Where the Hell Are You?


JAFFA, ISRAEL—It’s getting kind of lonely over here. We don’t want you to think we’re upset about this, but terms like fair-weather friends, cowards, and chicken shit do come to mind.

We wait for you at the airport and in hotel lobbies. You’re no-shows.

The number of tourists coming to Israel from the United States is down 50 percent from last year—and falling fast. Soon there will be more French people here than Americans. What a disgrace!

The hotels are like ghost towns. Many of the shops that catered to you have closed up. So have some really good restaurants. Hotels are offering Israelis such good deals that you could sell your house and move into a suite at the Hilton if you wanted to save money.

“The situation is catastrophic,” says Micky Federmann, chairman of the Dan Hotel chain, mostly five-star palaces. “Almost nobody is coming. We have been abandoned by the Americans.”

Federmann says the biggest factor undermining U.S. tourism is the rather drastic warning issued by the State Department urging people not to travel to Israel:

“The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Ongoing violence has caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including to some American tourists. The potential for further terrorist acts remains high. American citizens in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza should also exercise extreme caution and avoid locations such as restaurants and cafés, shopping areas and malls, pedestrian zones, public buses, and bus stops and the areas around them as well as crowds and demonstrations.”

That about covers it: no shopping, no eating, no walking, no drinking. Thanks a lot, State Department.

None of us understand why Americans blindly obey such nonsense. If the Israeli government issued a statement like that about Jersey City, travel agencies here would make a fortune selling adventure tours to the tantalizingly “dangerous” place.

We know you’re still traumatized by September 11. Who isn’t? But we had a deal. We send our children to the army to protect the existence of the Jewish state and you drop by once or twice a year to show your solidarity and spend a lot of money.

What’s the big deal about this intifada anyway? We’ve been through it before. It’s probably no more dangerous here than it is driving in the States on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it’s probably a lot safer.

Some Israelis think you are boycotting us in protest over the way we’ve been acting lately toward the Palestinians: the humiliation at checkpoints, the destruction of property, the targeted assassinations. Well, a lot of us are not thrilled with our current policies. In fact, we are a bit nostalgic for the good old days when Israel was the world’s underdog.

Remember the 1967 Six-Day War, when Egypt, Syria, and Jordan (backed by Iraq, Kuwait, Sudan, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia) attacked us, intent on pushing us into the sea? Oh, what heady days those were! We were everybody’s darling. You Americans scoffed at State Department warnings of danger and poured into Israel by the thousands to help save us. What a morale boost you gave us!

We welcomed your help and kept you busy picking grapefruit while we took over the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Sinai, the Golan Heights, and Gaza in 132 hours and 30 minutes. Later, we returned all of Sinai to Egypt, in a “peace for land” formula. Unfortunately, they didn’t want Gaza back; the Palestinians there had been causing them too much trouble. What suckers we were not to have insisted.

Still, we made a “peace for peace” deal with Jordan, which had occupied the West Bank and Jerusalem in 1948 and had not enjoyed its sojourn there. Syria we are still not speaking to, which is OK since the Golan Heights are our only source of fresh cherries. That means we have made peace with two of our once hostile neighbors. If you bear with us for a while, we ought to be able to make an accommodation with our Palestinian cousins too.

We don’t like to point fingers, but some of the fault for the trouble we are having with our Palestinian neighbors lies with you. Guess where a lot of the trouble-making Jewish fanatics in the West Bank and Gaza settlements, not to mention Hebron, come from? That’s right, Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, the intifada and the resulting lack of tourists are playing havoc with our economy and those in the region. Israel earned $4.3 billion from tourism in 2000. This year we’ll be lucky to clear $2 billion.

“Tourism is very sensitive to geopolitical situations,” says Avi Rosenthal, general manager of the Israel Hotel Association. “We expected more than 3 million tourists this year; maybe we’ll get 1.5 million.”

Overall hotel occupancy is running at 44 percent this year, down from 62 percent in 2000. And the occupancy rate would be even lower if it weren’t for the large number of Israelis traveling on cheap package deals to resorts on the Dead Sea and in Eilat on the Red Sea. Things have gotten so bad that 10 percent of Israel’s 340 hotels have closed down or been turned into dormitories for new immigrants or student hostels.

Hotels and souvenir shops in the mainly Arab Christian towns are suffering the most. “Nazareth hotels have a 96 percent decrease in room occupancy because all the big hotels are closed, even the three big hotels built for the pope’s visit, the Marriott, the Renaissance, and Howard Johnson,” Rosenthal says. “Now there are just a few little hotels.”

There were 130,000 people working in tourism-geared industries last year—from guides, waiters, and souvenir vendors to diamond dealers and swimwear manufacturers. Some 60,000 have lost their jobs, adding to Israel’s 9.4 percent unemployment rate in a workforce of 2.5 million. “Tourism is a big chunk of our economy,” notes Rosenthal. “The problem is, we never experienced a crisis like this. We know where it began, but we don’t see an end to it.”

But the repercussions of the intifada are not only being felt in Israel. Unemployment has soared to over 50 percent in the West Bank and Gaza because Palestinians can no longer reach their jobs in Israel. Their economy is in deep recession, and experts predict it will shrink by at least 8 percent instead of the hefty growth forecast last year.

“Israel is one of the strongest tourist destinations in the world,” Rosenthal insists. “It is the cradle of history, holy to three religions. The pyramids, Petra, and Jerusalem is a very strong package. We have the past and we have the future, but our problem is in the present.

“The Americans should understand what we have understood for years,” Rosenthal adds.”Life has to go on. We shouldn’t let terrorists stop tourism, because that is what these people want.”

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