(photo credit: Liat Collins)
Most Israeli backpackers have two mothers worrying about them while they’re
trekking overseas, the one they know and the one who hopes she never has to get
to know their names. That second mother is Ilana Ravid and her official title is
Director for Israelis Abroad, the Consular Affairs Bureau, Ministry of Foreign
Affairs. Her office is a modest room in the ministry’s modern building in
Jerusalem – and, of course, her mobile phone which is always with her.
her desk is a well-thumbed notebook, filled with neat handwriting, and she seems
to rely on the information contained in that book, and what she carries around
in her head, more than on her computer.
When I visited last week, the
ministry was getting ready for its annual dinner hosting foreign
diplomats. Ravid’s room is physically far removed from the fancy hall,
and her work is a far cry from the glamour (erroneously) associated with
diplomatic life. She deals with cries for help.
Israel is not the only
country with a department dedicated to helping “accidental tourists,” but many
of the stories told by Ravid, and her predecessor in the post, Orit Shani, have
an only-in-Israel feel to them.
I first thought of asking about those
stories during last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan when I heard a caller
on Yaron Deckel’s morning radio show complaining that the Israeli embassy was
not doing enough to help him. As the conversation went on, it became apparent
that the man had lived in Japan for at least 10 years and had no intention of
returning to Israel in the foreseeable future. But when it came to being
“rescued,” he naturally turned to Israel for help. Call it the “Entebbe
“Even people with dual nationality, traveling on a different
passport, prefer to ask us for help,” says Ravid, who’s been with the ministry
for some 30 years.
She diplomatically declines to comment on the specific
Japanese case, but even though she has been in this particular job for just four
months she already has her fair share of stories, and some have been passed down
as office lore since the department was established in 1998.
both Ravid and Shani, who now heads the Crisis Management Center and Situation
Room which receive most of the initial emergency calls, point out that the
ministry is studying how other countries operate to draw up limits and
boundaries. But, admits Ravid, it will be hard to implement them. “This job is
about using common sense but also your heart,” she says.
department generally receives between 10 and 20 calls a day. “Sometimes it’s
only one call but it’s an intensive case... Often our work is detective
She frequently solves cases in a very Israeli way. The phrase “Kol
Yisrael arevim zeh lazeh,” “All Jews are responsible one for another,” is more
than a saying.
Ravid tells of a woman in a remote spot in Europe who
dialed the police in Israel to say she was going to commit suicide. The Israel
Police contacted the Foreign Ministry and “with the consul’s help, we contacted
a local Chabad rabbi who spoke to her, and met with her the next day,” saving
An elderly couple found themselves in trouble in Ukraine when
the wife had an accident and needed hip surgery, which was not covered by
insurance, and the husband began to show signs of trauma.
“In that case,
the consul mobilized the local Jewish community which helped provide everything,
including a nurse, until they could come back home, and we made sure that they
received help from social services in Israel, too,” Ravid says.
recalls a case of a young woman who called the Situation Room (hadar matzav) in
Jerusalem to say her boyfriend was choking on a fish bone and ask what she
“Can you imagine the citizen of any other country calling
their Foreign Ministry under those circumstances?” asks Shani, rhetorically. The
ministry staffer who took the call told the young woman to feed her boyfriend
bread, and it worked.
“Let me guess: The guy on duty was a former IDF
medic,” I venture. “Of course,” says Shani. “Medics and mothers know what to do
in such situations.”
Most of one wall in Ravid’s office is taken up with
a collage of photos of her two daughters (the other has a map of the world). One
of her daughters is saving up for a post-army trek and Ravid admits she is
Many of the cases she handles concern backpackers who have
“Some of the families seem to think I can press a
button on my computer and track them down,” says Ravid. And Shani also notes
that families in Israel in the technological age “don’t realize how hard it is
to make contact from some remote village without electricity in Laos or
Both suggest that trekkers leave details of their planned
route with their families; use only licensed local guides; register with the
Israeli representative, and check the ministry website for travel advice and
“You get a feel for when there’s a real problem, based on
location, weather conditions and so on,” says Ravid.
She, like Shani, who
held that position for five years, often tells families to wait for a Friday
night or erev hag (holiday eve), for a call. “That’s when Israelis make
contact,” she says.
Not all travelers who have disappeared actually want
to be found, notes Ravid. “Sometimes, they are just trying to get away and be
The week of my visit, the ministry was relieved at the news
that two backpackers missing in Bolivia had been found and rescued with the help
of their insurance companies in Israel. (The ministry helps with the
coordination, but does not launch or fund rescue efforts “unless it’s something
major like in an earthquake or tsunami.”) Not all the stories have a happy
ending: “I quickly learned to talk about transporting ‘the coffin’ rather than
‘the body,’” says Ravid.
The ministry also deals with many travelers in
distress due to some kind of psychiatric problem; sometimes drug-related,
sometimes because they have stopped taking medication.
“Lots and lots” of
the department’s time is dedicated to helping Israelis who have been arrested.
At any given moment, there are some 500 Israelis either in prison or detained
abroad. “We help make sure they are being held in humane conditions, receiving
kosher food and medications, have contact with their families, and help them
find a local lawyer,” notes Ravid.
A major headache is the increasing
number of young Israelis arrested for working illegally in the US or Canada,
most of them selling products in malls.
“They don’t realize they can be
detained for months,” says Ravid. “It’s sad. They also don’t understand the
long-term implications of having a criminal record in those
People also forget that they need to check about the
political situation in other countries – that there’s a war in Congo, or a
revolution somewhere else. Not all the dangers have something to do with being
For the large-scale emergencies involving Israelis, such as
terror attacks or natural disasters, most of the work moves over to the Crisis
Located in a missile-proof section of the building, it
is lined on one side by cubicles with computers and phones and is dominated by a
large, oval table and a plasma screen. This is the room the prime minister came
to when the Israeli embassy in Cairo was stormed in September.
cases, however, are not so dramatic and do not involve coming to the aid of
Ravid, who accepts my description of her as “the mother of
all travelers,” has plenty of sound advice but her best recommendation is:
“Insurance, insurance, insurance. Buy the most comprehensive you can.”
typical Jewish mother mode, she sounds as if travelers should be prepared for
the worst, as they set off to enjoy themselves – leaving her at home to worry