Israelis visit Croatia in droves

DUBROVNIK, Croatia, Sept. 5 (JTA) — When her mother from the United States was visiting in Jerusalem recently, Hadass, an office worker, knew just where to take her for a summer getaway. “We caught a charter and came to Dubrovnik for the weekend,” she said. “It was great.” Hadass is one of tens of thousands of Israelis who have discovered the stunningly beautiful Dalmatian coast of Croatia as a new destination for quick summer holidays. “It has everything here,” said Steven, also from Jerusalem. “It has the sun, it has a terrific coast and it’s small — it’s small enough that you don’t feel overwhelmed. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, but right now everything is in a short space — sea, forests, mountains. It’s very picturesque.” Officials say that some 100,000 Israeli tourists are expected in Croatia this year — double the number who came last year. Most of them head for the resorts on the dramatic rocky coastline that stretches hundreds of miles along the Adriatic Sea or on the idyllic islands that dot the offshore waters. Some 25,000 are expected in Dubrovnik, the historic fortress city known as the Pearl of the Adriatic that is located at the southern tip of Croatia. “We’re seeing a very impressive increase in tourists here,” Israel’s ambassador to Croatia, David Granit, told JTA. “It attracts people who want a short vacation in a nearby destination — one or two hours away. That means places like Cyprus, Turkey, the Greek islands. “Now they suddenly discovered the Adriatic shore of Croatia. It’s become very, very attractive — fashionable.” In addition, said Granit, “this means an increase in services, first of all flights. We are talking now about almost daily flights here by Israeli charter companies. Also, Israeli entrepreneurs are beginning to buy hotels.” There is even talk of starting up a kosher winery in another part of Croatia. The Israeli tourist phenomenon only took off after Croatia and Israel established diplomatic relations five years ago. The move had been delayed for years by apparently anti-Semitic statements made in an autobiographical book by former Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, as well as by the Tudjman government’s apparent attempts to rehabilitate the fascist Ustashe regime that ruled Croatia during World War II as a Nazi puppet state. Tudjman died in December 1999 — and since then, relations between Israel and Croatia have blossomed. “In a relatively short period of time, we have established very good and friendly relations, and the big wave of Israeli tourists is certainly one of the consequences of this,” Svjetan Berkovic, the Croatian ambassador to Israel, told JTA. The Israeli tourist boom has given a welcome shot in the arm to the Croatian tourist industry, which is still recovering from the effects of the bloody series of wars that broke up the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Tourism all but dried up in the 1990s, particularly after Dubrovnik itself came under heavy Serb bombardment in 1991 and 1992. Thousands of shells crashed into the city, causing more than $2.5 billion of damage. Tourist infrastructure and priceless architectural treasures were devastated. Among the historic buildings that were damaged was Dubrovnik’s synagogue, a jewel of a prayer house established in the 16th century on the top floor of a stone house in Zudioska Ulica — Jewish Street — the steep, narrow alley in the center of the city where Jews were compelled to live during the 1500s. The synagogue roof was hit by two shells, but the building underwent full restoration and was rededicated at Rosh Hashanah in 1997. The Jewish community of Dubrovnik numbers only 46 members — only about 20 of whom actually live in Dubrovnik. The president of the community, Sabrina Horovic, says local Jews are often overwhelmed by the hundreds of Israeli tourists who now flock to visit the tiny Baroque sanctuary, whose decor and fittings, featuring a delicately carved wooden bimah, date to the mid-17th century. “Several days a week we get about 300 visitors,” she said. “The synagogue is an old building, and we really can’t handle more than 50 people at a time.” Work has been under way this summer to expand the community’s facilities and adopt new security measures. On the floor beneath the sanctuary, two rooms have been refurbished as exhibition halls for the synagogue’s precious collection of ritual objects. These include valuable silver and textiles, as well as Torah scrolls written in the 13th and 14th centuries that were brought to Dubrovnik after Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. All were smuggled out of the synagogue and hidden from the Nazis during World War II. In addition, the community has moved its office to a nearby building where it hopes to renovate two apartments for the community’s use. Still, most Israeli tourists have no contact with local Jews. “I don’t think they are aware of these 46 people,” said Ivana Burdelez, director of the University of Zagreb’s Center for Mediterranean Studies in Dubrovnik. “They are coming for the seaside, and when they leave Dubrovnik, they don’t have the opportunity to say that they saw Jewish Dubrovnik.” Burdelez, who is not Jewish, has tried for years to make Dubrovnik’s centuries-old Jewish history better known. Every other year since 1996, she has organized an international conference on the social and cultural history of Jews on the eastern Adriatic coast. This year’s conference, which drew scholars from Europe, Israel and the United States, coincided with the height of the tourist season and featured a public concert of Sephardic songs performed by two Israeli musicians. The audience was standing room only — and more than a few spectators were speaking Hebrew.

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