Hospitality, Israeli-style

According to figures released this week, it appears that the number of tourists coming to Israel now is the lowest since the state was founded. Of course, the tourists can't be blamed.

According to figures released this week, it appears that the number of tourists coming to Israel now is the lowest since the state was founded. Of course, the tourists can't be blamed. Anyone seeing the country on foreign TV networks through the narrow lens of terrorist attacks and army operations in the territories won't believe that it's difficult to find a table at a good Tel Aviv restaurant, that the cinemas and theaters are packed, that the roads in the north on a Saturday night are as clogged as any European road on a Sunday night, and that on the opening night of the Jerusalem Film Festival there wasn't a seat available - even on the stairs.

But the drastic drop in tourism is not only the result of fear of terror. Polish citizens, for example, particularly businessmen and Christian pilgrims, aren't worried by the security situation - but last week they found out just why they shouldn't come. After being delayed for several hours at Ben-Gurion Airport, interrogated, humiliated and confined until a Polish consul was called in the middle of the night to free them (and only after he and they both swore up and down that they were not prostitutes, importers of prostitutes or foreign workers who want to disappear in the streets of Tel Aviv) they decided that Israel isn't worth the time and money they planned to invest in it. At least not until the attitude toward foreigners changes.

While the businessmen were being held, so was their plane. The border police decided to detain it so that at the end of the interrogations the undesirable visitors could be sent back to Warsaw. A few hours later, the Polish national airlines LOT was forced to cancel the flight because international regulations limit the number of hours a pilot can be on duty, so at its own expense it sent the unwanted tourists to a hotel, and now they are complaining about mental anguish and costly wasted time.

And that's not all. A few days ago, two senior staffers of LOT, who have been in Israel about five years, were supposed to get their visas extended so they can continue working for the airline here. But at the beginning of July, after the Interior Ministry's Registrar of Population approved the extension - which, under the visa agreements signed between Poland and Israel in April 2000, should have been automatically renewed - LOT received a document from the Tel Aviv office of the Registrar of Population, saying that "we do not approve employment of [foreign] workers beyond five years."

The Polish Embassy here, like the Israeli embassy in Poland, is outraged. All the incidents - the detention of the businessmen and humiliation of young women automatically suspected of being prostitutes (including a 14-year-old girl whose grandmother had taken care of an elderly person whose family paid for her visit to the Holy Land after the elderly person died) - are being quietly absorbed. At most, they write letters to the Interior Ministry that never get answered and urgent letters to the Foreign Ministry that have only been answered once (while the Polish consul, a Catholic, is invited to the ministry on a Sunday, of all days).

But the feeling that the national airline, which is operating here according to international law and international agreements, is also not wanted, is difficult for them to accept. Even more difficult is restraining the tourism ministry officials in Poland who want to take revenge by imposing sanctions on El Al. The Polish government is not ready to accept that two senior workers of its national airline are considered illegal foreign workers by the Israelis.

Imagine, said Polish Ambassador Prof. Maciej Kozlowski, a firm supporter of Israel, if Poland were to treat the thousands of Israeli tourists who visit every year in the same way. Imagine the outrage, imagine what accusations would fly about the anti-Semitic Poles. The Polish authorities understand that Israel has been swamped by illegal foreign workers and know that the suspicions and harassment are not specifically aimed at them, but they fear that a worsening of relations, damage to important business deals between the two countries and an end to Polish tourism to Israel. In any case, this has dropped from 4,000 visitors last year to barely 500 so far this year.

The Interior Ministry says that on Sunday the Registrar of Population received the Polish ambassador and granted an extraordinary year-long extension on the visas of the two LOT staffers. As for the negative attitude toward the Polish tourists, the ministry explains that thousands of Poles try to reach Israel illegally every year. The Labor Ministry says that the government is trying to reduce the number of foreign workers.

The question is why the harsh steps aren't taken against those who illegally employ the foreign workers, or against the importers of the foreign workers, the contractors and slave traders who make their living from this dubious industry. And why Israel, which anyway is on shaky ground internationally, insists on winning a name for itself as a racist, difficult and xenophobic country.