Rescuing accidental tourists

When Israelis find themselves in trouble abroad, they call home – or at least the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem.

Ilana Ravid_521 (photo credit: Liat Collins)
Ilana Ravid_521
(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.
On 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 mentality.”
“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.
In fact, 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.
Her three-member 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 work.”
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 her life.
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.
Shani 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 should do.
“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 terrified.
Many of the cases she handles concern backpackers who have apparently disappeared.
“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 somewhere.”
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 warnings.
“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 independent.”
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 countries.”
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 Israeli.
For the large-scale emergencies involving Israelis, such as terror attacks or natural disasters, most of the work moves over to the Crisis Management Center.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.
Most cases, however, are not so dramatic and do not involve coming to the aid of colleagues.
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.”
In 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 about them.