2.5 mil. Christians visited Israel in 2019. Post-COVID, will they return?

A corona crisis of faith: "You can only be rejected so long by the one you love until you say that it isn’t meant to be," said Donna Jollay.

 CHRISTIAN PILGRIMS at the Via Dolorosa in 2019. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
CHRISTIAN PILGRIMS at the Via Dolorosa in 2019.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Donna Jollay has lost $3 million and thousands of clients since the start of the COVID-19 crisis.

“We are reaching a breaking point,” the owner of Jerusalem Tours International told The Jerusalem Post.

Jollay purchased her company, which specializes in Christian tourism, six months before the start of the pandemic. She said she has at least six groups that she has rescheduled five times since March 2020.

“We are seeing people lose hope,” she said. “They are giving up. You can only be rejected so long by the one you love until you say that it isn’t meant to be.”

Before the COVID-19 crisis, Christian visitors flooded Israel to visit the places they read about in the Bible, connect to their history and experience a glimpse of the future – when most believe Jesus will return and usher in a messianic era that begins in the Holy Land.

Evangelical Christians visit Israel on Passages - June 2021 (credit: CADE CHUDY)Evangelical Christians visit Israel on Passages - June 2021 (credit: CADE CHUDY)

But since the pandemic, all tourism – including Christian tourism – has totally dried up.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and the Health and Tourism ministries approved a plan on Thursday to allow vaccinated and recovered tourists into the country beginning Nov. 1, despite a revelation that at least a handful of cases of the new AY4.2 variant have entered Israel in the last few days. But even as the government approves the plan to open the gates of Ben-Gurion Airport once again to individual travelers, it is unclear whether Christians, who used to account for the largest percentage of annual tourists, will come back the way that tour operators surely hope.

For perspective, before COVID, Israel had reached 4.5 million tourists a year, of which 2.5 million or 55% were Christians, according to data released by the Tourism Ministry at the end of 2019.

The majority (84%) visited Jerusalem, and 65% Tel Aviv, as well as many holy sites throughout Israel, from the Jordan River to the West Bank settlements they call the “biblical heartland” – home to ancient Shiloh, city of the Tabernacle, for example.

In May 2021, when Israel first launched a pilot program to let in small groups of vaccinated tourists, the first to land in the country was a group of 12 Christians led by Tom Zelt from Prince of Peace Church in Fremon, California. The travelers were students at the Concordia Seminary in Missouri, visiting as part of their study program.

But they were few and far between, as Israel’s coronavirus travel rules have kept the vast majority of visitors at bay. The government promised in June, July and again this month to open the country to individual tourists, but no formal announcement had been made until Thursday. And in the release from the Prime Minister’s Office it was already stressed that the plan “would be updated according to developments and the discovery of new variants.”

On Wednesday night, the Health Ministry announced it had discovered an 11-year-old boy infected with the more contagious AY4.2 Delta variant, a “descendant” of the widespread Delta variant. On revelation of the variant, Bennett immediately announced that he might once again reconsider plans for allowing visitors into the country, although he did approve a plan on Thursday.

The plan, which should increase access to Israel for some people, is rooted in Israel’s definition of fully vaccinated. Last month, the Health Ministry redefined fully vaccinated as only individuals who were inoculated within the last six months or received a third booster shot since then. Recovered individuals are also considered protected if they were sick within the last half-year, but any longer than that, they also require a vaccine.

Unvaccinated individuals, even those who take a PCR test, are not considered protected and cannot come to Israel.

“If Israel continues with the requirements they have, they will lose at least 30% of Christian tourists and maybe even 50%,” Jollay said.

According to her, many Evangelical Christians, who account for the vast majority of the country’s Christian visitors, will not come if vaccination is a prerequisite for entry. Some, she said, will not get the shot because they have “strong opinions” against it. Others are recovered and believe they have natural immunity and “don’t want to put something in their bodies that they don’t need and could cause more complications.”

Israel’s policy of requiring people who recovered more than six months prior to receive one dose is rooted in research that found that the antibodies of recovered people wane, but that a post-infection booster offers as much or even more protection than the three-shot protocol.

Even more problematic, in the United States, booster shots are not readily available except to people over the age of 65 or those who are at high risk of catching coronavirus or developing severe disease. That means that in order for Americans who were vaccinated at the start of their country’s campaign to come to Israel and not be isolated for a minimum of seven days, they have to break the law and get an extra jab.

“No one in my tour groups can meet this standard,” Jollay said.

Benji Shavit, managing director of Regina Tours Israel, is having a similar experience. Before COVID, he brought 10,000 Christian visitors to Israel each year.

“Now, I have zero,” he said, noting that he recently laid off all 50 members of his staff because the government’s furlough program ended and there is no cash flow. Rebuilding the business that his family started 30 years ago, even if the government lets tourists in, will take a long time.

Large wholesalers who generally sell tour packages to the Holy Land have taken Israel off of their lists of destinations, Shavit explained, and it won’t be put back on overnight.

“All of those people who specialized in selling Israel in those offices either were moved out of the company or to deal with other destinations,” he said. “To bring back a destination is one of the most difficult things to do in our business. For some of these large wholesalers, once they make the decision to take off a destination, it could take four years to get it back.”

Shavit said he has lost hope because every time it looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel, the government derails its plans, and the tour operators have now realized “it is the light of the train coming toward us.”

He called the government’s policies “insane” and “crazy,” and asked: If Israelis can travel in and out of the country, what difference would it make to allow people with foreign passports to follow the same policies?

This would include letting unvaccinated people who test negative for coronavirus to enter Israel if they agree to isolate.

On the one hand, Prof. Cyrille Cohen, head of the immunology lab at Bar-Ilan University, agreed: “If both are vaccinated, it is just more of the same.”

He said he would not expect a major change in the probability per person to get new infections if the skies reopened.

However, he added that from the moment the number of people entering Israel is higher, “we multiply the chances of having new variants.”

WITH EVANGELICAL Christians, the situation is even more complex.

Evangelicals are the least likely to be vaccinated of any other Christian group in the United States, according to data reported by Pew Research Center.

Only 57% of white Evangelical Protestants have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Pew reported earlier this month, compared to 82% of Catholic adults, 73% of white non-Evangelicals and 70% of black Protestants.

Moreover, while most US adults who regularly attend religious services voice confidence in their clergy to provide guidance on the coronavirus vaccines, Pew also showed, white Evangelical clergy are least likely to encourage getting the jab.

In general, among US adults who regularly attend religious services of any faith, 39% have been encouraged by clergy at their houses of worship to get the vaccine, while most (54%) say their clergy have not said much about the vaccines either way, according to Pew.

The percentage drops to only 33% among Protestants in general: Historically black Protestants 64%, mainline Protestants 42% and only 21% among white Evangelical Protestants.

“Most of my congregation is not willing to get COVID shots at all – or at least they are not crazy about it,” said Pastor David Swaggerty, senior pastor at CharismaLife Ministries in Ohio. However, he said that those who want to come to Israel are willing to bend.

“My wife and I took Moderna in January and February, in anticipation of being able to get back to Israel – that was our motivating factor,” the pastor told the Post.

His wife, who weighs only 98 pounds (44.5 kg.), developed a blood clot from the jab which required hospitalization. Nonetheless, he said the couple will get the booster just to return to the Holy Land. They are hopeful that a tour they pushed off since spring 2020 will happen next month.

“We really do want to be there and to come as quickly as we can,” he said.

Swaggerty says that in his circles, most pastors and members of the Evangelical community are “still favorable about coming to Israel,” especially if they had been to Israel before and know what they are missing.

“I do know some people that decided they did not want to take the COVID shots and because of that canceled their plans altogether, but I think they are the minority,” Swaggerty said. “Evangelicals are anxious to get back into the swing of things, and Israel has been a focal point for most of them.... I think you will see a flood of Evangelicals that are going to come back full circle.”

Christians United for Israel, the largest pro-Israel Christian organization in the US, with more than 10 million followers, said it has already had six trips planned to Israel over the next six weeks.

“These trips will include NFL players, DC influencers, entrepreneurs and pastors,” said CUFI co-executive director Shari Dollinger.

Pastor Ray Peters, the senior pastor of Community Church of Keystone Heights in Florida, managed to get into Israel with a small group of followers earlier this month. Many of the travelers were people who had booked with him back in April 2020.

“We had to jump through hoops,” he said with a laugh. “Of course, we are all vaccinated, and we understand that. Some got the boosters, if they were required. We all took a test before we left, two on arrival, and then another one before we left. We had to do some extra things, but it was worth it.”

He said COVID-19 did not cause Christian Zionists to lose interest in Israel. “If anything, we are strong, our support is stronger.”

The pastor is already planning another trip for October 2022, and said he knows other pastors preparing for missions, too.

“It will be a hurdle to cross, with the vaccinations, and it is a decision that each person will have to make,” Peters said, adding that he believes that, on reflection, Christians will “trust in God” and get the vaccine in order to “be a blessing to Israel.”

CHRISTIANS HAVE often been the people who come to support Israel during its hardest times. They showed up in solidarity during the Second Intifada, and have flown into the country and headed down South to connect with their Israeli brothers and sisters during wars with Hamas.

“They are willing to lay down their selves and their lives to support Israel,” Jollay said. “It is a very hard and sad situation for the Evangelicals to understand: Why isn’t Israel taking them into consideration, when they are the largest supporters, when they come when no one else comes?

“We are already in a major crisis of support for Israel,” she said.

Jollay highlighted what she believes is an “already catastrophic decrease in support of Israel” by younger generations of Evangelicals.

The rate of support for the State of Israel among Evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 has declined by more than half between 2018 and 2021 – from 69% to 33.6% – according to a study published in June by Tel Aviv University.

The 11-day Gaza war offered a glimpse of the high level of antisemitism bubbling under the surface in the United States, when an ultra-Orthodox Jew was nearly run over by a van of pro-Palestinian activists shouting anti-Israel slogans, and a Jewish man was beaten up while eating at an outdoor restaurant in Los Angeles.

“This is not a theory of fear,” said Jollay. “This is the reality. And turning your back on and rejecting or blocking the very people who support Israel, not letting them into the land, being told they are not even wanted in Israel – it is insane in the current climate.”

She said that “Israel has been so cautious and protective of its citizens, and that is wonderful and beautiful, but the country should apply the same standards to the Evangelicals who are trying to support them.”

Shavit added that Evangelicals are the most loyal market for the country, and that Israel is the only country they have as their “holy place.”

But like Jollay, he stressed, “Even your greatest love, when it disappoints you, you stop loving it.”

Until the government approves Bennett’s outline, and until Nov. 1 passes without health or other officials reneging on these plans to let tourists into the country, it is likely that these tour operators and their travelers will be hesitant to make any new flight plans.