NEW YORK (Oct. 30)
In the face of widespread cancellations of visits to Israel by some Jewish groups and individuals, a number of American Jewish organizations have decided to press ahead with their original travel plans.
Still others, deterred by neither the Persian Gulf crisis nor Israel’s recent decision to distribute gas masks to its citizens, are planning new trips to Israel as a sign of political support.
“At this moment of crisis, it is an honor as well as a responsibility to demonstrate our Zionist commitment to Israel,” Carmela Kalmanson, national president of Hadassah, said in a statement released last week. “Our resolve is reinforced by the knowledge that we stand together now, as in the past, as one united family.”
Hadassah is not making any changes in its schedule of groups going to Israel, which include a planned educational mission for nurses in November, a December trip for college-age youth and a winter stay in Netanya for older people.
“I’m very proud of our membership,” Kalmanson told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We have lots of groups coming and going. We don’t want to be called heroes, it’s a principle here.”
The sudden spate of very vocal support for Israel trips, be it newly organized tours or already planned national conventions, is a welcome relief for Israeli tourism officials, who have seen the number of visitors decline dramatically since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.
HOTEL OCCUPANCY RATES DOWN
While the first half of 1990 saw 1.6 million people visit Israel — a record number since the start of the Palestinian uprising in December 1987 — tourists’ fears were exacerbated by recent events in Israel, including the Oct. 8 riots on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, tourism officials said.
Hotel occupancy rates were down around 30 percent in September, and there was great fear Israel’s economy would be battered by the sudden cessation of tourism, officials said.
The exact number of group cancellations was not available, but at least five large United Jewish Appeal missions were postponed over the past few weeks. Women’s American ORT, which establishes training programs in Israel, recently changed the location of its national board meeting from Jerusalem to Washington.
But many Jewish organizations, from major ones to small community groups, have announced upcoming tours, some to leave within weeks, while others are scheduled for the spring.
“We are determined that Saddam Hussein not become the travel agent for American Jewry,” said a statement released by the board of directors of the Jewish National Fund. “We are a free people and we are proud of our Jewish homeland, and it is for us to determine when we will visit it.” Plans for an April trip were reaffirmed.
Kesher, a Zionist program for people who have traveled to Israel on group programs, has announced a four-day trip to Israel in December.
“Kesher, as a Zionist program, feels it is our responsibility, at this crucial time to further encourage tourism, contribute to the Israeli economy, and show solidarity with the State of Israel more than ever before,” the organization said in a statement.
Other groups hastily putting together trips to Israel as a sign of support include the American Jewish Committee, the Israel Seminars Foundation and Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue here that is organizing “Operation L’Hitraot.”
“When you don’t have to wait on line to take the elevator in the Hilton, you know there’s a problem,” said Sandy Eisenstat, an attorney who came up with the idea for the synagogue trip after visiting Israel in early October.
“For the first time, the waiters and taxi driver were asking, “Where are the Americans when we need you?’ “Eisenstat told The New York Jewish Week.
VISITS TO THE WALL A PRIORITY
Despite the U.S. State Department placing East Jerusalem on the list of places Americans should use extreme caution in visiting, many groups are making a visit to the Western Wall one of their priorities.
A group of 500 people from two United Jewish Appeal missions spent last Friday evening praying at the Western Wall. The leader of the entourage said there was little fear over security.
“It was one of the most exciting moments of my life,” said Marvin Lender, UJA’s national chairman, who took led the mission, which arrived in Israel after a visit to Poland.
“Israel is as safe as it’s ever been, and I don’t think there is anyone in our group who feels any discomfort in going any place,” he said.
“I think the people on this mission feel a great sense of pride in having made the decision to come, because there’s an obvious lack of American Jewry at this moment.”
The World Zionist Organization has called on American Jews to demonstrate their support for Israel by visiting the country and traveling to the capital, Jerusalem.
“The travel advisory of the State Department, warning Americans not to visit parts of Israel, including areas of Jerusalem, at this time was a grave error,” Bernice Tannenbaum, chairwoman of the WZO American Section, said in a recent statement. “We should all prove it wrong and unjustified by going to Israel today.”
RALLY OF SOLIDARITY
In Jerusalem on Tuesday, some 1,000 Jewish students from 28 countries gathered together in a “We Are Here” rally of solidarity and Jewish identification.
The students, currently in Israel on various long-term programs, were assembled under the aegis of WZO’s Youth and Hechalutz Department on the grounds of the Knesset after legislators adjourned for the day.
WZO Chairman Simcha Dinitz, speaking to the crowd, announced the arrival of the 21,000th Soviet Jewish immigrant to Israel this month another record number.
“There is a link between Soviet Jews, who stand for days in 20-degree weather to obtain visas, and you, who have come to Israel of your own free will,” Dinitz said. “Thank you for coming to Israel. Thank you for saying ‘We are here.’ “
Knesset Speaker Dov Shilansky said it was especially significant that these young people were here at this time, when adult Jewish groups were canceling their trips. “We are particularly grieved when any Jew calls off his visit,” he said.
(JTA correspondent David Landau in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)