American Jews, citing concern for their safety in light of the Persian Gulf crisis, are canceling scheduled trips to Israel in large numbers.
Zehavit Kandel, a longtime Rockville travel agent, said this week that she has never seen anything like it. Normally, she said, she books hundreds of Jews to go over during the fall holiday of Sukkot, which was celebrated last week, but this year she did not send anyone.
Dani Pipano, an agent in suburban Philadelphia, said he had booked 20 groups for October and all but three pulled out. The three groups that went, he noted, were non-Jewish.
"Tourism to Israel is dead, or almost dead," said Pipano, who has offices in Florida, California and New York. The blow to Israel's economy, according to Pipano and others, has been serious, with some hotels in Jerusalem laying off as many as half of their employees.
Editorials in the Israeli press have blasted the nervous Americans.
Last month, before the decline becameprecipitous, the Jerusalem Post published an article titled "The Shame of an American Jew" by Bernard Mandelbaum, president emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Mandelbaum said Israelis thanked him during a recent visit for not being afraid to come. He said: "I cringed in embarrassment and shame for my fellow American Jews. It became anger when I saw the long line of empty cabs in front of Jerusalem's hotels, when I heard the wails of hotel managers about their empty rooms, when I saw the empty restaurants and tourist shops."
Iraqi President "Saddam Hussein has fired a shot at Israel and it landed on target: American tourists were wiped out," Mandelbaum wrote.
Israel's Ministry of Tourism said total air arrivals in September were down 30 percent from last year. But Kandel, Pipano and other agents who primarily book Jewish tourists said their travel requests have plummeted this month as much as 90 percent. The State Department has issued no safety advisories other than to warn travelers away from East Jerusalem, site of the Oct. 8 confrontation between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli police at Temple Mount.
The drop-off in tourism underscores a sensitive issue: American Jews contribute billions of dollars to Israel, but fewer than 20 percent have ever shown their support by visiting, according to a recent survey. As Tourism Minister Gideon Pratt complained, "Jews are not supporting Israel with their feet."
Several "mega-missions," or large groups of Jews, have postponed their trips from cities including San Francisco, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Washington.
The Washington group's planned trip, dubbed "Miracle Mission '90," would have transported more than 500 area Jews to Israel, many for the first time. The trip's sponsor, the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington, hoped to raise money for Jewish causes, nurture support for Israel among the neophytes and boost the morale of Israelis who have felt isolated from American Jews since the Palestinian uprising started in 1987.
But after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in August, cancellations began to come in, according to Philip N. Margolius, co-chairman of the trip. And after the Israeli government announced this month that it was distributing gas masks to all Israelis, the cancellations snowballed.
Once the trip was postponed, "I was very relieved," said Lois Backon, who has one child and is expecting another. "The thing that scared me was being pregnant and wearing those gas masks."
Ron Ziegel, a real estate agent who has been to Israel, said safety was his overriding concern as well. "It was not an issue of commitment to Israel," he said.
Yet some trip leaders say that's what it will look like to Israelis, who are awash in criticism over the Temple Mount clash, in which 19 Palestinians were killed.
"The timing stinks; it couldn't be worse," said Suzanne Goldstein, the Washington group's other co-chairman. "Now it looks like the American Jews aren't supporting Israel."
The Israeli press has been full of reports of other cancellations. In August, for example, Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) led a trip of major donors that was one-third smaller than planned.
After the Lautenberg trip, an editorial in the Jerusalem Post said: "What irritated and disturbed Israelis was that while Christian groups, such as the Christian Pentecostal Conference, met in Jerusalem without a single cancellation, almost a quarter of a mission of big UJA donors did drop out.
"Israel does not expect Diaspora Jews to risk their lives . . . but Israelis do have a right to expect trust and solidarity from their brethren abroad: trust in Israel's judgement that there are no untoward risks in visiting . . . . Their presence in Israel would be the most concrete assurance that Israel is not alone in a time of crisis."
Charter flights from Scandinavia to Israel's Red Sea port of Eilat, normally one of the most lucrative sources of tourist income during the fall and winter, have been canceled, according to the Israeli media.
As far as Theola Crutcher is concerned, the concerns for safety are overblown. Crutcher, a supermarket meat wrapper, returned this week from a 12-day trip to Israel. Though she had second thoughts about going, she said, she felt safer in Jerusalem than she feels at the corner of New Hampshire and Missouri avenues NW, waiting at daybreak for a bus to take her to work. Crutcher, 61, is Protestant.
Staff writer Jackson Diehl contributed to this report.