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COMMENTARY

Israel’s confusing, constantly-changing entry protocols risk alienating Christian tourists at a time when Jewish state needs its friends the most

Former senior official in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism writes guest column for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

Passengers arriving Ben-Gurion International Airport, as Israel opens it borders, allowing tourists to enter the country, after months of keeping its borders closed to non-citizens, Nov. 1, 2021. (Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last week, the Israeli government celebrated as it released yet another revised procedure for allowing tourists into Israel. 

If you were an alien visiting from a nearby planet, you would have felt at home since the new regulations seem to have come from outer space. But for the thousands of families in Israel who make their living from travel, and for many millions overseas who are itching to visit, the new protocols provided cold comfort. 

And if you are a Christian who is – or was – planning a trip to Israel you are probably in one of four moods right now: angry, confused, insulted or all the above combined.

The State of Israel designed the travel restrictions to the country so carelessly, so sloppily, it sometimes feels that this is all part of a B-level Hollywood parody. It would be funny if it wasn’t so painfully sad.

Let’s briefly put aside the severe economic consequences for thousands of Israeli families who make their living in the travel industry (no less than 40,000, most of them in the periphery of Israel, North and South where other opportunities are scarce). We will focus instead on the damage this has done to Israel’s image. 

First, let’s talk about insult. As we know, for millions of Christians worldwide the relationship with Israel and its people is personal and profound. Many of them felt angry and confused by the constantly-changing protocols of entry into Israel, but they were hurt and insulted by something else – Israel’s decision to exempt specific tourists from these entry protocols.

Approximately a year ago, the government decided to allow groups who are part of Birthright – an educational program that brings eligible Jewish young adults from around the world – to enter Israel. 

Others were not allowed. 

This move puzzled and angered Evangelicals, and Americans in general. As a pastor friend of mine called it: “A total discriminatory slap in the face.” 

This exemption was noticed by many and created a ripple effect. It became the talk of the day in many circles. It was painful to see how deep it could cut.

This couldn’t have come at a worse time. In the last decade we have been hearing more about a drop in support for Israel in the Jewish world. Recently, we began hearing about a sharp drop in support for Israel among young Evangelicals. 

In times such as these, a demoralizing and restrictive entry policy is the last thing Israel needs. 

We have seen, time and time again, how impactful a visit to Israel is for young audiences, especially in faith-based communities, and how life- and opinion-changing it can be. The clock is ticking for us here in Israel, and we need to act fast in order to get as many young Jews and Christians to Israel.

Now let’s address the anger and confusion. Many of our Christian friends are astonished by two contradictory sides of Israel. 

One is the start-up nation, creating a better world with leading technological advancements. 

The other side is that of a crippled bureaucratic system, one that is unable to do what so many countries around the world have done in the last year: Come up with a simple and understandable procedure of how to enter the country. 

Indeed, the balance between public health and the economy is challenging, but if most advanced countries around the world found a solution, so can we. 

With the changing and confusing policies, the Israeli travel industry has had to become “translators” to help potential travelers understand the fine print that appears in the endless string of published protocols. Sifting through them is like trying to decipher a college exam that is a sinister cross between algebra and logic in one.

Given the above, the outrage and confusion so many of us are receiving from our friends overseas is not surprising, especially when they compare it to the simple protocols so many other countries are presenting.

Decision makers in Israel must begin to understand that Israel is competing with countries around the world for visitors. Indeed, millions around the world love and support Israel and wish to visit the land of the Bible. 

But if we take this support for granted, we may find our friends will choose to go elsewhere to spend their dollars and time.

The relatively new government in Israel has an opportunity to re-examine some of the past assumptions regarding the Evangelical community and its relationship with Israel – especially when it comes to visiting the Holy Land. It will require a fresh perspective, one that will require more investment, effort and attention to this community, its views and its needs.  

But it will be worth it.

Uri Steinberg serves on the Advisory Board of ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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Uri Steinberg is a former Israeli Tourism Commissioner for North America, Israel Ministry of Tourism, and currently serves on the ALL ISRAEL NEWS advisory board.

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