To Go or Not to Go?

The controversy over the issue of visiting Israel this summer has come to affect four American Jews to whom I am particularly close: my wife and two children, and myself.

My wife’s brother lives on a kibbutz in the Negev, where he moved some 20 years ago. His middle daughter is celebrating her bat mitzvah, and the whole Levy clan, from Boston to New York to Los Angeles, has long been planning to celebrate with her.

Then Intifada II broke out, and so did the debate within our family: Should we go or should we stay?

A few members of the extended family opted to stay home. Others haven’t wavered in their decision to go. But a good portion have offered a qualified yes. Their tickets are exchangeable, and they’re waiting to see if things calm down before boarding the flight to Lod.

Our phone calls and e-mails and dinner-table conversations echo the larger debate taking place between America and Israel. Is it safe? Does canceling demonstrate a lack of support to family and friends? Do we have the right to take our children to potentially dangerous areas to demonstrate that support?

Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s minister of transportation, blasted away at American Jews whose only demonstration of support comes over "bagel breakfasts" from the safety of their conference rooms. The organizers of the Maccabiah Games only this week decided to go ahead with this year’s international games (see page 12), but other youth groups have canceled scheduled trips or seen the numbers of participants drop. The groups that are going — Birthright Israel, the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth, the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth, Chabad — become instantly noteworthy.

But a nation cannot live on depleted solidarity missions alone. Israel is suffering from a 50 percent drop in tourist traffic during what was expected to be a Millennial Year boom, and thousands of Israelis in tourism and its affiliated industries face layoffs. "The tour groups have basically vanished from Israel," a Netanya hotelier told our correspondent Larry Derfner — and she said it before the Tel Aviv disco bombing.

Beyond the economic impact, there’s the sense among Israelis that we American Jews are fair-weather patriots. We’ll happily pose for snapshots atop those rusted tanks on the Golan Heights, but don’t ask us to get within 10,000 miles of live fire. "In a summer when Americans flock to see ‘Pearl Harbor,’" wrote Glenn Yago, Milken Institute director of capital studies, on his return from Israel last week, "FDR’s lesson about what we should fear is worth remembering. Canceling trips to Israel couldn’t send a worse message."

Against such powerful arguments — and good old Jewish guilt — is the fact that Israelis themselves have curtailed their travel within their own country. There are parents in Tel Aviv who won’t send their children on school trips to Jerusalem, and others who refuse to visit friends in Netanya or Efrat. If Israelis won’t let their kids walk the streets of Jerusalem, goes one good dinner-table argument, why should I?

The answer to these questions is necessarily more personal than political, and entwined with all the other complications of travel abroad: time, money, work, health. Those who ultimately decide not to make the trip now shouldn’t be derided, guilt-tripped or second-guessed. The bottom line is support, and there have always been other ways to express it besides being there.

One suggestion, offered by Jonathan Friendly of Jewish Renaissance Media, is for parents who have opted not to send their children this summer to contribute a portion of what they would have spent on the trip toward a "Promise Postponed" endowment that could help subsidize trips by less-affluent kids next year.

Another is to participate in Israel activities offered by synagogues, local federations and organizations in the coming months. Yet another is to take some time this summer to further educate yourself and your children about Israel. True, being there makes a more powerful statement, but our actions here can still speak volumes.