Travel Advisories: A Guide to Ignoring Them

And leave Turkey to me, writes Benny Ziffer.

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Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.
Illustration by Eran Wolkowski.

There is no greater supporter than I of the occasional travel advisories issued by the National Security Council’s Counter-terrorism Bureau. Indeed, in light of the latest warnings – about possible terrorist attacks in Western Europe during the holiday season – I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly that it would be best for the People of Israel to sit quietly at home than to become, heaven forbid, a target for assailants in Paris, London or Amsterdam.

I say this because I know from experience that the best time to travel is precisely during periods like this, and specifically to those countries which many Israelis are warned to avoid. For years I traveled to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey during the times of worst hostility toward Israel. Not only did nothing bad befall me, I also derived great pleasure from the fact that I didn’t meet any Israelis along the way.

It’s an open secret that if you’re already taking the trouble to visit foreign parts, it’s best not to run into Israelis there. They always are loud and uncouth, and they stand out in their urge to haggle and to exploit to the hilt the hotel deal they got.

By the same token, I can’t stand people who rant against the travel advisories, saying, “Anyone would think it’s not dangerous in Israel.” Or, “In Paris, I’m a lot more afraid of pickpockets than of terrorists.”

Earlier this month, after the latest advisory was issued, Yedioth Ahronoth ran a whole page of wiseacre comments from Israelis saying they planned to go to Europe in spite of the warning, and who think the advisories are so much hot air.

Things aren’t all that simple, though; thorough clarification is needed. So, I’ll let you in on a little secret: My acquaintances include someone who held a senior position in the Counter-terrorism Bureau. A sensitive fellow, he ended up there after studying literature at university and realizing that no great livelihood would come of that. All of us used to tell him what a great loss his decision was to the realm of literature.

In other words, there is a close affinity between the study of literature and predicting terrorist threats. Both call for imagination and intuition, and the ability to discern what’s between and behind the lines. Another feature the two have in common: Interpretation is always subjective and does not rest on absolute certainty.

Above all, just as the literary scholar hopes that literature will provide him with ever-more sophisticated works to challenge his analytical abilities – so the travel advisories need occasional unforeseen terrorist attacks to be perceived as valid. That allows the counter-terrorism unit to say, “See? We told you so,” and then to gird their loins and cobble together yet another advisory.

In other words, travel advisories play an essentially paradoxical role in our lives. They might predict the dangers lurking abroad correctly, but they cannot foresee the most important thing: namely, the behavior of those who are being warned.

To that end, another unit would have to be created: a bureau of counter-psychology, to counter the mechanisms of denial and repression, and the mental disorders that make Israelis thumb their collective nose in various situations. Evidence of that can be seen in the wise-guy remarks in Yedioth, and in the fact that some of the organizers of anti-Israel demonstrations in Europe – which are among the reasons behind travel advisories to begin with – are themselves Israelis.

A case in point is E., a former colleague, whom I suddenly see on Facebook in the front ranks of a demonstration in Berlin, holding an anti-Israeli placard. Or M., who went to Jordan – not recommended by the Counter-terrorism Bureau for visits – to lead an anti-Israeli demonstration in Amman; on his return, he complained that the Jordanian police had used violence to disperse the protesters. The Jordanian policeman who bopped my friend over the head with his truncheon must have been thinking to himself, “That whole nation must be off its rocker.”

Still, the framers of the travel advisories can chalk up a few sweeping successes to their credit. Of the most important ones is Turkey. The bureau has succeeded in extinguishing every spark of desire to vacation there. A major contributor to this is Turkey’s former prime minister and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who takes advantage of every opportunity to flail Israel and the Jews. From this point of view, Erdogan would seem to be a walking travel advisory. Yet, paradoxically, since 2003, when he took power and when 23 people were killed in attacks on two Istanbul synagogues, I don’t recall any major terrorist attack against Israel or Jews in Turkey.

Once again we see how imprecise this field is, just like literature. Turkey provides an excellent case study. It’s a country from which the travel advisory has never been rescinded and yet, in terms of the statistics of terrorism, it’s one of the safest places in the world for Israelis.

But please don’t take the information I’ve just given you as practical advice – don’t let me see you start flooding that country again and doing embarrassing things in the hotels. Leave Turkey to me and to the few among us who know what’s what.