A few nights ago a friend visiting from the United States was walking with me among the narrow alleys of Jerusalem’s Greek Colony off of the popular night-life hub of Emek Refaim Street. As we strolled enjoying the pleasant evening air, looking at the beautiful homes and smelling the fragrant flowers of their gardens, this frequent tourist who visits Israel at least once a year told me that she no longer feels like a tourist. She goes where the Israelis go and, when there, she runs into people she knows. She confided to me that she had looked at purchasing an apartment in Israel, but it hadn’t worked out. She is not the first person to have had such conversation with me.
Of the millions of tourists who visit Israel each year, many are return visitors. Of these, a significant number are frequent visitors who are well-known by the staff of the hotel where they stay or who own homes in Israel. There are sections of Jerusalem that are ghost towns for most of the year, coming alive when their foreign residents return in the summer and during the holidays.
Tourism is big business in Israel. Last year saw a 25 percent rise in tourism, totaling 2.3 million tourists, bringing in 20 billion shekels (about 5 billion dollars) to the local economy. The tourism industry in Israel directly employs 95,000 people and indirectly another 180,000 workers. To promote expansion, the government recently approved over 100 million shekels in grants for tourist infrastructure as the Ministry of Tourism predicts 2.5-3 million tourists to come to Israel this year and 4-5 million tourists a year within the next five years if the country builds the required number of suitable hotels to accommodate them.
However, what if they don’t come?
If history is an indicator of the future, it will not take much for tourists to cancel their pilgrimages. Unfortunately, despite solidarity missions which were organized, it was only a few years ago that downtown Jerusalem saw stores boarded up because of the decline in tourism. We all suffered. Those 275,000 jobs connected to tourism are not very stable. In turn, if those people are out of work, representing almost 10% of the Israeli labor force, the Israeli economy will crash and neither contributions nor solidarity missions will make up the billions of dollars lost or the hardship absorbed in Israeli homes.
Even now, while all the foreign income benefits the country, it also has some negative side effects. We joke that the crane is the national bird of Israel because of all the construction cranes dotting the Israeli landscape. However, as one travels throughout Jerusalem’s neighborhoods, it becomes apparent very quickly that the contractors are scrambling to capitalize on foreign residents providing them with “luxury residences.” Affordable housing for Jerusalemites is almost non-existent. With the increase in Jerusalem real estate, large number of young people are leaving Jerusalem and with so much of the city’s population made up of the ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations who have the highest rates of unemployment in Israel, providing luxury residences to tourists does nothing to encourage qualified Israelis to relocate to Jerusalem to revitalize Jerusalem’s workforce. With this, I fear, tourism is a bubble waiting to burst.
I once heard the Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai, speak when I was a student at Columbia University in New York. He told us that as long as we were tourists, we would see Israel as better than it was. It is like dating, he said. Perhaps if we had spent a summer on a kibbutz or a year in Israel we had a more serious relationship, but everything is different after you get married. Only once you make aliyah, he told us, will you see Israel for what is – both the good and the bad – only then will you be committed to each other and share each other’s destiny.
Most of my American friends are either Jewish professionals or lay-leaders. Many have thought about aliyah. Some have even told me that I am living the life they wish they had lived or that they would be happy if their children chose to live in Israel. Some of my friends have sacrificed their dream of living in Israel for a spouse, a profession or because they thought they could do more for the Jewish people in the Diaspora.
Those who walk with me in the streets of Jerusalem, even if they can no longer count the number of times they have visited; even if they own an apartment here – no matter how familiar they are with our stores, our neighborhoods, our synagogues or our winding alleyways, they have not yet experienced marriage. While they may not feel it, they are still tourists.
The nice thing about dreams is it is never too late to turn them into reality. I know several people in their seventies and eighties who have made aliyah in recent years. After a lifetime, they have come home – both to the Jewish homeland and to themselves. But you don’t have to wait that long.
When you are ready to come home and join us, just call the Global Aliyah Center at 1-866-835-0430.