Will We Be Safe in the Land of the Bible?

Since the lovely Robin and I are planning another trip to the land of the Bible next March (you should come, too; see the full-color brochure here) we are often asked if it's really safe to go there.

I understand people’s qualms about safety in Israel. Having made four trips to Israel in 1987, 2000, 2005, and 2010, Robin and I have an insiders’ perspective that first-time travelers can’t possibly have. Most Americans’ images of Israel and the Mideast are colored by our U.S. newspapers and newscasts; unfortunately, that image is grossly misstated by our news media. The modern state of Israel is not the war zone our news media portray it to be; in fact, in many ways (including statistically), it is far safer than American cities and streets (in fact, we have often been asked by Israelis and Palestinians, when they learn that we are from the U.S., to “tell everyone it is safe,” and (on the other hand) “is it safe to live in America?” You see, their impressions of the U.S. come from TV, just as ours do. They think “Law & Order” and “CSI” and CNN International present a realistic image of the USA, so they think we all carry guns and there are murders on the street every night on American streets. So the mis-portrayals go both ways).

I can say without qualification that I have never felt unsafe at any time in any of my four visits to Israel. In fact, our 1987 trip occurred during the “First Intifada,” or Palestinian uprising, that made American newscasts almost nightly. Yet our ten days in Israel were completely free from concern (once we got over our misunderstanding of the situation).

Here are a few things I've learned over the years that explain why I never worry about traveling in the land of Jesus, the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles:

1. Nobody does security better than Israel. Obviously, we’ve gone through Israeli customs four times, and we’ve seen firsthand the care taken by Israel’s security forces. It can be a little off-putting at first, but they are far more thorough and unapologetic about ensuring travelers’ safety than their American counterparts.

Me and my friend Willa at Caesarea-by-the-Sea
2. We travel with Educational Opportunities, who have never had any traveler compromised or wounded outside of the normal risks of travel (falls, motion sickness, etc.). Our tour company has not only operated tours in Israel for four decades, but they have people (usually retired pastors) on the ground at our destination to greet us, make sure everything goes smoothly, and keep up to date on any wrinkles or warnings that occur day-to-day. In other words, if there is ever any concern or flare-up in our path, these people are there to make sure we go nowhere near danger.

4. One of the unique things about Educational Opportunities is that they typically employ Israeli guides and Palestinian bus drivers. One of the first things you’ll notice is that these folks aren’t enemies; they joke and carry on with each other like old friends. More importantly, having both Israeli and Palestinian on board our bus (which ONLY our groups are allowed to board) means they basically know everybody, Israeli, Christian, Palestinian, you name it, and there is nowhere they aren’t welcomed.

"Zacchaeus's Sycamore" in Jericho, in the West Bank
5. This is true throughout Israeli society; you’ll be surprised at seeing how normal everything is. Israelis and Palestinians do business together, day in and day out, and are not at war with each other. It is (as in the U.S.) only an infinitesimal fraction of people who want to harm someone, and those people have been almost completely isolated since the construction of the controversial (but effective) wall, separating Israeli areas from those under Palestinian control. Even so, everyone--Israeli, Palestinian, Arab, etc.--wants and needs tourists. Their lives depend on tourists coming and spending money. Even in the distorted picture presented on newscasts, you won’t hear of tourists being targeted, because (as you will hear repeatedly when you are there), “we love Americans!” And they love American dollars!

6. Because we are traveling with a tour company, if something should happen to break out while we are there (it never has), they will never let us anywhere near it. While Israel is a small country, imagining that because there is civil war in Syria we would be in danger is a little like thinking that Philadelphia residents were at risk from the Boston bombings.

Our 2010 group walking the traditional Palm Sunday route down the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem
7. Unlike, say, if you were going to see a Broadway show in NYC, when we are traveling in Israel, we are seldom without our own personal security officers. Our guides and drivers accompany us wherever we go (and every Israeli citizen is a military reservist, by the way). Our Educational Opportunities staff hosts are right there in the hotel with us; they greet us anytime we come or go. And when we venture out on our own, we always check first with our EO staff, who advise us if and when any particular caution is in order. For instance, on our last several trips we’ve wanted to spend as much time in the Old City of Jerusalem as possible, so after dinner on our evenings in Jerusalem (if nothing else was scheduled) we would walk from our hotel to the Damascus Gate (about ten minutes) and then spend an hour or two in the Old City (where our hosts and guides assured us that we would be safe). We’ve walked the whole circuit around the Old City atop the walls. We’ve walked straight across the radius of the Old City to the Kotel (Western Wall), which is a unique sight at night. And, while (as in any similar place around the world) we make sure our wallets are protected from pickpockets, we have never worried about our safety.

As I said earlier, after four previous trips, I can say with complete confidence that, while I have been trepidatious on numerous trips to places in North and South America, Africa, and Europe, I have felt confident, safe, and secure on our trips to Israel.

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