Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick sitting outside the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem in protest on the ban on Knesset members visiting the site, Aug. 14, 2017. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Likud lawmaker Yehuda Glick sets up office outside Temple Mount to protest ban on visits

Yehuda Glick, a lawmaker from the Likud party, held office hours outside an entrance to the Temple Mount to protest an ongoing ban against Knesset members visiting the holy site.

Glick, a longtime activist for Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount, told reporters that the action Monday would only last one day.

“I’m here to protest the fact that the prime minister won’t enable police to allow us to enter the Temple Mount,” he said. “I suffer every day I can’t enter the Temple Mount.” “There’s no reason in the world to think that my entering the Temple Mount will stir trouble.”

In 2014, a Palestinian terrorist shot and nearly killed Glick for his Temple Mount activism.

Since capturing the Temple Mount from Jordan in 1967, Israel has controlled access but allowed Jerusalem’s Islamic authority to manage the site, which is holy to Jews and Muslims alike.

In November 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered lawmakers to stay off the Temple Mount amid a wave of Palestinian terrorism linked to claims that Israel was trying to change the status quo. Israel denied the claims. After Glick filed a petition against the ban, Netanyahu in early July decided to allow lawmakers to visit the site on a trial basis.

However, on July 14, before the decision went into effect, three Arab Israelis shot dead two policemen on the Temple Mount. Israel responded by suspending the plan and installing walk-through metal detectors at the Muslim entrances to the site. Amid prayer sessions, riots and regional pressure, Israel eventually removed the metal detectors. But the ban on visits by lawmakers remains in place.

Still, in July, some 3,200 Jewish Israelis visited the Temple Mount — more than in any month since the state took control of the site.

On clear days, four states are visible from the Willis Tower. The John Hancock Building is a prominent feature of Chicago's skyline.

CityPASS Chicago: The Only City Tour You Need

For Chicago residents and visitors alike, CityPASS is the best way to see five of the city’s best attractions for an unbeatable value.

CityPASS includes admission to the Shedd Aquarium, Skydeck Chicago at the Willis Tower, and the Field Museum, as well as two choices: the Museum of Science and Industry or 360 CHICAGO at the Hancock Tower, and the Adler Planetarium or the Art Institute of Chicago. At just $99.75 for adults and $84.75 for children, the combined ticket provides a savings of over 50% compared to purchasing tickets separately.

The Field Museum, Aquarium and Planetarium are conveniently located close together, but the Field Museum could easily fill a day on its own. Admission includes access to special exhibits as well as a 3D film.


The Ancient Americas is a permanent exhibit tracing the history of civilizations such as the Inca.

Currently on view is an exhibit showing the long history of tattoo and its significance to various cultures, along with exquisite full-body designs by current artists. The Cyrus Tang Hall of China contains hundreds of objects representing the country’s dynamic history. One of the 3D film options, Mysteries of China, is the perfect complement. It brings the discovery of the Terra Cotta Warriors vividly to life.

The museum’s vast permanent collections are also well worth exploring. These include fascinating exhibits on the Americas and ancient Egypt. Families with children will enjoy Evolving Planet, with its towering dinosaur skeletons.


A gator at the Shedd Aquarium.

The Shedd Aquarium has collections of marine life from all over the world. The playful beluga whales are one of the highlights. Admission also includes a 4D experience. Lucky visitors may get to see a diver pointing out different species in the large center tank, or seals eating their lunch while floating on their backs, using their stomachs as a table.

The Adler Planetarium holds exhibits on the planets and the history of space exploration, along with a collection of instruments historically used for astronomical calculations.



One of the Adler Planetarium’s permanent exhibits describes the planets and describes the technology used for exploring the Solar System.

Admission includes two shows as well as a ride in the Atwood Sphere. This 17-foot planetarium has nearly 700 holes showing the positions of the stars. Visitors ascend into the sphere’s interior seated on wooden benches, and it revolves to show the positions of stars and constellations in all the seasons.

The Willis Tower is in the southern part of the Loop, about 45 minutes’ walk from the Museum Campus. It was the most crowded of the sites – we stood in line for an hour even with the Fast Pass priority admission. The view is breathtaking, with five states visible on clear days. There are ledges where visitors can step out onto a transparent floor to view cars the size of ants.


Looking north from 360 CHICAGO.

At 360 CHICAGO, in the John Hancock Building, the view is similar but provides a different perspective. We visited in the late afternoon, arriving in time to watch a stunning sunset. The spacious 94th-floor exhibit included a Lego model of the building, with over 22,000 bricks. A video documentary described the challenges that arose during the building’s construction. For the adventurous, there’s an extra attraction: Tilt!, which lets visitors lean out outward and observe the city beneath.

The Art Institute has been voted the best museum in the world, and it’s easy to get lost in its enormous collections. Some of the most memorable works are the Thorne Miniature Rooms, detailed reconstructions of home interiors across multiple centuries. Other halls trace the history of everything from Greek pottery to medieval suits of armor. The museum is located on Michigan Avenue, right next to Millennium Park in the heart of Chicago.

The Museum of Science and Industry is further south than the other sites, but it’s well worth the travel time. Its exhibits span an enormous variety of topics, from weather patterns to the history of flight. Most spectacular of all is the German U-505 submarine, which American soldiers captured in World War II. With hands-on activities for all ages, this is another museum where visitors could easily spend an entire day.

Whichever options you choose, the CityPASS will give you a taste of Chicago’s most popular sites, cutting out all the hassle so you can enjoy the best the city has to offer.


If you go:

CityPASS Chicago

$99.75 adults,  ($212 for attractions if purchased separately)

$84.75 children

Israeli medics tend to a wounded Palestinian woman, who according to Israeli police was shot after she was suspected by security guards and ignored calls to stop, at Qalandiya checkpoint near Ramallah on Feb. 27. Photo by Ammar Awad/REUTERS.

Israel denies tourist visa to Human Rights Watch staffer

Israel has denied a tourist visa to an American employee of Human Rights Watch days after denying his application for a work visa, citing the NGO’s alleged anti-Israel bias.

Omar Shakir, the new Israel and Palestine director for Human Rights Watch, a leading nongovernmental organization, reported in an emailed statement Thursday and on Facebook that the Interior Ministry had denied his request to enter Israel on March 5 for a 10-day visit.

A letter from the Border Control Department of the Population and Immigration Authority noted the Foreign Ministry’s response when Shakir requested a work visa in denying the application: “For some time now, this organization’s public actions and reports have focused on politics in service of Palestinian propaganda while falsely raising the banner of ‘human rights,’ and therefore recommended denying the application.”

Iain Levine, the program director for Human Rights Watch, said it was “deeply troubling that Israeli officials, despite promises to the contrary, have denied Human Rights Watch’s country director a visa to enter Israel.”

“Blocking access for human rights workers impedes our ability to document abuses by all sides and to engage the Israeli and Palestinian authorities and partners to improve the human rights situation for all,” he said.

After Shakir had been denied a work visa on Feb. 21, an Israeli official said he could apply for a tourist visa, implying that it would be granted. Shakir has 45 days to file an appeal.

Airport planned for Israel-Jordan border clouds neighborly ties

A new airport planned by Israel near its border with Jordan is clouding the usually businesslike relationship the two neighbors have built since making peace in 1994.

Due to open next April, Ilan & Asaf Ramon Airport at Timna, in Israel's desert south, will be 10 km (6 miles) from Jordan's King Hussein International Airport. They will serve Eilat and Aqaba, the adjacent Israeli and Jordanian resort cities on the Red Sea.

Citing worry the proximity could spell dangerous disruptions to its air corridors, Amman last year complained to the U.N. International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

Israel said Ramon would abide by ICAO regulations and pose no safety risk. The ICAO later said Israel and Jordan were addressing the matter directly “as one would expect from two countries with a peace treaty and a wide scope of cooperation in many fields”.

Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz played down the dispute with Jordan, one of two Arab states with full ties with Israel.

“There is no confrontation,” he told Reuters in an interview. “There have been discussions (and) it was agreed that we will hold a professional-level meeting. The (Ramon) airport will open, and there will be coordination of air traffic.”

Jordan sounds less upbeat, however.

“We do not want to stand in the way of Israeli projects, but we have our concerns regarding our own airport, and there is also the matter of keeping the spirit of our peace agreement,” said a Jordanian official who declined to be identified.

The official was referring to a proposal, discussed in conjunction with the treaty, of building a jointIsraeli-Jordanian airport.

Katz said such a facility was an “option” that had gone unexercised. Opened in 1972, King Hussein underwent expansions after the 1994 peace accord to meet what the airport's website said was the rising demand of air traffic. Katz said Israel was therefore free to open Ramon on its side of the border.



Jordan's concern, he suggested, was over the prospective loss of tourists to Israel. Ramon will have a 3.6-km (2.2-mile) runway able to accommodate the largest airliners while King Hussein's runway length is a more limiting 3.1 km (1.9 miles).

King Hussein currently handles around four to six takeoffs and landings a day. Israel is planning for 10 times that capacity at Ramon.

“The thing is, this (Ramon) is a big international airport, representing a mass of tourists, which is seen as possibly competing with them in tourism and such things,” Katz said.

“We will propose to them that large planes that can't land there (King Hussein) will land here. I have no problem with people going to Aqaba from there (Ramon). They can cross at Arava crossing,” he said, referring to an overland border terminal north of Eilat, a 15-km (9-mile) drive from Ramon.

Peace with Israel was never popular among ordinary Jordanians, many of whom are Palestinian, and Amman officials sometimes lament what they see as the sluggish dividends from economic cooperation with their richer neighbor.

One Jordanian official based in the Aqaba area accused Israel of building Ramon airport to “market Petra” – the nearby archaeological wonder in Jordan – for excursions by tourists who would spend the bulk of their vacation in Eilat.

“We are protecting our national tourism industry from any invasion and from selling it illegally,” said the official, who also requested anonymity.

“Now we have imposed on those coming from the (Arava) crossing to either pay sixty dinars ($85) for a one-day (visa) or spend two nights in the kingdom,” with the fee refunded, the official said.

Eilat is currently served by a small municipal airport whose planned demolition will free up real estate within view of the beach.

Named after an Israeli astronaut lost in the 2003 space shuttle disaster and his eldest son, who died in a 2009 air force accident, Ramon is envisaged as an emergency alternative to Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel's main international gateway. Ben Gurion was briefed shunned by most foreign carriers due to incoming Palestinian rockets during the 2014 Gaza war.

Jerusalem, maybe next year: Passover bookings see sharp decline

By now, Gil Azoulay would have expected his hotels would be 80 percent booked for Passover.

Instead, Azoulay — who runs a chain of boutique hotels — has roughly half his rooms still available.

Azoulay opened Smart Hotels — a mini-chain of three small, midrange hotels that focus on providing personal attention to guests — in May 2014. Two months later, war broke out in Gaza, stunting Israel’s tourism industry. The months that followed saw a string of terror attacks in Jerusalem. Then, after a lull, a wave of stabbing and shooting attacks began last September and has yet to ease.

The conflict has taken a toll on Azoulay’s business, driving down Passover reservations 30 percent. Within the tourism industry, he’s not alone.

“The whole city is experiencing this decline,” he said of Jerusalem. “If once it was sold out for Passover and ‘chol hamoed’ [the holiday’s intermediate days], that’s happening less now.”

The Passover season is a significant income source for Jerusalem hotels. Bookings in April 2014 and 2015, the months of Passover, accounted for nearly 10 percent of the total hotel income for western Jerusalem in those years, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Hotels across Jerusalem have seen a fall in Passover bookings this year, according to Arieh Sommer, director of the Israel Hotel Association. While he estimated that hotels would have about 85 percent of their rooms booked ahead of Passover in a normal year, this year he says the average could be as low as 70 percent.

It’s a drop that began with the July 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge. Prior to the conflict, in April 2014 — the month of Passover — Jerusalem hotels took in about $40 million. April 2015 saw a 10 percent decline, to approximately $36 million.

“Since Protective Edge, there have been problems in incoming tourism to Israel,” Sommer said. “We saw that after Protective Edge, tourism rose again. But because of [recent] difficulties in Jerusalem, there is a slowdown in tourists coming to Israel.”

Violence isn’t the only factor hurting Jerusalem’s hotels. Apartment rentals, booked through companies like Airbnb, have cut into hotels’ market share since long before the Gaza war. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem hotels peaked at 10 million foreign guests in 2010. Since then, there’s been a steady decline.

“There was an assumption that the city was collapsing,” said Ilanit Melchior, director of tourism for the Jerusalem Development Authority. “The bottom line is that there was a decline, but it was not dramatic. During the intifada of the 2000s, the city proved it knows how to recover fast. There’s terror all over the world, not just in Jerusalem.”

And not all Jerusalem hotels are suffering. The Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, which opened in 2014, has reported a 200 percent increase in bookings over last year. General Manager Guy Kleiman attributes the rise to the hotel’s brand name and the praise in reviews.

The Inbal, another five-star hotel, expects bookings to remain relatively stable this year. Alex Herman, Inbal’s vice president of sales and marketing, told JTA that many of its Passover guests are repeat visitors to Israel who remain relatively unfazed by the unrest.

“This is a population that comes,” Herman said. “A lot of people have family here. Life goes on, life is OK.”

None of the hotels contacted by JTA have advised guests to avoid certain areas, nor changed their security protocols in any way. Kleiman echoed Herman, saying the Passover tourists in Jerusalem are often repeat visitors, and they know to avoid more dangerous areas.

“People are mature enough to know where to go, where not to go,” Kleiman said. “People who come to Jerusalem in these times know the city.”

Azoulay expects his hotels to withstand the decline, though he hopes calm will return soon and tourists will again feel comfortable walking the streets.

Like other hoteliers, he’s also counting on Israelis to support the Jerusalem hotels by choosing to spend Passover in the capital. While overall hotel bookings have declined in Israel in recent years, domestic Israeli tourism is on a steady upswing. Internal Israeli hotel bookings increased 9 percent between 2014 and 2015.

“We want the Israeli tourist to come, to reassure him that there’s nothing to worry about,” he said. “We need them. They should come to Jerusalem.”

Blurring Israel’s Green Line

There is probably no Israel tour quite like that offered by Lydia Aisenberg, which focuses on the Green Line — the demarcation between Israel and its neighbors set in the 1949 Armistice Agreement after the end of Israel’s War of Independence. Since 1967, when Israel took military control of the area east of it, the Green Line has been controversial. 

“Over the last few decades, there’s been a concerted effort in Israel to blur the Green Line,” Aisenberg said, handing out a map showing the line in green, as well as an orange line marking the security wall and a blue line marking the 1947 boundary rejected by Jordan and other neighbors. Aisenberg said that taking visitors to the Green Line is considered disloyal by some Israelis. On one occasion, when she brought a group of European visitors to a checkpoint near the Green Line, an Israeli military guard called the 69-year-old a zona — a prostitute. 

“That’s when humor kicks in,” she said. “So I tell the guard at the checkpoint: ‘I’m delighted that you think a young man would spend good money to sleep with me!’ ”

Aisenberg’s tour of the Green Line and related locations is offered under the auspices of Givat Haviva, an Israeli-based nonprofit located in northern Israel. Founded in 1949, Givat Haviva (The Israeli Arab town of Barta’a. 

Although the physical barrier is no longer there, another kind of barrier persists: Those who live in West Barta’a are Israeli citizens while the Arabs who live in East Barta’a are not, and are thus not covered by Israeli institutions, such as universal health care. On the other hand, East Barta’a isn’t hampered by Israeli laws. As a result, East Barta’a has turned into a bustling free-trade zone where Israelis — Arabs and Jews — buy cheap goods.

Stylish hijabs for sale in a Barta’a store window

Aisenberg greeted and was greeted by Barta’a residents on both sides of town, Arabs who know her well. Those on the tour got a chance to interact with Aisenberg’s Arab friends, and she told poignant stories the residents have shared with her about their lives. Aisenberg said she sees Barta’a —where families are split by two different citizenships — as “a concrete, potent symbol” for Israel’s condition.  

And that’s when it became clear to Rafi that the aim of Aisenberg’s tour is to ask: How can Israeli Arabs and Jews find ways to connect with one another? The idea of a shared society is fundamental to Aisenberg’s — and Givat Haviva’s — vision for what Israel can become: a place where, Aisenberg said, “Arab citizens feel they have a stake in Israel’s future.”

Aisenberg is not naïve. She knows that she and Givat Haviva, advocating for peace and understanding, are swimming against the tide. But the latest round of violence hasn’t dampened Aisenberg’s — or Givat Haviva’s — determination to educate Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in the importance of learning each other’s narrative. 

“We talk about the Green Line so that foreigners and Israeli citizens are better informed, so that judgments are based on facts, not on beliefs,” Aisenberg said. “By showing people both sides of the situation, with any luck, we can become neighbors instead of enemies.” 

Calm amidst the violence in Israel

On the day the world was parsing Bibi Netanyahu’s suggestion that the notoriously anti-Semitic Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin Al-Husseini, was responsible for Hitler’s Holocaust, I was among a group of journalists touring Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, which had just been named the top luxury hotel in the Middle East by Condé Nast’s Readers’ Choice Awards. 

This hotel, in fact, was once the mufti’s own prize hotel.

It reopened last year following a seven-year, $50 million expansion and renovation, but to Israelis it’s known as having been built by the mufti as his crowning achievement in luxury, his Palace Hotel. Al-Husseini opened the hotel in 1929 with great fanfare — it had an elevator! — but the business was crushed five years later when the King David Hotel opened just around the corner. 

The Palace Hotel, opened in 1929 by the Mufti of Jerusalem, was renovated and expanded into the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria. Photo is public domain

The British took over the building for a while, then after Israel’s independence in 1948, it served as Israeli government offices. It even housed a tax museum for many years, and you can imagine what an attraction that was. 

Today, the crystal-chandelier-clad Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem that beat out Qatar for glam is owned by the Orthodox Canadian Reichman family and is glatt kosher throughout, so many of its guests are Orthodox. I witnessed several shidduchs-in-progress in the grand courtyard.

Take that, mufti. 

I was in Israel at the height of the knifing terror, a guest of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the Hilton Hotels of Israel, of which the Waldorf Astoria is a showpiece. It was a trip full of juxtapositions: The news screamed of conflict. Life in Israel continued apace.

I saw great luxury on this trip — including on a tour of the “presidential suite” at the Waldorf, which has not yet housed a U.S. president but does lay claim to former House Speaker John Boehner having slept there. (Still less presidential, but perhaps more glitzy, the hotel has also hosted Hollywood celebs Sarah Silverman and John Turturro.) I also witnessed the insistence of Israelis to proceed with life, even when life threats are rupturing any sense of equanimity.

Israel is a place where your most helpful waiter will wear a nametag identifying him as Mohammed; where business partners sometimes live on opposite sides of partition barriers; where trust is a necessity, even when at every turn your bag is examined to check for weapons. Caution is a bylaw, but so is the insistence on normality. I took my cue from the Israelis and walked the streets, went to bars at night, visited the museums and shuks and ate in the restaurants. 

During this time of “the situation” — long the Israeli equivalent of the Irish term “the troubles” — there was great sadness but also a deliberate decision to move on. Some people stayed home — restaurants that might have been packed were, in many cases, only partially full — but others went out. Jerusalem’s Old City was not shy of tourists, especially the Christian pilgrims visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was filled to the brim. The Western Wall, normally a major attraction, was especially quiet, however, and the Mamilla mall, a beloved attraction of Arab and Jew alike, looked like half its clientele was staying home — the Arab half.

In Tel Aviv, however, crowds were far closer to normal. I attended a gala event celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Hilton Tel Aviv that served as a benefit for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor and pianist Yaron Gottfried. Every seat was filled in the cavernous ballroom. And a visit to bars and clubs late one night showed no signs of revelers tapering off. Just try to tell Tel Aviv to stay home, and see what happens.

In Israel, as in the U.S., people blame a lot of any situation on “the media.” Too much talk of violent protests here? Blame the media. Too much talk of knifings there? The same. And what blew that story out of the headlines? Rain. (Sound like home?) A giant storm hit just as we were leaving Tel Aviv for a visit to Eilat, with brief stops planned at Masada and the Dead Sea. (Who says you can’t see all of Israel’s highlights in an afternoon?) Given the downpour, our veteran guide, Nathan Shapiro, had to decide how to navigate soaked roads to get us to a shuttered Masada mountain — not even the cable car was running — and to the Dead Sea, which was beautifully framed by a rainbow, and then on to Eilat. 

If there was a moment of exponential tension on the trip, it came as Shapiro decided whether we would be able to take an alternate route from the one everyone normally takes from the healing waters of the Dead Sea to the southernmost Israeli resort of Eilat, normally about a two-hour drive. The direct highway was closed by flooding, and the alternate route involved cutting over to the southwestern border and traveling alongside the Sinai. The road that night was dark, entirely unlit, and for most of it, we were completely alone. If you looked over to the right, you could see only border fence, and an occasional Egyptian guard post. This was before the Russian plane was downed, likely by a bomb, but even then I was very aware that ISIS might not be too far off.

And yet, carrying his merry band of journalists, Shapiro proceeded in good humor, and we approached Eilat watching a lightshow of lightning outside our windshield. The next day bloomed bright. Business as usual. Witnessing the Israeli resolve to move forward through “the situation” — and the rain — shows how chutzpah can override worry, and Israeli life will never be undone.

Susan Freudenheim is executive editor of the Jewish Journal.

Amid terror wave, Israel sells over 900 tour packages through Groupon

More than 900 discounted vacation packages to Israel have been sold through the marketing website Groupon.

Some 920 eight-day tour packages had been sold for $999 each on the website as of Thursday afternoon. The trips, marketed jointly with Israel’s Tourism Ministry, include flights, hotels and tours throughout the country. They have been on sale for less than a week and will remain on sale for seven more days.

“As a result of the success of the campaign, I have issued instructions to try and expand the marketing efforts and cooperation with discount sales sites in other countries,” Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement Thursday.

The offer comes amid a wave of terror that has affected tourism to Israel, the Israeli daily Yediot Acharonot reported. The package is designed “to project a sense of business as usual and encourage tourism during the months when hotel occupancies in Israel are low,” Levin  told the newspaper.

Meet the family behind Burma’s last synagogue

In the center of downtown Yangon (formerly Rangoon), just off the city’s main thoroughfare of Mahabandoola Street, stands Burma’s only remaining synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua. Each year, hundreds of tourists visit the colonial-era synagogue, one of the few remnants of this country’s once-thriving Jewish community. In this majority-Buddhist country, the synagogue’s continued existence can be attributed largely to the efforts of one family: the Samuelses. 

Shortly after Burma — also known as Myanmar — gained its independence from Britain in 1948, Moses Samuels took over the care of the synagogue from his father, who had taken over from his father before him. For decades, Moses would open the synagogue doors every morning, eager to greet Jewish and non-Jewish visitors alike. 

Moses’ son, Sammy, told the Journal that his grandfather had exacted a promise from his father “that as long as we are here, the synagogue will be open and there will [be a] community. All [the] credit goes to my father.” 

When the Journal contacted Moses in late April, he was suffering from throat cancer and could hardly speak; he responded via email.

“For many years I [have] been receiving visitors from all over the world, and I treat everyone with equal respect and dignity … no matter if they are Jewish or Buddhist, Muslim or Christian, Hindu or Baha’i — [no] matter if they come from America or India, Europe or Asia,” Moses wrote to the Journal on April 29. 

“I am always proud to share the history of the community. This is great for [the] city of Yangon and tourism, to show the diversity of this beautiful city and religious tolerance of its people.” 

A month later, Moses died at the age of 65. Sammy, who has been active in the synagogue’s upkeep and support for many years, said he will continue taking care of both the synagogue and cemetery, as his father had for 35 years. 

Sammy Samuels is the fourth generation of his family to serve as the synagogue’s caretaker. 

“Before my father passed away, I had made [a] promise to keep the Jewish spirit alive in Myanmar, and I will continue to do so,” Sammy said. 

The synagogue, with its soaring ceiling and graceful columns, was rebuilt in 1896 from a smaller wooden structure that had been erected in the mid-1850s. Listed as one of 188 Yangon heritage buildings by the Yangon Development Council, Musmeah Yeshua in its heyday contained 126 silver Torah scrolls. Only two remain today; various Jewish families took the others when they left Burma for other countries over the years. The city’s Jewish cemetery is about six miles from the synagogue and contains more than 600 gravestones, the oldest dating to 1876. The community once boasted a Jewish school, which at its peak in 1910 had 200 students.

Burma’s Jewish community dates to the mid-19th century, when Jewish merchants migrated to Burma and became a conduit between British colonial rulers and the export-import community abroad. Most of these merchants, including Sammy’s great-grandparents, came from Iraq. By 1940, there were approximately 2,500 Jews living in Burma. Many became successful in business and industry, some owning ice factories and bottling plants, others dealing in textiles and timber. The rest were primarily customs officials and traders. 

As Jewish prosperity increased, so did philanthropy, and Jews donated large sums to local institutions such as schools, libraries and hospitals. 

But Jewish life in Burma changed drastically during World War II. In the colonial era, the Jewish community had formed close ties with the British. The Japanese occupied Burma in 1941 and, believing Jews were spying for the British, forced them — and most of the British colonial population — to flee to other countries. 

Only about 300 Jews remained in Burma under Japanese occupation. Another 200 returned after the war, but with their homes and wealth gone, most were unable to resume or rebuild their prewar lives. Over time, many of these families also left Burma. By the time Burmese dictator Ne Win’s regime nationalized business in 1962, there were only 150 Jews remaining in the country. With nationalization, more families lost their businesses and factories and also decided to leave. Today, approximately 20 Jews live in Burma, including Sammy’s family. 

For more than five decades, the country remained isolated from much of the outside world, largely because of the economic sanctions Western governments imposed on Burma for its poor record on human rights. But in 2011, when the quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein opened up the country, business opportunities and foreign investments began mushrooming and tourism increased dramatically. According to Myanmar’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, about 800,000 tourists visited in 2010-2011; this number increased to 1.5 million in 2012, 2 million in 2013 and 3 million in 2014.  

The Samuels family’s role in Jewish life in Burma has kept pace with the country’s changing status.

In 2002, Sammy left Burma to study at Yeshiva University (YU) in New York. While he was there, he promoted a Jewish-Burmese connection by telling everyone he met about the small Jewish community in Burma. He also assisted many Americans in planning and arranging visits to Myanmar. 

“I [spoke] about Burma at Jewish Communal events, at the Yeshiva University, some synagogues, Jewish Federations,” Sammy said. “That’s why my friends called me the ‘Ambassador of Jews to Burma.’ ” 

When he graduated from YU in 2006, Sammy wasn’t sure what to do next. “I had only $870 extra money. … In my last semester, I got the idea to open a travel agency.” With the goal of increasing tourism and awareness of Jewish heritage in his country, Sammy named his company Myanmar Shalom. He hired one staff person who, along with one of his sisters, helped to run his company in Yangon. His father also helped. 

“Now it’s been almost eight years since I started the agency. And I now have a staff of over 25 at a 2,500-square-foot office in Yangon and branch offices in other cities.” Besides the travel agency, Sammy also created MS Global Consulting Company, and owns and runs two guesthouses in Yangon — the York Residence Bed & Breakfast and the Lotus Inn. 

“If [my] family had left Burma like others, I think the synagogue [would] be closed, and there [would] not be Jewish spirit alive in the country,” Sammy said. He added, proudly, that the synagogue ranks No. 4 out of more than 96 attractions in Yangon and in the top 10 landmarks in Burma by TripAdvisor.

“This is pretty amazing,” Sammy said. “Who [would] think the synagogue with a handful of Jews [would] rank so high in a country with thousands of beautiful pagodas and temples?”

Saw Yan Naing is a Burmese journalist for The Irrawaddy magazine and was the Jewish Journal’s Alfred Friendly Fellow earlier this year.

World’s largest ‘Slip n’ Slide’ to be built in Jordan

This article first appeared on The Media Line.

The desert kingdom of Jordan might seem like an unlikely location for the world’s largest water slide. Breaking the record for the longest “Slip n’ Slide”, the long sheet of thin plastic that becomes slippery when wet, is designed as a gesture of little Jordan’s ability to compete with the giants in the profitable world of tourism, organizers said.

An opening of the slide at the lowest point on earth, the Dead Sea, will showcase the many wonders that Jordan has to offer to foreign tourists, hopes Monaco Business Development, the company behind the project. From there the slide will travel around the country visiting the capital Amman and key tourist sites at Petra, Wadi Rum and Aqaba – no easy feat considering the slide weighs around 5 or 6 tons.

The development company would not reveal the exact length of their slide but confirmed their intention to beat the current record of 1,975 feet held by one in the United States.

“It’s symbolic that Jordan, in this region, can take on the world if you put your heart into it,” Mona Naffa, Monaco Business Development’s director, told The Media Line.

The one-piece, plastic slide was hand made in Jordan in order to support local jobs, Naffa said, adding that her company was committed to using out-of-the-box ideas “to showcase Jordan in the mainstream media.” The local company previously staged the largest floating human image, when a collection of hotel workers formed a giant peace symbol on the Dead Sea last year.

At the beginning, the slide will be open only to invited guests. After that, a fee will be charged but organizers hope to arrange subsidies for poorer local children, Naffa said. Conservation of water and the cultural sensitivities of Jordanians will also be taken into account at the events.

“We are a moderate country… (but) we are also realistic… we have a website with a strict dress code – no bathing suits,” Naffa said, suggesting that shorts and tee-shirts were a better option. Water will be saved through recycling, she added.

Jordan has few natural resources like gas or oil, and tourism is an essential part of its economy.

“It’s critical – 10% of the GDP for the country (is from tourism),” Matt Loveland, the co-founder and general director of Experience Jordan tours, told The Media Line. “(Tourism is) the highest employer of people in Jordan – the national economy depends on it.”

But tourism has been hard pressed by ongoing political and security concerns in the Middle East following the outbreak of violence in Iraq and Syria and to a lesser extent Egypt. According to statistics from the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the country received just over 5 million visitors in 2014, down from over 8 million in 2010 prior to the start of the Arab Spring.

Bookings have fallen by as much as 50%, Loveland said, even though there has been no violence in Jordan, and it is safe to visit. The Jordanian government and Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities are doing what they can to bring tourists back, Loveland said, but concluded that the misperception is hard to reverse.

“People hear about a suicide bomber in Baghdad and they think of Jordan and the Middle East… but its several hundred kilometers away in another country,” he explained.

Ramadan tours promote coexistence between Israeli Arabs and Jews

The group of Jewish-Israelis sat in a semicircle on the thick, red carpet of the mosque. The women wore headscarves; everyone’s feet were bare.

They had come to this Arab town in central Israel to experience a slice of Ramadan, the monthlong daytime fast observed by Muslims that ends this week. But before they left the mosque to visit Kfar Qasim’s Ramadan market — a nightly, open-air food bazaar — tour guide Shawkat Amer sounded a note of reassurance.

Amer told the crowd that just before the fast ended that evening, loudspeakers would sound calls of “Allahu akbar,” Arabic for “God is great,” across the city. Although it’s a phrase some Jewish-Israelis may associate with the final cry of terrorists before an attack, Amer urged his guests to remain calm. The call, he said, is in fact a message of goodwill.

“Don’t worry, it’s not a threat,” he said. “If I say it, you should feel pleasure.”

The nearly 50 men, women and children who joined the group on Sunday night were among some 1,500 Jews who have toured Arab-Israeli cities in the past month for a small taste of iftar, the nightly meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. In spite of tensions between the groups, it’s common for Jewish-Israelis to visit Arab towns for discount shopping or Middle Eastern food. But these tours aimed to take that experience deeper by teaching about Arab-Israeli culture and religion.

“If the only narrative is a Jewish narrative and the only history is Jewish, and you just buy hummus from Arabs, that’s not good,” said Ron Gerlitz, co-executive director of Sikkuy, the Jewish-Arab coexistence nonprofit that organized the tours in Arab cities across central and northern Israel. “I don’t object to people buying hummus in Kfar Qasim, but for relations between Jews and Arabs, you need more than that.”

A city of 21,000 residents adjacent to the West Bank border and the middle-class Jewish city of Rosh Haayin, Kfar Qasim is one of Israel’s poorer towns. The Hebrew signs on the shops lining its streets are meant to entice Jewish customers.

As Koranic verses signaling the break-fast echoed across the city, the tour group flooded into an open-air food market set up for Ramadan. Merchants sold the tourists delicacies such as sticky pastries, fruit, pickled vegetables and falafel, fried on the spot in a giant pan. Part of the idea behind the tours, Gerlitz said, is to boost the Arab-Israeli economy, which has less exposure to tourism dollars than Jewish cities.

“Tourism is a meaningful tool for economic development, and tourism right now is mostly in Jewish towns,” he said. “Government investment is mostly in Jewish towns. That means there aren’t investments in Arab towns.”

But the tours also aim to confront historical wounds. Near the center of town, an austere black-and-white monument that looks like an upside-down obelisk with the year 1956 emblazoned on top commemorates the Kfar Qasim massacre, when Israeli border guards killed 48 fieldworkers returning home at curfew. In 2007, then-President Shimon Peres formally apologized for the incident, but residents say they are still pained by its memory. Some said they value dialogue with Jews as a way to move past historical trauma.

The tour group “doesn’t make a difference for me — but for my kids it does, so they won’t say Jews are animals,” said Amer Amer, a vendor of pickled vegetables whose father died in the massacre. “I want Jews to feel trusted here, at home here. I don’t want them to just say, ‘Those are Arabs.’”

The tour provided few opportunities for informal conversation with residents, focusing more on basic information about Islam and Arab-Israeli culture. But Adi, a Hebrew tutor who declined to give her last name, said the group’s exposure to Arab culture and Islam was still more than Jewish-Israelis normally receive.

“I think it was at a more informative level, but as an Israeli I got more of a taste [of Arab-Israeli life] than I get day to day,” she said. “It gave more familiarity than what I’m used to.”

At the mosque visit ahead of their trip to the market, the Jewish group heard Eyad Amer, a local imam, alternate between outlining the basics of Ramadan and answering the group’s questions about Islamic worship. Was there space for women in the mosque? (Yes, in another room.) Does Islam have egalitarian movements, like Judaism? (No.) How many of the city’s 25,000 residents observe the fast? (80 percent, based on mosque attendance.)

“They just hear about extremist Islam,” the imam told JTA after the tour. “They don’t know what moderate Islam is. If we don’t talk about Islam, they’ll just have a negative outlook toward us because they’re just exposed to the dark side, not the enlightened side of Islam.”

Speaking to the group, both the imam and the tour guide complained of discrimination against Arabs in Israel. (In fact, in an interview, Imam Amer said he lived under Israeli occupation, despite being a citizen).

Still, there are hopes for improvement. A two-hour tour wouldn’t fix the longstanding challenges Arabs face in Israel, tour guide Shawkat Amer said — but he hoped that greater Jewish familiarity with Arab-Israelis could help chip away at tensions between the communities.

“I can’t fix the whole world, but even if I do 1 percent of good, it will get better and better,” he said. “The more Jewish people I bring to Arab towns, the happier I’ll be.”

Israel’s tourism industry still hurting from last summer’s conflict

This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

July and August should be peak season for tourism in Israel. From hiking and snorkeling to exploring ancient ruins or camel riding in the desert, Israel has it all. With schools out for summer in the US many families choose to take advantage of Israel’s diverse tourism opportunities and historical offerings including more museums per capita than any other country in the world.

Tourism is one of Israel’s biggest revenue generators bringing in an estimated $11.5 billion in 2013 alone. But since the outbreak of violence between Gaza and Israel last summer tourism has suffered – and local businesses are feeling it.

Located in the center of Jerusalem, along Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, is the Holy Bagel. The cafe is no more than a 10 minute walk in either direction from the Old City or the Mahane Yehuda Market – strategically located for tourists and local customers.

“Before the conflict, before the war and everything, we wouldn't have 5 seconds to stop, or even to go to the bathroom,” Esther Chikly, Holy Bagel's owner, told The Media Line.

If you walked into the Holy Bagel now though, you'd notice a different scene. At 12:30 p.m. on one of the busiest days of the week, the shop is nearly empty. Two patrons sit at different tables inside as they quietly enjoy their meals in solitude. Two employees serve a customer as Chikly washes dishes in the back.

“In the summer we usually would have four or five people on a shift,” she reminisced. “Dishes would be piled up. We would be prepping boxes and boxes of vegetables and we'd constantly refill them. That's how busy the store used to be.”

Chikly's business isn't the only one suffering. Just two doors down on what used to be a hectic corner is the Coffee Bean.

Two years ago, before the conflict arose, the coffee shop was making $25,000 more than it is now, according to the owner, Ronen Targeman.

“Last July and August business really went down,” Targeman told The Media Line, while sitting at one of the many vacant tables in his store. “I don't know if it will be good or not this July and August but now in June, it's not the best.”

Tourists are the Coffee Bean's main clientele because they recognize the international name, Targeman said. The franchise has more than 1,000 locations around the world so people from all over come in for a little taste of home, but now it's not the same.

“People are not coming,” Targeman continued. “It’s a big problem. Before at 12:30 all the tables inside would be full and more than half outside too, but here you see the place. And our prices haven't gone up. Other people have raised their prices but I've stayed at the same price.”

Maintaining the price has been a challenge for his business because, like the Holy Bagel, Targeman can't staff as many employees. He schedules far fewer workers per day which has allowed him to avoid firing anyone so far.

2014 had looked like it was going to be one of the best in the country’s history for the tourism industry, Yaron Burgin, manager and part founder of Abraham Hostel, told The Media Line. But following the conflict the second half of the year was one of the worst for visitor numbers.

“Last summer’s war had a massive impact on tourism in Israel (and) the effect was almost immediate,” Burgin said, noting that although no tourists fled home from the popular backpackers' hostel, many who had been planning to come cancelled their bookings. The timing of the conflict, during the peak summer months, and the number of weeks it dragged on for hurt tourism worse than previous conflicts, Burgin said.

In particular the closure of Ben Gurion airport for 24 hours – due to the threat from Hamas rockets – was very damaging because it stuck in tourists' minds months after the summer and made Israel seem more dangerous than it actually is, he explained.

Although a resumption of violence at this time appears unlikely, Burgin suggested that current political pressures are hampering the tourism industry's recovery. “We are a crazy country and we know it – Israel is always being mentioned in the news and not in a good way. It’s not like it was just last year.” The rise of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and negative headlines regarding Israel's conduct during Operation Protective Edge have not helped, the backpacker turned manager added.

The damage from the conflict on the numbers of visitors to Israel was confirmed by Pini Shani, the director of the Overseas Department at the Israeli Tourism Ministry.  Tourism in 2013 did very well despite the year coming only a short time after the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead, a previous round of fighting between Hamas and Israel. This year on the other hand, following last summer's Operation Protective Edge, has not been so sanguine, Shani told The Media Line.

Partly this was due to the length of the fighting during the most recent confrontation with Hamas, Shani said, but also it was because of outside factors. The recession in Russia, a key tourist country, reduced visitor numbers. As has the current instability in the region and the infamy of the Islamic State. Some people are thinking “this is not a good time to visit the Middle East,” Shani concluded.

But this did not leave him pessimistic: “We believe 2016 will be a good year,” he said. Although budget restraints have held the Ministry of Tourism back a number of advertising campaigns and initiatives have been launched to try encourage visitors to return to Israel. Chief among them is the scheduling of Ryanair flights directly from three cities in eastern Europe to Eilat, scheduled to start in the next few months.

The possibility of flights directly to the beach resort town from as little as $35 will bring tourist numbers back up – or at least that is the hope of Shani and his colleagues.

Robert Swift contributed to this article.

The best is yet to come in evolving Israeli tourism

Following a record year for tourism in 2013 — when 3.5 million visitors came to the Holy Land — things got off to an even better start in 2014. More people were on track to visit than ever … until the Gaza war last summer. By year’s end, the overall number of tourists arriving was down 8 percent to 3.25 million. 

Still, Israeli Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau remains confident that the best is yet to come. A member of the Knesset for more than 30 years who has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sat down with the Journal at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel Feb. 27 during a trip to Los Angeles. He spoke about the impact of security concerns, emerging trends in tourism and tourism’s overall importance to the State of Israel’s economy. An edited version of that conversation follows.

JEWISH JOURNAL: What do you think the long-term ramifications of the Gaza war will be?

UZI LANDAU: Usually what happens with such wars is that you pay a price for a number of months, and then things do level off. … We had a Gaza war at the end of 2008 and in the beginning of 2009, and the same thing happened — that is, it took some time, but after three to four months, five to six months, things start to pick up again. … Israel is a safe place, where mothers send their kids, first-graders, to school unescorted. And vis à vis all of the events in Paris — is Paris safe? Denmark — is it safe? … Israel is safe. 

JJ: There’s been a growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses around here. What do you think this means for young people who may or may not be interested in coming to Israel as a result?

UL: I think that much of these sentiments are based on two things. One is simply misinformation. People simply do not know what is the reality in Israel. They are fed by a world campaign that is being [created] by extreme Muslim elements. In the West, they go hand in hand with extreme radical left people and extreme racial right people joined by classic anti-Semites. We are trying to reach to well-intentioned people. We are hosting many movers and shakers — just to come to Israel and see for their own eyes and then report what they saw. 

JJ: How important is tourism to Israel’s economy?

UL: Tourism is highly important to Israel’s economy. In fact, today it contributes between 2 and 2.2 percent of our GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. But still the potential to be much higher is there. If I just bring, for comparison, France — France enjoys almost 4 percent contribution to GDP. Spain is 5.6 [percent]. We are the Holy Land, something that no other country can provide to any traveler who is interested in religion. I think we are the only country where one who walks there can listen to the language of the Ten Commandments spoken on a regular daily basis. It is a place where kings and empires — ancient ones — have had their footprint, including their cultural creativity, and you can find there today many archaeological excavations. 

JJ: I was going to ask what the next generation of hot spots will be. 

UL: Eco-tourism is already taking place, and agriculture tours are taking place. Cycling is picking up. And bird watching is there — you have hundreds of millions of birds crossing the country through the Syrian-African rift. 

The Dead Sea — this is something that cannot be matched in any other place. Combine that with desert type of hiking, with desert cycling — cycling in Israel is a quickly developing sport where you can do it in the mountainous Galilee, then descend to circulate around the Sea of Galilee, and you can go to the coastal plains and then to the Negev desert, where you can enjoy either hilly areas or flat areas. 

I don’t know what will be the future trends of people — whether we are going to just combine a lot of different types of niches today. You can use your bike to go through wine trails, or an agriculture type of tour, and you can combine that — start and finish your trips in a village to try and see how people of different ethnic backgrounds still live today. You could do this in a Bedouin village, in an Arab village, in a Druze village or in a kibbutz Jewish village. Again, the sky is the limit. 

JJ: I understand you’re retiring. Are you going to travel? You probably know a few good places.

UL: I do. I still do it in Israel. From time to time, I’m also enjoying my time abroad. 

Israeli tourists evacuated from Maldives

Israeli tourists in the Maldives had to be evacuated from the island nation after an Israeli surfer removed an anti-Israel sign placed outside a guest house.

The tourists were evacuated earlier this week from Kaafu Thulusdhoo Island by security services after protesters on the island called for their removal and protesters from other places began converging on the island, according to

The sign, outside a guest house owned by Mohamed Hashim, featured a swastika next to an Israeli flag. The tourist ripped it in half, according to the report. Hashim told the news service that about 60 percent of the bookings in his guest house are Israelis.

Following the evacuation of the tourists, a protest was held in the Maldives capital of Male, during which an Israeli flag was burned. The protest follows a pro-Palestinian protest held earlier this month in Male, attended by about 13,000 people.

Maldives, which resumed diplomatic relations with Israel in 2009, last week annulled all cooperation agreements signed with Israel and announced a boycott of Israeli products.

Jerusalem high on new skyline

Ten years ago, Jerusalem was just starting to emerge from the Second Intifada, which scared away local residents as well as investors. Many shops and restaurants closed during that period, leaving hundreds of storefronts with “for sale” signs. 

Fast-forward 10 years, and Jerusalem feels like a vastly different city. Many trendy stores, restaurants and hotels have opened in the city center; there is a world-class shopping district in Mamilla, as well as the adjoining Alrov residential complex, right next to the Old City; and the suddenly chic Mahane Yehuda open-air market is now a huge tourist attraction. 

 An equally important sign of Jerusalem’s rebirth is the number of luxury apartment projects being built downtown and elsewhere. Several luxury buildings, some of them high-rises, have gradually changed the skyline and brought a sense of stability and affluence to a city not known for either.  

The city has approved several of these high-rises, sometimes to the chagrin of local tenants accustomed to Jerusalem being a low-rise city. The impetus came in 2006, after former Mayor Uri Lupolianski acceded to environmentalists’ pressure to scuttle the Safdie Plan, which would have expanded Jerusalem westward and added 20,000 housing units. Unable to move outward, the city had nowhere to go but up. 

In truth, the new luxury homes haven’t made a dent in the city’s chronic housing shortage because the average Jerusalemite can’t afford to purchase one. But no one denies that the projects have created numerous jobs, brought hundreds of millions of dollars in investments and generally improved the city’s atmosphere. 

Shay Lipman, a real estate analyst at Excellence Nessuah Brokerage Services in Petach Tikvah, said the city “began to turn around” about five years ago. 

“Today, we’re seeing demand from many foreigners, including Russians, who also like Tel Aviv, [and] Americans and Europeans, especially from France and Belgium, partly due to rising anti-Semitism. Many are religious Jews.” 

Some Israelis invest as well.  

Lipman said buyers may be businesspeople who spend several weeks or months in Israel for work “and want a home base and the high standard they’re used to.” 

Others are empty-nesters, often in their 50s and 60s, who want a spanking-new apartment with condo-style services — no more mowing the lawn or repairing the roof — with an on-site maintenance team. 

Still others are families with young children who visit Israel regularly, or new immigrants who’ve decided to make their home in Jerusalem.  

While most purchase apartments as their second — or third or fourth — home, many eventually use them as their primary residence, Lipman said. 

In Jerusalem, the most sought-after properties tend to be within easy walking distance of the Old City and the center of town. 

One of the most luxurious projects is King David’s Crown, located across the street from the King David Hotel, directly adjacent to the landmark Jerusalem YMCA building. The apartments, with three, four and five bedrooms and large balconies, have direct underground access to the YMCA sports center and overlook a 1.25-acre park. The buildings feature 24-hour security, Shabbat elevators and a beautiful synagogue. 

The homes range from more than $1 million to several million dollars. 

Another luxurious property is the Saidoff Houses project, a 23-story residential building close to the Mahane Yehuda shuk on Jaffa Road. It offers 90 penthouses and duplexes (three to six rooms), a pool, spa, gym and synagogue. The views are stunning.  

Some of the penthouses in the africa-israel Residences at 7 rav Kook St. cost more than $5 million. Their spacious terraces offer fantastic views of Jerusalem.  Photo by Michele Chabin

For sheer location, nothing beats the Africa-Israel Residences at 7 Rav Kook St., a surprisingly quiet street perpendicular to Jaffa Road. The other side of the building adjoins the Ticho House, the famed restaurant, museum and former home of the artist Anna Ticho.  

The project, which was jointly initiated by Africa-Israel and Shainfeld Investments, has 131 apartments, including 112 “premium” apartments, eight penthouses and 11 “grand” apartments. The ground floor offers 11 hotel rooms and has 12 retail stores. All of the premium apartments, with one to four bedrooms, have been sold; marketing has begun for the grand ($1.28 million to $2 million) and penthouse homes ($3.4 million to $5.7 million), the latter boasting large terraces. 

Despite being in the heart of the city, the building has the feel of an inner sanctum. The apartments are sunny and quiet, and offer marvelous views. The property includes a hotel-standard exercise room, a large event room for tenants and many other amenities, said Dalia Azar Malimouka, a spokeswoman for the residences. 

During a tour, she showed two penthouses. The first was unfinished, to enable prospective owners to design the apartment to their taste and specifications. The second, a nearly 800-square-foot apartment with a 155-square-foot balcony, was completely furnished. The wood-decked terrace, which comes with a huge wooden pergola (or sukkah frame), provides a fantastic view of much of the city. 

In a phone interview, Oren Hod, CEO of Africa-Israel, recalled the intifada years, “when the city was neglected.” Today, he said, “people feel safe and confident, and you see [this] in the amount of investment” in infrastructure and real estate. 

Hod acknowledged the new luxury homes being built in Jerusalem aren’t for everyone: “All of us have a budget, and not everyone can live in the heart of Jerusalem.”

Voluntouring in Israel

Going on holiday can mean relaxing or sightseeing, tasting new foods or learning firsthand about new cultures. A growing segment of vacationers, however, goes abroad to work for free.

Voluntourism — volunteering and tourism — has been cited as one of the fastest-growing sectors of worldwide tourism. Israel, a top destination for myriad reasons — from historical to cultural, biblical to religious — is proving to be a leading location for voluntourists as well.

People of just about any age can farm, perform dentistry, respond to emergency calls, serve in the army, work in animal or environmental conservation, pick fruit on a kibbutz or make a person in need smile.

“Volunteers can make a difference even if they come for an hour,” said Deena Fiedler, spokeswoman for the national food bank Leket Israel. “They’re in our fields or in our packing warehouse; they’re preparing sandwiches, rescuing surplus food. They’re making a difference. We couldn’t do what we do without the volunteers.”

Leket relied on more than 50,000 volunteers in 2013 to help glean fields, rescue leftover food and redistribute it. Many were visitors from overseas.

In a 2012 report, 35 percent of adults said they would like to try a holiday involving a voluntourism component.

Do something good

The main premise of voluntourism is to travel while helping a cause. It also offers out-of-towners a personal feel for the place they’re visiting.

“It’s a nice way to get to know where you are,” Fiedler said. “When you’re in the field, you’re with an eighth-grader from Ashkelon or a group from a high-tech company on a bonding day. I don’t think you’d get that experience if you were a regular traveler. And I think that’s why a lot of people do it.”

The time-honored option of volunteering on a kibbutz for a few months is still a tradition that’s very much alive, as is the “wwoofing”(experience of working the land in Israel as part of Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Willing Workers on Organic Farms). But today there are dozens of organizations in Israel — and hundreds around the globe — offering short volunteering projects that can be included in a one- or two-week holiday.

At the Pantry Packers facility in Jerusalem, tourists 8 and older don gloves, aprons and caps in order to fill bags of rice, beans and other commodities for food baskets destined for needy families.

Tourists are sure to find inspiration at Yad Sarah — the largest national volunteer organization in Israel. Voluntourists in Israel for at least three months are welcome to help aid the disabled and elderly.

An experience for you, too

Voluntouring can also include professional exchanges. Licensed dentists from many countries come to treat underprivileged Jerusalem children through Dental Volunteers for Israel (DVI).

“The experience of providing dental treatment to children in need is very rewarding,” said Dr. Karen Walters of Texas, who has returned five times to volunteer at DVI’s Trudi Birger Dental Clinic.

“The feeling you get from relieving a child’s dental pain and restoring their teeth so they can smile again is so satisfying. When my colleagues ask me why I go to Israel and ‘work,’ I can only reply, ‘Why not?’ The children of Jerusalem need this wonderful clinic, and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Aliza Solomon of DVI said interest in the program is high.

“The experience of volunteering gives them something you can’t get any other way. Quite a few dentists tell us that [treating underprivileged children] was their way of going back to why they went into dentistry in the first place,” Solomon said.  

Another popular voluntourism opportunity is Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s national emergency and blood service agency. Participants in the MDA Overseas Volunteer Program get hands-on experience in CPR, bandaging and dealing with mass casualties. They leave as certified first responders. MDA also has shorter tourist mini courses in first aid and CPR.

Environmentalists and socially conscious tourists have a whole range of eco-tourism options in Israel, too.

Project Bird Box is an educational wildlife nonprofit that works with farmers and schools. Volunteers are always needed to build bird boxes for natural pest control. GoEco matches volunteers with wildlife and desert conservation programs in locations such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Nazareth and the Negev desert.

“I hope that when people come to Israel with GoEco, they learn that Israelis are not only focused on the political situation, but they’re also focused on sustaining the land that is so holy and dear to so many people,” a volunteer coordinator said. 

Want to voluntour?

If you want to voluntour but don’t know where or how to go about it, there are organizations in Israel that can help.

Ruach Tova (“Good Spirit”) is an umbrella organization for prospective volunteers, matching them up with programs in education, health, the environment, animal welfare and more. 

The Israel Volunteer Center also helps tourists find a suitable place for their services. 

Sar-El is another national volunteering project, offering opportunities to help in military warehouses with tasks such as packing equipment or fixing uniforms. 

Tourism to Israel reaches all-time high

Israel reported an all-time high in annual visitors in 2013.

A record 3.54 million visitors arrived in Israel in 2013, half a percent more than the previous record year. Meanwhile, some 272,000 tourists arrived in December, a 14 percent increase over December 2012, setting a record for most arrivals in the Jewish state in one month.

The figures were released Thursday by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

Nearly 18 percent of tourists arrived from the United States, with some 623,000 Americans visiting. Russia sent 603,000 tourists, and France 315,000.

More than half the tourists, or 53 percent, were Christian; only 28 percent were Jewish.

Overall, tourism contributed about $11.4 billion to the Israeli economy in 2013, according to the Ministry of Tourism.

“The year 2013 is a record year for tourism, and we are proud of that. Despite Operation Pillar of Defense and the security situation in the region, tourists voted with their feet,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau.

Americans in Yemen fear kidnappings

This story originally appeared on

Luke, an American photographer and editor for an English-language local newspaper, lives in one of the tall historic buildings in the city.  With increased kidnappings of Westerners in Yemen, he also lives in fear.

The number of kidnappings has increased recently, with tribesmen or Al-Qa'ida terrorists using hostages either as bargaining chips for the release of imprisoned members or as a way to get a lucrative ransom.

Several foreigners have been abducted this year by either Al-Qa'ida gunmen or disgruntled tribesmen. Last month a Dutch couple was abducted here. Their location is still unknown. In May, gunmen abducted two South Africans in the southern province of Taiz. Three members of the Red Cross, including a Swiss citizen were also briefly held captive as well that month.

Although they refused to give an exact number of Westerners living in the country, Yemeni foreign ministry officials said that the number of Westerners here has plunged in recent years.

For the Westerners who live here despite the threats, the fear is always there, but they try to live as normal a life as they can, and believe reports of violence in Yemen are exaggerated by the media. 

Luke, 31, who arrived in 2011, says the situation has taken a toll on him. “There's no denying that as a foreigner, in particular a 'Westerner,' you stick out in Yemen. But while such news is certainly disturbing, it is clear to me that carrying around such worry or concern is neither helpful nor healthy.”

Luke says he tries not to think about the fear of kidnappings.

“I live my life as normally as I can,” he told The Media Line. “The fact that so many of the people who surround me on a daily basis are kind, helpful and genuinely curious [about me] helps in this regard.”

“I do sense that as long as foreigners aren't secreted away in compounds or constantly surrounded by security details, the unparalleled warmth and generosity of the Yemeni people can serve to assuage most daily fears or concerns about such things,” he told The Media Line.

Luke is hardly alone in facing down the fear of kidnapping in Yemen. Hundreds of Westerners here have to worry about increased violence and a growing lack of security.

“We pray every day for God's protection. And we feel that God is guiding our steps. That said, we also have to be careful and use our common sense regarding where to go,” a 47-year-old American teacher who requested anonymity, told The Media Line.

The language teacher, who has been living here for nine years, said Yemen's security and economy took a turn for the worse after the revolution in 2011 that ousted former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

“When we first came to Yemen, we would go in the car and visit cities and villages…But now we can't go out of the city due to the bad security situation,” she recalled.

The kidnappings and growing lack of security here have taken not only a psychological toll on the Westerners, but has hurt them economically as well.

Susan Coleman, co-owner of the Coffee Trader, a well-known coffee shop in Sana'a and one of a handful of businesses owned by Americans in the country, told The Media Line that kidnappings have hurt her business, which attracts foreign and Yemeni customers alike.

Coleman, 47, said she came here with her husband to study Arabic and teach English. But when they noticed there were no Western-style coffee shops in Yemen, they decided to open one in 2007.

She said that the coffee shop was a hit from the beginning, but business has fallen off lately because of the opening of rival coffee shops and the fear of kidnapping.

“We used to have people from embassies come, but now due to the security situation they don't come here because they fear for their safety.”

Despite putting up a positive front, Coleman refused to be photographed for security reasons and she says Westerners' need to maintain a low profile. She added that if security improved Yemen could become one of the biggest tourist hubs in the region.

Stan, from Washington, D.C., who arrived this summer to study Arabic, also thinks the country gets a bad rap, but exercises caution anyway on a daily basis.

“I arrived in Yemen just this summer, right in the thick of the current spate of kidnappings. I vary my schedule, keep solitary travel to a minimum, and stay in touch with friends and colleagues, particularly when I'm in a new or unfamiliar part of town. This is definitely distinct from my daily life back home.”

Besides his interest in learning Arabic, “I was really excited by the incredible developments Yemen is undergoing right now. Between the transitional government, the national dialogue and impending new constitution and elections, this is an incredible time to be in Yemen and I wanted to take advantage of it.”

He refuses to allow the fear of kidnappings to get in the way of his goals. “The kidnapping of Westerners is something that saddens me but does not ultimately affect my daily life. Hearing about kidnappings is a reminder of a number of things.  It's a reminder that there are risks being a foreigner in Sana'a, It's a reminder there are groups in Yemen that are willing to use foreigners to further their political or ideological goals,” he told The Media Line.

Nonetheless, Stan, 24, refuses to let the tension scare him away from his goal of learning about the country and its people. “I came to Yemen to meet Yemeni people, experience Yemeni culture and society, and improve my Arabic. I cannot do those things from the safety of my dorm room, nor do I think that remaining indoors is substantially safer than living prudently in greater Sana'a. The kidnappings don't worry me, because I feel that worrying doesn't accomplish anything. They simply remind me to be safe, while also inspiring a hope that current hostages will be returned safely and soon.”

Reacting to accusations that Yemen is a major terrorist center, Stan said: “The presence of terrorist groups does not a 'terrorist hub' make. The US and its media outlets love the words 'terrorist' and Al Qa'ida and are eager to report on these things with inflammatory news bites and oversimplified headlines. …We're used to relying on the media to tell us everything about other countries, and we do the same for Yemen. So when an attack by Al-Qa'ida is mentioned as having taken place in Yemen, it fits in nicely with the narrative the media has started to build, and which Americans in general have accepted, that Yemen is a desert country with terrorist groups running around everywhere.”

He says the international community should take a closer look at Yemen.

“It's easy to assume the worst about a people or country halfway across the world; I would want to start correcting those assumptions,” Stan told The Media Line.

The American embassy won't provide numbers of Americans residing or visiting the country either.  But US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein said: “Al-Qa'ida has consistently made clear it wishes to harm American citizens and we take such threats very seriously. As a matter of policy, we do not publicly discuss our security posture.”

Despite the kidnappings, Stan hopes Yemen can earn a better reputation among foreigners.

“The most important thing for me would be to inform Americans that Yemenis distinguish between the American government and an average American person. Many Yemenis strongly dislike the former, but I have not met a single Yemeni who disliked me for being the latter. Every Yemeni I've spoken to has been gracious and welcoming. They have gone out of their way to make sure that  they do not harbor ill will toward me because of the actions of my government, and that they are glad that I have traveled to Yemen,” Stan concluded.

‘Come back [to Israel] and bring a lot of people with you’

“No Shopping!” guide Nadav Kersh admonished his charges as they entered the crowded Old City of Jerusalem. “I mean it. No shopping! It’s just too easy to get lost here.”

Kersh was guiding a group of tour operators from the U.S., U.K. and South Africa on a whirlwind tour of the holy places in Jerusalem. Simultaneously, other tour groups were listening to guides speaking Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and German. They are part of a group of 160 tour operators invited by the Ministry of Tourism for a week-long trip to Israel.

The day began at the Israel Museum, and a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls housed in a special building shaped like a giant white Hershey’s kiss.

“Scrolls are like money,” Kersh told them. “The more they get used, the more worn out they get. Anyone know which book of the Bible is the most popular?”

“Psalms?” asks Tony Lock from the UK.

“Right!” answers Kersh. “Even today, if you go on a bus in Israel you see old ladies reading Psalms. Here you’ll see one of the oldest versions of Psalms.”

After a quick circuit of the museum, the tour operators were given a preview of an upcoming exhibition on the Roman king of Judea, Herod the Great, who ruled the area from 40 BC to 4 BC and has been described both as a genius and a madman.

“It will be the first exhibition in the world about Herod,” David Mevorah, the museum’s archaeology curator, told the group. “It took us 40 years to find his tomb, but that convinced us to do the exhibit. Herod was a massive builder in stone and the [Second Jewish] Temple [in Jerusalem] was his greatest project.”

After a detailed PowerPoint presentation, the group headed off to the Old City of Jerusalem. At the fifth station of the Via Dolorosa, the path that Christians believe Jesus walked on the way to crucifixion, Kersh points out a stone handprint, which tradition says belonged to Jesus. Many in the group touch their hand to the stone.

“To me, this whole city has a special feeling,” Phyllis Brown told The Media Line about her first trip to Israel. “I’m really very impressed. Jerusalem is simply breathtaking. I expected it to be flatter and more desert-like, but it is so pretty.”

Brown, from Santa Barbara, California, has sent about 10 clients on trips to Israel each year, but now hopes to increase that.

“I definitely feel more capable now to organize a group,” she says.

The trip came just a few days after the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after eight days of heavy fighting. Brown says that while she was not afraid to visit Israel, her adult children were concerned and asked her to cancel her trip.

“There was about a week when I didn’t hear anything from the Tourism Ministry and I wasn’t sure if the trip was on,” Brown says. “But within 24 hours of the cease-fire they sent a barrage of emails making sure we were still coming.”

Another tour operator, Douglas Kostwoski from Travel People in Miami, Florida, agreed.

“As soon as I saw the cease-fire was holding, I started packing,” he told The Media Line. “I already send about 100 people each year to Israel, but my mind keeps racing with new things to add to the itinerary and what I’ll tell potential clients.”

Israeli tourism officials said the group’s visit became even more important after the fighting in Gaza.

“There is no doubt that Operation Pillar of Defense affected incoming tourism,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said. “But we are already taking steps toward swift rehabilitation, minimizing damage and renewing the momentum of incoming tourism over the last three years.”

Tourism is a key economic sector in Israel. In 2010, some 3.45 million tourists visited Israel and 2012 was set to bring even more. Officials are also targeting previously untapped markets, including India and China. In 2009, according to the Ministry of Tourism, the sector brought $3.3 billion into Israel’s economy. More than half of the tourists visiting are Christian, while 40 percent are Jewish.

“There are some church groups coming from Mumbai,” Sarah ReSello, from Go Beyond Travels India, told The Media Line. “But we will be trying to get them to also go to the Red Sea resort of Eilat and the Dead Sea.”

It is impossible to visit Israel without some talk of politics. Tour guide Kersh told the visitors how the Old City of Jerusalem is divided into four quarters – Jewish, Christian, Armenian and Muslim – but how the residents of the quarters are also mixed.

“Take the Muslim Quarter, for example, which is the largest with 20,000 inhabitants,” he said. “You can have Christians living there, and even some Jews. If you see Israeli flags there, it means that a Jewish Israeli bought the house and he wants to annoy his neighbors.”

“Are all four quarters safe?” Kostowski asks.

“Yes,” replies Kersh. “The whole country is safe.”

Syrian fighting decimates tourism industry

Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. International flights into and out of the capital continued despite throughout 20-months of fighting between troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the rebels seeking to depose him. But as of Friday, the flights have stopped.

The decision was taken and all flights were cancelled when government jets bombed rebel positions close to the airport. EgyptAir announced on Sunday that it would resume flights to Damascus, but that did not appear to happen. The Egyptian flag-carrier had been operating daily flights between Cairo and Damascus, as well as several weekly flights from Cairo to Aleppo.

Ali Zein El-Abedeen of EgyptAir told The Media Line that flights to Aleppo were resumed on Monday, but the flight to Damascus did not take off.

In any case, the nation’s tourism industry, an important sector in quieter times, has — not surprisingly — been decimated by the fighting, which has left more than 40,000 Syrians, many of them civilians, dead. Tourism was responsible for five percent of Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2011, and directly supported 270,000 jobs according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Arab tourists do not need visas to visit Syria, and more than three million traditionally come annually for family visits or on business.

“I used to go to Syria for a week every month,” Adnan Habbab, the owner of Nawafir Tours in Jordan told The Media Line. “There are 3,000 archaeological sites in Syria alone.”

It takes just two hours to drive, or 25 minutes to fly between Amman and Damascus. Habbab’s agency marketed week-long tours of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria to Europeans and sold between 10,000 and 12,000 packages every year. They even opened two hotels in Damascus. Now, he says, he has laid- off  90 of his one hundred employees.

“We lost millions of dollars in profit,” he said. “Since May 2011, everyone has cancelled their trips to Syria.”

The American government has issued a stern warning against travel to Syria.

“The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens against travel to Syria and strongly recommends that U.S. citizens remaining in Syria depart immediately,” the warning says. “This Travel Warning supersedes the Travel Warning dated August 1, 2012, to remind U.S. citizens that the security situation remains volatile and unpredictable throughout the country, with an increased risk of kidnappings, and to update contact information.
No part of Syria should be considered immune from violence, and the potential exists throughout the country for hostile acts, including kidnappings.”

While several foreign airlines including Air Arabia and Fly Dubai, in addition to EgyptAir, had been operating flights to Damascus, they had cut their numbers significantly during the past few months. Only a handful of flights were landing in Damascus even before the current stoppage.

“Damascus has always been a place where flight service has been incredibly volatile,” Toby Nicol, the communications director for the World Travel and Tourism Council told The Media Line. “Ettihad Air was due to resume flying next month, and Air Dubai still lists flights to Syria, but I have no idea of who is currently flying.”

Nicols says that he has not visited Damascus and does not plan to in the near future.

“It’s one of those places where I always meant to go but never got around to it,” he said. “Now it will probably have to wait for at least 18 months.”

There seems to be no end in sight for the fighting in Syria. Turkish officials said Syria resumed an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Ras al-Ain, near the border with Turkey. They said two bombs hit a Syrian security building that had been captured by the rebels.

The officials said shrapnel from the bombing landed on Turkish territory but no one was injured.

Haifa a many-faceted jewel

Visiting Americans often compare Haifa with San Francisco for its hilly landscape and trendy, artsy neighborhoods, or Boston for its mix of academia and maritime culture. While this northern Israeli city is a weekend getaway for Jerusalemites and Tel Avivians, Haifa is also worth experiencing as a city of the future, with its expanding international influence as a high-tech center, or as a quaint port town with a rich, 3,000-year history.

Haifa is also a multicultural metropolis, frequently portrayed as a model of coexistence between Arabs and Jews. The third-largest city in Israel, it features six faiths and a variety of ethnic communities living together near the sea.

One of the city’s most popular destinations is the Baha’i Gardens. Located on the northern slope of Mount Carmel, the UNESCO World Heritage site features a staircase of 19 landscaped “hanging gardens” that connect Haifa with the city of Akko, which holds great significance for Baha’is as the final resting place of their prophet, the Báb. The Baha’i Gardens offer awe-inspiring, panoramic views of the city, the Galilean hills and the Mediterranean Sea. 

The Colony Hotel.

Nature lovers may want to head to Dado Beach and Meridian Beach to view rare plants, or venture out on hiking trails along one of the local rivers (Lotem, Si’akh, Ezov and Akhuza). Mount Carmel National Park is Israel’s largest national park, featuring approximately 25,000 acres of pine, eucalyptus and cypress forest.

Planning a trip to Israel around Chanukah? Don’t miss an opportunity to see the city during one of its most vibrant times of year. Extending from Haifa’s Wadi Nisnas neighborhood to the German Colony, the annual Hag Ha Hagim, or Festival of Festivals, is staged every Saturday throughout December. The festival celebrates Judaism, Christianity and Islam through music and dance performances, artistic and cultural events, an arts and crafts fair, and, of course, lots of succulent local food.

International Chinese Culinary Competition: Culture on the menu

Times Square, the icon of New York kitsch and tourism, pop culture and media art, not only looked different that day in late September, it smelled different. The place that many people call the center of the world was transformed into one big Chinese kitchen. That's right. Times Square was home to the 5th International Chinese Culinary Competition.

I was there, ostensibly, to taste and review the first offerings of the day kosher Chinese food. In order to maintain a strict level of 'kashrut' the kosher competition was the first item on the agenda to ensure that all utensils, still new, would neither touch nor be tainted by anything non-kosher.

But more than my taste buds were tingling. This was not a mere foodie fest, it was an educational culture fest. The cook off organizers created a cooking challenge in order to make Chinese culture fun, hip, vibrant and if you will, palatable to Chinese youth living around the world who have abandoned the ways of their ancestors in order to realize the modern dream of franks, beans and apple pie.

The competitions are sponsored by the NTD-TV, the New Tang Dynasty Television network. Mr. Zhong Lee, president of NTD-TV, sat with me as the chefs were saut ing and explained that of all the competitions they could have chosen they felt that the food competition would be the best vehicle to educate and inform a new generation about the greatness of Chinese culture.

Mr. Lee explained that his network, rather than toeing the Chinese line, challenges the dictates coming from mainland China. The network is a tool to teach people about what is actually happening both around the world and also – in China. Most importantly, they teach about freedom and democracy to people who are always fed the party line.

NTD-TV is not welcomed by the Chinese government. In fact, the station is blocked in China, but yet, people still find a way to watch and to listen. Not surprisingly, NDT is also closely watched and carefully monitored by the leadership of Communist China. The government, too, uses NTD-TV as a learning tool. Communists need to know what is really happening in the world and they need to understand other points of view in order to confront them.

Communism, in addition to denying liberties and individual expression, has destroyed the great love for and appreciation of Chinese history, culture and, of course, religion. They created a revolution in order to step away from the past. The result is that a legacy forged over centuries has been pushed aside and forgotten.

Today's youth cannot connect to Confucius. They have no understanding of Daoism or of Buddhism. No matter where they live in the world, from Tiananmen Square to Trafalgar Square to Times Square, today's Chinese youth know very little and care even less about their heritage and culture.

Until, that is, NTD-TV was born. This TV network, broadcast around the world to a half billion viewers, introduces people to their heritage by making their heritage hip and sexy. The 6th International Cooking Competition was part of the network spin. It tweaked an age old tradition and injected a sense of modern day pride. The Food Network does it. The Cooking Channel does it. And so does NTD.

The addition of kosher Chinese food as an appetizer was not just shtick. The Jewish-kosher angle fit simply and squarely into the NTD-TV paradigm. Jewish culture and community serves as a model for NTD president Zhong Lee. Jews throughout the world demonstrate communal awareness and love of their unique culture and heritage. The highly developed Jewish sense of pride in the past and the great gifts that individual Jews and the Jewish people donate to the world are, according to Lee, what he hopes to inculcate in his audience. And especially the connection to Israel – the ancestral homeland. Through NTD-TV Zhong Lee hopes to recreate the Jewish model for Chinese living in China and living in the Chinese Diaspora.

Jewish food is part of Jewish tradition. Jews from various parts of the world all have their own very unique and distinctive foods. There is a literature about food and there is lore and recipes are handed down from generation to generation with great pride and satisfaction. That was one of the goals of the Chinese cook off competition in Times Square and that is why there were four kosher chefs who participated in the first round.

I tasted the kosher offerings- and they were OK. But I did not come for the tasting. I came to understand the link between a world media giant and kosher Chinese. And I came away with an understanding of the great pain that some very creative and exceptional minds not in China, but expressly outside the community, feel over a loss of pride and lack of knowledge in Chinese heritage.

Let me tell you a famous story about an argument between a Chinese person and Jewish person. The

Chinese person said: We Chinese have the oldest, richest culture in the world dating back to the Xia dynasty 2100 BCE. That is 4100 years ago.

The Jewish person said: Nonsense. We have the oldest culture in the world dating back 5700 years ago.

The Chinese man stroked his beard for a few seconds and then politely asked: If that is so what did the Jews eat for 3600 years?

Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History's Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).

Ancient Shiloh: A new stop on the tourist map?

Travis Allen was spending three weeks in 2009 driving around Israel visiting historic sites when he suddenly noticed Shiloh on the map and asked his driver if they could go to the site of the archaeological dig. What Allen, a financial adviser from California who’s making his first run for public office, remembers vividly is what was not there. People.

“I went and there was no one there. There was a little station by a gate. I asked if this is Shiloh where the tabernacle used to stand and I was told, ‘up by the hill.’ I walked up by myself and I had the whole place to myself… It was fantastic. There was a viewing platform and nothing else.”

Nestled in the Judean Hills about a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem and closer to Nablus lies the ancient city of Shiloh, the first home of the Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that for 369 years was the epicenter of religious observance and sacrifices as the Jewish people traveled in the desert.

Tzofia Dorot, a young, modern and passionate woman dressed in slacks, a kerchief—symbolic of the majority of community living in modern Shiloh—covering her head, guided a group of American and Israeli tourists through the Tel Shiloh archaeological site on a hot summer afternoon. She explained to The Media Line why Shiloh was attracting new visitors.

“People are not afraid today; unlike maybe 10-years ago when the situation was different. Today it’s pretty quiet. Usually, you’re afraid of something you don’t know. So many people didn’t cross the Green Line—Israel’s pre-1967 borders with Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon—for years because they were afraid of getting shot, they were afraid of bombs; and today it’s a great opportunity to learn about this place, the sites and the people,” said Dorot.

“Shiloh doesn’t appear so dangerous to me,” offered Ken Abramowitz, a market analyst from New York who helped put the group together. “Shiloh was the heartland of Israel. About 3200 years ago this was the center of Israel, and unfortunately people have forgotten that. It’s good to remind myself, and I invited ten friends to join us in order to remind them, too.” 

Dorot, who now lives in Kida, a community of fifty families located within the Shiloh bloc overlooking the Jordan Valley, adds that “the people who live in Judea and Samaria are shown by the media through a very narrow pipe. The extremists are on television, the normal people aren’t shown.”

When archaeological digs resumed in 2010, thirty-years had lapsed since the most recent previous work. The visitors led by Dorot saw a Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) from the Second Temple period – and artifacts found when archaeologists discovered an entire room containing piles of broken dishes from the time of the Tabernacle. Dorot explained that because people typically keep their dishes with them, the abundance of broken pottery indicates that the inhabitants left quickly, presumably under duress, in flight.

Further up the hill and part of the most recent digs, archaeologists found the big platform believed to be the resting place of the Tabernacle itself.

“People come to Shiloh because it was the first capital of the Jewish nation, it was a spiritual center where the Tabernacle—housing the ark, the menorah (candelabra), the table, and everything needed to serve God)—was sitting. This is where land was distributed to the tribes by lottery; and this is where Tu B’Av the Jewish love holiday—is celebrated every year on the tenth day of the month of Av,” according to Dorot. 

In February, 2012, the government of Israel declared Tel Shiloh an archeological heritage site, and pumped-in an initial $1.5 million, a portion of the $12 million needed over the next five years. This help enabled the recent digs that uncovered the actual area where the Tabernacle rested. 

Dorot says Shiloh is like a “mini-Jerusalem” without the mess and noise of the big city. “A site that has so many layers and is such a big part of our history should be exposed,” she argued. “Today we have all the layers of the history of Shiloh. Basically, we have the story of the land of Israel.”

The head of the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to establish at Tel Shiloh the first visitors’ center located inside an archaeological site, set to open this year. The ultra-modern glass and metal structure that is designed to evoke an image “that connects the land to the sky,” stands on bedrock in order not to harm the archaeology. Visitors will go from the stones of archaeology up to the tower where, “The tower will help visitors understand and see what their eyes cannot. The first floor will be for guiding and the second floor will showcase a movie projected onto the special glass walls that can be controlled so that cinema merges with the reality beyond. Dorot promises that, “You’ll see the actors in the area and sometimes you won’t know what is real and what is not.”

The Jewish presence in areas Israel acquired in the 1967 war is widely recognized as a key obstacle to the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. The Palestinians regard the land as their future state, while even many Jewish Israelis are willing to cede the land in return for a genuine peace.

Abramowitz faults the Israeli government for “speaking in a mixed message to its people.” He disdains that, “one government will say ‘Judea and Samaria are ours forever,’ while another says, ‘we don’t really want it, it can be a Palestinian state.’ It confuses the population: both the children and the adults,” he told The Media Line.

Despite the divisive political debate surrounding the future of post-1967 lands; and illustrative of Abramowitz’s point about inconsistent policies of respective governments,  Education Minister Gidon Saar announced in early 2011, a program to bring Israeli schoolchildren to heritage sites located in post-1967 territories – including the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the ancient city of Shiloh—so that they would know “the historic roots of the State of Israel in the Land of Israel.” 

Marc Prowisor, director of security for Judea and Samaria for One Israel Fund – an advocacy group promoting Jewish ties to post-1967 lands—felt Saar’s initiative was long overdue. Prowisor charged that “it was a crime of all Israeli governments and educational ministries for withholding information from the Israeli public, children and the Jewish people.”

According to Avital Seleh, director of Tel Shiloh, “Two years ago we said it was time to bring Israelis and tourists to Shiloh. 30,000 people have been visiting annually: 50% Israeli and 50% from around the world. A separate program was initiated that brought in young people to participate in the digging so they will remember that they touched Shiloh.” Adding evidence that interest in the area and willingness to travel there is on the rise, Prowisor said referring to an American lobby tied to Israel that advocates ceding post-1967 land to the Palestinians, “Even J-Street recently came.”

Despite the enthusiasm of those associated with Shilo, travel in the territories has apparently not yet become mainstream within Israel’s tourism industry. Nimrod Shafran,  operations manager for Da’at Educational Expeditions, told The Media Line that “A visit to Shiloh was never requested” in the six years he has been working with one of Israel’s foremost tour operators. “The only time I remember adding Shiloh to a program was for a group that included Judea and Samaria in their visit and we took them to Shiloh and a settlement to show them the old and the new.”

Pini Shani, director of the Israel Tourism Ministry’s overseas department told The Media Line that it’s the Evangelical Christian groups who primarily go to visit Shiloh. When asked if anyone has inquired to his desk about Shiloh, his answer was negative.

As the group Ken Abramowitz brought to Shiloh approached the construction site of the new state-of-the-art visitors’ center, participants were surprised to see several Arab workers enjoying a lunch break. Did they have problems with “assisting in excavating Jewish history?”

Dorot offered a story by way of illustration. She said that, “One Arab worker asked me as he was digging, ‘What is this layer and the next layer?’ The deeper we went, he understood that Jewish history is the first layer, then the Christian history, then the Muslim history. I’m proud of all the layers. I think it is great the Muslims wanted to build their mosque here, and the Christians wanted to build their church here. They all came here because the Tabernacle was first standing here. The worker saw it with his eyes,” according to Dorot.

But Prowisor’s take was more reflective of the intensity of the conflict. “In their (Arab) books, there is no Jewish history in Israel,” he argued. “You can’t ignore it. You just see it.” Charging he has “yet to see anything taught in Arab schools about peace with Israel,” Prowisor said “I respect the Arab culture, but expect the same in return.”

Allen, a candidate for the California Assembly, interjected that, “Shiloh belongs to the whole world, not just the Jewish nations. When Christians come here they look through the bible,” a belief Dorot seems to incorporate into her outlook. It also forms part of her answer to the painful question of whether Shiloh will ultimately be ceded to the Palestinians in a future peace deal.

“If I am here now, it’s my job to make sure that the archeology here will be exposed; it’s my job to make sure we have serious research here. I don’t want to lose the artifacts; I want to make sure I write down everything. I think it’s never going to happen, but even if something will change and nobody will be here, I know we did the research, we have the artifacts, I know my roots are deep into this site, we have the history here and nobody can deny it.

In Bulgaria, Israel’s tourism minister vows to continue tourism ties

Israeli Minister of Tourism Stas Misezhnikov traveled to Bulgaria to shore up the relationship between the two countries in the wake of the deadly attack on a bus full of Israeli tourists.

Accompanying Misezhnikov on Monday’s trip were senior representatives of the Israeli tourism industry.

“After what happened in Burgas, we will continue to travel as tourists—in Israel and in Bulgaria, and wherever else we wish,” Misezhnikov said. “We will not reward the terrorist act. We will not react to it with fear.”

The minister attended a memorial service at Burgas Airport and met with the Jewish community in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia. Later he met in the city with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov .

“Bulgaria and Israel are friendly nations, and we will not allow the terrorist attack in Burgas to overshadow our traditionally good ties,” Misezhnikov told Borisov. “Any change in our relations would be a reward for terrorism.”

He said the two countries have a common enemy in Iran.

During the first half of 2012, there was an 11 percent increase in tourists from Bulgaria to Israel as compared to the same time last year. According to data from the Bulgarian Ministry of Tourism, nearly 139,000 Israelis visited Bulgaria in 2011. The same year, more than 8,000 Bulgarian tourists visited Israel.

Wave of Chinese tourists expected

Over 100 million Chinese tourists are expected to be traveling annually by 2020 and one of their preferred destinations is turning out to be the Middle East.

Countries in the region are scrambling to meet the boon as the tourism trade moves to get back on its feet after the lull brought on by the turmoil of the Arab Spring.

At the recent ATM Dubai Tourism Fair it was announced that just last year some 70 million Chinese went abroad. Tourism professionals at the conference emphasized the significance of having tourism industry workers with Chinese language skills, as well as the food and kitchen quality and culture to lure Chinese tourists.

Lucy Chuang, managing director of Global Sino said the Chinese outbound market was being helped by countries being given “approved destination” status by Chinese authorities. The coveted status allows Chinese nationals to travel in groups rather than as individuals.

The UAE received approved destination status in 2009 and more than 300,000 Chinese visited there the following year, spending $334 million, according to MasterCard survey figures. Chuang said Chinese visitors to the UAE have since grown 50 percent annually.

Chuang stated a typical Chinese leisure preference was a three-night package with a different quality hotel for each night and she urged the region to promote this tiered concept to the market, particularly during the off-peak summer season.

Arab Spring unrest took a heavy toll on Middle Eastern tourism last year as unrest erupted in major regional tourism destinations like Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. While international tourist arrivals grew by 4% worldwide in 2011, in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region they dropped 8.8%, with the worst-hit countries reporting double-digit drops, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).

Egypt’s Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdul Noor said this week that airport fees would be cut and new tourism projects such as eco-tourism were being launched to lure Chinese, as well as Indians, Russians and Japanese.

In Israel, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of Chinese tourists. Last year alone saw a 29% increase over the previous year. While that number was just 17,157 out of over 3 million incoming tourists to Israel, it is growing. In the first quarter of this year, 6,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel, an increase of 14% over last year, Israel’s Tourism Ministry figures show.

“Two years ago we opened an office in Beijing where all it is doing is promoting Israel as a destination,” Pini Shani the head of the Overseas Department at Israel’s Tourism Ministry told The Media Line.

Shani said guides were being trained who spoke to the Chinese in their own language. He said hotels and airport staff were also briefed on how to accommodate and host the Far East visitors.

“It is natural that the Chinese will start to travel. The income in China is growing. They see what is happening in the West and their curiosity is growing to see the outside world,” Shani said.

The UNWTO has predicted that within the next five years China, with a population of some 1.3 billion, will be the number one country in terms of both sending and receiving tourists.

Professionals at the conference in Dubai said that desert safaris and shopping were priorities with designer goods high on the shopping list of the brand-conscious Chinese travelers. They added that while twin-bedded rooms were the number one request, an essential in that room was a kettle to facilitate the preparation of hot instant noodles or rice.

With nearly 485 million Chinese with access to the Internet, they also suggested that effective use of social media and the Internet was essential to tap into the potential Chinese tourist market.

Dubai announced on Monday that it would also be issuing multiple entry visas for Chinese and other tourists who were arriving by cruise ship, thus reducing fees and encouraging more arrivals.

Sean Staunton, vice chairman of Dubai Duty Free, said that while Chinese travelers made up less than 4 percent of the total numbers of visitors, they accounted for 18 percent of the duty-free company’s annual turnover of $1.46 billion. This included 42 percent of watch sales, 32 percent of cosmetics and 20 percent of sunglasses.

The China Tourism Academy said they expected Chinese will spend as much as $80 billion abroad this year. This is amazing considering that outbound Chinese tourists were virtually non-existent just two decades ago. Thanks to their massive population and rising incomes the number of Chinese traveling abroad is expected to continue its rise.

While the bulk of Chinese tourism is headed to the Far East, the Middle East is expected to attract quite a few.

“Israel can offer many things that can’t be found elsewhere,” Shani said, citing the Dead Sea, Christian holy sites and a swank Tel Aviv.

“The Chinese are also very curious of the Jewish brain and can find many examples of it in Israel and we know that their satisfaction rate is very high for tourists that come from China to Israel,” Shani said. “China is one of the sources of growth of tourism to Israel and we will see the results in the coming years.”

Czech Republic surprises with Jewish treasures

A tight budget, an embarrassing exchange rate and exponentially expensive flights — it's a tough time to be an American, and an even tougher time to be an American traveler. But it's still possible to enjoy a first-rate European experience while keeping travel costs reasonable.

The Czech Republic's strong cultural balance between bustling urban life and calm rural communities features a wide variety of tourism options, from breweries to castles to Jewish ghettos. Major cities like Prague and Pilsen are ripe with history at nearly every corner, and Jewish tours offer everything from the construction of the second-largest synagogue in Europe to the creation of the mythical Golem.

Birthplace of Theodore Herzl, Franz Kafka and Sigmund Freud, this increasingly progressive country is trying to shed the specter of the Nazi and Soviet occupations and embrace its Jewish past and present to bolster tourism, an important part of its national economy. (Full disclosure: The Journal took part in a Jewish Heritage trip sponsored by Czech Tourism.)

Divided into three main regions — Bohemia in the north, Moravia in the south and Silesia in the East — the Czech Republic provides travelers with an opportunity to savor both metropolitan grandeur and bucolic settings. While prices aren't cheap, U.S. tourists will appreciate favorable current exchange rates with the Czech crown that keep hotel and food costs comparable to a comfortable domestic getaway.

The Bohemian city of Prague features an abundance of landmarks — the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle — a rich arts tradition and deep Jewish roots.

The Jewish Museum in Prague is not a physical entity, but rather a collection of gothic and Moorish revival synagogues in Josefov, the city's Jewish quarter, and its Old Jewish Cemetery, with tilted, crumbling tombstones — some more than 600 years old. Synagogues on the tour include the Maisel Synagogue, Spanish Synagogue, Klausen Synagogue and Ceremonial Hall and Pinkas Synagogue. Inside, the sanctuaries display hundreds of artifacts, including refurbished Torah covers, silver yads (Torah pointers) and other ritual artifacts.

Prague's Jewish Museum, which attracts 500,000 to 600,000 visitors each year, honors the past while also helping to support the country's Jewish future. Much of the museum's revenue aids funding for the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Czech Republic, which compensates Holocaust survivors and develops programming for young people, executive director Tomas Kraus said.

The area's two active synagogues, the 13th century Old-New Synagogue (Alt-Neu Shul) and the High Synagogue, are not on the museum tour itinerary, but public tours are available through the Jewish Museum for an additional fee.

In the Old-New Synagogue, the great Rabbi Judah Loew is rumored to have created the Golem, the mystical monster intended to protect the Jews of Prague from anti-Semitic attacks in the 16th century. When the Golem became increasingly violent, Loew struck a deal with the oppressors and destroyed his creation by simply rubbing out the first letter of the word “emet” (truth) from its forehead, leaving the word “met,” meaning death. According to the legend, the whereabouts of a Golem remains unknown, but many believe it's still in the synagogue's attic.

Multiple tourist shops have capitalized on the Golem myth and feature a hefty inventory of miniature dolls sure to satisfy anyone's souvenir needs.

Outside the Jewish quarter, the beauty of Prague is best experienced through a walk from Prague Castle to the scenic Charles Bridge and into Old Town Square, a site featuring street entertainment and dining, particularly the traditional staple of Czech cuisine — beef goulash.

Bohemia is also home to Europe's second-largest synagogue, The Great Synagogue of Pilsen, which features a variety of architectural styles ranging from Moorish to art nouveau. The synagogue was built in 1892, a time when the city of Pilsen's Jewish population was about 5,000.

Jiri Lowy, vice president of the Pilsen Jewish Community, says that the synagogue is now mainly used as concert hall for a community of about 100 Jews and a museum for tourists.

Pilsen is also known for its world-famous brewery, Pilsner Urqell, which dates back to the mid-19th century. Beer has been a part of the city's history since at least the 13th century, and Czechs revel in their country's branding as “the beer-drinking capital of the world.” National consumption is so pronounced that bottles of beer are often cheaper than bottled water.

To complement tours of Prague and Pilsen, a trip to the outer towns of Moravia provides insight into the origins of the nation's smaller Jewish communities.

The Jewish Quarter of Trebic, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is made up of 120 homes along the bank of the Jihlava River. While no longer home to an organized Jewish community, Trebic maintains its Jewish cemetery, a renovated synagogue-turned-museum and a recently discovered mikvah.

Non-Jewish villagers of Boskovice and Mikulov have taken it upon themselves to preserve the memory of their once-thriving Jewish cultures. These righteous guides provide tours of old synagogues, buildings and cemeteries. Boskovice, set in the Drahanska Highlands, features one of the largest cemeteries in the Czech Republic.

While the Renaissance town of Telc has a Jewish cemetery but little significant Jewish history, its main square — which is more of a triangle, some locals joke — has been preserved as a UNESCO site. Pastel-colored shops, packed together like crayons tips sticking out of a box, line the square's cobblestone roads.

Important for any Czech travel itinerary is Terezin, the former ghetto-like concentration camp and Holocaust memorial. The bricked fortress, dating back to the late 18th century, was built as a military prison. Within the compound, yellow walls, topped with barbed wire, skirt the smaller, more severe prison section of the ghetto.

A day trip to Terezin offers an important contrast to an otherwise colorful land whose people recognize the importance of commemorating Jews who lost their lives to Nazi oppression. Even as the country continues to find its footing after the fall of the former Soviet Union, the mood of the Czech Republic reflects an overall optimism as the reality of its own independence becomes more engrained.

Although cultural and religious restrictions are a thing of the past, the Czech Republic is still healing from the hard lessons experienced by previous generations. Britney Spears billboards, nightclub strobe lights and soccer regalia indicate that young Czechs believe in a future filled with opportunity. The graffiti on the walls speaks to a love of pop culture rather than a culture of hate.

The birthplace of the Golem and pilsner beer is a destination that brings together Jewish and non-Jewish culture in ways that exceed Western expectations of a gray, downtrodden nation. Rich in artistic, architectural and historical heritage, the country pays dividends with its vibrant Bohemian skylines and fertile Moravian countryside.

For more information, visit

Party planning in the Holy Land is just a mouse click away

Planning a bar mitzvah in Israel? The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has just posted a Web site to help you get started: For party purposes, the site is Jerusalem-centric, but it does offer links to fun things to do outside the city.

Considering the daunting task of holding a rite of passage and feeding your guests thousands of miles from home, the site does a good job of letting you know that there are places willing to host you, including the Bible Lands Museum and the Tower of David. While the site provides contact information, including Web sites and phone numbers for some of the more popular Jerusalem venues (though not much information on making a bar mitzvah outside that city), it doesn’t offer many specifics, so write up a checklist before you call or e-mail particular places. Some of your questions might include capacity, price per head, other fees and, if it is important to you or your guests, the specific kosher certification of the venue, since there are many throughout Israel.

The site also provides name of tour operators around the country who can handle the bookings for you — helpful, but you’ll want to ask friends who they used, or at least ask the tour operators to refer you to people who used their services. One family who used a widely known operator was disappointed by his refusal to help them secure a bar mitzvah program on Masada — he claimed that a mountain where people committed suicide didn’t seem right for a bar mitzvah celebration. When speaking with operators, keep in mind whose celebration it is and stand your ground, within reason.

The site does a decent job of listing the most popular locations in Jerusalem for services and parties — but if you’re on a budget, you may need to do some additional research. For example, while the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, listed on the new Web site, can help you plan a bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, a cheaper option — especially if you’ve only got a small group — is to head down to the Wall early on the day of the bar mitzvah and stake your claim to a table and Torah, and then head up to the Jewish Quarter for breakfast at one of several cafés. For names of places to eat, some of which will take reservations, access

If you’ve never been to Israel before, or not for a while, use the site’s excellent MP3- and PC-based tours of Jerusalem to get a feel for the city. The virtual tour is especially good. At the very least, you’ll get your bearings a bit faster after you arrive and before you start fielding calls from the guests about the program.

You might be surprised to see that the site includes a link to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, for a bar mitzvah celebration. The synagogue at the complex is beautiful, filled with Torah arks rescued after the Holocaust. Food at Yad Vashem is delicious, and if you think it’s an odd choice for a celebration, consider this: Yad Vashem does not charge admission, so any money you spend there — on catering, or at the gift shop, which offers some lovely favors for guests — offsets costs of this sacred memorial to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust.

The Web site’s builders certainly know kids, and they’ve included links to attractions such as zip-lines, kayaks and paintball around the country. Be sure to access the “useful information” link, which includes important data such as exchange rates, weather and bus and rail information. (On a recent trip to Israel, though, online schedules for the trains between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv proved unreliable, so you may want to call instead.)

While the hotel portion of the site has almost a dozen choices, it leaves out a couple of upscale ones, including the King David and the David Citadel, and some less expensive but lovely choices, including the new Prima Royale and A Little House in Baka.

Individual tour guides can also help plan a bar mitzvah — ask friends if they’ve used a guide for a trip who they’d recommend. For maximum idea input, you can use the new site as a starting point while working with a guide. Lee Glassman, a veteran guide, says “anything that will encourage folks to come, visit and participate in the only country on earth that was designed, founded and built just for them sounds good to me.”

Since the site is short on bat mitzvah specifics, you might want to consult a new touring company, Tzofiah Tours, which offers ample assistance to families planning a trip for a bat mitzvah. Estie Hershkovits, one of the company’s partners, says they are a specialized tour company focusing on women and education. The guides are all women with experience in formal and informal education, as well as mothers who know what kids enjoy.

“For a bat mitzvah, we combine these interests by studying with the bat mitzvah girl before the trip about a topic of her choice, often connected to Israel,” Hershkovits says. “When she arrives, if she likes, she can choose to present a short skit, or song, or game, or activity at the site itself and share her learning experience with all of her guests.”

For more information, visit Prima Royale or A Little House in Baka.

Francesca Lunzer Kritz is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.

U.S. Jewish Population Rising; California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

U.S. Jewish Population Rising?

The new American Jewish Yearbook reports that there are 6.4 million Jews in the United States. That’s significantly more than the 5.2 million figure provided by the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Study.

The yearly survey, published by the American Jewish Committee, is based on a tally of individual Jewish communities across the country. According to the survey, 2.2 percent of the American population is Jewish. New York has the largest Jewish population of any state with 1,618,000, followed by California with 1,194,000, Florida with 653,000 and New Jersey with 480,000, the AJCommittee said in a release.

California and Israel Join in Tourism Pact

The state of California and the state of Israel have jointly established a commission to encourage their citizens to visit each other, proving again that the Golden State is big enough to conduct its own foreign policy. At a recent ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Isaac Herzog, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, signed an agreement launching the California-Israel Tourism Commission. Both credited Los Angeles-based media mogul Haim Saban for the initiative to establish the commission.

During the ceremony, Schwarzenegger recalled that he has visited Israel three times, first as a body builder, then to open his Planet Hollywood restaurant in Tel Aviv and last year for the groundbreaking of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem.

No breakdown was available on the number of Californians visiting Israel, or Israelis visiting California, however, the latest figures from Israeli tourism officials showed that between January-September of this year, 1.5 million tourists came to Israel, of whom 400,000 were Americans. In 2005, Israel had 2 million visitors, among them 533,000 Americans.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Iran Hosts Holocaust Deniers Conference

The Iranian government held a conference of Holocaust deniers and skeptics this week, a discussion of whether 6 million Jews actually were killed by the Nazis during World War II.

A report in The New York Times quoted the opening speech by Rasoul Mousavi, head of the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Political and International Studies, which organized the event, saying that the conference would allow discussion “away from Western taboos and the restriction imposed on them in Europe.”

Speakers at the event include David Duke, the American white-supremacist politician and former Ku Klux Klan leader, and Georges Thiel, a French writer who has been prosecuted in France over his denials of the Holocaust, the Times reported.

— Staff Report

Seattle Rabbi Regrets Xmas Tree Removal

A Chabad rabbi in Seattle expressed regret that his request to add a menorah to the Seattle-Tacoma Airport’s display of Christmas trees resulted in the trees’ removal.

“I am devastated, shocked and appalled at the decision that the Port of Seattle came to,” Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Pacific Northwest said in Monday’s Seattle Times.

Last week, Bogomilsky’s attorney Harvey Grad threatened the port with a lawsuit after not receiving a response to a request, first made in October, to install an 8-foot menorah, which Bogomilsky offered to supply.

Port Commissioner Pat Davis told the Times that the commission had not heard about the request until Dec. 7, the day before Grad was to head to court.

An airport spokesperson said it was decided to take down the trees because the airport, preparing for its busiest season, did not have time to accommodate all the religions that would have wanted a display.

The removal resulted in a firestorm of criticism, much of it directed at Bogomilsky, who said he never wanted to see the trees removed.

Thousands March for Hezbollah

Hundreds of thousands of protesters led by Hezbollah marched in downtown Beirut Sunday to demand that Prime Minister Fouad Siniora either cede some government power to the terrorist group and its allies or resign, The Associated Press reported.

Hezbollah has been pressing for increased power since its war with Israel over the summer. Lebanese troops Sunday sealed off Siniora’s compound, as well as the roads nearby. Siniora and most of his ministers have stayed in the complex since Dec. 1, when Hezbollah launched massive protests aimed at toppling Lebanon’s Western-leaning government.

Senate Approves Red ‘Crystal’

The U.S. Senate certified the Red “Crystal,” paving the way for Magen David Adom’s acceptance into the International Red Cross’ bodies. The Red Cross approved the symbol which resembles a playing card diamond earlier this year, ending a decades-long shutout of non-Muslim and non-Christian groups such as Israel’s first responder, which rejected using the Red Cross and Red Crescent symbols as inappropriate. The Red Cross had also rejected the Star of David symbol used by MDA.

The Senate’s certification last Friday, the last day of Congress, protects the symbol’s copyright and follows similar legislation passed last week in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Israeli Hostages Said Wounded

Two Israeli soldiers held by Hezbollah since July were seriously wounded during their capture, security sources said. Israeli security sources last week quoted a declassified military report that said bloodstains and other evidence gathered at the site of the July 12 border raid in which Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were seized showed the hostages were seriously wounded.

To survive, the sources said, the two army reservists would have required immediate medical attention, something that may not have been available in the custody of the Lebanese terrorist group.

Hezbollah has refused to provide information on the captives’ condition, saying it would only release them as part of a swap for Arabs held in Israeli jails. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has ruled out a swap on Hezbollah’s terms unless the terrorist group provides information on the soldiers’ health. The captives’ families criticized the release of forensic details from the raid.

“I think this may be an attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office to lower pressure to get the kidnapped soldiers freed,” Regev’s brother, Benny, told Israel Radio.

Jaffa flea market offers bargains and co-existence

A young woman from Tel Aviv made her way past tapestries, bracelets and scarves toward a row of brightly hued polyester shirts. She admired a blue button-down with white polka dots before flitting away like a butterfly into a narrow arcade of the Jaffa Flea Market.

“There is magic here,” said 25-year-old Dikla Delugathc, a regular visitor to this bargain-hunters’ haven in Jaffa, one of Israel’s — and the world’s — oldest cities.

The magic of the Jaffa Flea Market derives from both its past and present. The market began as a small bazaar in the mid-19th century. It is a rare remnant of the old Middle Eastern way of life in this modern Jewish country. But the market is also a place where Jews and Muslims work side by side as neighbors and friends.

I visited the market this month on a trip sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. The agency brought a handful of journalists to the Jewish state in an effort to combat the current tourism slump, which had worsened since the war with Hezbollah this summer. Only 25,000 Americans visited Israel last month, representing a 25 percent drop from last year.

We had come to Jaffa, a port city in southern Tel Aviv, to explore its ancient history. Jaffa is about 4,000 years old, and the Bible mentions it as the port from which the prophet Jonah sailed before being swallowed by the whale. King Solomon transported through Jaffa the cedars he used to construct the Temple in Jerusalem.

Some say Jaffa derives from yafeh, Hebrew for beautiful; others say it comes from Noah’s son Japhet, who, as legend has it, built the city after the Flood.
The Jaffa Flea Market sits to the east of a clock tower in the city’s center. It is open every day but Saturday from about 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Along the market’s main street, Olei Zion, antique dealers sell furniture and rugs from hole-in-the-wall shops.

On this particular day, a group of old men played cards on the sidewalk; Jews wrapped in tallit and tefillin led afternoon prayers from a tapestry store; and a grifter slid cards around on a cardboard box, attempting to lure passersby into placing bets.

The market extends onto side streets and winds into covered alleys, or arcades, where shoppers walk through narrow passageways, navigating a sea of clothing, jewelry and trinkets.

Inside an arcade, Ronit Raz, 47, picked up a string of decorative bells and gave it a rattle.

The market “gives you a sense of traveling back in time,” said Raz, who drove half an hour to Jaffa from her home near Kfar Saba.

A group of Delta flight attendants stood nearby, chatting about their purchases: a table runner and some pillow covers. A couple of the women sipped pomegranate juice purchased from a nearby drink stand, which blasted American music. (Of all the songs one might expect in the Holy Land, who would guess the Black Eyed Peas’ sexy hit, “My Humps”?)

David Desire Dahan, a Jewish antique dealer, strolled through an outdoor square when a vendor solicited his advice.

“What is this?” the vendor asked in Hebrew, showing him a small silver plate.
Dahan turned the plate upside down. “It’s Mexican silver,” he said.

Dahan recently opened a large furniture store at the market, where he had for sale a set of French chairs and a sofa from the time of Louis XIV and a $5,000 mother-of-pearl inlaid cabinet from Syria.

On a break from business, Dahan, 62, walked past the blankets piled with old watches and computer parts, through the sound of chitchat and the smell of cigarette smoke and incense.

Suddenly, his face lit up. Dahan walked over to a man in a black knit hat and thrust his arm around him.

“This,” Dahan said, patting the Muslim man on the shoulder, “is one of my best friends.”

Such scenes of religious co-existence are commonplace here. Jewish vendors wearing kippahs sit beside Israeli Arabs. They play cards together, joke with one another. One shop sells the traditional Arabic kaffiyeh headscarf; another sells Star of David pendants. Even observant Muslims and religious Jews live, work and play together in Jaffa.

In a carpet shop on Pinkas Ben-Yair Street, a religious Jew, Rami Sinay, had just finished putting on tefillin. Beside him stood his Muslim partner, Hussein Ali.

“We’ve known each other for 20 years,” said Sinay, 27.

“Here, Muslims and Jews have no problem,” he added. “Because we live together in Jaffa, we know everybody’s the son of God.”


How to Bargain Effectively at an Israeli Flea Market

Israeli antique dealer David Desire Dahan said he has traveled to Africa, Turkey, Russia, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and more in search of antiques. He claims to have once sold a Stradivarius cello to a museum for $1 million. Here are his tips:

  • Talk to the person selling the goods. See if he’s a good man, if you can trust him.
  • Find an item that resembles something you own and ask how much it costs. You know how much you bought it for.
  • Collect the same type of things, made from the same material, in the same time period. Then you’ll have a beautiful collection at the end of your life.
  • Buy silver or antique jewelry, not large, expensive items like furniture. Collect big things only if you have a big house and a big pocket.
  • Don’t argue with a salesman over the price, but do bargain. If a seller asks for $100, start negotiating at around $60. If you offer much less than the seller asks — $20, for example — it might be taken as an insult.
  • Go with someone in the know, who speaks the language and is familiar with the flea market. When a seller sees a tourist, he typically asks for a higher price.
  • Contact a seller in advance. If you’re looking for a specific item, ask a seller whether he can find it for you. If you e-mail me about something you want, I’ll find it. Give me two weeks, and I’ll send you a picture and price by e-mail.

Dahan can be reached via e-mail at


Noteworthy sessions and events at the G.A.

10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
Tour of the Skirball Cultural Center
Note: Tour leaves from Westin Bonaventure and returns to the L.A. Convention Center.

2:30 p.m.
Opening Plenary: “One People, One Destiny, One Great Day in November”
Greetings: L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Keynote Speaker: Israel Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livni

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “We Are Not Alone: Allies in Making the Case for Israel”
Speakers: Joe Hicks, vice president of Community Advocates, Inc., and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission; Randy Neal, California regional director, Christians United for Israel; and Nancy Coonis, superintendent of Secondary Schools for the L.A. Archdiocese

4:30 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Jewish Learning: Activism and Social Justice”
Speaker: Rabbi Miriyam Glazer of the University of Judaism

8:30 a.m.-9:45 a.m.
Plenary: “The Jewish Future: Where We Are as a People”
Moderator: Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president of policy development, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los AngelesSpeakers: Rabbi Norman Cohen, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Dr. Arnold Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary; and Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University in New York

10:15 a.m.-11:30 a.m.
Plenary: “Emerging Global Realities and the Challenge of Radical Islam”
Speakers: Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International; and Bernard-Henri Lévy, author of “Who Killed Daniel Pearl?” and “American Vertigo: Traveling in the Footsteps of Tocqueville”

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Media Lessons Learned From the War”

Speakers: Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media and public affairs, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Jeffrey Goldberg, New Yorker staff writer and author, “Prisoners: A Muslim and a Jew Across the Middle East Divide;” and Irit Atsmon, former Deputy IDF spokesman

2:15 p.m.-3:30 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Anti-Zionism as the New Anti-Semitism”
Moderator: Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center
Speakers: Steven Emerson, executive director of The Investigative Project; Aviva Raz-Shechter, director, Department of Anti-Semitism & Holocaust Issues, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Charles Small, director, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, Yale University

3:45 p.m.-5 p.m.
Plenary: “Challenges of the Jewish People at the Beginning of the 21st Century”
Speaker: Likud Chairman and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Dr. Irwin Cotler, Canadian MP

8:15 p.m.- 10 p.m.
Event: “A Once in a Lifetime Evening at Walt Disney Concert Hall”

Background: The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles and the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music will co-host a concert of Jewish music at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The program will include selections by Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill. Performers include Theodore Bikel, Leonard Nimoy, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, an 85-member chorus and members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Gerard Schwarz.

8:30 a.m.-10 a.m.
Plenary: “Challenges and Opportunities: Israel 2006”
Moderator: Judge Ellen M. Heller, president, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Speakers: Israel Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog and Israel Education Minister Yuli Tamir
Special Guest: Moshe Oofnik, Sesame Street Workshop

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Understanding Islam: Current Trends”
Speakers: Menahem Milson, professor of Arabic studies, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and chairman of The Middle East Media Research Institute; Norman Stillman, professor and chair of Judaic history, University of Oklahoma; Irshad Manji, author, “The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith”

2:30 p.m.-4 p.m.
Breakout Session: “Working to Save Darfur”
Speakers: John Fishel, president, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, co-founder, Jewish World Watch; and Ruth Messinger, president/executive director, American Jewish World Service

4:15 p.m.-5:45 p.m.
Plenary: “The New Frontlines: Facing the Future Together”
Keynote Speaker: Israel Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

8:30 a.m.-Noon
Meeting: “Translating the GA Into Action: Open Board of Trustees & Delegate Assembly Forum”
Goal: Coming up with an action plan based on issues addressed at GA.