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Israel’s Tourism Triumph: The Lure Below

When the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) mounted a campaign against Israel, it targeted more than just Israel’s economy. It also targeted tourism — which has nonetheless flourished beyond any expectation. While the “D” in BDS stands for divestment, it could just as easily stand for delegitimization. So, the anti-Israel movement also targeted the country’s very identity and legacy. A people’s future cannot be stolen unless first their history is abducted. BDS not only attacked Israel’s tourism industry, but also the country’s single greatest and most meaningful attraction — its multi-faith religious roots.

Yes, Israel features excitement and awesome beauty in its museums and architectonic urban spaces and stem to stern coastline, as well as the country’s deserts, caves, hill treks, river trips, zip lines, and jeep excursions, not to mention its nightlife. Then again, many nations offer outstanding museums, mountains, and wilderness. However, there is one unique tourist attraction that Israel possesses that no other nation can offer and which the people of all nations crave — its unrivaled religious heritage. This heritage is inextricably woven into the country’s national identity.

All three major Abrahamic religions are anchored in Israel.

Christians constitute the majority of tourists visiting Israel — many on religious quests. Generally speaking, Christian pilgrims are completely detached from Palestinian and Israeli political dynamics. Christian tourists can be seen on any day. On Holy Saturday, the day before Orthodox Easter Sunday, some 10,000 Christian pilgrims from across the world tried to squeeze into the hopelessly overcrowded Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City for the 1,200-year old “Holy Fire” rite.

On Ramadan, Muslims crowd into Jerusalem. In 2019, on the first Friday of Ramadan, 180,000 peacefully attended prayers — a 50% increase over 2018. In 2018, on the last day of Ramadan, some 200,000 Muslims gathered at the Al Aqsa Mosque for their prayers. The faithful generally include hundreds from Arab and Islamic countries lacking diplomatic relations with Israel. For example, until a recent bilateral spat, Indonesians were regularly issued visas to tour Jerusalem.

During Passover 2019, some 750,000 Jews visited the Kotel, or Western Wall, many wedging a tiny note to God in the spaces between the massive stones.

Despite the intense spiritual connections to Israel, BDS has tried to boycott the Dead Sea Scrolls; Ireland has tried to criminalize the purchase of relics and religious mementos from the Via Dolorosa; and there has even emerged an almost-comical but persistent misinformation campaign, corollary to BDS, that asserts the Second Temple never even existed as Jewish edifice.

Amidst all the veneration of Israel as a Holy Land and against this international BDS campaign, two Jerusalem tunnels have emerged as among Israel’s greatest attractions, luring tourists from many countries. In the process, testifying from beneath the surface, these tunnels manifest Israel’s inhalable connection to the land and its history.

Most prominent are the Kotel tunnels. Only an approximately 200-foot section of the Kotel is above ground. The rest — nearly 1,600 feet — lies underground and can only be experienced via the tunnel complex. The monolithic testament to Judaism’s ancient connection to Biblical Jerusalem is revealed in the enormity of the massive stones and their tell-tale chisel marks. One such stone weighs more than 500 tons — one of the heaviest ever handled.

So many tourists are visiting that the official tunnel web site now posts in Chinese, English, Spanish, French, Russian, and Portuguese, as well as Hebrew. The most popular foreign languages are Spanish, French, and Russian. In 2017, about 320,000 visitors from around the world toured the tunnels, according to tunnel administration, who add that the 2018 number was approximately 400,000. The 2019 tally is expected to hit another new record. All these visitors come against a backdrop of agitation against official or diplomatic visits to the Wall, especially after the controversial 2016 United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334, which declared the Wall occupied territory. President Donald Trump’s administration broke that taboo. On May 14, 2019, attorney Alan Dershowitz invited all to join him in committing “a war crime” by visiting the wall and slipping a note in the crevices.

The second major underground attraction is Hezekiah’s Tunnel, a below-ground water conduit approximately 600 yards in length — that is, 1200 cubits. This length corresponds to the tunnel’s stone inscription, discovered in 1880 and now residing in a Turkish museum. The amazing engineering feat was presumably the work of King Hezekiah ahead of a siege by Assyrian King Sennacherib at the end of the eighth century BCE, described and alluded to in several Biblical passages. Among those texts is 2 Chronicles 32:2-4, which states, “When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land. ‘Why should the kings of Assyria come and find plenty of water?’ they said.”

Inscription on Hezekiah’s Tunnel. [Photo: deror_avi / Wikimedia Commons]

Tunnel diggers are said to have started at opposite ends, advanced toward each other, and, astonishingly, met in the middle to form a perfect conduit and gradient.

For some years, Biblical archaeologists have argued about the exact dating of the tunnel and whether it was accomplished under the reign of Hezekiah or another king. But for travelers, the main attraction is the ankle-deep wet walk through the tunnel — and its riveting nexus to ancient Israel.

Despite its dramatic connection to ancient Israel, a vigorous taboo has been promoted by international critics, who claim the subterranean water conduit is located beneath the Arab neighborhood of Wadi Hilweh. Nonetheless, in 2017, more than 557,100 visited the City and of David, and most sloshed through the underground passage. In 2018, the total jumped to more than 833,000. With 207,280 tunnel visitors in the first quarter of 2019, the year-end tally may reach near a million. City of David officials say most visitors are Americans but that the number of Chinese tourists is rising dramatically.

It is the measure of Israel’s tourism turbulence that even the most dramatic archeological manifestation of the Jewish connection to its ancient homeland has become a contentious flashpoint. But as in all other aspects of its international travel appeal, Israel’s Biblical tunnels are now permanently dug into the Jewish State’s tourism triumph.

[Photo: Gil Silberman / Pexels]