On a recent cruise we stopped off in Monte Carlo – a city that gives credit to its country, Monaco, being known as the tax haven of the wealthy. How could it be otherwise when we witnessed the rows of sparkling Lamborghini, Rolls Royce and Bentley cars parked around the city? Will it come as a surprise to learn that hotels in Israel are ranked the fourth most expensive in the world, with Monaco ranked at the top of the list, Oman second and Mauritius third? Israeli hotels are even more expensive than those in Switzerland.
Returning home, in the aftermath of Operation Protective Edge, much media attention was given to the massive loss of summer tourism due to the conflict. Travel agents were bemoaning the fact that this has been a disastrous period. A campaign is being launched to attract tourists back to Israel. One of the biggest challenges this country faces is the need to provide hotels whose prices compare favorably with the likes of Cyprus and Turkey (in its heyday not so long ago, a chosen favorite for Israelis). If we want tourists here, it is up to us to ensure that we provide accommodation comparable to these resorts rather than being compared to Monaco.
Many of us have family and friends who are horrified to learn the prices Israeli hotels charge. What Israel needs is more reasonably priced, budget family hotels.
Tourism, to my mind, is not only about having a holiday in Israel. It is an opportunity to experience a country far removed from the too frequent negative projection that appears in the international media. Whilst last year was a bumper year for tourism – in fact 2013 broke all previous records – of the 2.9 million visitors (excluding 578,000 one-day visitors coming off the cruise ships) only 28 percent were Jewish. This in itself should be of concern to us all. What past figures have shown is that it is usually the same Jewish tourists who come on a regular basis – primarily those with children and homes here. We are lacking in attracting first-time Jewish tourists.
There is no doubt that the situation will continue to deteriorate for a number of reasons. The generation born after the creation of the State of Israel does not have the same emotional connection as those of us who remember a world without a Jewish state.
This is the generation that has grown up in a world where Israel has always been there – yes, a Jewish country, but, in many cases, “just another country.”
As Jewish identity has dissipated during these past 66 years – we see the result in the frightening levels of assimilation primarily through intermarriage.
In the United States for example the overall rate of marrying out is 58%, reaching a level of 71% among the non-Orthodox. This coupled with a lack of knowledge of Jewish history, a misplaced “understanding” of Israel based on media projection and never having visited the country does not bode well for the future.
Tourism can be broken down into various sectors of the Diaspora community.
For sure, for the family holiday, we need to provide budget hotels whose prices are comparable to popular resorts worldwide. Young families should have the opportunity of showing their children what it is to touch the only Jewish country in the world. To give them a taste, especially at a time of rising anti-Semitism, how it feels to be the majority in a country and the freedom this gives those of us fortunate enough to live here. It can never be too early to give a child this experience.
The second sector, which is of paramount importance, is the teenager and university student. In former days as an active Zionist in the United Kingdom I would participate in the annual Zionist General Council meetings held in Jerusalem. Year after year there was a clarion call for aliya and year after year I would go to the podium and say that we cannot talk about aliya in a vacuum – it is a process. It starts with bringing young people to Israel – the manifold Israel Experience programs are a terrific introduction, but require follow up which, sadly, up until today is missing. This is true too of the innovative Birthright Program that brings young people – primarily from the US – to Israel for a free (to participants) 10-day program. Again there appears to be little follow-up, and while it is indisputable that a taste of Israel is better than none it is an opportunity missed.
Today, when Europe is experiencing unprecedented anti-Semitism that is being compared to prewar Germany, offering similar free Israel experience opportunities to European youngsters would be a great idea.
As Jewish students prepare to return (or commence) university we must all be aware of the tremendous anti-Israel bombardment which will pervade their campus life. Yes this is not new – it has been going on for years, but there can be no doubt today that what our Jewish students will face is unprecedented.
They will encounter well-funded campaigns against an “apartheid Israel.”
At the annual “Israel Apartheid Week,” now in its 11th year, they will be confronted with anti-Israel and at times anti-Semitic rhetoric, that is even delivered by some Israeli academics.
This, coupled with massive Arab funding over many years to universities both in the US and Europe, contributes towards a sense of “drowning” for the average Jewish student. Sadly, fewer and fewer Jewish students are prepared to stand up and be counted.
They prefer not to involve themselves in the battle for Israel – rather they want to concentrate on their studies and enjoy campus life.
There can be no doubt that in terms of “touching Israel” the student age group is the most important of all. I say this because we know that future leadership will evolve from universities – not only the leaders of our Jewish communities – but also worldwide political leadership. What is required is an intensification of programs in Israel that enable our Jewish students to be armed with the facts that relate to Israel as it is, rather than the too frequently negative version that is media projected. Most of the Zionist youth movements offer a “Gap Year” program between school and university.
The Jewish Agency’s Masa program caters for ages 18 to 30, again offering a year’s experience in Israel. What is now required is an all-out campaign to attract these young people to Israel. In addition funding must be found to enable as many as possible to participate in such projects – no one should be excluded for financial reasons.
What’s the good news? Both the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government have recognized the urgency of addressing this challenge. At February’s meeting of the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors, the accent was placed on Jewish identity rather than immigration. The government has initiated a “World Jewry Joint Initiative” backed by the Prime Minister’s Office together with the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry with a proposed budget of NIS 187 million that is expected to be matched on a two-to-one basis by Diaspora communities. The program, set to begin in 2015, is aimed at young Jews around the world from ages 12 to 35.
It is my view that the success of these initiatives will be based on how many young people will have the opportunity of experiencing Israel, meeting their Israeli peers and understanding, above all else, the full meaning of having a Jewish state. This will, without doubt, intensify their Jewish identity and heighten their pride in this modern democratic country. The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in public affairs and status-of- women issues.