Travel to Israel—truth and perception

Aldous Huxley once said that “to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” 

Aldous Huxley once said that "to travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries." 

It seems that the adage has never been truer than in the case of travel to Israel. I think it is safe to say that no other country enjoys as terrible a reputation as does Israel-while being as hospitable. If one were to make a decision to travel to Israel based on the way the country is portrayed in the mainstream media, tourism to Israel would drop to zero. 

The perception of Israel is one of a country constantly at war, where terrorism is a daily occurrence in every city and every town, where bombs go off randomly in city centers and where rockets are raining on a daily basis. Reality couldn't be farther from that perception. 

According to United Nations data, the rate of intentional murders per 100,000 people in Israel is 1.8, a number which includes victims of terrorism. To put this number in perspective, the number of murders per 100,000 in the U.S. is 3.8, in Hungary it is 2.7, in Norway it is 2.2 and in Taiwan it is 3.0. Argentina has a murder rate of 5.5 per 100,000 people and even Canada has a rate of 1.4-almost as high as the rate in Israel. And yet, tourists traveling to Hungary, Norway, Taiwan, Argentina, or Canada are not worried about the murder rates in those countries even though statistically, travelers are more at risk in any of those (with the exception of Canada) than they are when traveling to Israel. 

The perception of Israel being unsafe to foreign travelers is based on the fact that any news about Israel makes it to the top of the headlines. No incident can take place in Israel without being a major news story-especially if that incident includes violence and casualties. For many readers, the image conveyed fits in well with an already biased perception of Israel as a country in a constant state of war. News stories detailing every single incident in Israel only reinforce the perception already shared by many, of Israel being a dangerous place to visit. 

Israel's reality is different. While there are undoubtedly occasional attacks perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists, Israel is nevertheless considered a low-crime country in comparison to similarly-sized countries. When discounting murders perpetrated on a nationalist basis (terrorism), the rate of violence is even lower. 

Over 750 Chicagoans have visited Israel since the beginning of the present wave of stabbings in September 2015. Less than 10 Chicagoans have cancelled their Israel trip. Those who did visit saw a vibrant, dynamic country where people go about their daily lives as if there was nothing special going on. Yes, Israelis are more alert and more aware of their surroundings. They tend to be less engrossed in their cell phones and more wary of going to places where the potential for violence is higher. That is a natural reaction and a way to minimize risks while maintaining a normal way of life. And yet, routine goes on. Israelis still go to work, we send our children to school, we ride buses and trains-because although violence makes headline news all over the world, the truth is that violence is not a part of daily life for 8 million Israelis. 

The perception of our country as being dangerous is not only erroneous-it is downright harmful to the tourism industry and to the Israeli economy. That is one more reason why some in the media and especially in social media have an interest in (mis)representing Israel as a place to stay away from. Israel-haters, including those who adhere to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement would like everyone to think that Israel is a dangerous place, so that they will stay away and further isolate Israel internationally. 

The critical follower of the news from Israel should consider this: Is Israel really more dangerous than other countries? Do you stay away from Norway, Greece, or Belgium, which are more dangerous? The answer is, of course, no. And yet, Israel is safer. The murder rate in the United States is more than twice that in Israel (including terror attacks) and yet travelers are not staying away from New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago because of statistics. The way to combat this misperception of Israel and stand up to those trying to present Israel as a dangerous place to stay away from, is to travel to Israel, to visit and to see for yourself what an amazing country it is-beautiful, modern yet ancient, lively yet spiritual, and above all-safe. 

Israel needs to be visited in order to realize just how safe and calm it is. As Mark Twain once remarked (and he did travel to the Holy Land): "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all of one's lifetime." Nowhere is this more true than in the case of travel to Israel. 

Ofer Bavly is the director general of the JUF Israel Office. 

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