U.S. Jews Need to Decide if They Are Tourists in Israel, or Extended Family

The conference of Jewish Presidents has urged Yair Lapid to rethink plans to charge tourists VAT. If the U.S. Jewish connection to Israel is merely linked to how cheap it is for tourists, however, then we are in serious trouble.

Joel is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace. All views expressed are personal. He tweets @Braunold.
Joel Braunold
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Joel is the Executive Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace. All views expressed are personal. He tweets @Braunold.
Joel Braunold

Israelis, understandably, are being consumed by the budget negotiations that are currently taking place. The global economic slowdown has finally hit and like every other country Israel is facing tough decisions about what to cut from the budget to handle the deficit.

Israel has a pretty complex relationship with her Diaspora at the best of times. Some groups, such as Women of the Wall, use Diaspora support in order to turbo-charge their campaigns. Others clearly tell Jews living abroad that their opinions should stay abroad as well.

When it comes to laws around religious pluralism and immigration, many Israelis feel that Diaspora Jews have ‘skin in the game’ and therefore have a right to comment on what Israel chooses to do or not to do. When it comes to the budget, the vast majority of Israelis would maintain that if you don’t pay tax you should not get a say.

So it was interesting last week that the conference of Jewish Presidents called on Yair Lapid not to charge VAT on tourists as it “would add significantly to the cost for tourists and will, we fear, cause many to reconsider, postpone, or even cancel trips to Israel.”

While I understand that the costs may go up, if people’s affiliations to Israel are merely linked to how cheap it is to travel there, the U.S. Jewish connection to Israel is in a far bigger crisis then we previously thought.

The U.S. Jewish community undoubtedly has contributed millions of dollars to the Israeli tourism industry and, through Birthright, it has created a new generation of returning tourists. But giving tourists a vote on how Israel makes up its budget gap seems counterintuitive.

It makes sense for Israel's Tourism Ministry to object to this budget shift. Tourists themselves don't seem to mind the impending increase in costs. What I find odd is that the U.S. Jewish community is using its clout as the Diaspora to try and have a voice as tourists.

Lapid does not have any easy choices but charging those who have the resources to travel abroad to visit the country seems to be a better way of plugging the hole then cutting welfare to the neediest. While tourism is a massive sector within the Israeli economy the majority of travelers are going not due to the cheapness of the country (already the eighth most expensive in the world according to World Eonomic Forum) but due to it being the Holy Land.

Why should Israelis who earn far less than the American Jews who visit have to subsidize hotels and souvenirs for tourists. Giving directly to the Israeli taxation system is a better way to help and support Israel, in this regard, than U.S. Jews giving indirect taxation to Israel through the myriad of different Israeli welfare charities that are dependent on them.

It’s unclear whether the Conference of Presidents hoped their letter would sway Lapid’s mind more than the government ministers who sit around him, all of which are looking to protect their slice of the pie. I’m happy that they failed though. As Israel goes through this difficult period of austerity the rest of the Jewish people who choose to visit can contribute their part to try and ease the suffering of the worst of within Israel. That’s what being a family is all about.

Joel Braunold is a Bnei Akiva alumnus and a former staff member of OneVoice Europe who is currently living in Brooklyn.

Hotels in the south of Israel have seen tourists flee, replaced by an army of journalists who probably aren't taking advantage of the amenities.Credit: Bloomberg



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