As tourism lags, leaders lashing out at travel advisory

NEW YORK — A swelling chorus of Jewish leaders and their allies is stepping up pressure on the U.S. State Department to lift a sweeping warning against travel to Israel that has damaged the Jewish state's economy.

According to some estimates, the nosedive in tourism since the current round of violence began in late September will have cost Israel $300 million to $500 million by year's end and forced the layoff of as many as 20,000 Jewish and Arab workers.

Another casualty surfaced this week, when the Jewish Community Centers Association, citing the travel warning, announced that it was canceling plans to include 37 Jewish soldiers and other personnel in the U.S. military on a January trip with Birthright Israel.

Closer to home, the State Department warning has had a ripple effect on airlines and New York-area businesses related to the tourism industry, such as travel agencies, New York City Councilman Noach Dear said.

The State Department, however, apparently will leave the warning in place until the situation on the ground is "safer and more secure" for American visitors, a spokesman said.

"When the situation changes, we'll change the warning," he said.

Both Jewish and Palestinian Americans are complaining about the warning's economic impact, the spokesman said, "but that cannot, however, be a factor in our decision-making process. Right now, we continue to believe the travel warning accurately reflects the situation on the ground."

The U.S. advisory, posted Oct. 24, begins: "The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. The U.S. Government has indications that there is a heightened threat of terrorist incidents in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. American citizens should exercise caution and avoid shopping areas, malls, public buses and bus stops as well as crowded areas and demonstrations. American citizens should maintain a low profile and take appropriate steps to reduce their vulnerability."

Such warnings are based on analyses from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem. The warnings generally are issued for an entire country, not for particular regions that are most dangerous, the State Department spokesman said.

Included in the Oct. 24 warning was a line that might have affected the Jewish military personnel set to join the Birthright group: "U.S. Government employees have been prohibited from traveling to the West Bank and Gaza and urged to avoid East Jerusalem, including the Old City."

As a result, the Jewish Welfare Board's Jewish Chaplains Council recommended that the community centers association exclude the military personnel, council director Rabbi David Lapp said.

"I'm terribly upset about this; we had a great plan for these 37 members," said Lapp. The trip may be rescheduled for May, he said.

"But what if, God forbid, something happens? Who's responsible for this group?" he asked. "We're sponsoring these military personnel, so we're responsible."

Asked about the statements from many Jewish leaders that Israel is safe, Lapp said, "I probably agree with that. It is safe, but you never know when one meshugah can do something like" a terrorist act.

Some Jewish leaders say the State Department warning, together with heavy media coverage, fuels the misperception that all of Israel is wracked by violence. To combat that, they have gone on the offensive.

On Dec. 4, councilman Dear sponsored a resolution calling on the State Department to lift the warning. It passed the council by a vote of 51-0, but has had no practical effect.

On Monday, a delegation of six American mayors who traveled to Israel last month on a trip sponsored by the American Jewish Congress also urged the government to lift the warning.

"Our safety and security were never in doubt and we saw no signs of strife," Boise, Idaho Mayor H. Brent Coles said in a released statement. "While we understand that isolated incidents of violence do occur, what we saw was a peaceful nation."

On Tuesday the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations issued a rare "Kol Koreh" — a clarion call — urging American Jews to reaffirm their solidarity with Israel, ignore the travel warning, and visit the country.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said he would continue to lobby State Department officials to "see our point of view, and define" the warning "rather than leaving it so general."

He concedes, however, that the Nov. 22 bombing of a bus in the northern Israeli town of Hadera hurt the claim that the violence is generally confined to the territories. Three weeks earlier, a terrorist bomb exploded in the heart of Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo has been fired upon almost nightly.

Dear said the warning is excessively harsh, and alleged it is motivated by political, not security, considerations.

"It's a way to put pressure on Israel, to punish it for not making peace with the Arabs," he said. "This president wants to walk out with the Nobel Peace Prize, and it's not going to happen."

The State Department spokesman responded that he had heard that complaint "a thousand times."

"It is completely unfounded, baseless, untrue and has no relation to fact," he said. "The one and only consideration is the safety and security of American citizens. We present what we believe is an accurate description of the situation on the ground."

Meanwhile, the warning — not to mention the bloodshed itself — has derailed what was expected to be a record-breaking year for Israeli tourism, said Arie Sommer, Israeli Commissioner for Tourism for North America.

The Jewish state was expecting more than 3 million tourists this year, but 70 percent of all trips planned for October through December have been canceled, Sommer said.

American travelers themselves generally make up about 20 percent of tourists to Israel.

"So much was invested in promotion and marketing," said Sommer, "then one morning, everything went down the drain."

That desperation was reflected in a recent open letter to American Jewish communities, written by the Israeli manager of Kfar Kedem, a recreated Mishnaic-era village in the Galilee.

"I look around me today and the beauty of the Galilee is at its peak following the first rains," Menachem Goldberg wrote. "Our sheep are grazing on the fresh grass while the our herd of donkeys idle in their sheds. The olive press remains still and the threshing floor is vacant.

"And where are the tourists?" Goldberg asked the American Jews. "Where…is the dignity and courage of the American Jewish community that is not frightened away by the propaganda broadcast daily on CNN?"