Israeli Deputy Minister and chair of the Birthright Israel steering committee, Rabbi Michael Melchior, spoke with 18 college news reporters in a conference call yesterday. In the hour-long meeting, he discussed the current situation in the Middle East and its effects on North American college campuses and on the Birthright Israel program.
Birthright Israel, a partnership between Jewish-American philanthropists, the Israeli government and United Jewish Communities, was established in 1999 to send young Jewish adults on their first group tour through Israel.
Seeking to send 100,000 young adults to Israel in five years, Birthright Israel has sent roughly 28,000 students to Israel in the past three years.
However, with the numerous random terrorist acts occurring in Israel, the program has been forced to make many recent adjustments the trip itineraries and travel routes used throughout the country to insure the security of its participants. Despite their efforts to tighten security, Birthright Israel and similar Israeli tourism organizations have seen a drop in enrollment as perspective visitors hesitate facing the potential risks involved in a trip to Israel.
Seeking to send 10,000 young adults to Israel last December, Birthright Israel eventually sent 6,000.
“A lot of Jewish students and their parents are concerned with security,” said Abby Kornfield ’02, president of Cornell’s Hillel organization.
In response to these concerns, Birthright Israel has eliminated visits to sites previously deemed staples of an Israeli tour. Students participating in the spring and summer Birthright Israel trips will not visit popular tourist attractions like Ben Yahuda St. and will not be able to spend nights in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
“The program does not go anywhere that would endanger the students,” said Rabbi Ed Rosenthal, executive director of Hillel and Cornell campus Rabbi.
“[Birthright Israel’s] biggest concern is the safety of the students.”
The decrease Israel has seen in tourism in general has affected economy.
“People don’t go to a place where there is conflict. … Our economy is suffering as a result,” said Melchior.
Rosenthal agreed that the downturn in tourism has taken its toll on Israelis.
“The country is very depressed,” he said.
Looking to the Future
However, Melchior stressed that he was pleased with the December enrollment, and was optimistic about spring and summer registration. He also added that Israel’s current political instability has, ironically, had a benevolent impact on the tourist experience. At the same time, the presence of tourists is refreshing to frustrated Israelis.
“The program has gained this feeling of togetherness, especially for the young Israelis,” he said. “The feeling of solidarity … has grown over these last 18 months. It has a value in Israel, [and] has become very, very meaningful.”
Melchoir addressed many of the issues that Israelis face as they seek peace with their neighboring nations in the Middle East and responded to last week’s Saudi Arabian Peace Proposal.
The peace proposal, if implemented, would grant Israel full recognition as a state from all Arab nations in exchange for the amendment of the country’s borders to the pre-1967 definition.
“The Arab world does not want to be associated with a world of terror … [The proposal is] a positive result of the tragedies and crimes of Sept. 11,” said Melchior.
However, he also expressed some uncertainties regarding the peace proposal.
“We must have reservations about [the legitimacy of] this … We cannot compromise with terror. We have not only a right, but a duty to protect our citizens,” he added.
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