- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Goor Shelly is hoping Americans will fly to Israel to see the skeleton of a 2,000-year-old boat pulled from mud in the Sea of Galilee.

Dubbed the “Jesus Boat,” the vessel was discovered in 1986 by two brothers from Kibbutz Ginosar in Israel. After 10 years of restoration — and archaeological dating that placed it squarely in the first century A.D. — the boat is on display at the kibbutz, or commune.

Though no one is contending that the vessel was used by Christ or his disciples, it is being displayed as representative of boats that sailed the sea during his lifetime.

“The boat is a connection between Judaism and Christianity,” Mr. Shelly said. “Now we need some forces to join with us to develop the museum” that has grown up at the kibbutz to depict first-century life in the Galilee region, where Jesus is believed to have performed many miracles and taught his followers.

The Jesus Boat was just one of the attractions promoted at Israel’s large, well-decorated tourism display at the National Religious Broadcasters convention last month in Charlotte, N.C. The convention drew top evangelical Christian figures such as the Revs. Franklin Graham and Chuck Swindoll and radio personality Janet Parshall.

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism staffed the large exhibition with a range of Israeli tourist-site operators and even brought over an archaeologist from Bar-Ilan University to discuss the importance of tourism in the Holy Land.

And if convention attendees got hungry, the “Falafel King” of Tel Aviv was on hand to feed them.

The tourism pitch at the 61st annual broadcasters convention reflects hopes by Israeli officials that Christian travelers — their interest in the Holy Land perhaps piqued by Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” — will help boost Israel’s tourism industry.

Terrorism and war have curbed Israel’s tourist trade in recent years. Key factors were the intifada, or uprising, launched by Palestinian militants against the Jewish state in 2000, and the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

From a peak of 2.7 million visitors to Israel in 2000, tourism fell to 1.1 million visitors in 2003. This year, 1.6 million to 1.7 million tourists are expected, said Israeli consul Haim Gutin-Golan.

Christian religious tourism “makes a statement that terrorists will not win,” said Mr. Gutin-Golan, who is based in New York. “It helps our economy, but it also makes the Bible come alive for the visitor. We’re targeting the Christian market, and we are very encouraged.”

Although some American-Jewish leaders have criticized “The Passion of the Christ” as anti-Semitic, tourism officials say such biblical films can help boost travel to Israel. Nearly 90,000 tourists embarked for Israel in February, officials said, an increase of 61 percent over the same month in 2003.

“Every time there is a film — on television, even — that has to do with biblical figures, the interest goes up,” said Rami Levy, Israel’s “tourism ambassador” for North and South America. “We’ve had a huge increase in tourist traffic in the past months.”

Mr. Levy said Israel previously had advertised to religious tourists with the slogan, “If you like the Book, you’ll love the country.”

Raymond Masillo, a vice president of Journeys Unlimited in New York City, said he has led Christian groups to Israel for more than 30 years. Business has slowed in recent years, but he said he’s spotting a revival.

“There’s a tremendous thirst to go back to Israel” by Christian groups, he said while sitting in the Israel Tourism booth. He expects a flood of Christians this year, citing great interest from Pentecostal and Baptist churches.

Israel “is unlike any other destination around the world,” Mr. Levy said. “Israel is the Holy Land — the only Holy Land, and the religious experience a Christian goes through, walking in the steps of Jesus, praying where he prayed, is a life-changing experience.”

Tourism also serves diplomatic purposes for Israel. Mr. Levy said a tourist also learns about “the modern state of Israel, understands the political landscape and becomes our ambassadors. When you visit the Holy Land, the picture becomes clearer.”

Christian tourism helps encourage archaeological exploration at biblical sites, said Dan Bahat, an archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb. He said the Israeli government is more likely to fund research if it sees a payoff in tourism.

While ancient ruins and sites are of primary interest to tourists, Vivian Uria wants visitors to Israel to see the commemoration of a more recent event: the Shoah, or Holocaust, of Jews under Hitler’s Third Reich.

“The generation of Holocaust survivors is passing away,” said Miss Uria, director of the visitors center at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. That’s why Yad Vashem’s archive, “the largest repository of Holocaust items in the world,” Miss Uria said, is so important.

“We’re looking at the past to help shape the future,” she said.

That future is likely to include more Christian religious tourists to Israel, and even some Christian broadcasts from Jerusalem. Frank Wright, president and chief operating officer of the National Religious Broadcasters, which has its headquarters in Manassas, said the trade group has made arrangements to help cut red tape for members wishing to do “remotes,” or live broadcasts, from Israel. He added that the affinity between Christian broadcasters and Israel is long-standing.

“If you look carefully at most Christian organizations, and broadcasters, many of them put together tours for their listeners and supporters,” Mr. Wright said. “Often it will be that the principal speaker [of a broadcast] will arrange a tour where he’ll teach on a certain subject there.”

One reason for the affinity many evangelical Christians feel toward Israel is their belief that the state of Israel is destined for a prophetic role in the “end times” described in the book of Revelation.

“It’s probably fair to say of a great many of our [broadcast] members,” Mr. Wright said, “that their eschatology is such that they see a critical relationship with Israel at the end times and need to support Israel at this point.”

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