Israel’s Travel Restrictions Test Evangelical Support - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Israel’s Travel Restrictions Test Evangelical Support

Last Thursday, Israel’s government extended its travel ban on all foreigners entering the country over fears surrounding the Omicron coronavirus variant. This ruling, which expires on December 22, follows months of Israel mandating some of the most stringent global travel restrictions. While constantly evolving and often confusing, travel mandates over the last two years have ranged from imposing a seven-day quarantine for all incoming Americans to requiring that visitors be fully vaccinated within the prior six months of travel to Israel. These constraints inevitably result in millions of Jewish Americans being unable to visit loved ones. Yet the implications of these rules on the evangelical Christian community, which Israel’s former ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer correctly called the “backbone of Israel’s support,” remain an underrated yet critical consideration.

According to a 2019 Inbound Tourism Survey released by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, 54.9 percent of all tourists were Christians, while 27.5 percent were Jewish. Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recognized the importance of strengthening Christian Zionist support, and, under his leadership, Israel witnessed an expansion of religious tourism, with Israel advocacy organizations such as Christians United For Israel and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews undergoing unprecedented growth. Former President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem was supported by over half of U.S. Christians. At the same time, a poll by the American Jewish Committee revealed that only 16 percent of U.S. Jews favored the embassy’s immediate move.

Within Congress, Christians are often the lawmakers responding firmly to the Biden administration’s policy of Iranian appeasement while also calling out Democrats for their tacit embrace of anti-Semitism. Earlier this year, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) reiterated his call to strip anti-Semitic Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, while several Republican Christian senators, including Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.), are backing legislation to prevent the U.S. from rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

Travel rules stipulating that foreign visitors must be vaccinated also place Israel’s government in the position of turning away evangelical tourists who for personal reasons involving faith or health are resisting the COVID vaccine. According to a study conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute over the summer, nearly a quarter of white evangelicals said they had no plans to be vaccinated — more than any other major religious group. Specializing in Christian tours, Donna Jolay, owner of Jerusalem Tours International, told the Jerusalem Post that her company has lost $3 million and “thousands of clients” since the start of the COVID pandemic.

At a time when young adults are attending institutions hostile to traditional values, religious missions to Israel are crucial to the conservation of Christian Zionism. Since its inception in 2016, Passages Israel has brought over 7,000 college students to Israel and plans to mobilize thousands more to make the journey in the coming months. Preliminary results from a study conducted by the University of North Carolina at Pembroke shows diminished fidelity towards Israel among younger evangelicals, with only 33.6 percent supporting Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians — a marked drop from 2018, when 69 percent of evangelicals ages 18 to 29 responded siding with the Jewish state.

Israel’s coalition government must seriously reflect on the unintended consequences of its travel laws, particularly since exceptions are made for other tourists entering the country. Despite a rule prohibiting travel, beauty contestants coming from over 70 countries were granted waivers to compete in the Miss Universe pageant, which took place in Eilat on December 12.

And while Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has expressed appreciation for Christian “passion for Israel,” the imposition of said mandates coincides with attempts made by Israel’s government to placate the Democrats’ misguided foreign policy. For his part, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid previously criticized former Netanyahu for aligning his government with the “conservative, evangelical wing of the Republican party.” In the days following the U.S. abstaining on an anti-Israel UN resolution involving the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, Lapid was captured in a friendly elbow bump with U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and hailed the American envoy as “a true friend of Israel.” Bennett has also refrained from publicly opposing the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the flawed 2015 Iran Nuclear Agreement. And last month, both Bennett and Lapid met with U.S. lawmakers participating in a trip with the controversial J Street lobby, which included Democrat “squad” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.).

Rather than seek a rapprochement with progressives, Israel’s government should take corrective measures regarding its travel ban. Easing restrictions and safely opening the country to its friends will not only increase tourism and bolster the country’s economy, it also will act as a prelude to a future rooted in stronger ties between Israel and the U.S. evangelical community.

Irit Tratt is a freelance writer who resides in New York. Her work has appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the Algemeiner, Israel Hayom, and JNS.

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