Home Stretch Israel

By David Cogswell

After traveling from the Red Sea at the southern end of Israel through the Negev Desert, the 40 travel agents participating IsramWorld’s Seminar at the Source arrived in Tel Aviv, where we were to spent our last three nights in Israel. The Mediterranean city was our headquarters for exploring the northern part of Israel. We set out early in the morning for Galilee. We went to Safed, a center for Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and one of Judaism’s holiest cities. We visited the Abuhav Synagogue and learned a little about the history of the Kabbalah, and then were turned loose in the artists’ quarter to explore a sparkling sector of arts and crafts shops. Then we drove to Capernaum, a city on a hill overlooking Lake Tiberias. Jesus lived there after he was “chased out of Nazareth,” according to our guide Shmuel Hadar. We had lunch at a hotel near the Sea of Galilee then headed to Nazareth. Shmuel brought the scenes to life with his discussion of the history of Jesus’ life when he was in Nazareth.

Tuesday morning began with all the agents assembling in a meeting room in the Carlton Hotel for the first thing that actually looked like what usually comes to mind when the word “seminar” is heard. Isram’s president, Ady Gelber, spoke to the agents, thanked them for their support, discussed Isram’s plans for the future, noting that Isram is focusing increasingly on the high-end market. He asked them how they liked Israel and got a rousing response. Though a number of the agents knew Israel well, the majority were visiting for the first time.

We also heard from Oren Drori, the deputy director general of marketing and administration for the Israel Ministry of Tourism. He too expressed heartfelt thanks to the agents for their involvement in Israel tourism. He reviewed some of the ministry’s recent efforts, noting that in 2008, Israel had its highest number of tourists ever, 3 million total, including 700,000 from North America. Israel Tourism launched a $5.6 million advertising campaign in September 2008 designed to reach beyond the traditional religious groups to the general public. It portrayed the country’s modern urban attractions as well as its better-known historical attractions and appeared to have been very successful, judging by the numbers. But now, he said, there are new challenges, stemming from the global economic crisis.

“We cannot disregard it and keep our heads in the sand,” he said. “But we are thinking in the long term. We see 2009 as a transition period. Our target is to maintain our numbers.” First-time visitors usually want to come back again and again, he said. “Their presumptions, conceptions and ideas of Israel are changed 180 degrees after one visit to Israel. They see that it is safe, modern, easy to get around. Their preconceptions are falling apart after a few days here.”

Certainly I could attest to that. I’m not sure if 180 degrees is an apt description of my change of mind after one visit. I would be more inclined to recall the old Indian tale about the blind men and the elephant. Each one touched a different part of the animal and each had a different and comically incomplete conception of what it was. Without being in Israel I had many ideas about it, but they were only ideas, which pale and vanish in the presence of the real thing.

Speaking of elephants, the white elephant in any discussion of travel to Israel is the issue of security in a place that is known by many only for the incidents of turmoil in the news. I personally never had any fears of traveling to Israel with Isram. The operator has been taking people there for decades, through everything that has happened. I knew that Ady Gelber would not send 40 travel agents and one travel trade reporter anywhere there was any chance of danger. Too much is riding on it. But I did hear some agents on the trip say that people had feared for them when they left. “You’re going to Israel? You must be crazy,” someone said, quoting the response of friends and family to their decision to make the trip.

But no one ever mentioned any feeling of fear or insecurity on the tour. We arrived in Israel on election day, so we were right in the thick of things. We traveled around extensively, going in and out of areas under control of the Palestinian authority, such as Bethlehem, and through Jewish, Muslim and Christian quarters of Jerusalem. We did not experience the tension one reads about and hears about. I am not doubting that the troubles have been very real and extremely difficult. But having heard so much about it, I was surprised to see how much the people of all different faiths and ethnicities do in fact live together harmoniously in Jerusalem and across the country. It reminded me again of a truism that occasionally comes to mind. The violence and turmoil of the world, as horrible as it can be, is an aberration of human civilization, not its normal state of being. The vast majority of people in most circumstances want only to get along, to take care of their families, make a respectable living and carve out a little space for themselves in the world. In Jerusalem, just as in New York or Marrakech, Jews, Muslims and Christians get along fine, and coexist peacefully most of the time.

Also present at the morning session was Stanley Morais, a representative of El Al, Israel’s national carrier. He made a convincing case that El Al, which means “most high”, is the fastest, safest and most comfortable way to fly to Israel from the U.S. After the seminar, Shmuel took us on what would essentially be our last bit of touring of Israel. We toured Tel Aviv and Jaffa, an oddly matched pair of sister cities. Tel Aviv is only a century old, while Jaffa is one of the world’s oldest ports, settled for 5,000 years.

We took a quick survey of Tel Aviv, stopping at Rabin Square, where Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered in 1995. We saw the Opera House and the Mann Auditorium, where the Israel Philharmonic is based. We walked on ancient cobblestone streets in Jaffa and looked out over the blue Mediterranean, and walked through a dense, crowded market full of a vast array of goodies. We had the afternoon free to prepare for our trip home the next day.

That night we had a most unusual farewell dinner at a restaurant where the waiters and waitresses perform as singers in between their trips between the kitchen and the tables. It was great fun. Having the singers step down from the stage to bring you your dinner somehow helped give the place an especially celebratory atmosphere, as if we are all entertainers, all players on our own little stages.

The next morning we had our last sightseeing excursion. We visited the ancient Roman port of Caesarea and saw its impressive ruins, including a theater that was perfectly usable after 2,000 years. One of our agents was a singer and she demonstrated the acoustics for us by singing the climactic phrases of The Lord’s Prayer.

Finally we went to Haifa where we stood on a ridge overlooking the blue, misty harbor and the Bahai Gardens. We could see on the horizon the shadowy presence of Lebanon, only a few miles away. We had our final afternoon free and headed to the airport in the evening for an after-midnight flight back to the States. It was back to my former space, but not back to my former frame of mind. For more information on the IsramWorld Seminar at the Source, see www.isram.us/groups/SAS09/. For more on IsramWorld, see http://isram.com. -- David Cogswell

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