A few months ago, I was in Nashville for the massive Christian broadcasters’ conference known as the NRB.
Maybe not surprisingly, there were a lot of Israelis at the conference, hawking their wares to this lucrative, pro-Israel market.
One of the largest displays on the expo floor was the information booth and lounge of the Israeli Tourism Ministry, a fun place to meet people and get some kosher Israeli chocolate in the huge and not-so-kosher Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center. Tourism Minister Uzi Landau himself was on hand to meet and greet pastors and Christian media in the hopes of getting them interested in bringing more groups to Israel.
I was invited to a press conference that the Tourism Ministry held, at which the minister was sitting on the dais while Chaim Guten, the Israel tourism commissioner for North and South America, was unveiling the new 2014 campaign to reach potential Christian Evangelical tourists.
Guten first went through the numbers. He said that 2013 was the best year yet for tourism to Israel, with an astounding 3.5 million tourists arriving, and the US and Canada contributing about 20 percent of that number. Guten explained Israel’s efforts to reach the Evangelical market, including an aggressive and traditional new media campaign, and education for pastors on how to organize trips. In total, $2 million was spent on outreach to the North American Christian market last year.
So far, so good. Tourism is a great thing. People see the land, the history, they share it with others and create a vibrant tourism economy; everyone benefits. However, at this point, Guten said, “Now I would like to show you the campaign that we are running in the United States Christian market.”
Suddenly a radio ad began to play that featured dramatic background music and the voice of a smooth-talking, Bible-belt-accented southern man passionately declaring: “You’ve just stepped inside the Garden Tomb where Jesus rose from the dead. Hallelujah! Three days after they laid his body here, the stone that blocked the cave could not block the lord Jesus Christ. He stood and walked out of that tomb. His resurrection from the dead, his journey into everlasting life, these moments have never felt so real, so close, as they are in this very place.
Then a second ad: “Come to the Holy Land and walk in the footsteps of Jesus. From Nazareth to the birthplace of his ministry, the shores of Galilee. Stand where he stood, be baptized in the Jordan river. Hallelujah – he is everlasting! Ask your pastor or visit GoIsrael.com to learn more about making the journey that will transform your faith in God and His word. Experience Israel – you will never be the same.”
Just to make it clear, this is not an ad put out by Christians United for Israel or the Fellowship for Christians and Jews. No, this is straight-up State of Israel. Shocking, no? Now, there are a few problems here. No doubt that Christianity has deep historical roots in the Land of Israel, and Christian sites must be protected by the State of Israel. However, I for one, am not interested in my tax shekel being used to promote the teachings of Christianity, even to Christians. While Israel must respect other people’s beliefs and rights to those beliefs, the Jewish State should not be the country that produces material that promulgates Christianity.
But, you’ll say, this is marketing to the Christians.
This is what they believe, and it results in lots of tourism and money.
Actually, it isn’t.
After the Tourism Ministry played this audio in Nashville, there was a Q&A period in which pastors and Christian media folks got to ask their questions.
A pastor got up and stated that he brought groups to Israel every year, and every year his tour groups filled out forms after the trip. Consistently, he said, group after group, year after year, responded that visiting Shiloh in Samaria, the place the Tabernacle stood for 369 years and where the story of Samuel the prophet began, had been the highlight of the trip.
Why, then, he asked, do we never see the promotion of Shiloh or other classical Jewish biblical sites in the tourism outreach to Christians? Landau gave an unsatisfying technical answer, saying that if any group wanted to visit Shiloh, they simply could. But the question of the promotion of Shiloh, and the like, lingered on. After the press conference was done, I pulled over a ministry official and told him how inappropriate I thought the ads were, and how ineffective they were for the audience. I tried to explain to him that Christians do not need to hear from us about Jesus – rather, they want us to show them the part of the Bible we share and of which we are the custodians: the Old Testament. Israel is chock full of the authentic stuff Bible-lovers love. Abraham and David, Ruth and Deborah, Isaiah and Zechariah are powerhouse biblical celebrities.
We can promote our own history and authentic culture without pandering and without our Jewish country teaching about Jesus.
The ministry official gave me the old “son, why don’t you let the grownups handle this” blow off. But as Providence would have it, Pastor Davis, who had asked the question about Shiloh, came out of the press conference, and I pulled him into our conversation. I asked him point blank what he really thought of those ads.
“Frankly, I thought they were cheesy,” he said.
Then he went on, diplomatically, to tell the ministry official that Evangelicals came to Israel not only to follow in the footsteps of Christianity, but to see the Old Testament come to life through the miracle of the rebirth of Israel. Davis told us that he uses an Orthodox Jewish tour guide to give an authentic representation of the stories of the Torah and the modern life of Israel, and only then does the pastor himself show the group the Christian sites.
However, as is evident from the Tourism Ministry’s ad campaigns and websites, instead of developing authentically Jewish themes for Israel to be proud of and for the world to consume, the State of Israel is investing millions in developing infrastructure for Christian-narrative tourism, including the creation of “The Gospel Trail: Following in the Footsteps of Jesus” and “A Holy Land Pilgrimage in the Footsteps of the Virgin Mary.”
When Israelis travel – and we love to travel – we seek out authentic places and authentic people.
We will go to great lengths to find exotic locations, hike through jungles, traverse waterfalls and embed ourselves in foreign cultures, all for the sake of having an authentic experience. Why would we think that when people come to our land, they wouldn’t want the same? However, there are two stumbling blocks for Israel when it comes to promoting genuinely Jewish, Hebrew-Bible tourism.
First, we Israelis seem to have a problem embracing our own biblical narrative. Many Israelis feel alienated from the Bible stories, and many simply don’t know them. The Tourism Ministry officials sitting on the dais at a Christian conference, not outwardly observant men, seemed uncomfortable and badly matched to the religio- spiritual outlook of the audience before them.
Second, we have allowed the very places where the Bible happened – Shiloh, Hebron, Shechem (Nablus) and even parts of Jerusalem – to become disputed, the Jewish narrative of these places being replaced by a Palestinian one. A poignant example of this identity theft is the ancient tomb of Rachel, which UNESCO recognizes only as the Bilal bin Rabah mosque.
In this kind of atmosphere, selling Jesus to tourists is easier than selling the Old Testament, because many Christian stories happened in the Galilee, safe and far from the political tensions of Judea. And on a deeper level, focusing our energy on the Christian story keeps us from facing the Jewish narrative from which many of us have become estranged.
But consumers are savvy. They can smell a fake, and they will demand authenticity. Therefore, we’d better start getting familiar with our own Bible, and comfortable with the idea that some people like us for who we were back then and who we really are today. ■ The writer is Israel’s only English-language talk show host on broadcast radio (Galei Israel FM), the director of pro-Israel NGO Kumah, and a graduate of the Cardozo School of Law.