Thank you, tourists 2018

Yet, you, dear tourists, are coming anyway, in greater numbers than ever before. I salute you.

HUNDREDS OF tourists walk towards Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
HUNDREDS OF tourists walk towards Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Imagine that you’re finalizing your summer travel plans and checking on the website of the country’s English-speaking newspaper to see what’s happening at your destination. You are taking your vacation in a small country, about the size of New Jersey, if you’re an American, or the size of Slovenia, if you’re European.
Bomb shelters are being opened in the North. A rocket has fallen into the country’s main water source, which, besides being a touted recreational area, is also on your itinerary because of its religious significance. In the South, close to the glorious Mediterranean coast, other rockets are falling. Terrorists using box kites and balloons are setting fire to heralded wheat fields and apiaries. You might be a bird-watcher, eager to see the 100 to 200 species that fly over the little country you are visiting. You’ve been horrified by stories of Boko Haram and ISIS strapping bombs to birds, and now you’ve seen an actual photo of “the fire falcon” found dead in the national park of the bird paradise. A soldier is shot on the border. A father of two is murdered by a terrorist in the outskirts of the capital city.
It’s not exactly an enticing picture. Yet, you, dear tourists, are coming anyway, in greater numbers than ever before. I salute you – all 2.1 million of you who came to Israel between January and June, the most for any half-year period, and those of you who have come and are still coming this summer.
Conventional wisdom holds that Israeli tourism is increasing because so much of the world feels unsafe to travelers; that Israel, with our alert security services and quick response, feels safer. Tourism Minister Yariv Levin believes we are seeing the results of his ministry’s expanded marketing, the incentives provided to airlines initiating new routes, and the open skies for economy airlines like Irish (!) Ryanair and Hungarian Wizz Air.
And, I predict, with ubiquitous music and wine festivals all over the country, constant blue skies and archaeological treasures, you’ll have a fascinating time and eat some of the world’s best food. You’ll be inspired by the religious sites and by learning about the feisty natives who turned sand dunes into a city that parties late at night and wakes up to invent the newest supercomputer. And you will live the Israeli paradox that, despite the headlines, you will feel both safe and cheerful.
HOW DO we, the locals, stay so positive – high scorers in happiness and optimism – living amid the constant aggression from the borders and from terrorism from above and within?
It’s not that we’re never afraid. With the frequent attacks and the world’s most aggressive terrorist state, Iran, threatening to destroy us, we would be stupid not to worry. Still, according to the latest survey conducted by professors Gabriel Ben-Dor and Eyal Lewin at the University of Haifa’s National Security Studies Center, our concern about external attack and terrorism has gone down. We’re less worried now, and the trend over the 17 years of the survey of more than 2,000 Israelis from every sector of society shows a decrease in fear for both Jews and Arabs. In a new gender measurement, it appears that we women worry more than men, even though we have more confidence that we can cope.
Israeli worry is more than compensated for by our optimism. Despite what we might think from the headlines that trumpet religious conflict, political, economic and security setbacks, the surveys belie any sense of national gloom. The latest statistics show we’re now even more optimistic than we’ve ever been before. On a scale of zero to six, we score 4.86 as optimists, making us among the most optimistic people in the world. According to the study, our Arab minority in Israel is less optimistic than the Jewish majority, but is also in an upward trend of optimism, moving toward closing the gap with its Jewish fellow citizens.
A word about our national expert on optimism. Prof. Ben-Dor, born in Europe in 1944, is a Holocaust survivor whose father was murdered when he was six months old. What does that say about our nation?
There are many theories of why we have such positive feeling about the future. One posits that our closeness – emotional and physical – to our large families provides an emotional and pragmatic social support and a safety net in bringing up children and overcoming crises. Another gives credit to a national health system that provides care for all.
Despite falling admiration for our courts and other civil institutions, we also score high on patriotism. Arab citizens are also becoming more and more patriotic, something you wouldn’t guess from listening to Knesset debates. Most patriotic are the Druze population, outranking Israeli Jews in their love of, and loyalty to, Israel.
Tourists will appreciate the patriotism of our local tour guides, known for their unabashed pride of country and upbeat narratives that enliven their incredible knowledge of every jot on their journey. They’re wonderful emissaries of our national achievements and values.
THERE ARE a few surprises in the reports about where you, dear tourists, hail from. We saw a 90% leap in tourism from Sweden this year, which might imply that Swedes don’t agree with their Foreign Minister Margot Wallström’s declaration that Israel should be investigated for alleged extrajudicial killings of Palestinians, or with Sweden’s state TV attributing US President Donald Trump’s December 6 announcement on Jerusalem to the extreme strength of the so-called “Jewish lobby in the United States.” Likewise, tourism from Poland grew a reported 136% despite the caustic debate over Poland’s Holocaust law. There was also a 55% increase from Germany, where many pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions groups get funding.
Numbers from the United States rose 39%, a personal delight because of the larger-than-usual numbers of my cousins and friends coming to Israel this summer. My Boston cousins are members of the Zamir Israel 70 Mission. Zamir is the leading Jewish choral group in the US. In addition to touring, they’ll be giving concerts around the country. I promise that when you hear them sing the prayer for Israeli soldiers or “Hatikva,” any concerns you may have about a conflict between Israel and the Diaspora will be waved away by the harmony.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.
“It’s not that we’re never afraid. With the frequent attacks and the world’s most aggressive terrorist state, Iran, threatening to destroy us, we would be stupid not to worry.”