Posted: Jul 12, 2002 12:00 AM
JERUSALEM, Israel -- It wasn't this way the last time I was here. That was in 1986, when I was working with the Israeli government on a secret initiative that came to be called "Iran-Contra." Back then, when my counterparts picked me up at Ben Gurion Airport, the skyline of Tel Aviv was like any other sleepy coastal town on the Mediterranean. It had a moderate-sized commercial district, a handful of apartment buildings, residences, a pretty beach and a road stretching north toward Jerusalem. This time, as the El Al Boeing 777 made its approach over the sea, I could see dozens of high-rise offices, major industrial sites, modern skyscrapers and a bustling metropolis. Then, the road to Jerusalem was a two-lane highway, along which we sped without interference from other traffic. Today, it is a crowded four-lane expressway, and the traffic is more reminiscent of Interstate 5 between San Diego and Los Angeles. Back then, when we took a brief walk through the ancient, twisting alleyways of the Old City of Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa with its unique sights, sounds and smells was bustling with Europeans, Americans, Christians, Jews and Moslems, pilgrims, tourists, the prayerful and pagan all jammed together in a delightful cacophony of noise and jostling. But this time, the same cobblestones that Roman legionnaires, Jewish prophets and Christ once trod were almost as empty as Jesus' tomb on Easter morning. It was shocking. It took me a few days to figure it out. The shuttered shops, lonely overlooks and empty vistas were a manifestation of cowardice. That's a pretty tough word, but I can think of no other. The fearfulness isn't that of Israelis. The much maligned people of this nation have made the Negev bloom, and the skyline of Tel Aviv and the hills around the New City of Jerusalem bristle with high-rise businesses and condos in a building boom that rivals that of any nation on earth. And they have done it all with one hand holding a weapon to protect themselves from angry, resentful and bitter neighbors. And the apprehension isn't in the hearts or minds of Israeli Arabs who live in peace with their Jewish neighbors here in this much-contested capital city. No, the fear resides instead with pusillanimous pilgrims, the craven "Christians," and cowardly Jews of Europe and the United States who have decided to stay home, giving the two-bit street thugs of Yasser Arafat's Al Aqsa suicide brigades and Hamas a victory they could never have won against the people of Israel. Forget that your daughter is safer on the streets of Israel than she would be in most American cities. Ignore that here, more people are casualties of automobile accidents than of terrorists. Disregard the arrival this week of more than 400 American Jews -- mothers, fathers, children -- who chose to emigrate from the United States to Israel. None of that matters. All that counts is what shows up on the evening news and above the fold in our newspapers. If it bleeds it leads -- and that's about all most Westerners know about what's happening here. And that's a shame, because the loss of revenue from U.S. and European tourism is having devastating consequences for Jew and Arab alike in this holy land. Since I'm here broadcasting for Radio America as part of the America's Voices program, sponsored by the Jerusalem Post, El Al Airlines and the David Citadel Hotel, I've had access to all levels of government officialdom, average Jewish and Arab Israeli citizens, even Palestinians. All have been far more diplomatic than I in expressing their disappointment in the lack of official, commercial and tourist visitors. But some have been blunt. "It has been devastating to our economy and to our outreach," said Tom Rose, CEO and publisher of the 70-year-old Jerusalem Post -- who immigrated to Israel from Indiana just four years ago. Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem -- who carries the Jewish and Arab Israeli vote in every election -- said: "I'm just like the mayor of any other big city. I get more complaints about potholes than anything else. But all the press wants to talk about is terrorists." Natan Sharansky, Israel's deputy prime minister, and one of the world's preeminent human rights activists, told me: "We are much better off than it seems in your media. I was just in the United States a few weeks ago to meet with Vice President Cheney. I read your newspapers, your news magazines. I watch your TV news. What we need now is for the people of your country to show as much support as President Bush did in his magnificent speech of June 24." He was referring to the president's call for democracy in the West Bank and Gaza. And when I asked former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu about the economic impact of the drop in tourism, he bluntly replied: "Sure it's bad. It's off by more than 60 percent. If it weren't for the bravery of those Evangelical Christians who have kept coming, it would be devastating." He's right. And his sentiment is shared by Rabbi Yechiel Z. Eckstein, the founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews -- the organization that has helped more than 200,000 Jews to return to the Promised Land from the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Ethiopia, Latin America and, now, the United States. In an interview at Ben Gurion Airport following an emotional welcome to those who had just arrived from the United States, he told me: "If it were not for the involvement of American Evangelical Christians, we would be devastated. It is their prayers, financial support and engagement that have lifted us up ‘with wings of eagles,' just as the prophet Isaiah said." That is certainly true based on my observations this week. But what's needed now isn't more political rhetoric from the professional politicians, nor fear-mongering from the masters of the media, nor whining from the weak of spirit. What's needed is for America's Christians and Jews to get off their duffs and show a little more chutzpah.