CEO of Leading Jewish Travel Agency Speaks Out

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An interview with Iris Hami from Gil Travel Group on what Jews need to do right now.

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Iris Hami is the CEO of Gil Travel, a leading Jewish Travel Agency. She is a specialist in Israeli and Middle Eastern travel and has a lifelong personal connection to the region and its peoples – and a deep love for Israel in particular. 


Like all of us, Iris was profoundly affected by the terrible events of October 7th. She was quick to draw on her wide network of personal and professional contacts, and her knowledge of the Middle East, to begin immediate advocacy on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people. 


Iris meets with us today to talk about the current situation and what Jews in the US and around the world need to do. She also offers some valuable insights into the future of tourism in Israel and Jewish travel in general. 


October 7th: A Modern Pogrom


October the 7th 2023 should have been a beautiful day. It was the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and also Shabat. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny and there was a relaxed holiday atmosphere. Families across Israel anticipated a pleasant and peaceful day. 


Shortly after dawn, evil engulfed the South of Israel. A horde of murderous savages broke through the Gaza border defenses and ran amok through the kibbutzim and border towns. Within hours, there were urgent nationwide appeals for blood donors. The Jewish nation abandoned its holiday plans, transfixed by an endless stream of news reports – each bulletin more terrible than the last. 


We don’t know the precise death toll yet, and the numbers barely hint at the utter horror and savagery of that day. An estimated 1,200 Israeli civilians were butchered. 5,000 injured, and 240 snatched by kidnappers. Countless are bereaved, displaced and traumatized. The IDF is now fighting a war to destroy Hamas, rescue the hostages, and root out the terrorist evil at its source.


Jews in the US and around the world were horrified by this 21st century pogrom, a return to the savagery of the past. The tsunami of murder, torture, rape and arson exploded, seemingly, from nowhere. The leaders of the civilized world immediately stepped up with moral support and practical assistance for Israel, but they seem less able to prevent a vicious anti-Semitic backlash in their own cities. US and European Jews are facing an ugly wave of prejudice.


The Spectre of Anti-Semitism in the United States


As news of the massacres broke, Hamas supporters worldwide began to gloat, openly celebrating the atrocities. Western cities are subjected to mass demonstrations by pro-Palestinians, ostensibly calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, but giving vent to vicious anti-Jewish sentiment. 


College campuses – once a haven for the free exchange of ideas and home to truth seekers – have witnessed appalling anti-semitic statements by left wing academics. Students have protested against Israel, threatened violence, glorified terror and sought to intimidate any opposing voices – particularly Jewish ones.  


Since World War Two, the US and Canada were the least anti-Semitic societies on earth. The Jewish community was strong, prosperous and self-assured. Suddenly, Jews in the US feel increasingly beleaguered and insecure. There is open and extreme hostility on some streets and campuses, and the darker corners of social media. Poisonous rhetoric is often thinly veiled as anti-Zionism or support for an independent Palestine. 


As American Jews wonder what the future holds, and what they can do to help improve the situation, Jewish Travel Agency CEO Iris Hami offers some sound advice. Her suggestions for practical advocacy and ways to support Israel and Jewish civic life in the US will give everybody a voice and a way to get involved. 


 

An Interview with Iris Hami


Shalom Iris, we know how busy you are, so thank you for joining us. What’s the situation facing US Jews today, and how can we deal with it?


Hi, it’s great to be here. There are three issues facing US Jews today. The first is that the war in Gaza has become an outlet for latent anti-semitism. There are some really ugly things happening on our campuses and in the streets – not to mention on social media. 


The second issue is that if we stand by, this will become the new norm. It will become acceptable to express vile opinions about Jews and to incite hatred. We need to fight back now, and that requires a collective, community effort. 


The third issue is that our Jewish homeland suffered a grievous blow and is now at war. All of Israel is shocked and hurt. There are close to half a million Israelis in uniform today, either regular soldiers, recalled reservists, or police. Their families are constantly worried about them.


That’s a lot to process… Let’s start with Israel. What’s really going on there?


As I said, an entire nation is in shock and the collective sense of security is shattered. It’s a small country and everybody knows someone who was murdered or injured or bereaved. Plus you have 200,000 people who are basically refugees in their own country. 


There are also lots of rocket attacks on civilian areas. The air raid sirens, explosions and sudden dashes to the shelters are enormously stressful. A lot of moms are coping on their own because their husbands are fighting in Gaza or guarding the Lebanese border. It’s terrible and it’s ordinary people who pay the price day in, day out.


The Israeli economy also took a real hit. The evacuations have really damaged agriculture and the tourist industry is dead. Every business is struggling with so many employees called back to the army. Israel needs our help. They need to see that American Jews stand with them shoulder to shoulder.


But how can we actually help from the other side of the world?


The single most important thing right now is to campaign for the release of the hostages. As we speak, there are around 240 Israelis (and foreign workers) who were kidnapped by terrorists. They are imprisoned underground, not knowing if they’ll be murdered by Hamas at any moment. Keep them in the public eye! Write to your congressman and senator and local representatives and ask what they are doing to help.


Additionally, we need a mass campaign to contact organizations like the International Red Cross and UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). They – and their donors – need to know that the public expects them to do their utmost to secure the release of the hostages. An estimated 30 Israeli children were kidnapped and are being held as hostages/human shields in Gaza. This is a straightforward crime against international law and UNICEF in particular has an urgent duty to help save these kids. 


It’s also really important to get posters of the hostages up in public places and pictures online. People need to see faces and read names. When they see a picture of an Israeli child who looks like their child, it creates a personal connection. The hostages become individual human beings, not a remote group. 


We also need to protect the posters. If Hamas supporters and other wicked people try to tear them down, challenge them and film them! Obviously, you need to use your common sense and not become a victim of a crime (and don’t do anything illegal yourself). But these people need to be deterred. They need to know that their boss and coworkers and neighbors will see their vile behavior. 


We can also help Israel by buying Israeli products and supporting Israeli businesses. Consider buying Israeli wine, Israeli groceries and imported fruit and veg, check out online Judaica stores, artwork, anything at all. As soon as the war is over and it’s safe to travel, consider visiting Israel. Hotel owners, tour guides, local businesses are all feeling the pinch and will be delighted to get customers again. 


It will also be a huge morale boost for Israelis to see American Jews in Israel again – a massive vote of confidence and support. There may be some interesting volunteering opportunities, either helping on the land, or working with injured and traumatized people. If you want to help Israel get back to normal, and tell the world that terrorism has failed, go and visit!


What about the situation for Jews in the US?


That’s actually very similar to the Israeli advocacy and in a lot of ways the two are interlinked. Anybody – everybody – can start by being active online. Visit the comments section in online newspapers and challenge anti-Semitic views and anti-Israeli propaganda. Be factual and accurate, remain courteous and don’t get personal or emotional, just put our side of the story concisely and clearly. 


Do the same when you’re on social media. Flag or report unacceptable statements and content, and report people to law enforcement if they incite violence or support terror. It helps if you have a network of friends and acquaintances who can back up your actions. For example, if a teacher or corporate employee makes an anti-Semitic statement online, it’s a lot more effective if the school board or CEO gets 50 emails and calls rather than one or two. Take screenshots and share them, before people can delete their offensive posts.


Even if you instinctively find cancel culture or doxing offensive, there is nothing wrong with making anti-Semites and Hamas supporters suffer consequences for their actions. These people need to be exposed and others need to be deterred. America is a civilized society and gives short shrift to the Klan or to Nazis. The same rules must apply to Hamas supporters – and we need to make it happen and to reclaim public spaces. 


We also need to keep elected representatives on board. Many of them are already supporters of Israel and all they need is information to act on. Others need some encouragement to help tackle anti-Semitism. When they realize that Jews are capable of bloc voting, that usually happens. Jewish political donors also have a huge role to play. 


The other thing that I’d add is that we need to show solidarity with Jewish communities around the world. Some are feeling isolated right now, or even intimidated. What happened in Dagestan recently – the mob rampage through the airport – was terrifying. We can build stronger links via community organizations or through individuals on social media. Just use a little caution on social media and be certain that you’re connecting to genuine profiles! 


Do we have Non-Jewish Allies in the Community?


Yes absolutely! America in 2023 is not Germany in 1933. There are millions of decent Americans who find anti-Semitism repugnant. Israel also has steadfast allies among Evangelical Christians. There are American cowboys volunteering in Israel right now. They saw that Israeli farmers needed help, and just packed their bags and flew over – amazing people!


We can achieve a lot by reaching out and building links with Christians, and by promoting holocaust education in schools. It’s about educating people, refuting pro-Hamas lies, and winning hearts and minds. The truth is our most powerful weapon. Although I primarily run a Jewish Travel Agency, I’ll be looking into organizing Christian tours of Israel in 2024 as a way to build and strengthen links between Jews and Christians. 

Thank you for these useful insights and suggestions Iris! We’ll look forward to speaking to you again soon – and I wish you luck with helping to rebuild Israel’s tourist industry. Israel is one of the world’s most beautiful and fascinating countries and it certainly deserves more visitors!


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