JWR Israel: Dreams, Realities
May 1, 1998 / 5 Iyar, 5758

Israel, a tourist spot? Heck, dwellers in the Holy Land practically invented the industry

By Campbell Simon

NO COUNTRY ON EARTH has for so long been so intimately involved with traveling -- or, as its successor is known today, tourism -- as the Land of Israel.

Academics believe that 25 centuries ago, it was not uncommon for as many as a million Jewish pilgrims to ascend to Jerusalem three times a year to observe Pesach (Passover), Shavuos (Pentecost) and Sukkos (Tabernacles), with giant tent cities erected to the city's north and west to accommodate the faithful.

The observance of these three festivals - known in Hebrew as the Shlosh Regalim - or the three "foot" festivals, in reference to the physical walking required to reach the Temple in Jerusalem - have added an engaging anecdote to Jewish lore. For in medieval times, when Jews from Ashkenaz (Germany and Poland) made and returned from a rare and arduous pilgrimage to the holy city, some took to adding an appendage to their names alluding to their status as a pilgrim of one of the "three foot" festivals. Much as a Muslim who makes the pilgrimage, or Haj, to Mecca is entitled to add "Haj" to his name, thus was born the designation "Drei Fuss" (German for three feet), which, some believe, evolved into the German-Jewish family name "Dreyfus."

After the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 CE, the devotions of Jewish pilgrims became attached to the only remnant of the temple, the western retaining wall of the temple enclosure. Over the centuries, their anguished prayers and grief over the temple's loss caused non-Jewish observers to dub it the "Wailing Wall."

The advent of Christianity brought a second dramatic dimension to pilgrimage to the land of Israel. In the wake of the Byzantine Empire's adoption of Christianity in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine charged his mother, Queen Helena, with the task of traveling to Israel in 324 to identify the sites associated with the Christian savior's birth, miracles, crucifixion and resurrection.

A third dimension was added a further three centuries later, as Arabs, exhorting the faith propounded by Mohammed in Mecca and Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia), swept through the Middle East and North Africa, and into Spain and the Balkans. Now Jerusalem had become sacred to a third faith --- for Islam not only venerated the traditions of both Judaism and Christianity, it also regarded their prophets and seers as its own. What's more, it was from Jerusalem's Mount Moriah -- the site of the destroyed Temples -- that Muslims believed Abraham prepared to sacrifice Ishmael, Isaac's half-brother and where, 2,600 years later, Mohammed had leapt to heaven. The great mosques of the Temple Mount were constructed in the seventh century. First came the Dome of the Rock, often incorrectly called "the Mosque of Omar," and, when it was deemed too small to accommodate the multitudes of Muslim pilgrims streaming to Jerusalem, Emperor Justinian's 6th century St.Mary's Basilica was converted into the vast mosque of Al-Aksa.

To characterize the Crusaders' forays to Israel as "pilgrimages" is to disregard the appalling brutality of their passage. For they tortured and slaughtered untold thousands of Jews and Muslims in their quest to liberate Jerusalem in the name of the Christian savior, the Prince of Peace.

Only the Third Reich, seven centuries later, would surpass their barbarity. Yet, as bestial as they were, the Crusaders were certainly pilgrims --- and they left in their wake a network of churches and basilicas, fortresses and ramparts which stand to this day, an incongruously magnificent tribute to so vicious a horde.

After the Crusaders were finally vanquished in 1291, pilgrims -- Jewish, Christian and Moslem -- continued to reach Israel, but their numbers dwindled gently until, by 1800, Israel -- now usually referred to as Palestine, the Roman bastardization of "Philistia" -- had become an unimportant backwater of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. But, as travelers everywhere became more adventurous, pilgrimage began to revive. In Britain, Eothen, the account of a visit to Palestine by A. W. Kinglake, was wildly popular, a 19th century equivalent of a blockbuster. Gustave Flaubert charmed France with his tale of Salom‚ dancing for Herod at Herodion, south of Jerusalem. And, closer to home, Mark Twain's account of a benighted and melancholy Palestine in The Innocents Abroad ignited America's imagination.

The 19th century brought not only the first inklings of the modern age to Palestine, but also a stream, slow at first, then a gusher, of Jews returning from the Diaspora to restore their homeland, physically and spiritually. By 1840, Jerusalem had a Jewish majority for the first time since 70, and Jewish agricultural settlements were started in the Plain of Sharon and the Galilee. In 1869 Thomas Cook brought his first group of "excursionists" to Palestine, attended by teams of dragomen and herds of camels and donkeys hauling tents, oriental carpets, brass beds, tin baths, potted plants, dining chairs and damascene tables to provide the comforts of home to the intrepid pilgrims. American Express soon followed suit. And, in 1876, Karl Baedeker published his first guidebook of Jerusalem and its surroundings." In 1892, the Turks built a railroad to cover the 50 twisting miles from Jaffa to Jerusalem, cutting the two-day journey to a comparatively effortless four hours; seven years later, in order to provide appropriate pomp to surround the arrival of Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm, an imposing train station was constructed in Jerusalem. And, at the turn of the new century the Fast Hotel was opened next to Jerusalem's Jaffa Gate, the first establishment in the city designed solely to accommodate tourists.

With the arrival of the British in 1917, Palestine became -- if not literally, certainly in practice -- part of the British Empire. By the end of the 1920's, a flood of Jewish immigration had transformed the country on every level, including touristic. The ancient port city of Jaffa was outclassed now by Tel Aviv, a garden suburb it had spawned in 1909. Tel Aviv brought an entirely new dynamic to Palestine --- a European sense of style and the outdoors. Like Miami's South Beach, it even spawned its own architecture, a tropical, Mediterranean version of the Bauhaus. (To this day, Tel Aviv boasts more Bauhaus architecture than any city on the planet.)

While Israel's ancient cities had built ramparts for protection from the sea, Tel Aviv was designed to embrace the Mediterranean, with a seafront promenade of caf‚s and beaches, and most notably, small hotels, including the moderne Gat Rimon, and the Palatine, opened in the mid-thirties by the Schlossberg family recently arrived from Koenigsberg, Germany, whose daughter, Leah, would later become wife of Yitzhak Rabin. And in 1930, Egyptian Jews, experienced in hosting travelers sumptuously in Cairo and Upper Egypt at their Shepheards, Winter Palace and Cataract hotels, opened a similarly imposing colonial "grand" hotel on Jerusalem's Julian's Way, and named it King David in honor of the monarch who made the city his capital.

The port of Haifa soon expanded into a major base both for the Royal Navy and as an important ocean terminal, adding Palestine to the routings of the world's shipping lines. And in 1936 at Lydda, midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where St.George once battled the dragon, the British built an aerodrome. When it opened, Lydda's moderne terminal building was the world's largest (outclassed in 1939 by the new "north" terminal at Newark, New Jersey), and soon became an important stop for colonial airlines en route to the Orient.

And in 1935, the Jewish Agency - the quasi-governmental body created by the Jews of Palestine as a precursor to an independent government - created its "Tourist Development Association of Palestine," and art-deco posters encouraging travelers to "VISIT PALESTINE" soon vied with soaring profiles of the Normandie on the walls of travel bureaux in Europe and the United States.

In the wake of World War II, with the trauma of its accompanying Holocaust, the Jews of Palestine set about concentrating all their efforts on winning independence ... and in 1948 -- after a lapse of 1,878 years -- an independent Israel was restored. The first task at hand -- apart from fighting off the coordinated invasion of its five neighbors -- was to rescue hundreds of thousands of holocaust survivors, refugees and immigrants from Europe, North Africa, Iraq, Iran and Yemen. Battered, war-vintage airplanes were procured and pressed into service and, plucking a quotation meaning "to the skies" from the book of Hosea, the Israelis called their fledgling airline "El Al."

For almost ten years, Israelis labored to build a state, ward off their enemies and absorb, feed, clothe, employ and house a million immigrants: there was little time to think about anything so trifling as tourism. But the infrastructure was sound. By 1956, El Al had grown into an airline of international prominence.

In 1953, another German-Jewish family, headed by Yekutiel Federmann, converted its small Kaete Dan guest house on the Tel Aviv sea-shore into the ultra-luxurious Dan Hotel, whose opulence and futuristic architecture staggered Israelis and visitors alike. The government made attempts to interest overseas investors in the hulk of the King David Hotel, whose southern wing had been blown up by terrorists in 1946.

Now, with Jerusalem divided by barbed wire and tank traps, the King David was not only semi-destroyed, but smack on the border of "No Man's Land." Nobody was buying; in 1950, even the Jewish owners of Washington's Willard Hotel and Chicago's Palmer House refused to snap it up for the rock-bottom price of the hotel's linens and silver! But the Federmanns had more vision. They bought the King David, restored its grandeur and, within the decade, it was once more -- as it remains today -- Israel's pre-eminent hotel.

In 1957, as Israel prepared to celebrate its tenth anniversary, the government decided that the state's foundations were now sound enough to permit the expenditure of effort and funds on tourism. The task of promoting travel to Israel for the anniversary season was assigned to a civil servant in the Prime Minister's Office, Teddy Kollek, who, ten years later, would become Jerusalem's mayor. Spectacular promotion campaigns were soon mounted overseas, and an extraordinarily sophisticated series of advertisements appeared in the New York Times. Several Jewish organizations opened travel departments in 1958, the start of a vast movement of American Jewish visitors to the land of Israel. The flow of Jewish Americans coming to Israel was so extraordinary that a musical comedy, "Shalom," opened on Broadway in 1960, written by composer Jerry Herman who would later go on to write "Hello Dolly," "Mame" and "La Cage aux Folles." And the following year, the Tel Aviv Sheraton Hotel opened, the first venture in Israel financed by a foreign hotel chain.

Forty years later, as Israel celebrates its 50th anniversary, Israelis welcome some two-and-a-half million tourists a year to a country that remains exotic, but which has also become astonishingly sophisticated and Western --- far more European than Middle Eastern.

Yet for many, perhaps for most, Israel remains, first and foremost, a place of pilgrimage. Indeed, it isn't only the Jews of America who have made their way to the Holy Land. In the late sixties, the flow of American Christian visitors, particularly fundamentalist Christians from America's Bible Belt, had started to grow; so much so that in 1998, this segment of the U.S. public accounts for some 65% of American visitors to Israel.

And since the growth of the Mideast peace process, Muslim tourism is building too, bringing Muslim pilgrims from the Arab world, from the United States and from countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

But to more and more travelers each year, Israel has also earned its place as a uniquely charming vacation destination with an extraordinary assortment of moods, attractions, facets and possibilities. Indeed, more and more travelers, from countries such as Japan and India, who have no religious connection to Israel, are including Israel on their travel itineraries. Promoting travel to Israel - particularly in the United States in recent decades, as exaggerated reports of conflict have muddied the public's perceptions - has developed into an ever more complex challenge.

No other place on earth appears so often in the headlines, reflected almost invariably in an spirit anathema to tourism, yet which, regardless, continues to be a major, and ever-developing travel destination. Yet perhaps, ultimately, the Mideast peace process has been a major impetus to Israel's recent tourism growth. From the 1979 Camp David Accords, to the 1993 accommodation with the Palestinians, to the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, more and more Americans are combining their trips to Israel with Egypt and with Jordan.

Indeed, despite the headlines and bickering, a key element of the solidity of the Israel-Palestinian relationship is the effortlessness of visiting Jericho and Bethlehem, both cities now controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, and visited every year by hundreds of thousands of tourists to Israel every year. As Israel enters its second half-century, it faces a new tourism challenge. Israel's tourism experts have predicted between 4 and 5 million visitors in 2000 - and are busily seeking avenues to host the influx efficiently and comfortably. Judging from how they have managed to overcome the obstacles of the last 50 years, they will undoubtedly succeed. For, as David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime-minister, once said, "whoever doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist."

©1998, Campbell Simon