Analysis: Struggles for tourists in the Holy Land

Monday, March 30, 2009 |  Michael Decker

Israel joined the World Tourism Organization in 1975. One of the purposes of the WTO is to encourage tourism and free travel from country to country. The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, enacted by the WTO in 2001 and featured in Hebrew on the Israeli Ministry of Tourism's website, explicitly states (Article 2) that travel for religious purposes, health reasons, as well as education, cultural and linguistic exchanges are particularly beneficial forms of tourism.

Article 8 of the Global Code of Ethics for Tourism deals with matters concerning access to places of transit, tourist attractions, cultural sites, and to tourist accommodations, “without being subject to excessive formalities or discrimination.”

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism requires that every entity involved with tourism in Israel adopt the regulations of this code in every area of activity. Unfortunately, recent events demonstrate that this is not always implemented.

In 2005, Mr. Sam Nadler landed at Ben Gurion Airport and entered Israel as a tourist. Mr. Nadler is a Messianic Jew and the founder of Word of Messiah Ministries. These facts were made known to the Ministry of Interior in Israel, which immediately blacklisted Mr. Nadler as a persona non grata. Upon arrival, Mr. Nadler was detained at the airport and was told that he would be deported on the next flight back to the United Sates. He was permitted entry into Israel only after an extensive legal and diplomatic struggle.

In July 2008, seven tourists from Canada who belong to the Hutterite Community landed at Ben Gurion Airport and entered Israel as tourists.

Hutterites are a communal branch of Anabaptists who, like the Amish and Mennonites, trace their roots to the reformation of the 16th century. The Hutterites are characterized by their pacifism and secluded communal lifestyles.

Apparently due to their unique appearance, this group was detained by Israeli border control for several hours and was interrogated concerning the purpose of their visit to Israel. Using language common to their community, but outdated to most other Christians, the Hutterites explained to the border control officers that they were “on a mission.” They were promptly deported back to Canada on the grounds they intended to engage in “missionary activity” while in Israel.

In December 2008, the director of the US Union of Messianic Jewish Congregations, Mr. Jamie Cowen and his wife were detained at Ben Gurion Airport by Interior Ministry officials amid allegations that he is involved in ongoing “illegal” Christian missionary activity.

In reality, the Cowens entered Israel in order to visit their two daughters, one of whom is an Israeli citizen. Their other daughter is in the process of obtaining Israeli citizenship after winning a Supreme Court decision.

But border officials refused to permit the Cowens entry into Israel due to missionary concerns. Finally, after eight hours of detention, Mr. and Mrs. Cowen were permitted entry into Israel, albeit only after signing a degrading declaration that they would not be involved in missionary activity during their visit.

The three aforementioned examples prove without a doubt that there is blatant disregard by the Ministry of Interior officials and Israeli border control for The Global Code of Ethics for Tourism. Furthermore, these recent events are more than just random incidents or coincidences. The actions by the Ministry of Interior represent a deliberate, direct and real policy which contradicts the Ministry of Tourism's decision to adopt the regulations of the code of ethics in every area of activity.

This policy of the Ministry of Interior not only creates violations of civil rights and international agreements, which Israel has ratified, it also harms Israel's financial state. There is no doubt that a huge part of the Israeli tourism industry is comprised of Christian pilgrims who commonly view their visit to Israel as a “mission.”

In Israel, a nation that is obligated to thoroughly check all the people who enter its borders due to the security situation, it would seem preferable to invest in authentic security inspections rather than petty religious investigations. These investigations are ironically carried out against those who love Israel and simply desire to bless her.

Finally, it must be stressed that the office responsible for this problem is the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Interior does not properly reflect the nation of Israel. Unlike other government offices in Israel, it has become notorious for its many administrative deficiencies.

It is a pity that so many times the Israeli courts must serve as the Ministry of Interior's back office, as they are required to resolve such issues in order to preserve democracy in the only democratic state in the Middle East.

Michael Decker has a B.A. in law and is a licensed attorney working for the Law Offices of Yehuda Raveh & Co. Michael also serves as Senior Legal Advisor to the Jerusalem Institute of Justice.

For further inquiries regarding the issues mentioned in this article and if such an incident occurred to you, please contact Michael Decker at counsel@jij.org.il.

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