs of a nice life. The houses are nicer than anything we had in my neighborhood. I don’t understand all this talk of Gaza being a prison.” It was in one of these nice houses that he was seriously wounded, after an IED in the wall blew up, killing 3 of his friends instantly and maiming 16 others.

After Sheba, we headed to an underground parking lot that has been turned into the largest interchange of donated goods in Israel. Here at “Eran’s Angels,” as its known, a marketplace has developed where individuals and corporations donate everything from household essentials to beef jerky. This is a popular stop for Solidarity trips – it’s centrally located, run by a charismatic woman named Tamara, and you can get hands-on in whatever way suits you, whether its loading trucks, playing music, organizing donations, or packing boxes. Here is where we met Baruch, an 81-year-old volunteer, who was organizing new donations. Since Oct 7th he has yet to miss a day at his new office.

Spending time with injured soldiers on the terrace of Sheba Medical center. (courtesy)

The next morning, we headed to southern Israel. We started our day at the renowned “Resilience Center” (we’d call it a trauma center), which treats survivors of 10/7 near Kibbutz Gvulot.  Michal, one of the people who runs the center, was born in the Sinai Peninsula in the 1970s. She recounted how her family has uprooted itself twice for Peace; in 1980 from Sinai, and in 2005 from Gaza.  Despite having lived within the 1948 borders of Israel, her community has faced deadly rocket attacks and terror incursions for decades. “We didn’t realize at the time, but after the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, we were now at the vanguard of Israeli society and had to develop what we call the ‘emergency measure’.” She was referring to the roughly 15 seconds residents have to get to a safe shelter during a rocket attack. “15 seconds, you say to yourself, this is the price we pay for normal life. But what if you’re in the shower? What if your toddler is playing with his toys in the next room?” Their mayor had both legs blown off during one such attack.

Despite these challenges, she dedicated herself to giving her children a good life. “We cannot focus on the 5% bad, or it becomes 100%.” Miriam and the rest of the kibbutzim around Gaza were known as “Peaceniks”; largely secular, they farmed the land and made efforts to connect with Gazans, bringing thousands into Israel for work and healthcare. “Even now, we still seek peace. We can forgive them for what Hamas and others did on October 7th, but we won’t forgive them for claiming to be the victim. No matter how hard it gets, we will never be victims.”

A few miles up the road, at the Nova massacre site, I noticed a girl sitting alone next to a picture of a beautiful woman named Ofir tied to a bamboo post. It was so quiet you could hear the wind blow, until the sound of massive artillery fire shook the ground. The girl did not flinch. You are reminded that the souls who perished here have not been fully laid to rest.

One of hundreds of the individual Memorials we found at Nova. (courtesy)

After visiting the south, some much-needed levity was in order. We opted to support a local business and go on a food tour in a popular outdoor market known as Shuk HaCarmel. Local guides have been particularly hit hard and ours, a 42-year-old veteran of the tour business named Itzik, had to recently give up his home after losing most of his business.

We experienced Israel’s diversity through its food culture, starting with a Yemenite breakfast sandwich (a personal favorite), washed down by Arak liquor, and culminating with some Ethiopian comfort food. There we met a stunning Ethiopian women named Fanta. She came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1984 as part of Operation Moses. Her family was one of thousands of Ethiopian Jews fleeing oppression and discrimination in hopes of reaching Israel. They walked to Sudan, often going a week without food. Two of her siblings died, and her sister gave birth during the journey. While thousands of people lost their lives in hopes of reaching Israel, she is living what was once only a dream. She opened “Fanta” to tell her family’s story and connect with others. “Everyone likes to try something new,” she said with a warm smile. She is now a successful lawyer and restauranteur.

With the founder of ‘Fanta’ Restaurant, who’s family came to Israel as part of Operation Moses. (courtesy)

Before we knew it, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, arrived. In many ways, Shabbat is the pinnacle of the mission trip, a time to rest and reflect. We hadn’t taken much of a break since landing 72 hours earlier. In Israel, there is a special Shabbat experience for everyone, whether religious or not. (“Shabbat of a Lifetime” is one of many fantastic groups that provide authentic Shabbat experiences in Israel).

At our Shabbat dinner we met an impressive 25-year-old man named Levi. Born in the Netherlands, Levi joined the IDF at 18 and chose to make “Aliyah” (become an Israeli citizen). I asked him why he would join the army of a foreign country, and whether it was controversial to do so. (Confronting strangers after a few glasses of wine is standard fare on Mission trips.) “Because it’s my country,” he answered without hesitation. What makes his story even more astonishing, is that Levi was raised Christian. When he was 17 years old, the German government, as part of their efforts to provide restitution to Holocaust survivors, revealed to his grandmother that she was in fact Jewish. “Her mother took it to her grave; she couldn’t let go of the idea that we would never be safe as Jews. How many other families don’t know their true history?” Soon after, he was in the IDF, vowing to risk his life for the only Jewish state, where jews do not have to hide who they are.

As we boarded our planes back to the US, the rush of a nation at war started to subside. Hearing all these stories, these personal, honest anecdotes, from ordinary Israelis across the rich spectrum of Israeli society, was humbling. The power of their resilience and unity, especially after such a traumatic event as 10/7, was unlike anything I had experienced.

I thought about how the supreme leader of Iran once referred to the nation of Israel as a “spider’s web.” Impressive from the outside, but one which falls apart at the slightest pull. I encourage anyone with curiosity for the facts: find your own “Solidarity Mission” and see for yourself whether this is the case. To me, for the sake of future peace in the region, I hope Israel’s enemies find a better story to tell themselves.

About the Author
Aaron Snyder grew up in Newton, Massachusetts. He currently lives in Chicago. Professionally he is an options trader where he has worked for 17 years in financial investments. He lives in the Lincoln Park Neighborhood with his wife and two children, Benjamin and Eden.
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