newsIsrael at War

‘Solidarity trips’ give Israel tourism a boost amid war slump

“Each person who comes is another voice, and we need those voices to answer those who oppose Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Volunteers pick citruses in Moshav Shokeda near the Gaza border on Jan. 25, 2024. Credit: Courtesy of Ariel Konstantyn.
Volunteers pick citruses in Moshav Shokeda near the Gaza border on Jan. 25, 2024. Credit: Courtesy of Ariel Konstantyn.

The Gaza war continues to take a toll on Israel’s tourism industry, with the country seeing only 58,600 tourist visits in January, compared to the 257,400 tourists who visited during the same month last year, marking a 77% decrease.

“The year 2023 was supposed to be the best year for tourism in Israel. We were expecting to break records and exceed 2019’s figures of 4.5 million tourists,” Peleg Lewi, adviser to the Israeli Tourism Ministry, told JNS.

“On Oct. 6, we had 13,000 tourists enter Israel. However, on Oct. 8, only 26 people landed at [Tel Aviv’s] Ben-Gurion International Airport. The shock was very big,” he said, though he noted that the numbers have been steadily increasing since.

In the aftermath of the Hamas onslaught on southwestern Israel on Oct 7., a new form of tourism, often referred to as “solidarity tourism,” has emerged, with many traveling to Israel independently or as part of an organized tour and joining volunteer activities for the duration of their stay. Currently some 3,000 people land in Israel daily, at least a third of them falling into the solidarity tourism category.  

“The most important benefit of solidarity tourism in my view is the moral effect,” said Lewi. “We feel that the world is against us. Having tourists come to meet evacuees, volunteer and visit affected areas is a huge boost to collective morale and strengthens the connection between Israelis and Jewish communities abroad,” he added.

Lewi emphasized the importance of the solidarity tourism phenomenon.

“We are facing a wave of denial. Some think that the atrocities are somehow exaggerated. Each person who comes is another voice, and we need those voices on Instagram, Tik Tok or X, to answer those who oppose Israel’s right to defend itself,” Lewi said. 

The Sword of Iron Facebook group.

The Sword of Iron-Israel Volunteer Opportunities Facebook group has been a rich resource for those looking to document their solidarity tourism experience in Israel. The group counts just above 13,000 participants, the majority of whom come to Israel for a relatively short period, use the group to find volunteering opportunities and later share their experiences. 

“We kept hearing of a need for a centralized platform featuring volunteering opportunities. We decided to create one,” said Yocheved Ruttenberg, Sword of Iron’s co-founder.

Shortly after the Hamas attacks, Ruttenberg, whose brother serves as an officer in the commando brigade, raised $17,000 and imported 23 duffle bags with equipment for soldiers. 

She connected with Hagit Greenberg-Amar and her husband Shay, from Ramat Gan in central Israel, who had been fundraising, purchasing and importing medical and military equipment for soldiers on the front lines. 

In the framework of a program that Ruttenberg and Greenberg-Amar launched in partnership with Livnot U’Lehibanot, an Israel experience program, volunteers from abroad can register and pay $200 a week to take part in rebuilding Israel’s south, receiving accommodation, transportation and two meals a day. 

Simone Kadden at the Leket Israel Food Bank fields in Rishon Lezion, where she picked kohlrabi. Photo courtesy of Simone Kadden.

Max Rosenthal, who arrived in Israel on Jan. 29 from Columbus, Ohio, to volunteer for four weeks, took part in the Sword of Iron and Livnot U’Lehibanot program to rebuild the south.

“I was based in Sderot and went around towns and villages, painting schools and trying to help prepare the facilities for families about to return with their children,” Rosenthal told JNS. 

The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command last week approved the return of evacuees to many southern Israel communities.

Rosenthal also volunteered with Eran’s Angels, a grassroots volunteer organization located at Expo Tel Aviv Center, which gathers and distributes toiletry essentials and other supplies to displaced families as well as non-perishable goods to soldiers on the front lines. “We said to ourselves that if we were able to help even a dozen people, it would be worth it. Today, over 13,000 people help each other via our group,” Greenberg-Amar told JNS. 

Simone Kadden, 74, originally from New York and who currently lives in Madrid, came to Israel to volunteer and used Sword of Iron to organize her trip.

“I felt that it wasn’t enough to watch the news and send checks. I needed to get involved, come to Israel and be with the Jewish people,” Kadden told JNS. 

Volunteers led by Rabbi Ariel Konstantyn (third from the right) and his wife (fourth from the right) pick eggplants in Moshav Shekef, on Jan. 18, 2024. Photo courtesy of Ariel Konstantyn. 

As part of her trip, Kadden guided people through the mock Hamas tunnel at Tel Aviv’s Hostage Square. She picked kohlrabi with Leket Israel, Israel’s leading food rescue organization. She will also be visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals and preparing food for soldiers.

“I wanted to come as an individual and not as part of an organized trip. The group made that possible for me. They pointed out who to get in touch with and opportunities available at the time of my trip,” she added. 

The Sword of Iron group comprises 35% Americans who travel to Israel for a short-to-medium period, 33% Israelis as well as 4.4% from the United Kingdom, 4% from Canada, 2.2% from Australia and 1.7% from South Africa. 

“We often hear from those who come to Israel that they could not stay away and that their emotional connection led them to travel to Israel and help out,” Yael Yomtov-Emmanuel, the moderator of the Sword of Iron Facebook group, told JNS. “They understand from us that they don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money on organized tours, they can travel by themselves and allocate this money to charity,” she added.

Ariel Konstantyn, rabbi at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, received many requests from volunteers coming from abroad to join the synagogue’s volunteering WhatsApp group and take part in volunteer activities.

“The group existed before Oct. 7 but it grew exponentially after the war started,” Konstantyn told JNS. “We currently have over 600 members in our WhatsApp group,” he added.

The congregation organizes farming activities, cultural events for evacuees from the north and south of the country and barbecues and other food for soldiers.

Eric “Kiki” Munz of the Tel Aviv International Synagogue at a BBQ he organized for soldiers in the framework of his “Operation Hotdog” initiative in Zikim on Nov. 5, 2024. Photo courtesy of Ariel Konstantyn. 

After interrupting flights due to the war, United Airlines, which previously had the highest number of flights to Israel of any American carrier, said it will resume daily nonstop service from Newark, N.J., to Tel Aviv starting on March 6. However, the airline does not plan to restart flights from additional U.S. cities until at least the fall. Delta Airlines is expected to follow suit on May 1. The low-cost airlines are also beginning to return to Israel.

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