Once I sat down on the steps by the gate of Davids Tower; I set my two heavy baskets down beside me. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I served as a reference point for them. Do you see that man with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there is an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head. But he is moving, he is moving! I said in my heart: redemption will come only when the guide says to them: Do you see that arch there, from the Roman period? It is not important; but next to it, a little to the left and down, is sitting a man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.
-Yehudah Amichai, Tourists
As the tourists have begun to return in serious numbers after several years of drought, it is interesting to consider, as Yehudah Amichai does in the last stanza of his classic poem Tourists, just what brings them here. It seems to me there are several aspects to Diaspora Jewish tourism to Israel, all of which may be present in each tourist, but in different proportions:
Pilgrimage: Israel is a holy place or contains holy places and visiting there affords us the opportunity to partake of that holiness, to get close to God, to experience even if only once in a lifetime like the Moslem pilgrims to Mecca touching the Center. According to the Bible, of course, the thrice yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem was an obligation. And with the Zionist shifting of the focus of Jewish identity from religion to nationality, this aspect is, I think, no less relevant. For a secular Zionist, the Jewish state is holy, the center, the place you have to at least visit in order to be complete.
Ideology: We have to visit Israel to demonstrate its importance and to support its inhabitants. We have to show the world we are not terrorized by terrorists; we have to spend our money to boost the Israeli economy. If we are not prepared to go all the way as Zionists and live in Israel, at least we can visit to strengthen the state and support those who do live there. So it is not the experience of Israel that is important, but the statement we make to ourselves and to others - by going there
Vacation: Like Rome or Aspen, Israel is a place where one can recreate (re-create oneself), enjoying culture, physical challenge, sand and sea, exotic and authentic experiences that take us far from our daily routine, expanding our horizons and renewing us.
Education: We visit Israel to learn. Israel is an immense repository of Jewish knowledge in persons, texts, places, and communities. One can learn more here in a day just by walking the streets of Jerusalem with ones eyes and ears open than in many hours of study elsewhere.
The Jewish people: We visit Israel to connect with our Jewish family all over the world. Israel is where the Jewish language is spoken. Israel is where the exiles have been gathered in from every corner of the earth. Israel is where we can encounter every type of Jew and every type of Judaism and be reconfirmed in our sense of common destiny.
When we, as educators, plan visits for ourselves or others, I think it is important to think carefully about our and their purposes in making the trip. Just what does Israel mean to us, as hosts and as visitors? How much education can we foist on our teenagers before they rebel, for they were only seeking vacation? How relevant is the concept of pilgrimage to us? If the trip is primarily an ideological statement, how much does the content of the visit matter? How do we avoid manipulation and distortion? Should we?
If we can get it right, get the right balance between myth and reality, past and present, self and nation, rock and spirit then our visits will truly connect us to this place, and maybe, as Amichai suggests, redemption will come.